Friday, August 29, 2014

Green Water Combatant

Recent posts and discussions about Hughes small combatants and The New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) have inspired a lot of conversation about so-called green water combatants.  These are small ships of a few to several hundred tons, depending on the particular version under consideration, and generally heavily armed, for their size, with missiles and guns.  Unit costs are typically estimated as being very low, perhaps unrealistically so. 

Now, before anyone starts typing out a reply purporting to show that Elbonia can build supercarriers for $19.95 or whatever your favorite example of a small combatant and the associated country is, remember that trying to obtain true cost numbers for US ships is virtually impossible and trying to compare costs between countries is pointless for a host of reasons.  Further, it doesn’t matter what Elbonia can build ships for – it only matters what the US can and the US Navy has not demonstrated the ability to build anything cheaply.

Moving on …  The NNFM document offers this general description of small, green water combatants.

Coastal combatants are heavily armed, but small enough to accept affordable losses. They should operate in tactical formations of two, four, eight, or twelve vessels. They carry no surveillance aircraft, so depend on CVLs or shore-based reconnaissance. They have small crews in combat and when put out of action the crew is expected to abandon, rather than try to save, the ship, and to be rescued by other vessels. They might team with friendly forces in constricted waters where the large blue water ships should not be put at risk, for example, operating from Turkey or Romania in the Black Sea, from Sweden or Denmark in the Baltic, from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait in the Arabian Gulf, from the west coast of South Korea in the Yellow Sea, or Colombia or Panama in the Caribbean.

They can serve as an advance force to screen blue water ships conducting amphibious operations, or protecting MSC (Military Sealift Command) or MARAD ships delivering men and materials that might be attacked while entering a friendly port.”

Well, that’s a pretty decent description of the kinds of uses proponents envision for them.  The problem is that most discussion of green water combat is conceptual and fails to incorporate any realistic assessment of threats.  By that I mean that the discussion describes the theoretical abilities of the ship without questioning whether there is any likelihood that those capabilities would actually be needed.  For instance, stationing ships in the waters of Sweden or Denmark or Colombia  or Panama or Philippines or wherever glosses over the fact that it is highly unlikely that any combat would there that would be appropriate for such a vessel. 

Consider the likely near term (because the vessel’s would have relatively short life spans) scenarios.

Iran is a likely point of conflict but the waters off Iran would see high end combat with massed missiles and aircraft on both sides.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

N. Korea is a likely point of conflict but there would be little need for green water combat.  N. Korea has no significant green water fleet that would need to be dealt with and the US would have massed carrier groups and submarines on site anyway.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

China is a possible point of conflict but China’s goals for the near term would be focused on Taiwan.  Seizure of the first chain islands would be an unlikely afterthought.  The US, if it responded, would mass carrier groups and submarines.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

Africa offers points of conflict but the conflict would be land based against terrorist groups.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

Consider escort duties - supposedly another likely scenario.  Under what circumstance would ships need escort but only from a low level threat?  High level threats would necessitate high level escorts.  The escort scenario devolves into an anti-piracy type of role which any vessel with a machine gun can do.  It wouldn’t require a specialized green water combatant.

The NNFM suggested the need for host country basing for the green water fleet.  OK, that’s reasonable but what friendly country (friendly enough to grant us basing rights) is likely to be attacked by a low level threat that would justify stationing green water combatants there?

In short, the likely conflicts and proposed uses do not offer a reasonable real world green water combat scenario.

Now, this does not say that there would be absolutely no use for a small number of green water vessels but they would be used in peacetime patrol roles and certainly would not justify shifting the emphasis of the US Navy to a green water focus as the NNFM suggests.  I find the NNFM’s green water emphasis to be conceptually and generically valid but devoid of demonstrable real world need.

If you want to debate this with me (and you know you do!), tell me what real world location you’d send green water combatants to and what real world threat they would be countering.  Hey, I’m open to the concept if it serves a real purpose.  If you think you have one, tell me.  I’ll acknowledge it if it’s valid.


