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The Virginia Destroyer Solution

August 19, 2010


An artist's rendering of a Virginia-class submarine underway.


In the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, first launched in 1989, the American Navy finally had an ASW escort to match the large, fast, and deep-diving Soviet submarines of the late-Cold War. Unlike the preceding Spruance class in its initial configuration, the Burke possessed powerful armament, radar, and even armor to match its immense price of $1 billion in 1980s dollars. Aegis, Standard and Harpoon missiles, Seahawk helicopters, anti-submarine rockets (ASROC), torpedoes, and numerous guns, all added up to create the most powerful surface combatant built since World War 2.

Ironically, just as the DDG-51 entered service, its particular foe vanished from the waves almost overnight. The vaunted Red Navy which kept much of the West in dread for decades was now tied to port, left rusting by a bankrupt communist empire.

Without a peer enemy to contend with, a lesson might have been taken to transform the Burke and her successors, from the Seawolf submarine program. The massive and expensive SSN-21 boat was designed in the post Rickover era to compete with Russian supersubs like the Akula. Afterwards it seemed so much overkill, and far too expensive for keeping up numbers within the silent service. Naval-Technology notes:

The Seawolf was a product of the Cold War, conceived to maintain the USA‘s acoustic advantage over Soviet submarines. With the end of the Cold War and the change of emphasis to littoral operations, the cost of the Seawolf submarines was judged prohibitive and the programme was curtailed in favour of the smaller and cheaper Virginia Class New Attack submarines.

In its place came the Virginia class submarine. Compared to the Seawolf, these boats were not small but smaller, they were not cheap but cheaper. Previously known as the NSSN in its development stage, explains:

The Secretary of Defense in his October 1993 bottom-up review determined that production of the Seawolf class submarine would cease with the third submarine, and that the Navy should develop and build a new attack submarine as a more cost-effective follow-on to the Seawolf class, with construction beginning in fiscal year 1998 or 1999 at Electric Boat…

Compared with the Seawolf, the NSSN is slower, carries fewer weapons, and is less capable in diving depth and arctic operations. On the other hand, the NSSN is expected to be as quiet as the Seawolf, will incorporate a vertical launch system and have improved surveillance as well as special operations characteristics to enhance littoral warfare capability.

Just as the Seawolf submarine was considered unnecessary and too expensive for a new environment, the question remains, why wasn’t the same logic applied to the DDG-51 Burke destroyers? Instead, production continued for the world’s most expensive surface combatant, with its advanced Aegis and ASW weaponry geared for a foe that no longer existed. In this time period starting in the early 1990s, we see the Navy shrinking drastically from nearly 600 ships to its current below 300 number, with no realistic sign of halting the decline.

With no adequate replacement for the Burke planned, except more Burkes, the 60+ in service or on order have been used in roles never envisioned by the 1980s naval planners. They can be seen everywhere, escorting amphibious ships and aircraft carriers, performing disaster relief, counter-narcotics, even taking down pirates in lifeboats! All these duties which are the domain of small frigates or patrol vessels are being performed by the new battleships, whose abilities include shooting down enemy ICBMs or projecting power  up to 1000 miles ashore with cruise missiles.

Yet when the time came to start thinking of a Burke replacement, all the Navy could come up with was something bigger and more expensive. So enamored were they by amazing abilities of the DDG-51, they wanted more only better, which gave us the DDG-1000 Zumwalt dinosaur, as I noted yesterday which we will now procure a grand total of 3. Logically though, something smaller is needed to deal with many smaller threats, as I wrote earlier:

Thanks to increased accuracy, brilliantly displayed by our ballistic missile warships on numerous occasions, it should be possible to carry only 45 such phenomenal weapons on a single end hull, about 4500 tons light. The same Aegis radar that makes the Burke so superior to any existing surface combatant, will keep it at the forefront of destroyer development for many more years.

America, while seeking to possess a global fleet, has a small-navy mindset. In other words, it builds individually impressive vessels which are too costly to build in adequate numbers. So instead the new destroyer should be the frigate, replacing the frigate with the corvette, and corvettes should be supplemented with fast attack craft. The Navy should also think about getting Aegis out of the hull, since the world’s most advanced radar also makes the ship the world’s biggest target for cruise missiles. Some alternatives would be placing it on specialized Aegis motherships, or depending more or airborne radar and satellites.


DDG-1000:Defying Expectations or Reason?

