Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tarawa, LHA-1 - Additional Service?

We saw in the last post that the Tarawa (LHA-1) class amphibious ships were retired early at just 30 years of service and with no real justification.  All right, let’s set that aspect aside.  Given that the class was retired, the next logical question is could any further worthwhile use have been gotten from the class even in another role?  Well, here’s a few possibilities.

LCS Mothership.  The LCS is going to be operated in squadrons (maybe – the Navy still isn’t sure what it’s going to do with the LCS!) which, given the concept of off-board maintenance for the LCS, just cries out for a mothership as the anchor for a group of ships.  The Tarawa mothership can provide the centralized, off-board maintenance support the LCS’s need, as well as providing refueling, rearming, reprovisioning, centralized command and control, and additional aviation support that would enhance the effectiveness of the LCS’s.  With no embarked Marines to support, the Tarawa should be able to operate with greatly reduced crews.

ASW/MCM Mothership.  The main platform in both ASW and MCM appears to be helos, at least until the magic remote unmanned vehicles pan out, and what better vessel to host helos than a former amphibious ship.

Littoral Combat Ship.  What are the attributes that the Navy claims make for an effective littoral combat ship?  They include extensive helo support and large flight decks, the ability to launch and recover remote unmanned vehicles, and sufficient weaponry to fight small boat swarms.  The Navy also claims that stealth and speed are necessary but the speed requirement has already been pretty well debunked and stealth is a debatable characteristic, at least for the ASW and MCM missions.  The Tarawas have the requisite characteristics in spades, other than stealth.  A single Tarawa operating a couple of dozen helos and with the capacity to launch and control dozens of remote, unmanned vehicles would be many times more effective than even a squadron of LCS’s.  Additional guns could be added to deal with small craft in the ASuW role.

Afloat Forward Staging Base.  This has already been done, just not with a Tarawa.  If AFSBs are a useful asset, the Tarawas are ready made and already paid for.  They simply need a relatively minor conversion.  Again, the crew requirements ought to be greatly reduced.

I can go on but you get the idea.  I leave it to you to come up with other uses.  You’ll note that these conversions would generally require only modest upgrades or conversions and would result in reduced crew sizes.

Normally, I would end the post at this point but I’m going to go a step further.  The post discussions have been disappointing of late.  People are fixating on trivial, ancillary details rather than the larger themes presented in the posts.  I’m going to attempt to improve the quality of discussion by explicitly pointing out what the larger themes are and challenge you to think and dig a bit deeper.

I have no problem with someone offering an amplifying thought about one of the uses I’ve proposed but that’s not really the point of the post.  The main theme is the Navy’s tendency to retire usable ships early without giving any consideration to alternate uses even if the ship is no longer suitable for its original purpose.  Combine this with the budget challenges facing the Navy and the dwindling size of the fleet and the overarching question is why can’t the Navy extract additional useful service out of older ships, ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING THAT THEY’RE ALREADY PAID FOR?  How do we justify the policy of early retirement of ship classes that can still provide useful service?  How does the Navy reconcile their stated desire for a larger fleet with their demonstrated policy of early retirements coupled with, generally, numerically smaller replacement classes?

26 comments:

  1. I would say use the Tarawa's as Motherships for the LCS. Use them as forward staging bases for special ops. Even use the Tarawa's as HA/DAR ship.

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    1. Tarawa's as HA/DR is a valid alternative use, however, the Navy's reason for existence is warfighting. Everything it does should be run through the filter of "How does this enhance warfighting?". The Navy claims that HA/DR is a core mission. How do you reconcile HA/DR with warfighting?

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    2. HA/DR can be a soft power mission by winning the hearts and minds of people. It's a soft power and not a hard power.

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    3. That's an appealing notion, however, can you think of a single example in history where HA/DR has prevented future conflict? The problem with HA/DR from a conflict prevention point of view is that it is, by definition, a one-time event and hearts and minds needs to be a long term, consistent, on-going effort. Even then, there's no evidence that kind of thing has ever worked. Further, HA/DR tends to be applied to people/nations who are already friendly towards us.

