Saturday, September 29, 2012

Combat Fleet Count

Below is a historical listing of the combat ships of the Navy.  The count includes carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships.  It does not include logistics support ships, mine warfare vessels, patrol craft, hospital ships, JHSV, and the like.  I have also not included the LCS in the count since it currently has no combat capability.  If/when it does, I'll include it.

Year  Count
1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210

Data is taken from

The trend is undeniable.  The combat fleet is getting steadily smaller.  Already, 13 ships have been announced for retirement next year although there are attempts underway in Congress to provide funding to retain 2-4 of those ships so the final number may vary.  Even with a couple of scheduled commissionings, the net result will be a decrease of several ships for 2013.

While some may argue that today's ships are more capable than ever before, it's disturbing that combat power is being concentrated in ever fewer numbers which means the loss of any single ship is becoming ever more devastating.  This phenomenon results in a situation where commanders are more and more reluctant to put ships in harm's way.  We're already seeing this in the Navy's refusal to stand near a coastline due to the presence of shore launched anti-ship missiles which means that amphibious assaults must be conducted from well out to sea.  I'll set aside the issue of whether that's ultimately a good thing or not and simply note that it's driven by fear of loss rather than tactical advantage.

The combat fleet is headed towards a level of 150 or so in the moderately near future (not withstanding the current administration's 30 year shipbuilding plan which is pure fantasy) given the budget limitations and the Navy's single-minded focus on building ever bigger and more expensive ships.

Compare the Navy's trend to China's and ponder the implications for yourself.

I'll update this from time to time.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Amphibious Connectors

An amphibious assault?  We all have the mental image of hulking amphibious ships lurking on the horizon and Marines storming the beach.  But how did the Marines get from the ship to the beach?  Well, a variety of ways, I guess, from the futuristic (though they’re actually getting quite dated!) looking Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft to the ubiquitous Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) to helos and now MV-22 Ospreys among other means.  All of these vehicles can be collectively referred to as connectors.  Simply put, the connector is the transport between the ship and shore.

The connector has the potential to be both a potent enabler of the amphibious assault force as well as a  bottleneck and vulnerability.

As an enabler, the connector should be able to transport Marines and their gear quickly, safely, and, ideally, with a little bit of inherent firepower to provide some support at the point of landing.  The Marines should land in good physical shape and intimately integrated with their gear.  In other words, they should be landed in peak physical readiness for battle.

As a weakness, the connector represents a potential bottleneck if there are too few connectors to transport sufficient numbers of Marines and weight of gear in a given time frame.  Marines and gear sitting piled up on ship waiting around for connector transport are a recipe for disaster. 


Similarly, the connector represents a possible vulnerability.  Just as naval tacticians recognize that it’s far better to shoot archers than arrows, so too would any enemy recognize that it’s far more efficient to kill loaded connectors rather than deal with landed Marines.  Unfortunately, current connectors are slow and unarmored for practical purposes relative to the modern missile age.

The current connectors are aging rapidly and most are only marginally suited for the modern battlefield.  The AAV has been serving since the early 1970’s.  The AAV’s long anticipated replacement, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) is now a dead program with no other replacement in sight.  The LCAC entered service in the mid 1980’s and only 91 were built.  In addition, they’re large, slow (relative to missiles), attractive targets.    MV-22s are great for rapid transport of troops but can’t carry heavy gear.  The CH-53E heavy lift helo entered service in 1981 and airframes are being used up rapidly.  And so on …

All right, so the existing connectors are aging and ill-suited.  Can’t we just design new ones?  Well, therein lies the initial problem and the crux of this discussion.  What basic conceptual design is needed?  Do we need a traditional short range amphibious vehicle or do we need a very long range, way-over-the-horizon vehicle?  Are we doing traditional beachfront assaults or airborne, inland, maneuver warfare assaults? 

Cancelled EFV

The Marines tried to develop the EFV which is a short range beachfront assault vehicle despite the fact that both the Navy and Marines have stated that amphibious ships can’t survive within 50 miles of a defended beach due to the proliferation of shore launched anti-ship missiles.  In fact, for a decade or more, the Marines have embraced behind-the-lines, bypass-the-beach, maneuver warfare doctrine.  That being the case, why have they been fixated on the EFV?  Even now, with the cancellation of the EFV, they seem to be looking for yet another short range, slow, AAV-like replacement, suggesting a continued emphasis on short range beachfront assaults which is at odds with public statements regarding assault distances. 

