Previous posts have addressed the declining fleet size, increasing complexity of individual ships, the movement away from single purpose ships, and escalating shipbuilding costs. Setting aside the wisdom of these trends, the trend, itself, is clear. We’re moving towards a much smaller Navy consisting of far fewer ships that are much larger and hugely multi-mission. We’re moving towards the Battlestar Galactica.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the reference, the Battlestar Galactica was a naval spaceship in a science fiction television series. The ship was a combination of aircraft carrier, battleship, and amphibious assault ship. It was insanely huge, massively armored against even nuclear weapons, and, in a possible nod to realism, existed in very few numbers.
The Navy is heading in that direction. We’re building fewer ships with each succeeding class generally being physically larger than the preceeding one and we’re pushing hard to make each ship unlimitedly multi-functional.
Consider aircraft carriers. They’re getting bigger (although the airwings are shrinking!) and acquiring new capabilities. The Ford’s radar system is a dual band (X-band SPY-3 and S-band volume search) system despite the need to only control ESSM missiles. The Ford appears to have power and provision built in for laser and/or rail gun systems. Carriers have operated with Army aviation groups and proposals have been made to base up to Company size Marine units aboard. The carrier of the not too distant future may well have a significant gun/laser capability, aviation, and Marine assault capability – not too far from the Galactica!
Consider the new
class LHA. They appear to be an attempt to combine a medium capacity aircraft carrier with an amphibious assault. America
How about the Zumwalt? It’s a very large ship that currently combines naval gun support, deep strike (Tomahawk), and ASW and was intended for littoral warfare. Given its size, it’s not hard to imagine adding Marine assault capability, mine warfare, and enhanced aviation in the form of larger hangars and flight deck.
Contrast our current and near future ships with WWII ships. They were generally fairly single function and much smaller. OK, that’s readily apparent but does that mean that the current trend towards the Galactica is a problem? Not necessarily. Muti-function ships are intuitively appealing for a variety of obvious reasons. The main drawbacks are the death spiral that they define (bigger means more expensive so we can’t afford as many so we make them bigger which means even more expensive which means still fewer ...), the accumulation of risk in a single platform, the reduced numbers of ships at a time when the Navy is being asked to be in more places at once, and the risk aversion that naturally accompanies hugely expensive ships (are we really going to risk a $4B Zumwalt in an ASW duel with an SSK?).
So, while there is nothing inherently wrong with a large, multi-function ship considered in isolation, the movement of the entire fleet towards the Galactica model is a trend that needs to be reconsidered.