      The notion is appealing but the facts and the logic don't support it. If we want to do HA/DR, it should be from another organization than the military. Having the military perform HA/DR is racking up precious hours on aircraft, extending already overly long deployments, and taking away from training time. Plus, sending an amphibious group to do HA/DR is like sending an Army division to arrest a jay-walker. They can do it but it's terribly inefficient.

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  2. I would like to see them transformed like what was done to USS Ponce. Why not use 4 of them for experimentation, development of new tactics, new usages and retire the oldest 3 and use them for parts to support the newest 4? USN would have 4 decent size hulls that you could transform for new applications, new roles, use them as test beds for ASW, SEALS/SFs, joint ops with Army Apaches, maybe put some kind of heavy guns on one to support Marines/Army, what about one transformed for humanitarian or disaster relief?etc...I agree with ComNavOps that it feels like we are getting rid of some hulls that still have some life in then, maybe not full on regular deployment but still could be used for less demanding roles or like I said, experimentation.

    http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/uss-ponce-afsbi-15-afloat-forward-staging-base-interim/

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  3. I made a similar proposal in the past, only on a much grander scale. My proposal would use the surviving LHAs not only as tenders (ADs) for the Littoral Combat Ships, Mine warfare groups (MCM and MH-53s), and HA/DR ships, but would also serve as Fleet flag ships (LCC), hospital ship (AH) and floating runway (ACV). Still this conversion would be costly, not as expensive as bring the LHA up to modern amph. requirements, but still costly.

    That cost this is why the Navy did not chose to SLEP the LHAs, The money it spent to get a few more years out of the LHA would be better spent on building new LHAs. That because not only will they get more ship years for the dollar by build new vessels, they get ships that were design to handle modern equipment, which the old LHAs definitely were not able to handle.

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    1. GLof, do you have actual data and sources for the costs?

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    2. The other cost/benefit reason why the Tarawa's would never be SLEP-ed and reconfigured is that the Navy is determined to eliminate steam propulsion to the maximum extent it possibly can in its conventionally powered ships.

      The easiest and most cost effective way to do that is to build new ships when the old steam powered ones reach the end of their normal service lives.

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    3. Scott, your point about propulsion is valid. However, the technology cycle never ends. When the new gas turbine or hybrid ships are built, along will come another new technology and someone will again make the argument that the easiest way to get the technology into the fleet is to early retire (or at least not extend the use) the current, now "obsolete" ships. If the replacements were occuring on a one-for-one basis it would be bad enough but we're generally building fewer replacements in each cycle (the rationale being that the new cycle will be so much more capable and powerful which ignores that that path will lead to an eventual fleet size of one). So, while your point is valid, the pattern leads to ever smaller fleet sizes.

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  4. I think that misses the point though to focus on a SLEP or some high end refurbishment. If you want to keep them as front line units, a full blown SLEP is probably a waste of money but some of these other tasks aren't high end intensive, you just need a cheap platform, you don't need 40 knots full speed or the latest F35B capability. USN would want a platform it could keep in some sort of reduced status to bring up quickly to action for a low intensity deployment or some natural disaster.

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    1. NICO, you make an excellent point. The US has abandoned the concept of a reserve fleet. We have none. If a high intensity war comes along we'll shortly find ourselves short on ships and some reserve Tarawas (or reserve anything, for that matter!) would come in very handy.

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  5. The interesting part of the discussion of alternative missions is that the alternative missions are enabled by the size and capacity that is inherent in a mini-carrier. This seems to jive with a recent article about "successful" ship classes and the characteristics that make a ship class "successful" - in most cases, it was size to allow for future growth. A ship with a large, open deck, and a large hanger and large water interface (the well deck) would seem to be ideal for modular mission packages. For any of the suggested missions, additional capabilities could be installed through ISO containers that would be available for any of the ships in the class. This may seem similar to the LCS concept that is falling on its face, but the difference is the amount of available space that would help limit the need for specialized mechanical interfaces.