August 18, 2010

Artist's conception of DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer, slated to enter service in 2016.

The US Navy has been on a downward spiral in terms of the number of ships it deploys, and things aren’t getting any better, except in some’s wildest fantasies. The expense of ships rises, while the budget shrinks. Is the future extinction of American naval power so hard to comprehend unless the trends are curbed? Writing in the Charleston Post and Courier, retired Navy commander R.L. Schreadley pins at least some of the blame on the Navy itself:

Where the Navy Department is particularly at fault is in its long-time mismanagement of shipbuilding and aircraft acquisition programs. Is it credible to spend a billion dollars for one destroyer? Fifteen billion (or more) for an aircraft carrier? Multi-millions for one fighter plane? No, it is not. Nor is it credible for the sea service to have two or more admirals for every ship in the fleet.

The statement “a billion dollars for one destroyer” should actually read “$6 billion” concerning the latest and largest American surface combatant since the nuclear powered USS Long Beach of the 1950s, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt. Even the original price tag of $3 billion proved too much for budget cutters, who subsequently dropped the purchase number from 29, to 7, and today’s only 3. Meant to be a shallow water battleship supporting troops ashore, it was soon discovered with all its high tech stealth, advanced tumble-home hull, and powerful electric drive, the designers forgot what was most important about a warship, its weapons. The DDG-1000 while perfect for fighting land battles, could not defend itself from air and maritime threats.

Despite all logic, the 3 super-destroyers are going ahead, and some are touting this as a major success story. Here is Christopher Cavas writing in the Navy Times:

Devoid of much fanfare and defying the expectations of critics, production of the Navy’s DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer program is steadily moving forward.

We, the public then are at fault for criticizing this much misunderstand program, which admittedly will deploy many wonderful gadgets, on the 3 lone hulls:

With work now proceeding on all three ships, program manager Capt. James Syring turned over his duties Aug. 6 after nearly five years at the helm of what is arguably the most complex surface warship ever built.
The program, according to Syring, is still meeting most of its cost targets — a claim he first made a year ago. But he declined to cite a figure for cost growth on the first ship, projected to cost about $3.3 billion.

More than doubled in price. Thats success? Let’s move on:

In the spring, the Navy deleted the Volume Search Radar from the ship’s Dual Band Radar during the program review triggered by the Nunn-McCurdy process.
Although the radar works, Syring said, “producibility problems” with the radome material protecting the S-band radar persisted, and the Navy’s 2008 decision to base future missile defense on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and its Aegis weapon system eliminated the needed growth path for the VSR on the Zumwalts.

Recalling that we have over 60 of the Burke destroyers, with production ongoing indefinitely, the question is what is there need for a $6 billion supership, but less effective?

Moreover, software modifications will someday give the X-band some volume search capability, although the development of that software is still some years off, he said.

Someday, maybe, perhaps…

Delivery is now scheduled for December 2013. Then comes combat system testing and other work, so Zumwalt won’t be ready to deploy until 2016.

No hurry, while the fleet shrinks…

Meanwhile, construction of various components for the 600-foot-long, 15,500-ton Zumwalt is moving right along, and the ship is about 20 percent complete. Syring detailed progress on a number of the ship’s systems.

20% complete, the plans for which have been ongoing since the 1990s! Oh yeah, break out the band.

The first of two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems for Zumwalt is complete, built by BAE at Fridley, Minn., and has been shipped for proof-firing to the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Testing continues for the Long Range Land Attack Projectile, the rocket-assisted bullet the AGS will fire. The shell has yet to reach its intended 87-mile full range, but the last test, in January, shot a LRLAP shell 63 nautical miles.

Why do I get the feeling the 14,000 ton battle cruiser is going to end up fitted with a standard 5 inch gun, as in all USN destroyers? Let’s not forget Navy promises of another wonder weapon, the NLOS rocket, supposed to be the primary armament for the littoral combat ship. Today we have another underarmed, overpriced wonder ship, and no main attack weapon other than a 57mm pea-shooter.


The point of all this, is the Navy expects too much from too few ships. The much touted reduced manning in the Zumwalt, 140 compared to almost 300 in the smaller Burkes, makes one think they are transferring this false logic onto the over-worked Navy personnel.  This mindset from the RMA debates of the 1990s claimed that fewer number of high tech wonders could perform the functions of the great many weapons required to win the Cold War. Warfare then would be cheaper yet more effective. That false hope has given us a $700 billion defense budget, yet they claim even this is not enough.

