Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fleet Size - Going Up or Down?

Publicly, at least, the Navy talks about wanting to maintain a fleet size of 300+ ships;  313 being a commonly cited goal.  Desired fleet size should be a function of strategic requirements rather than available budget or whatever factors but let’s set that issue aside for the moment and look, instead, at the arithmetic of fleet size.

In order to maintain a fleet size of X ships and given an average ship life of Y years, one has to build (X/Y) new ships per year.  So, for a 300 ship fleet with an average ship life of 30 years we need to build 10 new ships per year (300 ships / 30 years = 10 ships/year). 

Speaking in general terms, an average life of 30 years per ship sounds about right.  Thus, the Navy must build 10 new ships per year to maintain a 300 ship fleet. 

A Shrinking Fleet ?

Listed below are the actual life spans for ships in recent history.  For the 39 major class ships retired from 2008-2012, inclusive, as reported in the annual Naval Review issues of the Naval Institute Proceedings, the average age at decommissioning by class was,

Carriers (CV) –              44 years
Aegis Cruisers (CG) –    21 years
Frigates (FFG) –            29 years
Submarines (SSN) –      33 years
Amphibious (LHA) –       32 years
Amphibious (LPD) –       41 years
Minesweepers (MHC) –  11 years

For discussion purposes we’ll use 30 years as the average life span of a ship.

The Navy’s shipbuilding construction budget is around $15B per year.  From the 2012 Dept of Navy Highlights (1) the specific budget figures are,

2011  $15.3B
2012  $14.9B
2013  $13.6B

For sake of discussion let’s stick with a round figure of $15B per year for new construction.  So, if 10 ships per year are needed and $15B per year is the budget then the average cost per ship is $1.5B.  However, if ships actually cost more than that then the Navy can’t build 10 per year and the fleet size will shrink.  If the ships cost less than that the Navy can build more and the fleet will grow. 

What do ships actually cost?  From various sources, here are some individual ship costs.  The number in parentheses is the source reference citation listed at the end of the post.

Ford (CVN) -                          $13.4B each (4)
Virginia (SSN) -                       $2.5B each (5)
DDG-51 Flt III -                        $3.6B each (2)
DDG-51 Restart -                    $1.9B each (2)
LPD-17 -                                $2.0B each (3)
LHA-6 -                                  $3.8B each (4)
Zumwalt (DDG-1000) -             $3.9B each (7)
Ohio Replacement (SSBN(X)) - $5.6B each (6)

All of these ships cost more than the $1.5B average cost for the required build rate of 10 ships per year.  In fact, most cost significantly more and the average cost of the listed ships is $4.6B;  of course, that’s not a realistic average because the average would depend on the relative numbers of each being built each year and that varies widely from year to year.  Nonetheless, it’s instructive.  An average cost of $4.6B means that only 3 ships per year can be built with the $15B annual shipbuilding budget.

So, how many ships have been built recently?  For the years 2008-2012, inclusive, 21 combat ships have been built (commissioned) according to the Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review Issues, for the corresponding years.  Non-combat vessels such as JHSV, patrol craft, and the like are not included in this count.  That’s an average of 4.2 ships built per year.

What does this mean?  A build rate of 4.2 ships per year with an average life of 30 years equates to a fleet size of 126.  Given that the current combat fleet size is 210 (Naval Vessel Register website,;  total fleet size is 285 which counts various non-combat support ships), that’s quite a potential drop coming. 

Why, then, does the administration and the Navy still say that they are on course to a 300 ship fleet?  This quote from the Dept. of Navy budget highlight report (1) may explain things a bit.

“In FY 2013 seven battle force ships will be delivered: one Nuclear Attack Submarine (SSN), one Transport Dock (LPD), one Dry-Cargo Ammunition ship (TAKE), one  Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), two Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs), and one Mobile Landing Platform (MLP).

Eleven battle force ships will be retired: one Aircraft Carrier (CVN), six Frigates
(FFGs), and four Cruisers (CGs).”
Note that of the “seven battle force ships” to be delivered in FY2013, five are non-combat vessels as counted in this discussion.  Compare the combat capability of the ships being retired to that of the ships being delivered.  One way to reach a fleet size of 300 ships is to count non-combat ships that were not previously counted.  This has been discussed on other websites and I’ll let the subject go, for the moment.

In summary, it’s clear that the Navy’s stated goal of a 300 ship fleet cannot be achieved with the current shipbuilding budget and individual ship costs.  The Navy has averaged only 5.8 new combat ships per year over the last 20 years.  The combat ship fleet will continue to decrease in size.  It’s clear that the administration and Navy leadership know this and have already begun to lay the groundwork for counting hospital ships, patrol craft, JHSVs, and other clearly non-combat ships so as to be able to claim to have a 300 ship fleet.  Unfortunately, it will be a very hollow fleet.

