Shrink the Ship, Save the Fleet
Something in the comments reminded me of this article, titled Shrinking Ship Size Vs. A Shrinking Fleet, concerning the the size of warships, the cost of warships and how they contribute to the ever-shrinking US Navy. Though some of the ideas here from 2008 are a little dated, much of it remains current.
In today’s procurement environment, a reduction in price of a nuclear sub from $2.4 billion to $2 billion is hailed as dramatic savings. Recently a $3-$5 billion stealth destroyer was canceled outright in favor of a $1.5 billion older destroyer, whose price we learn will rise to $2 billion.
A cap on warship size should offer immediate and dramatic savings. The vast size that US ships have grown to in recent decades far too often tempt designers with costly add-ons; extra equipment ordered during building that inflates the price and delays service entry. This has been evident in nearly all ships programs in recent years, like the LPD-17 amphibious ships to the supposedly “cost effective” USS Freedom littoral combat ship.
Notice how the size of warships have expanded greatly in the last century:
- Aircraft carriers–1940: 20,000 tons 2000:100,000 tons
- Destroyers–1900:420 tons 2000:9000 tons
- Submarines–1942:1500 tons 2000:7800 tons
Likewise have amphibious warships, first deployed in World War 2 in vast numbers and averaging 1700 tons (LSTs) now equal the size of battleships built in that era, the latest weighing in at 45,000 tons!
Now we think that modern precision weapons and modular type systems like point defense and rapid fire cannon along with unmanned vehicles can multiply the fighting power of the small warship. With this in mind our future fleet composition might look like this:
- Motherships(UAV or missile carrier)-20,000 tons
- Destroyers-2500 tons
- Escort ships(corvettes, FACs, or patrol vessels)-1500 tons or less
- Nuclear attack subs-2500 tons
- Conventional Littoral submarines-1500 tons
The argument usually is you give up capability, but I can’t help but wonder what use is technology but to make things easier. Modern weapons and sensors seem to have placed an unreasonable burden on the US Navy, forcing it to build many fewer, and ever larger platforms. As someone pointed out within the comments, considering the type of aircraft the Navy must launch from aircraft carriers, only the 100,000 ton, 1000 feet long variety are adequate. Could this be a sign of obsolescence of such planes, and that they will price themselves out of range?
Naval airpower is as important as ever, but perhaps we should be looking at other ways to launch the same bombs and missiles as these planes carry, since that is their whole point of existence. If you replace the airplane, naturally the carrier itself would be essentially useless (though I am sure someone will try to keep it around for a while past this point!).
I recall reading something from Liddell-Hart about when a stream comes up against the rock, it doesn’t just sit still, but will eventually find another way. The new path might be long and winding, but the mighty waters are ever flowing, otherwise it becomes stagnant. I think this is where we are concerning weapons procurement, with the last century fighters, warships, and tanks now so costly and complicated, that they can’t be bought in enough numbers for the many roles required of modern armies, navies, and air forces. More money available seems to worsen the problem instead of solving it. Its the cost of the giant ships and weapons that are changing minds about what is needed, and what is not. Puts things into perspective.