On the other hand, the Navy is currently building a new class of amphibious ship (LHA-6) that doesn’t even have a well deck!  OK, so that means we’re going to be doing long range airborne assaults, right?  That’s fine except how do you transport M-1 Abrams tanks and all the other Marine combat vehicles and tons of gear and supplies by air?  The MV-22 can carry troops but not much more.  But wait a minute, didn’t the Navy just build an entire class of new LPD-17 class amphibious ships with well decks?  So, I guess we are doing beachfront assaults.

You see the problem?  I don’t think the Navy and Marines currently have a clear consensus on what type of assault operations they want to conduct in the future.  Of course, they could just opt to try and cover all possible scenarios but the cost of that would be staggering.

The Navy and Marines need to agree on how amphibious assaults will be conducted in the future and then start designing new connectors that complement that vision.

On a related note, here are some capacity/range figures for aerial connectors as cited in an NPS thesis (1).

5 ton external, 50 nm range
10 ton internal, 100 nm range

18 ton external, 215 nm range
15 ton internal, 230 nm range

(1) Naval Postgraduate School, Thesis:  Cost Benefit and Capability Analysis of Sea-Base Connectors, Justin Dowd, Sep 2009, p. 17-18

Monday, September 24, 2012

USS Ponce - Afloat Forward Staging Base

Navy Times has posted a short article (1) describing the initial deployment of the USS Ponce which is the amphibious ship that was converted into an afloat forward staging base.  Among other possible uses, the ship will provide mine countermeasures support, SOF support and command facilities, area surveillance via UAVs, mothership maintenance support to smaller vessels, and so forth.  This is still a somewhat experimental concept in terms of opertional concepts and usefulness but it is good to see the Navy get more use out of an older amphibious ship rather than retire it.

USS Ponce Recovering UAV

 The most interesting aspect of this is that the ship is largely crewed by civilians with roughly ¾ from the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the remaining ¼ from the Navy.  Given that the ship is intended to operate close to the action, that raises the likely possibility of combat operations by a civilian crewed ship.  MSC has operated supply ships for the Navy for a long time and I’m sure the legal aspects of potential combat have long since been dealt with, however, this is the most extreme example of a civilian crewed ship intended to be very near the action that I’m aware of.

I wonder how combat, damage control, command, and discipline are handled?  I know little about this aspect of the Navy but it’s a fascinating area.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Asymmetric Advantage

The general media has gone to great lengths to point out, correctly, that many of our potential enemies have or are pursuing asymmetric advantages.  Mines, small boat suicide attacks, small boat swarms, fast attack missile boats, intermediate range ballistic missiles, small and quiet non-nuclear subs, and so forth.  What isn’t discussed is the fact that the US possesses, or could develop, asymmetric advantages of our own. 

Our two biggest conventional advantages are technology and money (current budget problems notwithstanding!).  These can be leveraged into asymmetric advantages.  What kinds of asymmetric advantages?  Well, this is where the imagination can go wild.  For the sake of brevity, I’d like to nominate one particular area that few other countries or non-state actors can match and that would provide disproportionate advantages for us.

Underwater Glider UUV

In real estate it’s location, location, location.  In war it’s recon, recon, recon.  Where’s the enemy and what are they doing?  If you know that, the battle gets a whole lot easier.  Call it intel or surveillance or recon or whatever, the ability to monitor the enemy is a priceless advantage.  Of course, the Navy already has many systems for collecting intel:  submarines, satellites, electronic signal intercepts, and so on.  To a greater or lesser extent those systems all collect information from a distance or, in the case of subs, put themselves at risk to get up close.  Why not develop systems that can get extremely close and have little risk of detection?  Well, in fact, the Navy is working on just such systems in the form of unmanned vehicles, both aerial and subsurface.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are solidly into their development curve and offer well known and powerful surveillance capabilities as demonstrated over today’s battlefields.  They do have a few disadvantages or limitations such as being fairly detectable, if one wishes to look for them, they have relatively limited range and endurance, and they are susceptible to control signal disruption.  These issues are undoubtedly being addressed.