(1)   Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2013 Budget, Feb 2012,
(2)   GAO, Arleigh Burke Destroyers, Jan 2012, GAO-12-113
(3)   CRS, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, March 16, 2011
(4)   Selected Acquisition Report (SAR), Program Acquisition Cost Summary, 31-Dec-2010,
(5)   CRS, Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, April 2, 2012
(6)   CRS, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, April 5, 2012
(7)   CRS, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs:  Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, March 14, 2011

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Littoral Warfare - Is There Such a Thing?

The LCS may not be the perfect littoral combat ship but we’ve got to have something, right?  I mean, you can’t successfully fight in the littorals with a blue water navy, can you?  Surely, that’s obvious to everyone.  Capability shortfalls aside, clearly no other Navy ship can go where the LCS can thanks to its shallow draft, and that’s absolutely critical.  In short, it’s patently obvious that there is something unique about a littoral war zone that requires a specially designed naval force to successfully conduct combat operations in it.

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

Think about it for a moment…  is there even a littoral war zone?  And if there is, why would we want to be there?  Well, the Navy said there was a need for littoral ships.  They never said why but they hammered over and over again on the need.  Eventually, “littoral” became a concept that everyone accepted without ever asking why.  Well, now I’m asking so let’s look a bit closer.

What is the littoral zone?  There is no precise definition so let’s use the common sense definition that it’s the area near someone’s coast.  Don’t worry about how many yards or miles “near” is.

Is There Something Here That Matters?

So, that’s what a littoral zone is.  Now, what makes it a war zone?  Again, let’s keep it  simple.  It’s a war zone because we want to be there and someone wants to prevent that to the point of engaging in combat.

So, now we know what a littoral war zone is.  Now, what’s in a littoral war zone that makes us want to be there?  Well, the only answer that comes to mind is an amphibious assault.  If you want to land troops on a hostile beach then you need to clear mines, fend off subs, stop enemy naval forces, and shield your forces from missiles.

Fair enough.  That sounds like justification for a littoral combat vessel… except for two things.  One, the Navy’s official doctrine is to avoid beachfront assaults in favor of aviation-borne, maneuver-based assaults in the enemy’s rear area.  Two, there’s nothing unique about a coastal zone that precludes our current naval vessels from operating there.

Regarding the first point, if we aren’t going to conduct beachfront amphibious assaults then there is no littoral war zone.  Remember the definition of the littoral war zone?  It's a coastal zone that we want to be in and someone wants to prevent.  Well, if we don’t want to be there, then there’s no littoral war zone.  Wait a minute.  We don’t want to conduct amphibious assaults?  Who said that?  The Navy and Marines, apparently,

“At a recent amphibious warfare roundtable discussion, the Navy and Marine Corps amphibious warfare leaders, RADM LaPlante and Maj. Gen Jenkins, both agreed that, ‘the World War II amphibious frontal assaults are remote possibilities in today's modern warfare.’" (1)
Wasn’t the MV-22 developed and deployed on amphibious ships to avoid doing beachfront assaults?  Isn’t the LHA-6 class being built without a well deck since there is little need for beachfront assaults?  Isn’t the Navy continually telling us that land launched missiles make the coastal regions out of bounds for amphibious forces?

Burke - Helpless in Shallow Water?

Regarding the second point, if we did do a beachfront assault, what’s so unique about a coastal region that it would preclude current ships from operating successfully there?  There would be mines but our current Avenger MCM ships are quite capable of dealing with the threat.  There would be missiles but Burke class destroyers have CIWS, RAM, ESSM, and Standard missiles and would be quite capable of dealing with the threat.  In fact, the Navy has stated that the LCS can’t operate in a hostile environment without the protection of an Aegis destroyer’s AAW capability.  There would be subs but Burkes and SSNs can deal with those.  And so on …  The point being that there doesn’t appear to be anything so unique about a coastal region that it would render our current ships and weapons useless.  Sure, some characteristics are different.  ASW would use somewhat different tactics such as a great reliance on active sonar versus passive but that doesn’t require entirely new, specialized ships.

Well, what about draft?  The LCS can go further inshore and that’s beneficial isn’t it?  Is it?  Why would we want to be sailing around in 20 ft deep water?  What’s there that we want?  What can a ship do in 20 ft of water that it can’t do further out in, say, 100 ft of water?

When I consider all this, I come to the conclusion that “littoral warfare” is a concept that doesn’t really exist as it relates to needing specialized ships.  It appears to be a buzzword that the Navy latched onto in order to justify more ships to Congress.  If any of you believe that there is a unique “littoral” need, leave a comment.  I’m open to ideas on this.