    You just wonder how much these ships suffered during the maintenance decline of the previous decade, and if that had an impact on the decision to retire the hulls. Because even while we can all agree that an upgrade is cheaper than a new buy, the new buy should have a full 30-40 year life in the hull while the upgrade life span may be limited.

    - InterestedParty

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    1. You bring up multiple good points. I've seen the size/success theory before and it's interesting, perhaps even intuitively appealing. Whether it's true depends on too many variables (starting with the definition of success) to be able to draw a definitive conclusion. If true, though, every ship should have an unused space allowance built in from the start. On the other hand, such an approach incurs additional construction and operating costs. Regardless, that's a great observation to tie into this discussion.

      As noted, the main LCS characteristics of a large flight deck, hangar, and "water interface", as you term it, are exactly the characteristics the Tarawas have in abundance. You make a great point about the apparent similarity between the LCS and a modular Tarawa and the fact that the LCS is, so far, a failure. Do you really think it's just the additional space that would allow the Tarawa to be a success at the same concept as the LCS or are there other, more important, factors?

      Finally, you make an astute observation about the possible impact of the Navy's systematic maintenance shortcomings on the lifespan of the Tarawas. Unfortunately, I'm unaware of any evidence one way or the other concerning the Tarawa's maintenance status. If on-board machinery is in poor shape, it can be replaced. However, if the hull is no longer seaworthy then my entire premise is void.

      Good comment!

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    2. It seems that "success" was typically defined as longevity as a front-line asset, and the successful platforms were larger platforms that provided operational flexibility as well as upgrade flexibility. The fleet class submarine from WWII is usually cited in these discussions.

      Anyway, I believe the size is a factor. It provides the design and concept margin that a smaller platform like LCS might lack. What if the gee whiz small sized concept doesn't pan out? Or you find that you need some additional equipment to effectively complete the mission? A platform size to be just big enough wouldn't provide that flexibility. Its a risk mitigator...might cost a bit more upfront, but that additional expense is likely to be less than scrapping an entire class because it didn't meet the need.

      And switching topics again...I don't have any information one or another on the maintenance state of the Tarawas. But no reason to think that they are in much better shape than some of the platforms we have heard about, and likely to be in worse shape since a well deck is a maintenance nightmare with the corrosion.

      - InterestedParty

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    3. IP, the LCS is interesting in that it was designed with extra space for future increased module needs. So, relative to it's size and current function it was built oversize. Now, the flip side of that is that it was intended to cost only $200M so if down the road it didn't have sufficient size for a new weapon (or whatever) we'd just retire it and build a new one. For $200M, who would care? Nice idea except that the costs blew up and the ship is no longer in the throwaway category.

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  6. The problem with Tarawa's is that they don't look cool. I mean, check out that trimaran LCS - it looks kind of like an Y-Wing fighter from Star Wars. Now that's what the Navy really needs.

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  7. I've long thought that the amphibious ships with their large flight decks, hangar, and well decks offer far too much capability and flexibility to simply discard when the next generation of ship is ready. We should systematically operate the ships in the front line roles they're intended for and then retain them for a second career as support ships of various types (motherships, AFSB, MLP, etc.). The lesser roles would require relatively modest conversions. Perhaps it would even be possible to design some of that second career flexibility into the ships from the start.

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    1. The idea of a "second life" planned into a hull would be an interesting series of posts. What missions could best be described as "low intensity" or "low end" that could be targeted for platform re-use? What platforms best lend themselves to a "second life" as a low-end platform? How would you design in the "second life", or is it better described as an upgrade strategy (ie, don't invest in the latest expensive AEGIS upgrades for DDGs but refocus the platform on ASW or land attack)? How does the department create a shipbuilding and upgrade plan that takes advantage of the upfront planning?

      Like I said, could be a month's worth of postings...

      - InterestedParty

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    2. IP, you're correct that exploration of the second-life concept would be fascinating. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the requirements to even offer intelligent speculation. For example, the USS Ponce LPD-15 was converted to an AFSB after her primary service. I don't know what the conversion entailed. I've never seen a detailed listing so I don't know what, if anything, could have been designed in from the start that would have proved useful later.

      A good idea that I just don't have the information to follow up on!

