Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Commenters (and ComNavOps!) have often stated the desire for motherships in various roles.  Most people view a mothership as a vessel that provides fuel, munitions, maintenance, and supplies for a group of otherwise short-legged vessels thereby allowing the smaller vessels to operate at greater distance from ports or operate for longer periods of time without returning to port.  For example, a common suggestion is for a mothership to support squadrons of LCSs.  Another example is a mothership to support small MCM assets.

The mothership concept can be further extended.  Not only can the mothership provide sustainment support for smaller vessels but it can also provide active combat capabilities that support and enhance the capabilities of the ships it’s supporting.

For example, an ASW mothership and a group of ASW configured LCSs (assuming they ever get a functional ASW module!) can complement each other while acting as an ASW hunter-killer group.  The mothership, presumably a small amphib type, could provide more capable radar and sensors and host several ASW helos to augment the LCS’ limited aviation capabilities.  The LCSs, in turn, could provide expanded reach for the mothership allowing longer range prosecutions at no risk to the mothership.  In addition, a modified LCS could provide more robust, layered AAW protection for the mothership.  Thus, in addition to providing sustainment support, the mothership and its group can complement each others combat capabilities.

Another interesting example might be an LCS, suitably modified for extended range, better sensors, and medium range AAW, acting as a mothership to a group of Cyclone type patrol vessels.  The patrol vessels act as the hands of the LCS and conduct extended range patrols and boarding activities while the LCS provides a small degree of aviation support and superior sensor awareness to guide the smaller vessel’s operations.

I’ll leave it to you to imagine other mothership combinations that could prove useful.

Without getting into specific design concepts, motherships operating in the type of role outlined here would generally take the form of small ampibs, like the old LSDs and whatnot, and would mount enhanced AAW, sensors, and whatever else makes sense for their specific role.

The point is that motherships can perform more than just simple resupply and the Navy should begin to think of them as force multipliers.


  1. The uk once stumbled upon the idea of giving its ASW frigates just point defence AAW and mounting the area defence weapon on the oiler.
    It fell apart following the Falklands when people realised frigates and oilers couldnt always operate four to one.

    Unless the babyship is unable to operate alone, I'd be firmly against mother ships.

    1. In terms of ASW: pairing a DDG with 2 LCS-ASW actually makes a bit of sense. It allows larger sonar coverage (more domes and tails) and greater dispersal of helo assets (more decks). Might even allow for bi-static sonar ops.

    2. Anon, now that's an interesting idea of adapting the P-8's bi- or multi-static sonar ops! Good thought.

    3. Air defense on an oiler? I haven't heard that one. Do you have any more info or a link to some info?

    4. If you will excuse the wiki...

      Its actually worse than I remembered, the Victoria was to have the 10mile ranged Sea Wolf.

      6 Victorias would each mothership 4 Type 23s, the 23s being little more than sonar array tugs and helicopter launch pads, able to refuel and rearm, but not service or repair the ASW helicopter.

    5. TrT, thanks for the links. Wow, you guys scrapped a perfectly good, 20 yr old replenishment ship? That's brutal even by the USN's early retirement standards!

      I have to admit to being baffled by the idea of risking a vital replenishment ship as a mothership. If lost, it would not only hurt the rest of the group but would greatly impact the entire rest of the fleet. No wonder you're not in favor of motherships! :)

    6. To be fair to the idea, it wasn't bad for giuk
      The oiler and the four frigates were a single force, designed for stopping the soviet sub's breaking through the gap and annoying reforger
      Better if the frigates had sea wolf and the oiler sea dart.

      Loss of the oiler would mean mission kill of the frigates, but loss of frigate would not knock out a quarter of the groups capability.

      The problem is invariably outside the intended mission, the full group would be overkill, or simply couldn't be spared from the main mission.

    7. In defence of cutting oilers.
      Ship to ship fuel transfer isn't that big a deal anymore. I know all 6 of gazproms LNG tankers can do it, I think its only occurred once, but its possible.

      Ship to ship transfer isn't quite the dark art it once was.

    8. ComNavOps. Think you are missing the point re: bi-static sonar. You don't need a P-8. It could all be done via surface ship sonars.

      You could (theoretically) use variable depth sonars on LCS(s) as sources and fail on DDG as receiver. Or use dome on DDG as source and towed arrays on LCS(s) as recievers.

    9. Anon, ah, I see! I was thinking using the P-8's MAC and sonobuoys, placed using the LCSs. Your idea is intriguing! Good thought. Have you heard of any actual developmental work along those lines?