(1) Littoral Warfare: Adapting To Brown-Water Operations, CSC 1993,, LCDR Frank J. Murphy, United States Navy

Saturday, May 26, 2012

LHA-6 - Aviation Assault Ship

While the LCS is soaking up most of the attention of naval observers, there is another ship currently being designed and built that also has the potential to be controversial.  The LHA-6 class is being built as a replacement for the LHA-1, Tarawa, class.  Three units were anticipated as of 2010 to replace the five unit Tarawa class.  This illustrates the ongoing, steady decline in fleet size.

LHA-6 - Note Absence of Well Deck

The LHA-6 is a unique design in that, unlike any other amphibious ship, it has no capability to conduct a waterborne assault since it lacks a well deck.  The ship is designed and intended purely for airborne assault and aviation operations.  Cargo and vehicle transport will be limited to sizes and weights that can be airlifted.  How this will impact the ship's overall contribution to  an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) remains to be seen.

Troop carrying capacity is designed for 1600 Marines.

The aviation capability is designed to support a notional mix of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft consisting of 12 MV-22s, 6 F-35B JSF, 4 CH-53Es, 7 AH-1s/UH-1s, and 2 embarked H-60 Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft.  Alternatively, it can embark an attack wing of 20 F-35Bs and 2 embarked H-60 SAR aircraft (3).  The hangar bay was greatly expanded compared to the Tarawa with the medical spaces being reduced by two thirds to make room.

Construction started at Huntington Ingalls on the lead ship in 2008 and delivery is scheduled for 2013.  The first ominous sign for observers is that when construction began the design was only 65% complete.  The Navy has been down the path of concurrent design and construction with both the LCS and LPD-17 class and both have proven to be unmitigated disasters.  To say that the Navy is slow to learn would be an epic understatement.  In fact, a GAO report cites high levels of construction rework and resulting delays due to design issues (1).

“According to program officials, LHA 6 has experienced a significant number of physical interference issues during construction that have required modifications, including ripping out of completed work, and caused work to stop at times.”(2)
GAO cites the LHA-6 cost at $3.3B as of 2010 (1).

Another potentially significant issue is the flight deck construction and its ability to withstand the intense heat of the F-35 (JSF) and MV-22 engine downwash.  There are repeated warnings in reports that the deck may have to be redesigned and reworked but that won’t be known for sure until construction is complete and operational tests can be conducted.

The Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS) is another anticipated problem area.  The combat system includes the SSDS Mk 2, CIWS, SPS-48E long-range air search radar, SPQ-9B horizon search radar, Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAMs), Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSMs), SLQ-32B(V)2 electronic warfare systems, and Nulka-equipped Mk 53 decoy system.  DOT&E states,

“… it is unlikely that LHA-6’s Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS) Mk 2-based combat system will meet the ship’s Probability of Raid Annihilation (PRA) requirement against anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).”
To be fair, this is a known problem with the SSDS across multiple ship classes.

[Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader (sharper than me, for sure!) who caught a math error, the following section has been re-written a bit]

As with the LCS, the Navy did not produce a concept of operations prior to starting construction.  It remains to be seen how an amphibious ship without a well deck and only very limited cargo/vehicle transport capability will contribute to an amphibious assault.  Given that there is no well deck, it is instructive to examine the single “wave” troop transport capacity provided by the CH-53s and MV-22s.  Each CH-53 can carry 55 troops and each MV-22 can carry 24.  For the notional mix of 4 CH-53 and 12 MV-22, that translates to a single wave capacity of 508 troops out the 1600 embarked.  Thus, it would require 3+ waves to get all the troops ashore.  That seems like a fair transport capability but, lacking any heavy lift, has the potential to leave lightly armed troops in a somewhat vulverable position. Presumably, the heavy gear could be supplied from other ships although that violates the "eggs in one basket" philosophy if the heavy gear ship is sunk or otherwise unavailable when needed. 

The key to whether this ship is ultimately deemed successful will be the operating doctrine applied to it.  Will it be used as a light infantry transport, a light carrier, some combination, or something else, entirely?  The jury will be out on this one for a while, yet.

I wonder if the Navy views this ship as more of a light carrier (the alternate aviation mix of 20 F-35s) to supplement the carrier groups in scenarios involving somewhat limited conflict such as the recent Libyan operation.  Given that a current supercarrier air wing only contains about 42-44 combat aircraft, as discussed in a previous post, the LHA’s 20 F-35s would represent half of a supercarrier’s combat capability.  If this is what the Navy has in mind, the success of the concept will depend on the capability of the JSF which has more than its share of problems, at the moment.  That's a topic for another day, though.