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  8. Hi ComNavOps!
    Like the idea of 'thinking big'. I think it should start with defining the defence strategy and working down from there. Looking at individual examples i.e China, the middle East etc and working out a 'back of the envelope' diplomatic, economic and military response. From this position you have a more informed idea of the tactics and equipment needed for the branches of the armed forces and how they will work together and with partner nations.
    Once you have an outline of the above factors you are in a better position to define what your navy needs to look like and the capabilities it needs to have.
    p.s. first time i've posted here. I hope I made some sense.

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    1. Welcome, Dave P. You have the acquisition process down exactly right. Sadly, our national leaders seem incapable of grasping that concept.

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  9. The last time US military "reused" something was when USN took old SSBN Ohio's and turned them into SSGNs. I am sure the nuclear subs were still in great condition which might not be the case of the Tarawa's but apart from that "recent" example, I can't think of any recent attempt to reuse or re-role old gear. I can't remember other older examples but my gut feeling would be that during WW2 and afterwards, probably till the 60s? the US had no problem re-using front line gear in a new role, now I think that habit has gone away...we just buy new and throw away the old stuff without a second thought.

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    1. NICO, you bring up a good example with the SSGNs. I'm hard pressed to come up with additional recent examples but after WWII we used the Essex carriers in modernized roles and eventually as helicopter carriers, ASW carriers, and other second line roles for many years. WWII destroyers were FRAM'ed from their original roles into ASW vessels. LSTs served for about a thousand years after WWII and I think I've read that some are still serving with other countries. I wonder what their design service life was? The point is that, at one time, the Navy routinely squeezed secondary life out of ships. Now, not only has the habit gone away, as you suggest, but the opposite is occuring - we're retiring ship classes early.

      You also indirectly bring up another point. You suggest that the Tarawas might not be in good condition. You're not alone. Most people seem to have bought into the notion that the Tarawas must be too worn out to continue serving. Why do "we" believe that? There's been no documentation issue to support that and yet "we" believe it. I think it's because we'd like to believe that the Navy is acting in the country's best interests and that they wouldn't throw away perfectly good ships for political or budget manipulation reasons. Sadly, the Navy's history over the last few decades demonstrates that the Navy is not acting in our best interests. Consider the Spruance class which was SinkEx'ed to eliminate the possibility of competition with the fledgling Aegis program. Consider the Perrys which were neutered and discarded to eliminate the possibility of competition with the LCS. I've said it a hundred times and I'll say it a hundred more - Navy leadership is obsessed with new construction to the detriment of fleet size, training, readiness, manning, and everything else. I see the phenomenon but I don't understand it.

      History demonstrates that ships have always been able to serve well beyond their designed lifespans, even if in secondary roles. Now, though, the Navy would have us believe that ships are no longer capable of staying afloat one day past their design life. The Navy's credibility on this matter is strained by the example of the Perrys - we were told that they couldn't be upgraded and could no longer serve and yet they continue to serve with many countries around the world. Despite the evidence, "we" don't even question the Navy's assertion that the Tarawas cannot continue to serve. Either we've begun building ships a whole lot weaker than before or the Navy is, to put it politely, "misleading" us. What do you think?

      Good comment.

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  10. I wonder how much the end of the Cold War, the war on "terror" which isn't one and the fact that our military is even scared to mention China as a threat adds to this problem. If the Soviet Union was still around, would we be getting rid of the Tarawa's? Probably not, at best they would be used as ASW escorts for convoys ( who the hell worries about ASW/escorting today?!?) maybe anti mining work or at least put into some kind of storage in case the cold war went hot. These days, no one wants to use second hand stuff, including US military.

    It actually might even be easier for USN to ask for money for new multipurpose ships than getting money for refurbishment, not sure how much the big contractors would want that work, they want to produce new builds. Does the US even still have the ship yards to do this kind of work?

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  11. My vote is to use the LHAs as MCM motherships as MCM is the most under supported mission in the fleet.

    GAB

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    1. GAB, I'm not sure the Navy is guided by the exercise of democracy on this blog but, for what it's worth, I agree with your vote!

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