  1. NNFM might work if based in the SEA to protect SLOC. Also to show the flag around the region and reduce Chinese footprint as it has large influence in Thailand and Cambodia.

    Maybe arm it with a 76mm DP gun and some harpoon along with SeaRAM. It needs some mine laying/ mine sweeping capability though...

  2. CNO,

    All of the scenarios you described WOULD be so-called "green water" scenarios. They would occur largely in coastal waters. (e.g. Persian Gulf, Straight of Hormuz, Black Sea, Baltic Sea, Straight of Taiwan, coasts of North Korea, even the South China Sea) Most of these areas are characterized by their relatively tight and shallow confines (compared to the open ocean), large amounts of traffic, and the ability of the opposing nation to project combat power from land throughout the area. Reaction times to enemy attacks may be measured in seconds.

    The Iranian, North Korean and Chinese navies have invested heavily in small- to mid-sized combatants (aka "green water navies") aimed at compounding our targeting problems, and would undoubtedly use civilian vessels for surveillance, mining, moving troops and illicit materials, and so on.

    Do we really want to risk sending Burkes into these environment? If not Burkes then what? LCS?

    Or do we just declare them no-go zones and give up our ability to influence events with surface vessels?

    Estimating the price of military hardware is always difficult. The latest round of LCSs are around $475 million for the seaframe. If you do a cost-per-thousand-ton comparison, a 500 ton vessel should be around $95 million.

    The ~$70 million USCG Sentinel class cutter is a 353 ton vessel. It could form the basis for the small combatant.

    We built the Cyclone class PCs for around $26 million back in the early '90s. They would be $46 million today, adjusted for inflation.

    Or we could look to the recently US-built Ambassador class FAC for Egypt. The last one built cost an estimated $240 million. Clearly this is on the high end, but is probably closest to what Hughes & Co. want. A large, serial production could drop the price down well below $200 million.

    My "ideal" vessel for this mission would be the Danish Flyvefisken class. They are in the same size range as the Sentinels, but are built with the modular StanFlex system.

    These vessels would not be tasked with AAW escort missions. They would perform the more traditional small combatant ASuW screen function. The original destroyers were designed to screen larger ships from torpedo boats. This missile corvette could do the same.

    1. B.Smitty, I fear you've missed the point of the post. - As an aside, I don't care what the combat is called; call it green water, blue, red, pink, or littoral - The point of the post was that if we engage in combat greater than "policing" it will be because we're at war, whether declared or not, and then we'll bring in air power, carrier groups, and whatever else is needed. We won't need or want to engage in small boat on small boat actions. Air power would probably be the method of choice.

      Consider your example of N. Korea. We won't send small boats in to go against small boats. First, they aren't much of a threat and second, we'd send air power to destroy them at our leisure with no risk to any small vessel or crew.

      The point of the post is that there is no reasonably foreseeable scenario where small boat combat is a preferred course of action for the US. If you can think of a specific scenario, share it with me! There may be one that I haven't thought of.

    2. Policing and presence can quickly turn into open warfare. There probably will be a lag between when hostilities start and when aircraft begin to arrive. It takes time to move carriers into position, to load aircraft with ordinance, to launch ASuW packages, etc..

      Clearly, we would much rather kill boats with bombs than with other boats. But we don't always get that option. We may not be able to generate enough sorties to kill all of the boats. There may be leakers. Some may sneak through. We may have to inspect "civilian" ships in the middle of the combat zone. And yes, the aircraft may have to fight through an OCA battle first. All that time, surface forces may have to deal with enemy surface elements.

      I see these missile combatants somewhat differently from Hughes & Co.. I see them as "muscular" patrol vessels that are harder to harass or push around. They are USS Maddox, not the USS Pueblo or USNS Impeccable. If the enemy decides to start shooting, the ships themselves can respond.