(1)  GAO, Defense Acquisitions, Assessments of Selected Weapons Programs, March                   2012, GAO-12-400SP, p.105
(2)   GAO, p.106
(3)   DOT&E, 2011 Annual Report, p.143

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Marine Amphibious Lift - Who Needs Gators?

Sometimes it's fun to take a break from LCS-bashing although the Navy makes it so darn easy.  Anyway, let's take a look at Marine Corp amphibious lift, today.  Now, I know that amphibious assault is an article of faith with many people but try to consider the following discussion with an open mind.

What is the purpose of amphibious lift?  Why, to put Marines ashore, of course.  We did it repeatedly in WWII and several times since.  And what is the amphibious lift capacity, currently?  Here are the recent lift requirements (1).

1980 = 1.15 MEF (66,252 Marines + equipment)
1991 = 2.5 MEB AE (33,793 Marines + equipment)
2006 = 2.0 MEB AE (23,016 Marines + equipment)

MEF = Marine Expeditionary Force
MEB AE = Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Assault Echelon, usually shortened to MEB
Note - Marine totals include some Navy support elements

So, we see a steady decline in the lift capacity requirement.  Most of the decline is associated with the simple reality imposed by budget limitations over the last several decades rather than absolute strategic and operational necessity.  Nonetheless, we see a steady decrease.  The current lift requirement is met by a goal of 33 amphibious ships (LHA, LPD, and so on).

Amphibious Lift - How Much is Too Much?

That much lift, 33 ships, is a significant chunk of the naval fleet both in terms of numbers and, more importantly, cost.  New build amphibious ships are running $1B-$3.5B and heading up all the time.

Let's go back to the seemingly simple question - What is the purpose of amphibious lift? - and look a bit closer.  There are two general applications for amphibious lift:  not surprisingly, during war and during peace.  Wartime lift would be associated with China, Iran, N. Korea, or various small Third World countries.  Peacetime lift would be associated with hostage rescue, embassy evacuation, localized stabilization operations, surgical strikes associated with terrorism or piracy, raids, Special Ops, and so on.  What are the likelihood of each of these?

1. I don't see any possibility of a land invasion of China under any circumstance. We'd have to be insane.  Thus, massive amphibious capability is not needed.

2. I don't see the likelihood of large scale amphibious invasions of Iran/N. Korea since each has neighboring "friendly" countries that we would use as overland invasion portals. I do see the possibility of small scale amphibious flanking attacks which would require company to regiment size amphibious capability.

3. I see very likely and fairly frequent need for "peacetime", short term, small scale amphibious ops in third world countries - putting out fires, so to speak. As stated these ops would be hostage rescue, raids, surgical strikes on specific and limited targets, and so on. These would require company size (200 Marines) or less amphibious capability.

With the above in mind, suggest that we don't need nearly as much large scale amphibious capability as we have. I do, however, see the need for more (we don't really have any, currently) small scale, company size amphibious ships.  Thus, our cursory thought exercise suggests that rather than needing a large lift capacity what we really need is 10-15 small, company sized ships for the far more common peacetime ops and a relatively small handful of larger ships for the Iran/N. Korea scenario.  So, instead of 33 large amphibious ships that we have now, 10-15 small ships plus 6 larger ships would suffice. 

Hmm... A redesigned LCS or JHSV would almost fit the bill for a Company size amphibious ship, wouldn't it?  But, I digress.

Company Size?

In fact, I see in the Feb '12 Naval Institute Proceedings (pg. 44) that the Marines are, indeed, experimenting with Company size landing forces, dubbed Company Landing Teams. Presumably, it's a recognition that, short of total war, the most common type of amphibious activity involves raids, hostage rescues, embassy protection/evacuation, etc. as we discussed.  To be fair, the author does not propose using the LCS as a mini-gator or constructing purpose-built mini-gators but, instead, suggests basing the Company and MV-22s on carriers. He notes that current carrier air wings are well under the carrier's designed capacity and, therefore, he suggests that the carriers have room. Undersized air wings? Stop me if this sounds familiar - it should since we discussed it here

This analysis has been a simple thought exercise in matching anticipated operations and requirements to our force structure.  What I see as our likely needs doesn't match our current structure.

As I stated at the outset, amphibious lift is an article of faith for many and I'm perfectly willing to be persuaded that we need more than I've just called for.  Feel free to explain why you think we need more but do it with facts, not just a vague statement that we might someday need more.  Using that reasoning, we should build 400 carriers, 1000 amphibious ships, and so on, because you just never know what might happen. 

