Discussions of the LCS, missile boats, green water combatants, and even frigates ultimately lead to a discussion of the roles these vessels ought to play within the Navy. Inevitably, the roles resolve into one of two broad categories: high end combat or peacetime presence. The discussion is further complicated by the fact that many of the requirements for either category are not needed for the other and only increase construction and operating costs for no gain in performance.
For example, a notional smaller combatant, let’s say a beefed up LCS or a true frigate would have sophisticated sensors, combat systems, VLS, etc. – none of which are necessary for peacetime presence tasks. They simply add cost to a vessel that is only required to show the flag, cross-train with foreign small navies, perform boardings and inspections, dissuade pirates, host dignitaries, and so forth. They add no useful functionality for the peacetime tasks.
On the other hand, a vessel designed for peacetime tasks would have a basic sensor suite, 25 mm – 76 mm weapons, a basic RAM or CIWS self defense fit, RHIBs, and perhaps a small UAV. While quite adequate for peacetime activities such a vessel would be only marginally useful (as in not useful) in a high end combat scenario.
Of course, we can build ships that are capable of fulfilling the roles in both categories. A Burke is expected to be our main surface combat vessel of the future and is certainly capable of carrying out any peacetime presence task. The problem is that the Burkes are very expensive and we can’t afford to build them in the quantity required to meet all the peacetime missions.
In the past, we tried to span the two categories by building a Hi-Lo mix of ships. That effort gave us the Perry FFG’s. While very useful ships and moderately affordable, the ships were oversized and over spec’ed for peacetime tasks and barely adequate for combat (under the right circumstances). In other words, the Perry’s were a less than optimal fit for either category. Thus, the Hi-Lo mix program, while not a failure by any means, was not a complete success, either.
I think the Hi-Lo mix concept was in the neighborhood of correct but missed the mark by trying to straddle the line between the two categories. The concept compromised the needs of both categories while increasing costs. What’s needed is not a Hi-Lo mix but, rather, a War-Peace mix.
Instead of trying to straddle the line between War and Peace, we need to build a mix of ships that are optimized for one or the other category. Let’s build peacetime vessels with the aforementioned minimal equipment fits required to carry out the peacetime presence tasks. Let’s build combat vessels that are intended to fight. When war comes, the Peace vessels would step out of the way. When War comes we’ll let the optimized combat vessels do their job. During peace, which is most of the time, the combat vessels, no longer needed for peacetime tasks since we’d have a fleet of peacetime vessels, could largely revert to “garrison” status and focus on maintenance and combat training. This would markedly extend the life spans of these ships and produce a fleet with a greater degree of readiness.
Of course, the main characteristic of the Peace side of the mix is numbers. Numbers, in turn, implies affordability. This should be readily achievable since the vessels won’t need high end combat systems and would have no need to be built to any significant survivability standard. They would be not much more than civilian vessels with a bit more sensing and a rudimentary self-defense capability.
Further, since the ships would not need to be built for any function beyond the intended peacetime tasks, they should be able to be significantly smaller. A Cyclone patrol vessel, for example, could handle the vast majority of peacetime tasks and a handful of larger, Coast Guard-ish vessels could handle the slightly more demanding tasks. Regardless, the average vessel size ought to be quite small compared to frigates or corvettes.
In addition, the crews could be downsized a bit since, by definition, there would be no need for damage control or significant battle station manning.
Now, here’s an interesting thought. If we had a peacetime fleet and a combat fleet we might be able to utilize the peacetime fleet crews in the combat vessels when war comes since the peacetime vessels would be set aside, anyway. Of course, we’d have to rotate the peacetime crews through the combat fleet during peacetime but, given that the combat fleet would be fully focused on training, there would be plenty of opportunities. Thus, we might be able to operate two fleets with only one fleet worth of manning. Of course, I don’t mean that literally. The combat fleet, even in a “garrisoned” status, would require additional crews. Further, some combat functions can’t just be occasionally trained for – some, such as ASW, require constant, intense training to acquire and maintain proficiency. Still, the concept of shared manning has validity to some extent, probably significantly so.
ComNavOps has expressed dissatisfaction with the NNFM force structure due to its emphasis on green water combatants that are neither combat worthy nor peacetime efficient. This alternative, then, offers the possibility of merging the two concepts into a single, affordable force structure which formally recognizes the inherently contradictory roles, peace and war, that the Navy is tasked with. As I so often say, it’s worth some consideration given that the path the Navy is currently on is unsustainable.