    3. B.Smitty, you're describing the initiation of unexpected hostilities. In that case, the assets caught on scene do the best they can but their goal is to leave and let the higher power combat assets take over. We don't care if some green water vessel is sunk. That was one of the assumptions implicit in the NNFM concept.

      Leakers?! How many small boats do you think any potential enemy has that would constitute a threat? Not enough sorties? A carrier has 40+ strike aircraft (setting aside armed helos and Burkes with Harpoons/Standards), each of which can engage multiple targets and the carrier can generate multiple sorties per day per aircraft. Sure, if an enemy sends 200 small combatants simultaneously at one carrier we could have a problem, I guess.

      Again, this is not a plausible green water combatant scenario. If the enemy has green water combatants that pose a threat they would be dealt with using air power.

      I'll repeat, green water combat is a concept that people love to talk about but I have yet to see a scenario which is realistic.

    4. What assets do you want to be "caught on scene"? A Burke? A Tico? An LCS? We don't really have any green water vessels. The LCS is as close as it comes, but at $500 million a pop, they aren't expendable and we'll never have enough of them. IMHO we need something numerous that can be a "combative" patrol ship.

      Yes, leakers. Read up on the composition of the Iranian and North Korean navies. In congested waters, so-called green water combatants can look a lot like fishing boats or other traffic from the air, if we even detect them at all.

    5. B.Smitty, we're discussing hypothetical green water combatants along the lines of the NNFM . I don't want any assets to be caught on scene but if it has to happen, the smaller the better, of course. I repeat, the job of a green water combatant isn't to stand and fight the next Korean war, it's to patrol during peace and leave when a fight comes (why would we be patrolling around Korea with green water ships during peacetime?).

      C'mon, now. If we park a carrier group a mile off shore then, yes, we may have problems with leakers hidden among civilian boats. However, a carrier would operate a hundred miles off shore. What N. Korean navy assets are going to pose a threat to a carrier a hundred miles off shore? They won't know where the carrier is and if they did they would either have to leave the crowded civilian waters to approach and attack or, if they had long range missiles, that's what we have Ticos for. If missile boats choose to hide in civilian boat traffic then we sink everything. That's what real war is and that goes back to my oft-repeated point about having forgotten what real war is.

      Look at this from a realistic operational point of view and there just is no scenario where a green water combatant, ala NNFM, is useful. Green water combatants are only relevant when we get into theoretical discussions that have no real world application.

      Who would we fight in an all out war that would allow us to operate green water ships in their waters without casually destroying them with their own airpower. Well, we'd protect them with our own airpower and larger ships, you say? Then what's the point? Why not just remove them and strike the enemy's small ships with air power or Harpoon/Standards if we have to have higher end assets in place anyway.

      Give me a realistic scenario where some commander says, "We need green water combatants because my carriers, Air Force, Burkes, subs, etc. just can't do the job?" Maybe there's a scenario but I have yet to hear it.

    6. Carrier Strike Groups? No. Hopefully not. But we have operated SAGs, amphibious ships and convoys through congested waters. We may not have a choice in the matter.

      Look back to Operations Prime Chance, Earnest Will and Praying Mantis. All would've been useful to have a green water combatant.

      Look at the Sri Lankan civil war fighting the LTTE and Sea Tigers. They benefited from having green (and brown) water combatants.

      Look back to Operation Market Time, another good scenario for green water combatants.

      With the exception of Praying Mantis, all of these benefit more from just having shear numbers of patrol vessels, than, specifically, missile-armed Streetfighters.

      We may have forgotten what "real war" is, but this isn't likely to change short of WWIII. We won't be sinking random fishing boats without probable cause.

      If you add a wrinkle and develop missiles that can attack land targets too (NSM, LRASM, potentially an ASuW Tomahawk), then your missile squadron also has strike capabilities. Tomahawk is much smaller than the P-15 Termits carried by the very numerous, 36m Osa class. Arsenal Swarm?