  2. The first idea of pairing a multiple helo-carrying mothership with ASW warships has been actively used by the Japanese Navy. One of their Admirals wrote a detailed strategy paper on how they conceived the idea and how their recent acquisitions of Izumo class helicopter carriers fit into the operational strategy.

    1. I hadn't heard that. I'll look into it. Thanks!

  3. The concept has merit. The problem I see is that you're concentrating all of your short-legged SH-60's (ROA of 100 nm) in one basket.

    Given the proliferation of ultra quiet AIP subs with long-ranged cruise missiles, they can shoot the mother-ship well outside of its patrol radius.

    I think to really make the concept effective, they will need:
    1. A much longer-ranged ASW helicopter or;
    2. Lots of small ships to act as lilly-pads.

    Option 1 could be V-22 ASW or MH-XX. Option 2 could be lots of LCS like ships operating as extensions of mothership.

    1. Anon, you indirectly bring up one of the commonly overlooked aspects of missile use and that is targeting. The Chinese anti-ship IRBM, the so called "carrier killer", is useless because there is no effective means of targeting at the 1000+ mile range of the missile. So, just because a missile has a given range doesn't mean that it can be effectively employed from that range.

      Take the case of a sub with a long range cruise missile. It's highly unlikely that a sub could, on its own, generate targeting data at the max range of the missile (presumably 100+ miles). If the sub has to close to within 5 or 10 or 20 or 50 miles to generate valid target data, then the helos have their chance.

      Of course, with today's networking, the sub may be able to launch from max range using target data from another platform. In that case, the issue for the ASW group becomes one of denying the targeting platform.

      Going further, the mothership can carry many more defensive AAW missiles (ESSM and RAM) than a single sub can carry cruise missiles. So, again, just because a sub might be able to shoot at a mothership doesn't mean that the concept is not viable. With an adequate med/short range defense the mothership would stand a good chance of survival. I would also remind you about the historical data on anti-ship missile attacks. The success rate is very poor even against ships without active defenses (SAMs and guns). We've covered this in previous posts.

      So, I would suggest that your caution is valid and noteworthy but does not rule out ASW mothership concepts. If the sub with a missile was that powerful and effective, surface fleets would be obsolete - to be fair, there are those believe exactly that!

      For what it's worth, the V-22 has been evaluated for an ASW role and rejected by the Navy. They didn't publish the specific reasons why but I assume it's because of the extremely poor performance while in the slow speed helo mode. A longer range helo might well be a viable solution.

    2. The V-22 is too big, maintenance intensive, and cannot hover for any lenght of time without overheating the transmissions.

    3. The longest ranged interceptions I can find are a surface to surface strike at 40 miles, an intentional surface to air at 70 and an unintentional surface to air at 150 miles.

  4. The term "mothership" is too ambiguous.

    Is it a logistics enabler for semi-independent vessels? (e.g. CLF ship, tender, "milch cow sub")

    Or does it actually carry its smaller craft? (e.g. CVN, LCS, DDH, amphib)

    Does it work with fixed- and/or rotary-wing air assets? Surface? Sub-surface? Expeditionary? All of the above?

    Does it have a combat role? Or is it just a transport/logistics enabler?

    CNO, you appear to zero in on the "logistics enabler for semi-independent vessels". We already have those for the LCS, they are the Combat Logistics Force ships (e.g. T-AO, T-AKE, T-AOE).

    Amphibious ships can't really perform this role effectively. They aren't designed to carry and offload the right types of cargo to LCSes (e.g. fuel and munitions). But they could carry numerous U*Vs, aircraft or small boats.

    1. B.Smitty, goodness, no. I'm not zeroing in on anything, here. I offered a couple examples and the suggestion that we need to expand our concept of what a mothership is or can be beyond a simple resupply ship. So, a potential yes to all your questions.

    2. I quite like the idea of Drone boats myself.
      Imagine something like the CB90 with a few harpoons, or a short ranged air defence system. 21st century version of a minefield.

    3. ====================
      B.Smitty says, "CNO, you appear to zero in on the "logistics enabler for semi-independent vessels". We already have those for the LCS, they are the Combat Logistics Force ships (e.g. T-AO, T-AKE, T-AOE)."

      Just as a point of interest, Sean Stackley says that the LCS doesn't need help from an AEGIS cruiser (i.e., a Burke or a Tico) to safely operate within a high threat battlespace.