Let’s look a bit further at Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs).  By comparison to UAVs, UUVs are in their infancy.  The Navy and industry are currently developing a variety of UUVs and there is no point attempting to describe specific systems.  Conceptually, UUVs offer the potential to retain many of the advantages of UAVs while avoiding some of the limitations.

UUVs, by their very nature as underwater vehicles, are extremely difficult to detect.  Consider how hard it is to detect a full size submarine and how much harder it must be to detect something a fraction of that size.  Once deployed in their operating area, UUVs can provide very close range surveillance of ships, mines, subs, harbors, coastlines, water conditions, geography, etc. with little risk.

Various technologies are being explored which may allow UUVs to operate almost indefinitely, thereby overcoming one of the limitations of UAVs.  Solar power, wave regeneration, thermal recharge, ionic recharge, etc. are all methods that offer the possibility of extremely long endurance.  Consider the advantages inherent in a UUV that can loiter for days or months, undetected, and providing continuous monitoring of an area.

Undetectable and Long Endurance

As the imagination expands a bit, the possible uses for UUVs are almost limitless.  Imagine being able to attach small shaped charges to an enemy ship in its own harbor, or being able to have a small UUV attach itself like a limpet to a ship or submarine to provide continuous tracking, or, with some lead time, mapping out a minefield.  The possibilities are endless!

Of course, there are associated problems.  Underwater communications is challenging.  It does no good to collect information if it can’t be transmitted.  Remote underwater control is even more difficult, bordering on impossible over any significant distance.  UUVs would largely have to operate autonomously.  Still, as with UAVs, these problems can be solved over time.

UUVs offer a potential asymmetric advantage that is extremely powerful and well worth continued intense development.  Few other countries and no non-state groups can either utilize or counter this technology.  The Navy would do well to commit significant resources to developing this potential advantage.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Listen To Your Enemy

Listen to your enemy.  He’ll tell you what he fears most.

Let’s take the case of China.  The U.S. military is dithering over its overall force structure and the Navy seems totally lost as far as having a coherent vision of what the fleet should look like.  More LCSs?  Less?  Are carriers obsolete or still a potent weapon system?  Do we need more amphibious ships?  With or without well decks?  Anybody want a frigate?  Should we have small missile boats? 

In theory, we should be able to turn to our uniformed, professional naval strategists for guidance although that seems to be producing nothing but conflicting signals.  Fortunately, there is one other source of expert opinion on the Navy’s fleet composition and that is China.  Who better to tell us what our strengths and weaknesses are and what weapons and platforms threaten them the most?  But they’d never tell us that, you say?  Sure they will – if we listen closely.  In fact, they’ve been telling us all along.

China's Biggest Fear?

The Navy moves ships through Chinese “controlled” waters all the time.  Which ship movements do the Chinese protest the loudest about?  The carriers!  China has repeatedly warned the U.S. against deploying carriers in “Chinese waters”.  They don’t protest destroyers and they’re certainly not going to protest the LCS anytime soon.  The Chinese fear the U.S. aircraft carrier.

What else is China telling us?  In addition to verbal protests, the Chinese are telling us what platforms they see as valuable by their own building program.  Obviously, they’re trying to build platforms that they believe have the most value.  What are they trying to build?  Two ship types jump out.  One is the aircraft carrier.  They’re pushing hard to develop their own carrier capability.  That should tell us how they perceive the value of a carrier.  Odd, isn’t it, that at the very moment when we’re debating whether the carrier is obsolete, the Chinese are trying desperately to develop their own?  They’re telling us something if we’ll only listen.

The other ship type is the submarine which has been a point of emphasis by the Chinese for many years.  They’re rapidly increasing both the numbers and quality of their submarine fleet.  Interestingly, they have a significant non-nuclear submarine force although that may be more a cost and construction/operational expertise limitation than a long term plan.  On the other hand, maybe they see value in a submarine type that we don’t.