      Why would we be patrolling around North Korean waters? Maybe to protect South Korean waters against incursion by North Korean special forces? Maybe to show our resolve in the face of heightened tensions? This is how we respond to crisis. I'd rather do this type of thing with $100 million patrol combatants than a $2 billion Burkes.

    7. B.Smitty, again you're discussing theoretical scenarios and my contention is that there is no reasonably foreseeable real world scenario that justifies green water combatants.

      You say we've operated SAGs and amphibious groups in congested waters. Fine, what real world location will be operating such groups in congested waters without high end air and surface support? Green water combatants could not do the job themselves and would offer nothing of value - they might, in fact, hinder the job by needing protection, themselves.

      Pick another example - Praying Mantis, say. We had plenty of air power. Green water combatants would have added nothing.

      And so on.

      We won't sink fishing boats without probable cause???? I consider an enemy that hides in fishing traffic to be probable cause. If we're not willing to sink everything in sight than we have to seriously evaluate our rationale for being there, instead of jumping into every police action that comes along.

      Patrolling in NK waters? Again, you missed the point of the post. Patrolling in NK waters (setting aside that I can come up with no specific reason why we would - SK has a navy; why would we patrol?) is a peacetime activity. The post is about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of green water combatants in actual combat. If all we're doing is patrolling, we can do that with any vessel that floats.

      If you want to hold on to the belief that green water combatants are useful in combat, you're welcome to your opinion. I see no significant use for them, as I've laid out. The NNFM is heavily skewed towards the green water side of things and my contention is that there is no justifiable rationale for that. The entire distributed power, small combatant concept is relevant to the USN only in very narrowly defined circumstances (almost non-existent). Now, peacetime patrolling is another story but it's one that, by definition, doesn't require a combatant.

    8. A "theoretical" scenario can become "real world" very quickly.

      What if we want to persistently monitor Russian Black Sea fleet movements and simultaneously show support for the Ukrainian government. We could send Burkes into the Black Sea, or we could send in some number of Streetfighters. Heck we could even base some in Odessa.

      A squadron or two of Streetfighters on regular patrols would be a very visible sign of US support, while not risking any major combatants. They would be more survivable than a lone Burke or even a couple Burkes. Could they stop a Russian invasion force by themselves? Maybe, maybe not. Twelve Streetfighters carrying 8 AShMs each could damage a lot of Russian ships. LRASMs launched from just about anywhere in the Black Sea could reach much or most targets within the Sea itself.

      Would they be vulnerable to Russian airpower, warships, submarines and so on? Of course. There's no silver bullet. They would have to be part of an integrated response that included airpower and, potentially NNFM SSKs, ground forces, and so on.

      We both have pointed out numerous scenarios where we sent unarmed ships into patrol areas where they have been subjected to harassment or seizure. Streetfighters can fight back in these situations.

      How is the NNFM "heavily skewed" towards the green water fleet? They specifically say only 10% of the yearly SCN budget is devoted to the green water fleet. Almost half of that goes towards buying eight blue-water capable CVLs. Only a mere 1% goes towards these missile combatants. How is that skewed?

      The current Navy Maritime Strategy talks extensively about forward presence and preventing wars instead of fighting them. The large number of OPVs, the GFS station ships, and the other forward-deployed components of the green water fleet are designed to implement this strategy.

    9. B.Smitty, again I'll remind you that the post is about the suitability of green water combatants for actual combat. Your example is about a peacetime scenario. I have no problem with a low end vessel as a peacetime patrol/monitor. Of course, for that purpose, a civilian yacht would work. It doesn't have to be a green water combatant. Once combat starts, there would be no realistic strategy that would require us to contest the Black Sea that I can think of and if we did we wouldn't use green water combatants. That's the whole point of the post - that green water combatants have no realistic combat role.

