Expendability is a time honored characteristic which impacts tactics. Commanders trade expendable units for mission accomplishments. In WWII, the naval commander was willing to trade F6F Hellcats for enemy units (in a favorable ratio, of course!) because he knew that he could replace the lost aircraft. The ability to spend units, wisely, imparts tactical freedom and flexibility. Conversely, the few fleet carriers available early in the war had to be carefully conserved and committed to battle only when circumstances offered the possibility of significant gain or the necessity to prevent significant loss.
In modern times, we’ve seen that the B-1 and B-2 bombers have been used only very sparingly and only in low threat environments while the B-52 continues to be a workhorse. It’s understandable because we can’t replace any lost B-1’s or B-2’s and they represent a huge investment. We can’t replace B-52’s, either, but they don’t represent much of an investment.
Expendability boils down to two closely linked characteristics: cost and producibility. A unit is expendable because it can be easily and readily replaced. A unit can be easily and readily replaced because it is cheap to build. Unfortunately, the Navy has lost sight of the value of expendability. Currently, the Navy has few, if any, units that could be considered expendable. Even our aircraft, at $150M or so each for the JSF, are no longer expendable.
I’ve touched on this before: excessive cost leads to excessive caution. No one wants to risk a major fleet unit in a minefield, restricted passage, or near-shore engagement. I’ve read multiple reports on Navy wargames and they are strikingly similar in one respect: no commander will risk his major units. This was one of the main driving forces for the original LCS concept. Wargames demonstrated that an expendable vessel was required for the clearing operations and near-shore operations that the wargamers refused to allocate to more expensive units. Hence, the birth of the LCS. Unfortunately, along the way, the LCS became far too expensive to be expendable and its value, in that respect, was lost.
The Navy’s current unwillingness to conduct amphibious landings from a near-shore (inside 25-50 miles) position is a reflection of the risk-averse attitude derived from the excessive cost of the units involved. By contrast, in WWII the Navy routinely operated destroyers a thousand or so yards offshore during amphibious landings. They were willing to accept the risk of counterfire because the destroyer was expendable – we could always get more.
Consider the Navy’s primary surface ASW platform, the Burke DDG. Does anyone really think the Navy will risk sending multi-billion dollar Aegis ships, the backbone of the fleet, to conduct incredibly risky ASW warfare against non-nuclear diesel subs? It’s even unlikely that Burkes would be committed against nuclear subs other than in the course of escorting carrier or amphibious groups. If that’s the case, one has to wonder about the usefulness of placing ASW capabilities on Burkes – but that’s a topic for another time.
When one considers the small size of the fleet relative to the requirements imposed by a major war (China) combined with the total inability to replace losses (reserve fleet of only seven ships and new construction times of several years) the Navy’s risk aversion not only is understandable, it’s inevitable. The tactical boldness of WWII, fortified by the expendable nature of most of the ships of that time, will probably not be seen again in modern naval combat unless cost trends can be reversed.
The point is that not only is the fleet slowly pricing itself out of existence, as we’ve discussed previously, it’s also pricing itself out of usefulness. What good is a fleet that the commanders are unwilling to commit to combat out of fear of losses?