What else might the Chinese be telling us?  That intermediate range ballistic missiles are a potent threat?  That small missile boats that disperse striking power among multiple platforms are a difficult threat to counter?  That long range conventional bombers carrying long range anti-ship missiles constitute a significant anti-shipping threat?  That mine warfare produces results all out of proportion to their cost and technology?  That quantity matters more than quality?

Admittedly, some of the trends in Chinese military development may be due more to their own unique requirements than to a direct fear-based response to our capabilities but, still, if we listen closely and consider what we hear wisely, we can learn a lot about what our best platforms and weapons are, or should be. 

Your enemy will tell you what you want to know if you’re willing to listen.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Adm. Harvey's Mea Culpa

Adm. John Harvey is retiring and sent out a retirement letter to the fleet containing a warning for the future of the fleet.  The letter is both a scathing indictment of Navy leadership over the last few decades and a recognition of his own culpability.  Specifically, he addresses the change in focus by Navy leadership from readiness to cost efficiency and the resulting unintended consequences of sub-optimal manning, maintenance failures, INSURV failures, inability to effect repairs at sea, loss of technical competence throughout the fleet, loss of readiness, etc.  I’ll leave it to you to follow the link and read the letter for yourself.

This issue is one of the main reasons I started this blog.  I was disgusted by the incompetent leadership of the Navy and the way they were ruining my fleet.  Make no mistake, current leadership is every bit as incompetent as previous groups. 

While I commend Adm. Harvey for his belated recognition of the problem and applaud his current efforts, I am appalled at his complicity in the creation of this mess and I do not exonerate him one bit as a result of his mea culpa.  To be fair, he accepts the personal responsibility in his letter and apologizes for it.  Well, too little, too late, Admiral.  Where were you for the rest of your career?  You were part of the problem.

What really disgusts me is that this problem was not difficult to spot.  If I, a civilian with no naval experience, could clearly see the problem, why couldn’t Navy leadership, supposed experts in their chosen profession, see it?  That’s just total incompetence and speaks to the badly flawed criteria we use to select our naval leadership.

Sadly, despite Adm. Harvey’s hopeful belief that we’ve turned the corner, I just don’t see it.  Instead, I see continued failure to get serious about maintenance and training, on-going parts shortages, a budgetary focus on new construction rather than upgrades and maintenance of existing platforms, acceptance of sub-standard and incomplete ships, attempts to classify LCS, JHSV, and hospital ships as battle force ships so as to maintain the illusion of a growing fleet, and so on.  Work, Greenert, and the rest are continuing to lead the Navy down the wrong path and I will continue to point it out.  This blog is about naval matters and leadership is the single most important naval matter.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

BVR - Is It Useful?

Phoenix missiles, AMRAAM, Harpoon, Standard SM-x.  As examples, what do these various weapons have in common?  They’re all long range missiles capable of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) engagements.  What else do they have in common?  Few have ever been used in BVR engagements except in rigorously controlled situations.  Why?  Because the US military is so reluctant to risk friendly, neutral, or civilian casualties that Rules of Engagement and actual practice generally dictate visual identification (VID) of targets or a level of BVR target certainty that is almost impossible to achieve and which, therefore, defaults back to VID.  Ironic, isn’t it, that for all our long range radar, IFF, passive sensing, ESM, and so on, we ultimately depend on VID for weapons release?

Before we go any further, let’s set aside the question of the wisdom or value of the ROEs and VID requirements.  There are good arguments for and against these requirements and they go beyond mere military aspects to include public relations, ethics, politics, etc.  The requirements are what they are so we’ll simply accept them for the sake of this discussion.

AIM-54 Phoenix - Unusable?

The VID requirement is why Phoenix has never achieved a kill and, to the best of my knowledge, only been launched in anger on one occasion.  It’s why Iraqi planes were largely able to make a successful mass exodus during Desert Storm.  And so on … 

Failure to follow VID has led to a few infamous incidents, notably the Vincennes and the recent firing on an apparent fishing boat by a Navy replenishment ship.