      On the other hand, an LCS running continuously at high speeds will need to be refueled every 24 hours. If that must be done by a Combat Logistics Force ship -- T-AO, T-AKE, T-AOE etc. -- where will the refueling operation take place?

      If the refueling operation must take place inside a high-threat operations area, then a DDG must be present to protect the LCS and the CFL ships while the refueling operation is in progress, is that not so?

      And if no DDG is present, the LCS must be refueled outside the high threat areas within the battlespace, meaning that the LCS must spend a good portion of its forward-deployed assignment transiting between its battle zone forward station and its rear area refueling station.

      In the latter case, the faster the LCS goes in making its transit to and from the rear area CLF refueling station, the more fuel it burns in doing so.

      It is not hard to foresee a circumstance where the CLF ships are too vulnerable to be placed too well forward inside the battlespace, and the only available option is to refuel the LCS from one or more DDG's.

    4. "CNO, you appear to zero in on the "logistics enabler for semi-independent vessels". We already have those for the LCS, they are the Combat Logistics Force ships (e.g. T-AO, T-AKE, T-AOE)."

      I've never heard any suggestion that the T-X's are a dedicated or formal part of the LCS operations concept. Of course, those vessels are available for any need, by any ship, so your suggestion isn't completely incorrect, however, as Scott points out, for any worthwhile operation by the LCS (or a group of them) we would have to dedicate one or more T-X's to their exclusive use. That leads not only to the protection/risk issue that Scott raises but also to the lost opportunity cost of dedicating a very valuable logistics support vessel to very marginal combat vessels. Those logistics vessels could be much better used elsewhere.

      The premise of the post was that we should be thinking about using motherships as more than simple supply ships. We should be looking for motherships and groups that can contribute combat capabilities by mutually enhancing each other's capabilties. The point of the post was that we should expand our concept of a mothership. Simply tasking a T-X to tag along with an LCS doesn't fit that premise even if we wanted to accept the risk and opportunity cost.

    5. CNO said, "The premise of the post was that we should be thinking about using motherships as more than simple supply ships. We should be looking for motherships and groups that can contribute combat capabilities by mutually enhancing each other's capabilties."

      I agree, but then we need to consider motherships combatants in their own right.

    6. ================================

      CNO said, "The premise of the post was that we should be thinking about using motherships as more than simple supply ships. We should be looking for motherships and groups that can contribute combat capabilities by mutually enhancing each other's capabilties."

      I agree, but then we need to consider motherships combatants in their own right.

      The day is coming where a mothership serving the LCS fleet must be not only a combatant in its own right, but also possibly a full-blown, full-capability combatant in its own right -- AEGIS, Mk-41 VLS, the whole works. (And it had better have substantial onboard medical facilities too, for obvious reasons.)

    7. "And it had better have substantial onboard medical facilities too, for obvious reasons."

      Now that's priceless!

  5. Perhaps instead of a mothership the solution could be a mother "rig", i.e. a converted oil rig. Some get retired early due to new drilling tech...or the fact oil companies have rather large budgets...They are already set up for machine shops, a helipad, barracks, etc.
    For example, one place in the international waters of the Persian gulf could support true littoral craft such as Mark VI patrol boat. A modified MkVI could be fielded with ASW equipment similar to that of an SH-60 but be much more economical in terms of endurance, or given mine-hunting UAV for a (admittedly limited) MCM capability (But still better than the mythical LCS module). The mother-station would have Anti-air capability (from SeaRAM to VLS depending on the size) and house the crews and provide repair for the boats. A dozen smaller boats could do the job of an LCS over a wider area while providing smaller, multiple targets, economical operation, and the added benefit of multiple first commands for junior officers to cut their teeth on.
    You could tow one within pirate prone areas to support PBs doing escort or even CG cutters and patrol boats. When the threat subsides, you can tow it elsewhere.

    1. Fascinating idea! My initial reaction was that it would just be a big, immobile target but, hey, isn't that what the MLP kind of is? Oil rigs have been proven difficult to destroy (USN attempts in Op Praying Mantis).

      They would not be appropriate for groups that require mobility such as a roving ASW group but for restricted operational areas they might well offer some benefit. Interesting. I'll have to think more about it.

      Good comment!

  6. Something we could really use is a dedicate Heavy lift Helicopter Mothership to provide lift for the various Prepositioning ships. While almost all of them have a landing platform, most don't have hangars, and even fewer have dedicated helicopters or maintenance sections.

    Randall Rapp