Numbers still count. Despite the spectacular success of stealth bombers, M-1 tanks, and cruise missiles in the First Gulf War, the backbone of the force was still the Vietnam Era weapons. Today, the overworked arms from the Reagan build-up are being replaced by ever fewer numbers of super planes, vehicles and ships, like the less than 200 F-22 Raptors replacing over 1000 F-15 fighters. A further case in point is the Zumwalt destroyer. The so-called savings are only possible by keeping ancient weapons in service long beyond their prime. It is deceptive and cruel to the sailors who must work harder with less.

The fleet is headed steadily toward the 200 number, in the midst of immense resources and funding. So today we have 9 amphibious ships replacing 41. Currently 30 old frigates are performing the missions of over 100 during the 1980s. About 10 aircraft carriers with reduced airwings are also performing the mission where once it was thought 15 or more were necessary.

Now we have 3 destroyers entering service replacing an order for 29. This larger number was derived from the need to replace the Spruance class destroyers, the last DD’s or general purpose tin cans built for the Fleet. Strategypage shows us what was lost amidst the false promises of the Zumwalt:

Only a decade ago, the navy was so sure about the new DDG-1000, that it accelerated the retirement of a dozen of the 31 Spruance class destroyers, in order to save the $28 million a year it cost to keep each of them in service. These ships were not just retired, they were all either broken up, or sunk in training exercises. The dozen that entered service between 1979-83 could have been refurbished and been available until 2019. That was a lost opportunity.

In order to afford Zumwalt, they shrank the fleet. Now after a decade and many billions wasted, the Navy will return to its venerable 1970s Arleigh Burke design for new destroyers:

But the navy can afford more Burkes because this is a design that is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer design experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s, the design evolved. The  first Burkes were 8,300 ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear, and smaller crews, are 10,000 ton ships (what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II).  With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, their main armament is 90 vertical launch tubes flush with the deck, that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last more than half a century.

I agree that it is a great design, one we are lucky to have. Yet, the reason the Burke is irreplaceable is not because there is nothing better, but because the Navy has yet to grasp the implications of new technology that is making weapons cheaper and easier to use. If the microchip has allowed computers to gradually become smaller, once they filled a warehouse, now many are the size of cell phones, plus allow tiny UAVs the ability to perform missions once the domain of whole airwings, or allow a guided bomb to sail down a smoke stack, why do USN warships get larger and cost-prohibitive?


Return of the Soldier-Farmer

August 17, 2010

The armies that set twentieth-century standards have been instruments of decision informed by a dynamic of closure. They have been intended to win wars as quickly as possible, and with minimal suffering to the states and societies that created them. In the twenty-first century military effectiveness may best be achieved by cultivating a sense of the long duration, evaluating results in a context of not merely years but decades. This would be a fundamental attitude adjustment.

But though military cultures have their own rituals and their own ways of doing things—often quite different from the national culture to which they belong—these are not immutable. The frameworks of warmaking are instrumental and customary, sustained by a mixture of pragmatism, habit, and fear of the consequences of change. Postmodern war will eventually produce postmodern armies whose exteriors might remain familiar, but whose internal dynamics will reflect the new challenges they face.

Dennis E. Showalter via War and Game

The all-Volunteer Army is for all sense and purposes an all-elite force. National practitioners such as the USA expects its troops to be highly skilled in all manner of arms, very near the “Hybrid Warrior” so needed in this day and age. Then there is the problem that these immaculately trained “perfect soldiers” are most often called on for sundry occupation duties, foot patrols, presence, nation building, even disaster relief in some of the most impoverished places on earth, where their intense skills are often wasted, though the need is still there.

The American Volunteer Army models its own training and tactics in large part on those of the Israeli Army, at least from the 1970s. Ironically, the Israeli’s do not possess a Volunteer force, save in some of its elite units, and is a conscript army which can mobilize most of the population in an emergency. The US Army, like the British are true volunteers, depending on its Reserve “Base Force” for many support functions, though not wholly. In other words, the reserve is not its heart and soul. With this you get one of the world’s best, most expensive, and very stretched and overworked armies.