      How is NNFM heavily skewed towards the green water end? How is it not. It reduces the number of carriers (substituting a dubious mini-carrier with only F-35B's), surface ships, submarines, etc. in favor of green water vessels. How is that not heavily skewed?

      Forward presence and preventing wars makes an appealing PowerPoint presentation - much as winning the hearts and minds does. As with hearts and minds, the validity of forward presence and preventing wars is questionable, though there certainly have been some notable successes such as the Taiwan strait incident and the Cuban missile crisis. Of course, in each case, the forward presence and deterrent effect was provided by the threat of high end combat power rather than low end green water "influence".

      I think Hughes is so focused on the theoretical fleet on fleet model that he fails to ask the basic question whether there is any reasonably likely real world scenario where such small combatants would actually be useful. From my analysis, the answer is that there is not.

    10. A civilian yacht? I hope you are being facetious.

      Forward presence and preventing wars is integral to the Navy's stated Maritime Strategy. You may disagree with the value of that strategy, but it is what we have.

      If 10% of the SCN budget is too skewed, then what is more appropriate?

      In your post on the NNFM you said you liked the Fast MCM, NGFS, and littoral ASW ships. They too are components of the green water NNFM fleet. It sounded like you want to continue to build amphibious assault ships, which are obviously "green water" ships as well.

      The NNFM has a total of 24 carriers: 6 CVNs and 18 CVLs. They have an aggregate capacity of 780 aircraft. This is in line with the capacity of an 11 CVN fleet, though obviously the CVLs lack the ability to carry CTOL force multipliers.

    11. The NNFM greatly expands spending on the non-strategic submarine fleet. It goes from the USNs stated goal of 45 SSNs to a total of 80 SSNs and SSKs.

      This is an increase from 31.4% of SCN for the Navy budget to 36.5% for the NNFM, or about a billion more per year spent on submarines.

      The NNFM loses five SSNs but gains forty SSKs.

  3. ComNavOps, since you're asking for examples, I noticed that the NNFM document mentioned the Black Sea environment (with potential basing in Romania and/or Turkey). This region didn't make it into your critique, though. An oversight, or is that one region where the NNFM might have some value? Or do the same reasons apply here as apply to China?

    It seems at first glance that the Black Sea is geo-politically relevant in the short term, meaning there might be a reason for the Navy to be there sometime soon. If our political leadership decided for whatever reason to station heavy US land forces in Ukraine, for example, it seems that the most efficient way to get them there is by sea. In that event, you may very well have the situation where you have assets that need protecting, yet in a place where you don't want your carriers and Ticos found. It's at least one example where having a small number of green water combatants on hand would give the Navy some flexibility and teeth.

    1. Why would you put a carrier in the Black Sea when you could put squadrons of Air Force assets in Turkey or anywhere else in nearby NATO territory for that matter? Surely any action in that area would be NATO rather than unilateral US action?

    2. archer, you've may have missed the point of the post. The Black Sea is relevant only during peace as a point of influence and politics. Hence, no combat. If a war starts, we'll bring in massive air power. The Black Sea is not a strategically important body of water (depending on what our overall strategy would be, of course) and we would have no reason to care about it from a naval perspective. We would not contest the Black Sea other than, perhaps, denial to the enemy via air power. There would be no reason to have carriers or Ticos there.

    3. Definitely had my blinders on - I completely failed to consider the other means we have of operating in that theatre. Fair point.

    4. We rotate a Burke through the Black Sea on a regular basis. A Russian Su-24 buzzed the USS Donald Cook recently, and the Russians have moved some shore-based AShMs into Crimea as a result.

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  5. If this post is correct, either (1) All those other navies building these kinds of boats have no real use for them, and they are all stupid, or (2) There is something very different about all those countries compared to the U.S.A.

    Take Norway as an example. They seem to deploy green water ships mostly in their own waters. Why not just count on the air force sinking anything they care to sink?