(1)  Congressional Research Services, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, 16-Mar-11

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Future of the Surface Fleet - Cato Panel

On 21-May-12, the Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion on the Future of the U.S. Navy Surface Fleet.  I listened to the hour and a half or so discussion and came away with a few interesting points that I'd like to pass on to you.  Despite the somewhat general title of the discussion, most of the attention was focused on the LCS.  In no particular order, here are a few quotes made by panel members and worthy of note.

Eric Labs, Congressional Budget Office, while discussing the LCS's roles and concerns about its ability to function as a warship offered this observation.

"However, over the past two years the Navy's justification for the LCS has evolved more to peacetime missions that the navy spends almost all of its time doing anyway."
He then went on to list several peactime missions:  maritime security, engagement with allies, port visits, exercises, and sanctions enforcement.

His point was that in the face of criticisms of the LCS's warfighting limitations even the Navy has started to emphasize that the LCS is going to be more useful and justifiable as a peacetime vessel.  He then went on to suggest that if peacetime operations are the justification it might be worthwhile to look at cheaper alternatives that can conduct the same peacetime missions.  In particular, he suggested that an up-armed version of the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) at $180M per copy might be a better alternative.  Combine Mr. Labs observation with the Navy's own recognition that the LCS is not combat capable as evidenced by CNO Greenert's comment that LCS would not be taking part in combat in high threat environments and you've got to really give some serious thought to the up-armed JHSV concept.  I'm not familiar with the JHSV costs but they're anywhere near the $180M level that Mr. Labs stated, this alternative is well worth considering.

Up-Armed JHSV?
 Christopher Preble, former Navy SWO, while discussing the balance between U.S. forces (LCS in particular) and other countries had this to say.

"We're building Coast Guard cutters for other people's coasts"
His point was that the presence of U.S. naval forces may be tempting other countries to refrain from building their own naval forces, knowing that they can always count on the U.S. to protect them.  He cited the current Chinese-Philippines conflict as an example.  This is a very thought-provoking comment.  If we weren't there, would the Philippines or any number of other smaller countries be more likely to build up their own coastal forces?  I don't know whether that's true but, regardless, we should be putting as much pressure as possible on other countries to step up in their own defence, to the maximum extent possible. 

Robert Work, Undersecretary of the Navy, spent the entire time defending the LCS in a rather strident manner.  He flat out stated that if someone doesn't recognize the overwhelming value and capabilities of the LCS, it's because they just don't get it.  In essence, if you don't agree with him, you're just too stupid.  He pretty much explicitly said that, repeatedly.

After listening to this man, I've got to tell you that he is delusional, seriously misguided about the strategic threats in the world, myopic about the LCS, and comes across as a zealot.  Here's an example of one of his delusional mini-rants.

"Cost ...  There is nothing out there that can match the cost of this ship.  Period.  End of story.  If you can find a ship that can do what this ship [does] for a smaller price, we'd be buying it right now."

Upsized, Upgraded Cyclone Class?
Umm ...  OK, even the LCS supporters readily admit that the ship has had serious cost problems and that the cost to value ratio is out of whack.  There are numerous small patrol vessels around the world that have far more capabilites than the LCS and cost less.  Don't want to consider foreign ships, you say?  OK, how about Mr. Labs' up-armed JHSV for $180M?  What about an upgraded, possibly upsized, new build Cyclone for around $40M - $100M per copy?  One of my favorites is the Ambassador MkIII being built in the U.S. by Halter Marine for Egypt at a cost of around $140M per ship.  It's even possible that the Coast Guard's National Security Cutter could be had for less money than the LCS if 55 were purchased.

To say that there is nothing out there that can match the LCS's capabilities for less money is seriously deluded.

Anyone interested in an intelligent, sober, and thoughtful discussion (with the one noted exception!) of the LCS and it's place in the Navy should listen to the panel discussion.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Carrier Numbers - Where's the Revolt of the Admirals?

How many carriers does the United States have? Seems like a simple enough question. Currently, we have 10 active carriers plus one (10+1) in long term refuel and overhaul (RF/COH). So, we have 10 active, available carriers. Since one carrier is always in RF/COH, the active carrier force is always one less than the total in commission. What does the near future hold for carrier numbers?

USS Enterprise - Gone in 2012
When Enterprise decommissions at the end of this year, the U.S. will have only 9 active carriers until the Ford is commissioned in 2015-16 (optimistically, given the number of new, unproven technologies and resulting potential for delays as seen in the LCS program) . Roosevelt will finish RF/COH in early 2013 and Lincoln will begin hers so they'll essentially swap places which has no impact on the overall numbers. Given that various national security analyses have determined that 12-15 is the ideal number, depending on which study you want to believe, a drop to 9 is pretty significant.

As an aside, the Navy had to obtain a Congressional waiver to drop to this level since the U.S. carrier level is mandated by law, 5062(b) of Title 10, United States Code.