Given that VID is a near-requirement, one can’t help but wonder about the value of BVR weapons.  If you can’t use them as intended, what’s the point of having them?  Now, I’m not suggesting that we stop development of BVR weapons.  Of course, we need them for the all out war situations where BVR will(?) be allowed.  The VID requirements do, however, greatly diminish the value of BVR and, in practice during peacetime or limited conflicts, almost totally negate the use of BVR.

For example, if we had our own version of an intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missile (the Chinese “carrier-killer”) would we even use it knowing that there would be a risk, however small, of inadvertently targeting civilian or neutral shipping?

What is my point?  Well, to an extent, I don’t have one.  I simply note the difficulty in applying BVR combat and the resulting diminishment of overall combat capability when VID is required.  Beyond that, I’d suggest that future enhancement of combat capability would benefit more from BVR target identification capabilities than continued development of ever longer range weapons that we won’t allow ourselves to use.  Just something to think about as we read and assess future weapon systems.

Monday, September 10, 2012

LCS - Conceptual Origin

The current issue of the Proceedings has an article about the origins of the LCS (1).  The article is nothing less than fascinating and incredibly damning for the Navy.  I urge you to find a copy of the magazine and read the article in its entirety. 

The author claims that the LCS concept was conceived as a result of a series of war games in the mid-1990s and that he was involved in, and conducted, the games and has intimate knowledge of the results as they pertain to the LCS.  I have no way of verifying these claims but neither do I have any reason to doubt them.  I also have no idea what agenda, if any, the author is pursuing.  I say this because there must be other, contrary viewpoints and perspectives about the early development of the LCS.  If not, it paints a picture of a Navy that is stupid beyond belief.  With that said, I'll take the article at face value and will comment accordingly. 

A Good Concept Gone Bad?

The article is stunning in its articulation of the extreme deviation between the conceptual LCS and the actual LCS that resulted.  I came away from my reading with an intense feeling that the conceptual LCS was almost spot-on as regards the requirements for a littoral combat vessel and that, had it been implemented, would have made an incredibly effective platform for littoral combat.  Further, the article states that many of the problems now being seen with the LCS were clearly identified and understood even at the earliest conceptual stage.

Here, then, are some specific comments and observations from the article.

  • A smaller, expendable ship was needed to avoid exposing the high end Aegis ships to unnecessary dangers, especially early in a conflict.
  • A mine hunter/eliminator ship was needed that could operate in a moderate threat environment and protect itself while conducting mine countermeasures (MCM).
  • LCS was envisioned as a multi-role vessel capable of surviving in a low to moderate threat environment on its own and in a high threat environment when operating under the Aegis umbrella. 
  • Speed was seen as desirable but not at the expense of a comprehensive combat suite.
  • Helos were recognized as important and possibly constituted the main battery of the ship.
  • Gun armament was needed in the 57 mm – 76 mm range along with a medium range (unspecified) air defense missile and medium range (again, unspecified) anti-ship missile.
  • The LCS was seen as providing a counter-battery fire capability, particularly as regards shore launched anti-ship missiles.  The ability to destroy the shore based launching platform before it could reload/refire or move was seen as a primary function.
  • The modular concept was considered but recognized to have severe problems that would preclude successful implementation.  Specifically, the infrastructure required to support modularity was seen as complex, expensive, and highly susceptible to enemy attack (in war games, attacks occurred at, or prior to, the outbreak of hostilities).  Module swap times were optimistically estimated at a few days (we now see that the required change-out time is on the order of a few weeks) but even this was seen as unacceptable to the local commanders.  In addition, single purpose, modularized ships were found to have no efficient mix of capabilities that would satisfy the ever changing, and rapidly changing, mission requirements.
  • It was noted that the LCS would have to operate in pairs in a high threat environment, even though under the Aegis umbrella.
  • Aluminum should not be used in construction.
  • Crew size should not be reduced to the point that maintenance, watchstanding, damage control, and other functions would be compromised.

The article summarizes the LCS preferences derived from the war games with the following statement.

“The operational commander preferred a single, multi-warfare-capable LCS, smaller than a modern destroyer or frigate, that had ASW, surface-warfare, and counterbattery capabilities as well as a forceful self-defense capability that made it reasonably survivable in moderate to high threat situations.  The area in which a highly specialized LCS seemed most justifiable was in mine countermeasures …”
I’m most struck by the concept of a littoral vessel providing suppression and counterbattery fire against shore based anti-ship missiles.  What a useful capability that would be in the Mid East!

