Friday, May 14, 2021

Saturation Firepower

As we’ve thoroughly documented, the Navy is going full speed down the path of networks and data and de-emphasizing firepower.  They now want to build smaller, unmanned ships that are significantly weaker than Burkes or even the coming frigate.  ComNavOps has repeatedly demonstrated the folly of this approach and suggested that we should, instead, be pursuing firepower. 


That said, what kind of firepower should we be pursuing?  I’m not posing a question about specific weapons but, rather, a question about general types of firepower.  For this post, I’d like to discuss the concept of saturation as it relates to firepower.


There are two general types of saturation firepower as it relates to naval weapons:


  • Area bombardment
  • Missile attacks (against either land targets or ships)


By definition, saturation attacks overwhelm the enemy’s defenses by presenting the enemy with more attacking munitions than they can defend against in a given moment in time.  By implication, this means that even dumb, unguided munitions can be devastatingly effective if we have more of them than the enemy can stop.


It seems blindingly obvious - but remains a mystery to the Navy - that it does no good to have perfect situational awareness about an enemy but insufficient firepower to do anything about it.  It doesn’t matter if you know the serial numbers of every piece of enemy equipment, how many missiles they have left, and what each enemy sailor had for breakfast if you can’t overwhelm their defenses and destroy them.  There’s no getting around the reality of war that, sooner or later, you have to destroy the enemy’s equipment and kill their soldiers.  Right now, we lack the firepower to do that.  Consider our current weapons.


Anti-ship Weapons


Harpoon – The Harpoon is obsolete and likely totally ineffective against a Chinese fleet due to its lack of stealth, speed, terminal maneuvering, and penetration electronics.  We have Standard missiles that can be used in an anti-ship mode and are faster but their warheads are much smaller and are blast fragmentation rather than high explosive.  The SM-6, for example, has a 140 lb warhead versus the 480 lb Harpoon warhead.  And, of course, they lack terminal evasive maneuvers and penetration electronic aids.  In short, they’re faster than Harpoon but much weaker and no better at penetrating.  Worse, Harpoons are limited to 8 missiles per ship on Mk141 launch racks.  We would need many dozens of ships to mass enough Harpoons to mount a saturation attack and we simply don’t have the number of ships in any realistic scenario.


Naval Strike Missile (NSM) – The NSM is modern and stealthy with a 276 lb warhead.  The problem is that we have very few of them and no plans to acquire significant additional numbers.  Given the extremely limited numbers, there is no possibility of mounting saturation attacks.


Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) – The LRASM has a large 1000 lb warhead, is stealthy, and has a high sub-sonic speed but, again, we have very few of them and no plans to acquire many more.  In addition, it is currently only aerial launch capable.  Setting available inventory issues aside, the problem with aerial launch is that each aircraft can carry only two missiles.  Assembling even a small saturation attack of, say, 100 missiles would require 50 aircraft which is more than an entire carrier air wing.  In practice, it would require around 3 air wings to assemble such an attack force and still provide sufficient tanking, EW, CAP, defensive reserves, etc.  While the Navy has discussed plans to make a vertical launch (VLS) version of LRASM, the reality is that our surface ships currently have no LRASM capability and, given current flat budget projections, may not for quite some time.  Interestingly, our most advanced anti-ship missile is carried only by the LCS!  How’s that for ironically disturbing?  Worse, the Navy seems to have abandoned the LRASM in favor of the Tomahawk.


Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile – The Tomahawk is slow, non-stealthy, and lacks modern terminal maneuvering, sensors, and penetration aids although some upgrades have been applied to the missile.  Currently, numbers are almost non-existent.



Land Attack Weapons


5” Naval Gun – As we’ve discussed many times, the 5” gun is nearly useless for land attack.  It’s very short range requires that the attacking ship approach shore very closely in order to achieve any useful range.  The 5” shells are good for soft targets but nearly useless for armored or fortified targets.  In the area bombardment role, 5” shells simply don’t have the explosive power to be effective.  Worse, the Burke class destroyers have only a single 5” gun each.  It would require 5 Burkes to equal the firepower of a single WWII Fletcher class destroyer.


Tomahawk – The cruise missile is slow, non-stealthy, and has no terminal maneuvering or penetration aids.  In short, it is unlikely to have an acceptable success rate against a peer defender.  Further, at a few million dollars apiece, it is too expensive to use in the area bombardment role although it can be justified for use against high value targets like air or naval bases.





It is clear that the only weapon we currently have that is capable of mounting a saturation attack is the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and it is obsolete and highly susceptible to modern defenses.  The remaining weapons are either too few in number (NSM, LRASM) or have too little density (Harpoon, 5” gun) on ships to mass an effective saturation attack.