The Roman model, specifically the Byzantine, and also the fyrd as deployed by Alfred the Great way back in the 9th Century has me thinking on some solutions to the problem of deploying troops in an age of austerity. An article I read concerning the German armed forces made me realize the imperative of finding a more cost-effective way of deploying more personnel. This was in the Faster Times:

“Three proposals to shrink the armed forces have reportedly been tabled: the least severe would involve downsizing the force to 200,000 and keeping a degree of conscription in place; the “nuclear” option would be to cut the Bundeswehr to 150,000 troops and dispense with the practice of conscription completely. The middle proposal involves reducing the armed forces to 170,000 personnel and substitute conscription with an undetermined form of short-service volunteers.

The idea of trimming the armed forces resonates greatly inside the German MoD for the simple reason that just over half of the defense budget (EUR16.33 billion in 2010) is consumed by personnel costs.”

Just note that last sentence and realize the cost of training and deploying 21st century Hybrid Warriors to face myriad threats is getting worse, not better. So cut the number of regular elite troops, save them for the dire circumstances and fill out numbers for peacekeeping and standard missions with part-time warriors. Though this might seem a strange way to deploy forces in the age where the Blitzkrieg led by tank and airpower for the most part still reigns supreme, it beats extinction and as we say there is much historical precedent.


One problem the West is discovering in attempts to increase manpower is the immense cost of supporting and sustaining a single recruit. In just the past decade alone the price has increased shockingly, and seems to be rising in conjunction with the out of control prices of weapons systems. Here is David Wood, Chief Military Correspondent at Politics Daily:

The military’s “all volunteer force” concept, which replaced the draft in 1973, has been a resounding success, but at a resounding cost. In the past decade, the Army’s personnel costs have more than doubled, from $27.7 billion in 2001 to a projected $59.1 billion for 2011 — with an additional $11.9 billion in projected wartime personnel costs for next year.

Why? One reason is pay. Since 2002, military pay has risen 42 percent, while civilian pay grew by 32 percent.

America has used an all-volunteer army to fight a protracted war overseas, something unheard in its history as far as I recall (The Philippine Insurrection?). The funds now going for reenlistment bonuses and death/wounded insurances are phenomenal and frankly I think unsustainable for a large nation dependent on large numbers of troops. Below are a few solutions which I think are not only possible but also historical:

  • Selectively recruit from naturally combative populations, sportsmen, hunters, etc. In place of monetary compensation, why not excuse them from the high taxes induced on the population as a whole, or perhaps grants of property in exchange for service, or rights of citizenship in exchange for military service.
  • The US might foot the bill for the upkeep of European special troops, now endangered from extinction because of ongoing defense cuts by our allies. I think it would be a tragedy of the West to lose the capabilities of many of the ancient regiments now falling under the knife, which have fought and secured freedom around the world for centuries.
  • Accept lower quality troops, from reserve and militia forces. Note that such types are the backbone of Third World nations and are naturally adept, plus easier to train in irregular warfare. These are the types of troops giving the world’s best conventional armies the trial of their careers currently in the Middle East. It is more costly to put down insurgencies that it is to ferment one, so we should take advantage of such economical troops. Historically though, the US Military has always consisted of such forces, recalling the Minutemen of yesteryear.
  • A national draft is not an alternative as our country just doesn’t have the temperate for that. Plus it can easily be used for political purposes. What I would suggest is a greater dependence on militia. This would entail expecting a reduced quality of personnel, which currently is an outrageous idea to modern planners. They seem to think that all our forces must be highly trained, to the point of elite status, but historically this is far from normal.

The 21st century army would be composed of Regular Forces, as normal, but in smaller numbers and only deployed at strategic spots such as our nation’s capital and providing the core of overseas deployments. The rest would consist of soldier-farmers, who are not paid regular in money, but allowed to live in military colonies, placed on our border or other hot-spots. They could also be deployed overseas if only for short terms, as compensation for their enhanced rights and for free land, health care, etc.

Perhaps these military colonies might be the basis of a renewing of fellowship in our country, as a compromise between the arch-liberal and arch-conservative who increasingly can’t get along with one another. Learning to tolerate each’s particular belief’s like the Left’s socialism and the Right’s freedom of religion, bearing arms, etc., could be mutually beneficial and temper some of the more radical notions of revolution which are rising noticeably.


Photo by Stan Shebs

Preserving the Marines’ ‘Maritime Soul’

August 16, 2010

Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1st MEF) disembark a landing craft utility (LCU) along Red Beach at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.