The above descriptions of the conceptually desirable LCS have little in common with the vessel that actually was built.  The concept’s multi-function, survivable, shore-dueling, expendable ship would have made for a very effective and useful platform.  Instead, the Navy built a single purpose, non-survivable, minimally manned, underarmed vessel that, currently, has been deemed by the Navy’s Perez report to be unable to fulfill any of its core missions. 

How did the Navy move from a pretty good concept to the useless vessel it now has?  Who made the decision(s) to ignore the conclusions of the war games?  Unfortunately, the article does not discuss that portion of the LCS program history.  I’d love to know how the program veered so far off course and what the thought process was along the way. 

(1) United States Naval Institute Proceedings, “Birth of the Littoral Combat Ship”, Captain Robert Powers (Ret), Sep 2012, p.42

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naval Trends

Over the past several months we’ve covered a lot of information.  I think it would be useful, at this point, to identify the trends that we currently see in the Navy and, briefly, compare them to worldwide naval trends.

Throughout the world’s navies, we see the following trends. 

  • proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs
  • increasing dependence on the use of mines
  • increasing numbers of small patrol/missile boats
  • use of the frigate as the high end ship
  • increasing development of aircraft carriers
  • movement towards lower end, modular platforms

Now, bear in mind that some of these trends are due to factors, such as cost, that have no relation to naval requirements.  In other words, just because world navies are doing, or not doing, something doesn’t necessarily mean that the various countries think it’s the best or preferred thing to do – it may be that what they’re doing is all they can do given the limitations they’re operating under.  So, be very careful about jumping to the conclusion that because everyone else is doing something, it must be the smart thing to do.  Also, remember that America’s role in the world places different requirements on our Navy compared to any other.  Still, the trends are informative.

Now, what trends do we see in the US Navy? 

  • decreasing fleet size coupled with decreasing overall capability
  • movement away from specialized ships towards do-everything platforms
  • abandonment of the small patrol vessel
  • movement towards ever larger ships;  every class is physically bigger than the one before it
  • decreasing numbers of platforms in favor of increasing capability (contrast this with the first trend!)
  • proliferation of unmanned vehicles
  • decreasing numbers of aircraft carriers

Frigates - World Standard?

It’s interesting to compare the Navy’s willingness to build fewer of a given ship class or aircraft in favor of greater capability to the overall fleet trend of decreasing numbers and decreasing capability.  For instance, aircraft carriers are steadily decreasing in number yet increasing in capability.  SSNs are decreasing in number while increasing in capability (more Tomahawk launch capacity, more SOF support, more unmanned vehicle support, greater surveillance and communications).  The JSF buy will be less than the Hornet buy but will have greater capability (in theory!).  And so on …  Despite this trend, the overall capability of the fleet is decreasing.  This is due mainly to the LCS which has no serious combat capability and yet will make up a quarter of the fleet if the Navy follows through on its plans.

We also see a notable trend towards fewer but larger ships.  Aircraft carriers are getting larger (despite the air wings getting smaller!).  The Zumwalt destroyer is hugely bigger than the Burkes.  Each amphibious class is bigger than the one it replaced.  The Virginias are bigger than the Los Angeles.  Thus, the Navy’s combat capability is being steadily concentrated in fewer and fewer numbers of larger and larger platforms.  This is at odds with the world’s trend towards greater numbers of less capable vessels (Britain being a notable exception to the world trend).  The world is following the Hughes path of decentralizing combat power among larger numbers of less capable platforms.  Of course, this may well be a response to budgetary pressures more than a carefully considered operational and tactical movement!

The world is investing in mine warfare while the US Navy largely ignores both offensive mining and mine countermeasures.  Given that most of the damage done to Navy ships in modern times has been due to mines, it’s puzzling that the Navy would ignore the offensive use of mines for itself.  Combine that with the lack of mine countermeasure (MCM) capability and the Navy would seem to be unwisely missing out on an entire area of naval warfare that the rest of the world seems to understand and embrace.