Modern enemy defenses, whether land or sea, are not going to be penetrated by a handful of weapons.  We’ve grown used to attacking undefended, third world or terrorist targets and, as a result, have become lazy in our operational and tactical thinking.  We have developed the mindset that one precision weapon equates to one destroyed target.  The reality, however, is that modern defenses are equipped with layered surface to air missile systems, electronic countermeasures, sophisticated decoys, GPS jamming/spoofing, radar directed gun systems, radar stealth, IR masking, obscurants, etc.  Small groups of missiles will stand no chance of penetrating such defensive systems.  We need to saturate the defenses and overwhelm their ability to cope.


The degree to which we’ve abandoned firepower in favor of networks is truly frightening.  I’ll keep repeating this:  sooner or later you have to be able to destroy the enemy and networks can’t do that.



Here’s a few implications from this discussion:


  • We need large caliber naval guns and not any of this sub-caliber sabot nonsense, either.  Sub-caliber means sub-explosive which means ineffective.  Not only do we need large caliber naval guns but we need large numbers of them.  Quantity has a quality all its own.
  • Saturation requires numbers.  We need to be able to launch or fire large numbers of weapons.  For example, attacking even a moderate size enemy task force will require hundreds of missiles to overwhelm their defenses.  Where are we going to get hundreds of missiles for a strike?  As noted, we seem to have standardized on around 8 Harpoons/NSM per ship as our offensive firepower.  That means we need 12-30+ ships to generate a single anti-ship saturation strike.
  • We need to develop saturation tactics.  For example, maybe a second wave of high explosives after an initial wave of smaller, saturation weapons intended to deplete an enemy’s defensive magazines and inflict sensor blinding damage and disable weapon launchers.
  • We need to develop a cheap, basic, anti-ship / land attack missile that can be procured in large quantity.  The key to cheap is simplicity.  It doesn’t matter if the missile doesn’t have every bell and whistle if we can procure and employ it in saturation quantities.
  • We need to regain our offensive mindset.  The Navy has, for far too long, been defensive minded and that has negatively impacted our capacity to conduct offensive operations. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

At The End Of The Rainbow ... Cloud Computing!

The military’s current fad is cloud computing – that nebulous, magic ‘thing’ that will seamlessly connect every sensor, every shooter, and every individual on the battlefield.  What’s the vision?


  • we’ll know everything and the enemy will know nothing
  • we’ll make all the right decisions and the enemy will be paralyzed with indecision
  • we’ll have every sensor and shooter connected and the enemy will have no coordination whatsoever


What’s the key to making all this work?


It’s cloud. It is having your data connected and in a place where I can run analytics on it in real time or near real time, and then render informed decisions to support war-fighting missions,” said Rob Carey, former Navy CIO and deputy DoD CIO, now president of Cloudera Government Solutions. (1)


What’s the key assumption - and flaw - in the preceding statement?  It’s the ‘render informed decisions’.


The reality of any battlefield intel system, whether human or machine based, is that the raw data will be badly compromised.  That being the case, we fall back to the well known axiom, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).  Wait a minute … with gazillabytes of data, light speed networks, and artificial intelligence assisted analysis, how can our raw data be garbage?  It’ll be garbage for the same reasons it’s historically always been garbage:


Destroyed sensors resulting in only sporadic and partial sensor coverage

Enemy deception (decoys, misdirection, camouflage, obscurants) resulting in incorrect sensor data


Misinformation via spurious or incorrect data (false signals) injected into the networks

Miscommunication resulting from incomplete and interrupted data streams or verbal reports


So, with all that garbage entering the system, the output is guaranteed to be garbage.  GIGO.  This completely negates the ‘render informed decisions’ assumption.  Whatever decisions are made will be highly suspect.  GIGO.


Now, if we were talking about just one minor aspect of our collective warfighting effort, we’d just make a mental note to question our intel predictions and decisions and continue on with fighting the war directly in front of us - as we’ve always done – using whatever intel we could get but tempering it with the understanding that it is flawed and suspect.  However, we’re not talking about one minor aspect.  We’re talking about the entire basis of our collective US military warfighting effort.  The military wants to base everything on this single, mammoth, all-seeing, all-encompassing, AI-assisted, decision making software program they refere to as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).  This is the ‘be all’ and ‘end all’ of our military effort.  This is to be our next offset.     ………  and yet it’s obviously flawed from the start at its most fundamental level which is the raw data.  GIGO.


You cannot ‘render informed decisions’ with garbage for raw data.  GIGO.


Now, let’s be fair and objective.  Some of the data will not be garbage.  Some of it will be legitimate.  This has been true throughout history.  Some intel reports are valid.  Some are not.  Some of the raw data is good.  Some is not. 


A ship(s) was sighted at the reported position but the speed, course, number, and type are almost certainly incorrectly reported to an extent.  Which bits are correct and which are not?  We don’t know.  That’s always been the problem.  How do you ‘render informed decisions’ with flawed data?  You don’t!