I hadn’t intended on revisiting this subject as yet, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘ speech on Thursday was too good to ignore. First here are the relevant points he made at a lecture in San Francisco:

As the service’s new operating concept stated earlier this year, the Pacific campaign of World War II was the only period of history when the exclusive focus of the Marine Corps was on amphibious assault.  Yet fundamentally, the Marines do not want to be, nor does America need, another land army.  Nor do they want to be, nor does America need, a “U.S. Navy police force,” as President Truman once quipped.  The Marines unique ability to project combat forces from the sea under uncertain circumstances – forces quickly able to protect and sustain themselves – is a capability that America has needed in this past decade, and will require in the future.  For example, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast.  And then, of course, it was the Marine armored formation in the desert – the “second land army” if you will – that liberated Kuwait City.

Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible.  New anti-ship missiles with long range and high accuracy may make it necessary to debark from ships 25, 40 or 60 or more miles at sea.

I have therefore asked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the Marine Corps leadership to conduct a thorough Force Structure Review, to determine what an “expeditionary-force-in-readiness” should look like in the 21st century.   I directed them not to lose sight of the Marines greatest strengths: a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign.  The counterinsurgency skills the Marines developed during this past decade, combined with the agility and espirit honed over two centuries well position the Corps in my view to be at the “tip of the spear” in the future, when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts.

Ultimately, the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved, notwithstanding the imperatives of today’s wars.


Via AOL News, here are a few interesting reactions:

  • Tom Ricks-“They are a second land army — and a third air force, by the way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It provides a competing way of operating. What could be more American than such a competition?…”I wouldn’t make a lot of changes to the Marines right now. They tend to be very handy in the first phases of wars — Guadalcanal in World War II, the Pusan Perimeter in Korea.”
  • Andrew Bacevich-“(The Marines are an) example of the redundancies that permeate our defense establishment. … Redundancies can be good as long as you can afford them. We no longer can.”
  • Anthony Cordesman-“The reality is, when you have one of the most successful combat units in the world,” he said, “you do not conduct fascinating social experiments to see if you can transform it into something else.”

Concerning Mr Ricks’ quote, recall that Guadalcanal and Pusan occurred 69 and 60 years ago respectively. Not to say that the amphibious assault as we know it is obsolete, but clearly the Marines have little experience anymore in this type operation, and it could very well be their techniques are long outdated. Note that the Napoleonic era tactics which were used in the Gallipoli assaults of the Great War were woefully inadequate for that war. Instead of just naval cannon, the Allies had to face new naval mines and especially the machine gun which severely hampered their mobility after the landings.

Now in this missile age there is airpower which can hit you from over the horizon, and bombs launched from jets which are so accurate as to virtually assure a hit. So, the Marines really need to do some thinking. My own take of how we must deal with the missile threat is more ships, close in, (the nautical version of “getting under their guns“) rather than fewer ships further out, as with the service’s own over the horizon strategy. The latter is too complicated, too expensive and there’s no guarantee of success.


Returning to Gates, the Secretary is obviously doubting the feasibility of the amphibious assault in a new era with “ I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible.” That is a concern with the proliferation of cruise missiles which almost any rouge group, non-state actor can purchase, plus the menace from Chinese ASBMs which could very well be a game-changer in surface warfare. But In June I wrote this:

It may be understandable how some may consider the Marines as irrelevant to current conflicts, if you look at it from the perspective of redundancy. The USMC hasn’t conducted a major amphibious assault against a contested beachhead since 1950, at least not against a well-trained enemy worthy of their huge experience, abilities, and expense. Also, the Corps leadership continues to invest in huge multimission landings ships, which increase enormously in cost while the service howls for increases. The price tag competes with the desire for expansion, as well as the USN’s own construction plans.

Neither are exquisite and very complicated vessels any greater guarantee than smaller, cheaper ships will survive to land their valuable cargo to influence events ashore. During the Gulf Wars of the 80s and 90s, American amphibious ships were hindered often enough by an old nautical foe, the naval mine. Old fashioned “dumb” bombs also made a wreak of the British Landing ships HMS Sir Galahad in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Littoral waters now team with cheap but effective suicide boats and conventional submarines that threaten our most powerful warships with irrelevancy in such waters.

Speaking of the Falklands, during that period the British Royal Navy proved you did not need a large and costly Gator Fleet to deploy troops from the sea. Possessing only 2 specialized landing ships, the elderly Intrepid and Fearless, also several RFA vessels, sea lift ships, luxury liners, they performed one of the most brilliant and successful amphibious assaults of the Cold War.