There is another aspect to this issue and that is the number of Carrier Air Wings. A carrier without an available Air Wing is useless. As of May 2012 the Navy has 10 Air Wings. The Navy had planned to deactivate Carrier Air Wing 14 which would have dropped the number of Air Wings to 9. However, CNO Greenert has temporarily halted that action due to Congressional pressure as reported by Navy Times, 28-Mar-12. The deactivation will occur around Mar 2013 if a new plan is not formulated in the meantime.  And, of course, the quality of the Air Wing is an issue but that has already been covered

Also, consider what will happen when Enterprise retires at the end of this year. We will be down to 9 active carriers and 10 Air Wings. That's certainly not going to be allowed in this time of budget cuts. At least one An Air Wing, if not two, will be deactivated, dropping the count to 8 or 9.

What about the longer term? Well, assuming that no carriers are early retired, the force will be back to its current level around 2016. However, given the budget problems and national debt it is quite likely that one or more carriers will be early retired. For instance, the Washington, which is due for RF/COH after Lincoln, is a likely candidate. In fact, rumors have been posted on various blogs suggesting that early carrier retirements are coming though no details or sources have been provided.

USS Roosevelt Undergoing RF/COH
Also, consider the impact of construction schedules on carrier numbers. With a nominal 50 year lifespan per carrier, a new carrier must join the fleet every 4.5 years in order to maintain a force of (10+1) carriers. Current construction schedules have been stretched beyond that point and are going to be stretched even further. Here are the delivery (commissioning) dates of the last several carriers.

Stennis 1995
Truman 1998   interval = 3 yrs
Reagan 2003   interval = 5 yrs
Bush     2009   interval = 6 yrs
Ford      2015?  interval = 6 yrs?

The Navy has gone to a five year construction schedule with talk of seven years. What does this do to future carrier force numbers? Again, using a nominal 50 year life, a 5 year schedule equates to a force of 10 carriers while a 6 year schedule equals 8 carriers and a 7 year schedule yields a force of 7 carriers.

It's quite likely that the long term carrier force is going to be 9 (8+1) in the moderately near future and 8 (7+1) beyond that.

What's the point of all this discussion? Well, if you believe the studies that defined a requirement of 12-15, we are well below that requirement and are going to drop even further. A drop to 8-9 carriers from a requirement of 12-15 is enormous. Either the studies are outdated and need to be revised or the carrier force is in the midst of a crisis. Personally, with the likelihood of conflict with China, I'd be more comfortable with a force closer to 15.

Is there, then, a crisis? I believe so. But if so, where is the crisis mentality from Navy leadership? Where are protests and outcries from Navy Flag ranks? Where is the modern Revolt of the Admirals? Why aren't Admirals resigning in protest over this threat to national security?

So what is the official Navy view? Well, voluntarily dropping the force to 9 for the next few to several years and stretching out new construction to a 5-7 year cycle says that the Navy is comfortable with a force of around 8-9 carriers. Navy leadership seems unconcerned. This, and the comments from SecNav and CNO, lead me to believe that the Navy has no coherent strategy, has not realistically wargamed a conflict with China, and is playing fast and loose with national security.

It is possible to make a valid and logical argument against the carrier and many people have done so. It is possible, I suppose, that Navy leadership has internally decided that carriers, while useful for the foreseeable future, are not the answer in a war with China and are pursuing other routes. If so, they're not talking about it and I can't see an alternate route reflected in the procurement programs.

For the time being, I believe carriers are vital to our national security, there is a crisis of numbers in the carrier force, and Navy leadership is abdicating its responsibility.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

LCS - Mission Module Status

Setting aside the question of whether the LCS is a worthwhile program or not, the value of the LCS, as designed, was the ability to swap mission modules.  This flexibility at a tactical level would be the core of the LCS’ strength according to the Navy’s vision.  Well, it’s time for an assessment of the state of module implementation.

As a frame of reference, 24 LCSs have been procured or scheduled through FY2015.  That’s nearly half of the total anticipated build of 55 ships.  Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect that module development should be mature and production modules should be plentiful relative to the number of hulls in the water by FY2015.  If this were not the case, the LCS’s main design feature, tactical flexibility via swappable modules, would be nullified.

As of Mar-2012, the two MCM modules, 2 ASuW modules, and 1 ASW module have been delivered (1).  Note that these modules are partial, developmental modules intended for testing and evaluation. 