Those countries in the world that have the resources are trying to increase, or develop, their carrier forces while the US is decreasing carrier numbers and debating whether the carrier even has a future.  That’s an interesting comparison.  China, India, France, Britain, Italy, and others would like more and bigger carriers if they could afford them while the US is debating whether we should even have carriers in the future!  Are the other countries striving to build a ship that has no future in modern combat or are we considering prematurely abandoning a hugely effective platform?

The world’s proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs is notably at odds with the Navy’s steadfast refusal to consider such vessels.  Of course, the Navy’s requirement for worldwide deployments certainly and understandably drives the nuclear requirement but there are many shallow water chokepoints of interest around the world (the Chinese A2/AD zone being a good example) where a cheap, non-nuclear sub would be quite effective.  Is the Navy demonstrating a blind spot on this subject or is the nuclear sub fleet adequate?  And, if it is adequate, is it cost effective compared to the use of non-nuclear subs deployed outside home waters?

One area of agreement between the Navy and the world is the trend towards modular platforms.  CNO Greenert has certainly made his desire to emphasize payloads over platforms quite clear.  The question is, is this a wise trend that maximizes capability, takes advantage of easy upgrades in response to future technical developments, and makes best use of limited budgets or is this a knee-jerk reaction to limited funds and an attempt to shoe-horn less capable payloads onto generic platforms that are not optimized for either the payload’s role or combat in general?

Many navies are moving towards the frigate as the high end ship of the fleet.  Clearly, this is a budget issue in large part.  Still, it’s interesting that the US has totally abandoned the frigate as a useful naval vessel.

I’ve attempted to point out various trends and raise questions.  You’ll note that I’ve not attempted to answer any of the questions.  Answers will come in future posts.  For the moment, consider the issues yourself and see what conclusions you come to.  Given its role and budget, is the Navy on the right path or are we straying from the proper course?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cyclone Class Tour

ComNavOps occasionally takes a day off from guiding the Navy to enjoy himself and today was such a day.  I had the great good fortune to take a tour of the Cyclone class ship the USS Hurricane, PC-3.  The crew, as has been the case on every ship I've ever toured, was simply marvelous - opening their ship to us, the public, answering the same basic questions over and over again, and genuinely happy to do it.  The crew's pride in their ship is quite obvious and a pleasure to experience.

Cyclone Class Patrol Vessel
 The Cyclones are an odd case in Navy history.  Like other classes of small ship built by the Navy, they've been shunted aside by "big" Navy despite seemingly being able to fill a need.  The Navy needs small patrol vessels capable of being the policeman on the corner.  The Philippines, various places in Africa, and the Mid East, among other locations, could all benefit from this type of small patrol ship.  These vessels also seem to be good special ops platforms for small, quiet insertions.  However, despite the apparent usefulness of these ships, the Navy has never embraced them and has tried repeatedly to give them to the Coast Guard and other countries.  Even when they were used by the Navy, it was with reluctance.  It seems a shame.

Mk38 Gun on Cyclone Class
 A follow-on class of this type of ship, possibly with somewhat beefed up weapons systems and special ops support, would seem a natural fit for today's Navy - patrol, interdiction, anti-piracy, boarding, show-the-flag, third world training, etc.  These ships cost $20M when built and even in today's hyper-inflated cost era should still be a bargain.

Come on Navy, think small!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Coyote - Supersonic Sea Skimming Target

Here’s another small piece of good news as reported by Defense Industry Daily.  The Navy has issued a $26M contract for seven production versions of the GQM-163 Coyote Supersonic Sea Skimming Target.  This is a supersonic target drone used to simulate the SS-N-22 Sunburn and other supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles.  The Navy has been under pressure for many years to come up with a capable drone that can realistically mimic the threats that are out there.

Coyote - Supersonic Drone

Coyote travels at Mach 2.5 and 20 ft above the surface and has a range of around 60 miles.  It can also perform supersonic popup and terminal dive maneuvers.  The missile is replacing the MQM-8 Vandal.