So of necessity the Gator Fleet of large amphibs should shrink. Even with their huge individual capability, all together our handful of 30+ Big Ships can’t even load 10% of the Corps at a time, barely 2 brigades. They rely heavily on sealift, and as the British quickly learned, ships commandeered especially for the role, including the giant ocean liner QE 2. Buy many smaller ships as I have proposed which can get in out of danger quickly, also giving a potential foe plenty of targets to worry about.


Sea Links

August 13, 2010


US Navy

Former enemies US, Vietnam now military mates.

What’s New About the AirSea Battle Concept?

Amphib, helos join Pakistan flood relief effort.

DDG-1000: The inkblot destroyer.

Army to Get Its Own High-Speed Transport Ship.

Opinion: The Carrier Killer?


Warships of the World

Russian missile cruiser to visit India.

Aging Canadian ships may be banned from foreign ports.

Crew shortages curb Aussie sub deployments.

Landmark reached in construction of UK supercarriers.

Opinion: When Will The Government Properly Fund The Royal Navy?

Iran Navy Equipped With Four New Submarines. More.

Iran To Arm Own ‘Bladerunner’ Boats: Commander.

12 torpedo cruisers join IRGC Navy.

Chinese Warships Tour the Mediterranean.

Indian Hovercraft Fleet Triples.

Indian warships to exercise with Brazil, S Africa.

Japan Wants More Subs.


New Wars at Sea

Tamil ship escorted into B.C. waters by Canadian Navy.

UAE: Japan tanker was damaged in a terror attack.

North Korea Seizes South Korean Fishing Boat.

North Korea fires artillery rounds in Yellow Sea.

UK blocks sanctions against suspected Somali pirates.

Helicopter from US warship disrupts pirate attack.

Anti-pirate patrols make progress.

Puntland security forces apprehend more pirates.

Cruise Ships at risk off Thailand.


From the Navy Vaults

Scientists to turn Hunley upright. (Charleston The Post and Courier)

The lying art of historical fiction. (Guardian Books Blog)

Fighter jets are turned into dramatic works of art. (London Evening Standard)

The Gun Boat. (Pauline’s Pirates & Privateers)

The Pirates Own Book: Through The Victorian Lens. (Pauline’s Pirates & Privateers)

Russia marks 10th anniversary of Kursk sub sinking. (Associated Press) More. More.

Date set for closing of USS Olympia. (

Centennial of Naval Aviation: The “N” in CVN. (The Year in Defense)

The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap? (Daly History Blog)

Danish Navy Celebrates 500th Anniversary. (Grog News)


HMS Albion Deploys Royal Marine Assault Craft off North Carolina. Photographer: LA(Phot) Gregg Macready. Crown Copyright.

Carriers: The Weakest Link Pt 2

August 12, 2010

CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier, the largest, and at $13.5 billion, the most expensive warship ever devised.

The idea of massed airwings of the type carried by the typical Nimitz class supercarrier is actually making us weaker with the appearance of great strength. When this becomes your only answer for world problems, it greatly limits your capability and effect. For instance, a show of force with a carrier strike group against a Third World nation appears almost farcical, because of the great difference in strength between the two powers. A rogue dictator knows the US must either deploy this force at its full strength or not at all, and given the world attitude against war on weaker nations, the defiant potentate knows he is mostly secure. The dramatic takedown of a Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega is such a rare occurrence as to be unlikely, the dictator feels secure enough when the carrier withdraws for other duties, he quietly breathes a sigh of relief, and publicly claims a great victory of standing down the American colossus. The old David versus Goliath scenario, which is very effective for propaganda purposes.

The huge size of a supercarrier, with so much national treasure packed inside, plus the very exquisite planes and warships required to defend it, means for a massive and unnecessary drain on America’s resources. More expensive ships and their long building times means American shipyards spend an excessive amount of time on fewer warships. Fewer ships built means less work, which is the primary cause of the demise of the US shipbuilding industry. Our apparent great strength then has a ripple effect across the entire Navy, ensuring it remains small, less flexible, and with fewer shipbuilding resources in case of war. This makes us less prepared for the future, not more.

It is also a very wasteful way to deploy power at sea. The admirals use the argument that larger carriers are better because they carry more firepower than so-called less capable small carriers, but this dated idea bears scrutiny in considering advances in technology.  The 1980 airwing of the USS Nimitz was far less capable than the 2000 airwing, the addition of precision guided munitions making a dramatic difference. Packing all this incredible technology in a few large packages, keeping it concentrated rather than dispersed where it is needed makes it less effective.We are weak even with the appearance of great strength.