RAM Launched Griffon?
ASuW Module – The main component of the ASuW module was to have been the NLOS missile system for use in land attack and in anti-swarm (small boat attacks) defense.  The NLOS has been cancelled and the current replacement is the Griffon missile although work has already been initiated to replace it due to its unacceptably short range.  Further, the Griffon has no land attack capability comparable to the intended role of the NLOS.  Griffon is scheduled to be operational in 2015 and its successor in 2017.  Interestingly, Griffon has been test fired from a RAM launcher.  Whether this means that Griffon will be fired from the existing LCS RAM launcher, thereby diminishing the already minimal AAW capability or be launched from additional, dedicated, RAM launchers remains to be seen.

MCM Module – RAMICS was intended to provide a mine destruction capability but failed to perform and has been cancelled.  The unmanned surface vehicle and associated sweep system have also been cancelled.  The Navy is now trying out various adaptations of existing or developmental equipment but does not currently have a well defined module.  Given that this module is nothing more than a wish list of capabilities, any forecasts of IOC must be seen as pure wishful thinking.

ASW Module – LCS was originally designed to be a mothership to an array of off-board sensors carried by various unmanned air, surface, and subsurface vehicles.  Thus, the LCS would deploy its sensors and then stand off from the danger area.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this concept other than the fact that none of the anticipated unmanned vehicles and sensors have panned out.  From the GAO report (2),

“In 2008, the Navy took delivery of one partially capable ASW module at a cost of over $200 million, but subsequently cancelled plans to continue procuring the module and is redesigning it. According to program officials, the new design includes a variable-depth sonar and towed array, unmanned aerial vehicle, helicopter, and torpedo countermeasure.” 
So, the original ASW module, termed Increment 1 by the Navy, failed completely and the LCS is now moving towards on-board sensors and weapons in a module termed Increment 2.  This approach now dictates that the LCS operate in physical proximity to enemy submarines.  Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach other than the fact that the LCS was not designed to stand into combat and is not considered combat survivable by the Navy.  Also, this now gets away from the original LCS design concept and makes the LCS a traditional frigate. 

I know, you’re asking yourself why we’re retiring the Perry class frigates which already exist and already have towed arrays, torpedo countermeasures, helos, Fire Scout UAVs, and anti-submarine torpedos?  Good question!

LCS Mission Bay - Anything To Put In It?

The module status summary points out both the strength and weakness of the LCS.  The strength is that modules can be continually developed over the lifetime of the seaframe.  Hence, the lack of any current, fully functioning module is not a permanent and fatal flaw.  On the other hand, the lack of any current, fully functioning module means that the LCS is just an incredibly expensive and virtually unarmed and non-functional seaframe until such time as a useful module becomes available.

The Navy attempted to jump one or more generations on the technology ladder and, not unexpectedly, failed totally.  The scramble is on now to find something, anything, that can be used as a module until such time as the envisioned modules become technically feasible, if ever.

The next major issue that has, so far, received little attention is the number of modules.  Current plans call for 55 LCS sea frames and 64 LCS mission modules:  16 ASW, 24 MCM, and 24 ASuW (3).  When we do the arithmetic, if all 55 seaframes have a module installed, that leaves just 9 modules available for swapping.  Given that the LCS will have at least two main bases, one in the MidEast and one in Chinese area, that means that there will be only four or five extra modules at each location for swapping and the odds that the desired module is in stock become very low; more so, if multiple LCSs wish to swap at the same time.  This issue, alone, almost totally invalidates the LCS concept of tactical flexibility.

In summary, none of the modules exist in finished form and the closest, probably the ASuW, is still four or five years down the road.  The MCM and ASW modules are probably looking at 2017 to 2020 for IOC of any useful version, at best.  Even when the modules become available, the limited numbers almost totally negate the LCS concept.

(1)   Congressional Research Services (CRS), Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, April 6, 2012, p. 4

(2)   Government Accountability Office: Defense Acquisitions[:] Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs, GAO-12-400SP, March 2012, p. 110

(3)   CRS, p. 2

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Strategy First, Then Buy

I listened to the speech that Gen. James Cartwright, USMC(Ret), gave at the Joint Warfighter Conference in Virginia Beach, VA on 15-May-12.  During his talk he uttered a statement that was simultaneously the most profound and most obvious thing I've heard from a professional military man in quite a while.  He said,

"You really need strategy before you spend money."
Sadly, the statement, while profound by military standards, rises to that level only because the professional military leadership routinely operates on such a clueless level.  The rest of us see the statement as incredibly obvious.  Before you buy equipment for a job, you need to have an idea of what the job entails and what type of equipment you need to do it.

JSF - Platform Without a Strategy
Applied to military weapons procurement this means that you need to have an idea of what your strategy is for the likely scenarios you anticipate having to deal with.  Knowing that, you can then intelligently decide what weapons you need to buy.  If you don't have a strategy, you wind up purchasing whatever you can and hoping that something will be useful when the time comes.