I've stated in previous posts that realistic training is sorely lacking in the Navy today despite being a potentially tremendous force multiplier.  This kind of target drone can be one element of the kind of realistic training so desperately needed.  Of course, it needs to be used properly and not simply served up as pre-determined, set-piece exercise that accomplishes nothing.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction.  Now, Navy, buy a bunch more!

Monday, September 3, 2012

SSBN(X) Costs

Continuing our weekend SSBN examination, let's look at the cost of the SSBN(X) program.  As you know, the Navy is planning to build 12 new SSBN(X) Trident ballistic missile submarines to replace the 14 Ohio class subs currently in service.  And what, you ask, is this program going to cost?

A lot!  So much so that, for starters, budget issues have pushed the procurement program two years further out than originally planned, to 2021, which will result in the SSBN fleet dropping to 10 or 11 subs during the period from 2029-2041.

The costs discussed below come from the recent CRS SSBN(X) report (1).

The Navy’s original cost estimate was $6-$7B per sub in 2010 dollars.  As a result of cost cutting (reduced capabilities, for example, reducing the number of missile tubes from 24 to 16 and reducing the tube size from a planned 97 inches diameter to accommodate future, larger missiles to 87 inches which is the current size), the Navy now estimates the cost of subs 2-12 to be $5.6B in 2010 dollars ($6.0B-2012) and has set a further cost reduction target of $4.9B-2010 ($5.3B-2012) cost per sub.  Of course, the accuracy of the Navy’s cost estimates has historically been understated by significant amounts. 

GAO estimates the total acquisition cost for the program to be $90.4B in 2012 dollars which is $7.5B per sub.  This figure includes $11.1B in Research & Development plus $79.3 of actual procurement costs.  Considering only the acquisition costs, the average cost is $6.6B-2012 per sub.

In FY2011, CBO estimated the average cost at $8.3B-2011 (includes R&D) with the lead ship costing $13.3B-2011.

To summarize, the average procurement costs (excludes R&D costs) per sub in 2012 dollars from the various sources is:

Navy    $5.3B
GAO    $6.6B
CBO    $7.3B   (approximate after ballpark adjustment for R&D)

We see that the Navy’s cost estimates are the most optimistic which is in line with their demonstrated inability to accurately estimate program costs.  Thus, it is far more likely that the GAO or CBO costs will turn out to be closer to reality.  An average procurement cost of $7B-2012 per sub with a total average procurement cost of around $9B-2012 per sub seems likely to me.

The impact of this program on the Navy’s shipbuilding plans will be huge.  The Navy is already struggling with trying to maintain fleet size at around 285 ships.  The current administration and Navy leadership have put forth ridiculous shipbuilding plans that call for increasing the fleet to 300+ ships, however, every objective analysis of the plan has pointed out that the current budget projections don’t even remotely allow for the plan to succeed.  Adding a 12 year period wherein half the $15B yearly shipbuilding budget will be consumed by the SSBN(X) program renders the 30 year fleet size plan utterly unachievable.

There have been suggestions, including from CNO Greenert, that the Department of Defense should pay for some of the program from other, non-Navy account lines.  Of course, this is simply moving money around on paper and doesn’t change the overall impact.  We’ll have to wait and see how this one plays out.

(1) Congressional Research Service, “Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O'Rourke, June 12, 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

SSBN(X) - Smaller Without Being Smaller

The Navy is in the process of developing a replacement for the Ohio class Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).  The next generation ballistic missile sub (SSBN[X]) is described in the recent CRS report (1) as containing 16 missile tubes versus 24 in the Ohio class.  The tubes will be the same dimensions.  The sub’s beam and displacement will be comparable to the Ohio’s.  So, although containing one third fewer missile tubes the SSBN(X) will be the same size as the Ohio.  Throw in presumably smaller, more efficient nuclear plants, greater levels of automation, and the likelihood of reduced (or eliminated – though that seems unlikely) torpedo spaces and one might be tempted to reasonably conclude that the resulting sub should be smaller than the Ohios.  Apparently, one would be wrong!

This seems totally illogical on the face of it and I don’t understand it.  I’ll keep looking into this.

(1) Congressional Research Service, “Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O'Rourke, April 5, 2012