If, however, you spread the new capability out, in smaller carriers, or with missiles ships, or land based planes, you could do more missions with the seemingly “less capable” airwings. You wouldn’t be bound by the 10 or 11 platforms you can afford, a handful of this forward deployed at any given time, requiring equally pricey escort warships, and 5000+ crew to operate.

With small carriers, this should satisfy the fear that we need carriers to support land troops ashore. Besides, these days Marines and Army soldiers carry much of their own aerial power in the form of V/STOL planes, the aforementioned UAVs, and even loading drones in backpacks as part of their kit. Mindful also that carriers should never operate in range of missiles, suicide boats, mines, or stealthy midget subs, against which we don’t need to risk our largest, most expensive warships anyway. Recall that supporting the land battle is secondary to the Navy’s primary role of sea control. Do we want to gear all of our precious resources toward a secondary naval mission, or will the fleet get serious about sea control, instead of continuing to trust in nuclear shield, that no one will shoot at our carriers?

The admirals will tout the amazing flexibility of their multi-billion dollar superships. On land, our warfighters are thinking of how many missions they can get out of individual aircraft, and UAVs are very able as well given their long-loitering persistence. In the very near future one or two drones will do the missions we now launch giant fleets and their tens of thousands of crew to perform. Not just fantasy, its very nearly here.

Because this new capability is so effective, less is more, but hulls are the life of any fleet. Get more hulls and you can project this new power in many places. Power concentrated is power wasted.

HMS Ark Royal sinks off Gibraltar in Nov. 1941.

You also must consider that the loss of a single such immense fighting ship, carrying so much of your total strength, you also lose a great amount of your firepower. During the world wars, carriers suffered grievous attrition in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Recall Admiral Cunningham in the Mediterranean Theater, often down to a single carrier, many times with none. Compare this to the old battleship navy which depended greatly on numbers, with Nelson at Trafalgar forced to fight with one ship, or Jellicoe at Jutland so lacking!


Another cause for the carrier’s being the weak link in the fighting fleet, is their large size and vulnerability. Even the Navy now admits their biggest ships are at risk from a relatively simple off the shelf weapon, howbeit with advanced new guidance systems. Earlier this year comes the following testimony before the House Armed Services Committee by Admiral Robert F. Willard, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM):

China is also developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 MRBM designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.

Having grave implications, according to Andrew S. Erickson, at Associate Professor at the Naval War College:

What does this mean for the U.S.? If developed and deployed successfully, a Chinese ASBM system of systems would be the world’s first capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. This could make defenses against it difficult and/or highly escalatory.

While the Navy is taking steps to combat the Chinese carrier killing missiles, this will entail the concentration of even more force to guard the highly visible platforms, putting at risk the same vessels which potentially do the same mission. By keeping the missile escorts tied to the at-risk and redundant carriers, we are placing these valuable assets at risk as well. 

Also, by keeping the new battleships bound with the now obsolete carriers, we lose the flexibility of the long-range and easily dispersed  Tomahawks to ensure the fleet’s survivability. Remember that in 1941 the faster and longer-ranged naval airpower (200+miles) were still tied to the slow moving and short-ranged guns (20+ miles) of the battlefleet in the US Navy, and you can see the discrepancy today.

We have all the fighting power we need with lower cost missiles ships, submarines and light carriers, which should be dispersed in roles where we now use only supercarriers. These should be supported in their mission by smaller Influence Squadrons consisting of motherships, corvettes, OPVs, attack craft, which are less vulnerable in shallow waters, especially geared for this role as they are, and affordable enough to build in large numbers. For the Navy, they would be the “lighter footprint”, a tactic which the ground troops have used to great success in our wars and peacekeeping operations ashore.


Giant and small carriers sail together.

LCS=Leathernecks Cruise to Shore

August 11, 2010

USS Stringham APD-6, was a fast transport from World War 2, converted from a 4-stacker destroyer.

Undersecretary of the Navy Robert (Bob) Work has a few ideas on how sustain the US Marine Corps in a era of new threats. What the other Bob is doing to the Defense Department as a whole, Work hopes to do for the Leathernecks, instilling in them a back to basics mentality unseen in decades. If carried through we may see the most complete transformation of the Corps in a century, and the change will be welcome. Here is Chris Cavas at Defense News with more:

“We’re turning our thinking to resetting the Corps – that’s the code word – and it has to do with what do we want the Marine Corps to look like once we’re out of Afghanistan and assuming there are no infantry battalions in sustained combat operations anywhere in the world,” Navy Undersecretary Bob Work told a lunchtime audience in Washington.