Unfortunately, our current procurement is not based on well defined strategic and tactical needs.  I'm going to focus on the Navy now;  this is, after all, a Navy related blog.  Right or wrong, the Navy seems to have latched onto the AirSea Battle (ASB) as its "strategy" even though the ASB is not a strategy.  It is a collection of semi-operational and vague, disjointed strategic musings.  Nonetheless, given that ASB is the Navy's new guidance, ASB envisions a drawn out battle of attrition waged over extremely long distances (1000 nm or more).  Thus, the ASB strategy dictates that the Navy purchase very long range strike systems to deal with the ranges and lots of platforms to absorb the attrition losses.  What is the Navy actually purchasing?  The very short ranged JSF (F-35), Ford class carriers whose Air Wings can't reach any targets until the very end phase of the conflict, DDG-1000 Zumwalts that can't perform ballistic missile defense, the LCS which is simply useless in any scenario, and so on.

The point is that the Navy's procurement is not being guided by a coherent strategic vision but, rather, on a piecemeal basis based on whatever they can get Congressional approval for.  I do not believe that the Navy has actually bought into the AirSea Battle concept other than using it as the latest buzzword to obtain funding just as they did with the word "littoral" and the LCS.

We need a coherent strategy first, then we can buy intelligently.  Unfortunately, Gen. Cartwright is the only one who seems to understand that and he's retired!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Carriers - It's the Air Wing that Matters

I think we've all read the arguments for and against the carrier until we're tired of it.  However, all of the arguments, both for and against, have missed the most important point.  The carrier, itself, is irrelevant; it's what the carrier can do that matters.  And what is it that a carrier can do?  Well, obviously, it's to launch combat aircraft into battle.  I'm belaboring the point, you say?  Well, bear with me. 

It's the Air Wing the Matters, not the Carrier!
The value of a carrier is, of course, wholly contained in the air wing.  If the air wing were to become "devalued" beneath a critical threshold, the carrier itself would cease to have any reason to exist.  How can an air wing devalue?  Well, reduction in number of airframes, reduction in combat radius, or reduction in stores capacity would render the air wing less effective.

What few people seem to realize is that current air wings are around half the size of air wings from the '80s.  In 1981 the typical air wing had 5 squadrons (VF & VA) totalling 60 aircraft. These are the combat planes. The remaining helos, ASW, AEW, electronic warfare, etc. brought the total to around 92 planes.  Compare this to the current air wing which consists of 4 squadrons (VFA Hornets) totalling 44 combat planes and around 60-64 for the overall wing size.  Going further, the Navy has already announced that when the F-35 enters service, the squadrons will be reduced by 2-4 planes, each.  Note - WWII Essex class carried around 100 combat planes!
Less Capable Air Wings
Consider, now, the combat radius of the Hornet versus its predecessor, the A-6 Intruder.  The Intruder had a combat radius of around 1000 nm versus the Hornet C/D with around 200 nm and the E/F with around 300 nm.  The F-35 will have a radius of around 400 nm.

Finally, the stores capacity of the Intruder was 18000 lb versus the Hornet C/D of 13700 lb and the E/F of 17700.  The future F-35 will only have 3000 lb of stores capacity without resorting to external hardpoints and sacrificing stealth and range.

So, air wings are becoming less "valuable" with each passing year.  We appear to be headed for a point where the supercarrier's cost can't be justified due to the ever decreasing effectiveness of the air wings.

People who argue either for or against the carrier, miss the point that it's the air wing that's important, not the carrier.  Unfortunately, the air wings are getting steadily smaller and less capable.  As you make your arguments for or against the carrier, do it from the perspective of the air wing.  Thus, the question becomes, is the cost of a modern supercarrier justified to carry around 40 combat planes?  I'll leave it to you to decide that.

On a related note, the new Ford class is bigger than the Nimitz but will carry an air wing approaching half the size that the Nimitz first carried.  Am I the only one who sees a logical inconsistency here?


For those interested in the numbers, here are the Air Wing sizes as of April 2012 as listed in the May 2012 issue of Proceedings.

CVW-1   44 combat / 58 total
CVW-2   46 combat / 70 total
CVW-3   45 combat / 66 total
CVW-5   46 combat / 67 total
CVW-7   44 combat / 59 total
CVW-8   44 combat / 70 total
CVW-9   44 combat / 75 total
CVW-11  44 combat / 67 total
CVW-14  46 combat / 55 total
CVW-17  44 combat / 59 total

The large variation in the totals is due to some Air Wings carrying an extra squadron of helos, for some reason. 

All Air Wings also embark 2 CODs (C-2A) when deployed but they aren't part of the wing.