Birth Pains of the New Navy
The U.S. Department of Defense leadership has concluded that the current mix of ships, and naval strategies they support, cannot be sustained. It’s not like this sort of thing has not happened before. This would be the third time in a century that the naval world was transformed by new technology. A century ago, the new “all big gun” battleship design had made all existing fleets obsolete. At the same time these new battleships appeared, so did aircraft. Three decades later, the aircraft carrier made the battleship obsolete. Now cruise missiles , UAVs and all manner of new sensors, software and electronics are threatening the aircraft carrier. If you go back and read the popular and professional media at the time of the last two transformations, you will note a lot of uncertainty about whether it was really a transforming moment. That is the case now, but the issue is heating up because the current carrier-centric navy is simply unaffordable. This includes the large amphibious ships (which carry helicopters and vertical takeoff aircraft, and look like carriers.)
Something big will soon occur to to navies worldwide. Some are well on their way to equipping their fleets for 21st Century warfare, others are wasting huge funds propping up last century building practices, and suffering accordingly. The Strategypage exert alludes to a major transformation in warship design which New Wars has consistently pointed toward the past several years. The ongoing procurement problems such as out of control costs is a sign of something that occurs periodically in warship design, obsolescence.
It is also a natural, recurring progression, as one weapons systems becomes increasingly harder to build and afford in adequate numbers, it will be replaced by something more affordable and practical. Often outright battlefield defeat is required to end production of a much treasured, or depended on weapon, recalling the horse calvary bowled over by the machine gun and tanks early in the last century.
The British TV Network channel 4 recently produced a glowing documentary on the Royal Navy’s new class of guided missile destroyer, according to Marco Giannangeli at the UK Express:
The Type 45 destroyer, the first of six to be built at a total cost of £6.6billion, marks the future of the Royal Navy and is its last chance to prove its importance and relevance in the post-Cold War era.
The backbone of the Royal Navy, it was conceived to overcome the harsh lessons learned during the Falklands War, in which two of the five Type 42 destroyers deployed in the South Atlantic, HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry, were sunk by Argentinean bombs and missiles.
“The Type 45 is the culminating point of all those lessons being learned,” naval expert Professor Eric Grove, of Salford University tells me. “If we’d had just one Type 45 in 1982 the situation would have been very different.”
There is only one problem with this fluff treatment of the HMS Daring and her 6 sisters, none of the crucial Sea Viper missile systems are fully operational and ready for combat. While viewing the video, one of our observant commenter’s MatR noticed the ships still suffering from numerous faults, including:
- Computer systems and sensors were inoperable.
- Failed to prevent simulated attack by a sub-sonic BAE Hawk trainer.
- Failed to stop an inflatable boat (!) from pulling alongside and striking the vessel with a simulated RPG.
- Accenting the Daring’s ongoing lack of missile defense, the producers had to “splice in stock footage of VLS missiles being launched”.
Lack of sufficient funds for the entire Type 45 program might be to blame, with major expenditure diverted over the last decade to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for ground forces. The root problem is naval planners still thinking in terms of Cold War strategies, while fighting a different type of global warfare against Third World insurgents. The latter, while lacking even the basic industrial resources for modern warfare, not to mention high tech weapons, still manage to hold their own against the larger navies, do the lack of presence by shrinking fleets.
HMS Daring and her sisters are a good design, certainly as much as any other European missile warship program. The problem is the Navy’s tendency to turn every warship program into an exquisite platform, with every technical advance imaginable, while the enemies she contends with are less particular what type hulls they get into the water, and more successful in doing so. The final humiliation might be having to scavenge for older weapons to arm Britain’s most expensive destroyers ever, but she is not alone in suffering funding woes.
As noted earlier at New Wars, the Canadian Government recently announced a National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, spending $35 billion to build 100+ ships large and small over the next 30 years. The Navy currently has 33 major vessels, none of which were built this century. While this is welcome news fro the country’s long-suffering shipbuilding industry, some feel they have heard such inflated promises before. Says Richard Foot at Victoria Times Colonist:
Such announcements are always greeted with great fanfare, but have amounted to little real progress in the past.
Blogger Mark writing in the Torch is even more certain it is all “smoke and mirrors”:
It is unclear how much of the $35-billion price tag is new money as the Canada First Defence strategy (first outlined by the Harper government in May 2008) called for spending $20 billion to replace destroyers and frigates and other vehicles in the Canadian Forces fleet between now and 2028.
It also called for $15 billion in previously announced purchases of vehicles, including offshore patrol ships…
In fact adding those two figures together is the only way to get a $35 billion figure, and they include a lot more than ships, do not mention the Joint Support Ship–and do not include vessels for the Coast Guard. The minister is indeed either blowing smoke, or else doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
In a recent online exercise, I manage to add 42 new large warships (over 1000 tons) to Canada’s fleet for less than $3 billion, which likely would have entered the service before the decade was complete (2020). The government promises 28 large ships over a period of 30 years, a modest figure which, if history is a guide, is far from certain, especially with the Navy having major difficulty maintaining the fleet she has.
The US Navy needs a bigger fleet. Even their own modest figures have risen in recent years from a minimum 313 to 323 ships. It now stands at 280, but because of rising warship costs and a declining defense budget, it will most likely fall further. Recently a Congressional Budget Office report cast doubt on the Navy’s expansion. Here is an analysis if the report from Chris Cavas at Defense News:
Eric Labs, who wrote the study, noted in the report that statements in the latest shipbuilding plan and in related briefings by Navy officials point to a planned fleet of 323 ships for most of the next 30 years, up from the long-stated 313-ship goal. But he concludes the construction plan is insufficient to achieve a 323-ship fleet, and that the planned 323-ship fleet is unaffordable if the Navy continues to average about $15 billion per year for shipbuilding.
The culprits are easy to spot. Every America warship programs now exceeds $1 billion each, and most many times more. Here are the CBO’s estimated prices for individual ships in the coming years:
- CVN 78-class aircraft carriers-$12.4 billion
- SSBN(X) ballistic missile submarines-$8.2 billion
- SSN 774I Improved Virginia class-$3.3 billion
- DDG 51-class destroyers, improved Flight III-$2.4 billion
- LHA 6/LH(X) amphibious assault ships- $4.2 billion
The so called “Low Cost Ship”, LCS at $700 million which was supposed to beef up fleet numbers instead has become another shipbuilding lesson on how not to build a ship. A so-called modular vessel, she is currently in service lacking any type of missile offensive or defensive capability, and even lacks sonar to track submarines. One has to wonder why couldn’t they have just built a patrol boat which the 3000 ton frigate has become, at much less cost, and more relevant to the missions entailed for the ship.
The future of warfare at sea is less clearer than the giant complicated warships whose costs are sinking Western navies as if there was a real shooting war ongoing. You can get a glimpse by the disturbing trends of very low tech adversaries taking advantage of declining Western naval assets to spread into the surrounding seas.
Strangely, when the West seeks to economize, they cast off the most economic vessels in the fleet, small warships, just the right craft for the myriad small threats they are facing. For instance, we learned last week that Germany was selling off 6 of her small submarines for sakes of economy. Meanwhile, North Korea has used her fleet of midget submarines to create a major international crisis, as detailed by reporter Pauline Jelinek at the AP:
It showed how impoverished nations such as North Korea can still inflict heavy casualties on far better equipped and trained forces.