“The basis for this thinking is going to be a Force Structure Review Group (FSRG),” Work said…The study, Work added, will consider the requirements of major defense planning documents including the Quadrennial Defense Review, completed earlier this year, as well as incorporating “lessons the Marine Corps has learned over the last seven years of war.”

It is hopeful that the service is not just thinking beyond Afghanistan for its future, as sadly some have turned a blind eye to its lessons, but are incorporating the lessons learned there to project it into a new environment of diverse and hybrid threats, as I noted yesterday. Specifically, here are several points touched on in the study:

  1. The Marine Corps will “more reflect its naval character.”
  2. Marines will begin operating from a variety of new platforms like the Littoral Combat Ship and Joint High Speed Vessel.
  3. “The Equipment Density List will be higher than the pre-war EDL.”
  4. Increased reliance on unmanned systems.
  5. The future force will be more energy-efficient than today… including more reliance on solar power.
  6. Marine gear and vehicles will need to be lighter.
  7. The Corps… “will be capable of conducting amphibious assaults and joint forcible entry operations.”
  8. The Corps and the Navy have settled on a fleet of 33 amphibious ships, having deemed the “high-end requirement” of 38 ships unaffordable.


USS Schmitt (APD-76) was a newer transport, converted from a Buckley-class destroyer escort.

The LCS statement was a very intriguing one, mentioned in this blog before. The idea of a fast attack transport like the old APD’s from the war years might not just give the Marines a fresh start, but breathe life into a very troubled and uncertain warship program. Being a large, shallow water vessel, the USS Freedom and her kin fit the requirements for “port to the beach“, which I think will the future of amphibious warfare in this age of the missile/suicide boat threat. Both of the latter are increasingly forcing the USMC to deploy their shrinking fleet of Big Ships further from shore, so I say we should take the “middleman” out of the equation altogether, scrapping the vulnerable offshore staging areas.

 The only reason such a large and expensive vessel of any type need be in the littorals, especially in a missile-rich environment, is to offload cargo and troops. Because of the LCS’ high speed it should be able to perform this task, in the shallow seas, avoiding trouble being desirable in a transport, not so in a warship. A 2008 Navy Times article discussed the possibility:

The Navy’s littoral combat ships could moonlight as members of the gator Navy under a proposal now in the works — the Marines want their own menu of mission modules for the LCS, in addition to the three sets of interchangeable gear now planned by the Navy. The Marines could get a surface fire support module, some kind of a special operations module and a humanitarian assistance mission package…An LCS draws only about 12 feet of water, a design feature specifically included by Navy planners so the ships could visit austere ports in South America or Africa.

Mercy missions, all well and good, but what about the primary Marine role of assault landings against a hostile shore? This is where they have really shined in times past, and I think most in and out of the service would like to see a return to this crucial mission. The LCS, fitted with the correct module, or heck just strap some landing craft on the sides and go from there. The vessel’s helicopters could also be loaded with troops or equipment as needed. A 2009  National Defense Magazine post also revealed thinking toward this goal:

Marines could deploy small units such as platoons or companies aboard an LCS, (chief of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Lt. Gen. George) Flynn said. “I have seen where you can drive on some amphibious craft on the back of at least one LCS,” he said.

The poorly armed transport would need some type of escort, which the Marines acknowledge. Are they talking corvette here?

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas Benes, director of the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division, said there is a need for boats that are larger than the riverine units’ 40-foot boats but smaller than the 400-foot littoral combat ship. The Navy does not have such a vessel in its inventory. In the Persian Gulf, U.S. warships have been targeted by suicide bombers in fishing boats and threatened by Iranian speedboats. “It’s obvious you need some smaller boat to be able to patrol that area,” Benes said. “We’re taking that on.”

Glad to see its not just me saying this! Back to the LCS, what type troops would it exactly carry? For this we go back even further, to a 2007 quote from Information Dissemination:

Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies discussed this option for the LCS a few years go. In his discussions with both General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, at the time he made the argument that if you had one of each ship you could fully support the deployment and sustainment of a single reinforced mechanized rifle company.

Obviously, Bob just didn’t speak off the cuff in the recent study, but has been thinking along these lines for some time!