There are no ‘informed decisions’.  Intel doesn’t give us ‘informed decisions’.  It gives us indications and suggestions and possibilities and alternatives and leanings.  In the end, we don’t make ‘informed decisions’, we make tentative assessments and the operational commanders who use those assessments layer on the understood degree of uncertainty.  The commanders may or may not act on those assessments depending on the degree of uncertainty they have about it and the degree of risk they’re willing to assume if they do act on uncertain assessments.  In the meantime, they continue to wage the war that is directly in front of them and whose outcome is decided by firepower, not intel alone.  Unfortunately, we’re abandoning the firepower part and constructing a system that is wholly based on intel … intel that is going to be as suspect as ever, maybe more so because digital systems are even easier to fool than human systems.


We can see, then, that this system, this dependence on some almighty digital, cloud-based system is flawed due to the inevitable corruption of the raw data but is that the extent of the problem?  No … there is another level of unreality baked into the concept and that is the end user access.  Consider …


“When we want to do call for fires, when we want to do things [where] people’s lives are in jeopardy or they’re at risk, we want that information right there so that they can render their own decision ... at the level of the squad,” Carey said. “So that’s what cloud enables, that connectivity to that information.” (1)


So, there you have it.  It’s simple, really.  The squad, in the middle of battle, with explosives going off all around them, dug into the jungle mud and water, with enemy electronic warfare working full time to jam, disrupt, cyber attack any communications, and with enemy fires waiting to zero in on any communications transmissions, will, we assume, still be able to sit quietly and calmly, with full access to a cloud server somewhere and ‘render informed decisions’.  Does that seem even slightly realistic to you?


Now, multiply this two-way, intensive computer network communications by a factor of many thousands for all the individual squads, ships, HQs, commanders, etc. who will, presumably, be accessing the system on a continuous basis and you’ll quickly see that the electromagnetic airwaves will be ‘humming’ with non-stop transmissions or, as the enemy calls it, a roadmap to all our locations.  Anyone who thinks we can perform this kind of non-stop, grossly huge bandwidth type of communications undetected is a fool or an officer of flag rank.


This concept might have the tiniest, most miniscule chance of working against stone age, third world terrorists in a zero threat environment but it has no chance in any real world scenario against a peer enemy.


Just out of curiosity, given that the Chinese appear to have already penetrated every network we have, why do we think our cloud system is going to be immune from cyber attack?


I apologize for being crude but this is just mental masturbation on a military wide scale.

Pot of Gold at the End of the Battle Rainbow - Cloud Computing !





(1)crisrnet website, “How cloud computing makes Joint All-Domain Command and Control possible”, Andrew Eversden, 26-Apr-2021,


Friday, May 7, 2021

Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21

The Navy has recently conducted the Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 (USIBP21).  Supposedly, this is part of the return of the famous Fleet Problem exercises conducted in the 1920’s and 1930’s, prior to WWII and which proved so prescient and vital to the conduct of the war in the Pacific.  The Navy has loudly and proudly trumpeted the return of the fleet battle problems.  Let’s take a look at USIBP21.


The entire focus of USIBP21 was integrating manned and unmanned assets and it appears to have been a phenomenal success, accomplishing a never before achieved linkage between an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and a remote ship in order to direct the ship’s firing.


Using a blend of information from unmanned and manned ships and aircraft, a guided-missile destroyer launched an anti-surface missile from over-the-horizon to hit a target more than 250 miles away without using active sensors as part of the Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21, Navy officials said on Monday. (2)


The unmanned MQ-9B Sea Guardian operated in conjunction with a guided-missile cruiser, executing long-range, over-the-horizon targeting. Using sonobuoys and other assets, the Sea Guardian identified contacts and reported locations remotely to the commander on board the cruiser. (1)


Outstanding!  An unmanned vehicle provided targeting data to a remote ship?!  Wow!


“This was an important step in moving the ball down the field to getting unmanned plugged into that targeting solution,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Maritime Headquarters director Rear Adm. Robert Gaucher told reporters. (2)


You moved the ball big time, Admiral.  Getting an unmanned vehicle to provide targeting information is the stuff of dreams.  It’s science fiction brought to life!  This should be front page news around the world and rightly so.


How amazing and transformative is this new technology?


"The integration between unmanned and manned capabilities shown today provides an operations approach to strengthening our manned-unmanned teaming," said Rear Adm. James A. Aiken, UxS IBP 21 tactical commander. "Putting our newest technology into our Sailors' hands directly enhances our fleet." (1)


An enhanced fleet!  Outstanding!  But wait, it’s even more impressive than that!


The test also shows how the lethal radius of a surface-launched missile could expand well beyond a ship’s radar range, which is limited by the curvature of the Earth. (2)


Shooting a missile beyond the horizon?!  Wow!  Who comes up with these breakthroughs?!


Was it hard to do?


“It was really complex… We teamed manned and unmanned vessels together. We also used the fusing capability that we’re doing some experimentation on. It was totally passive where we didn’t have active sensors on target,” Aiken said.

“We also look for space as well to actually identify the target and then once we found the target, we were able to track it because of the [electromagnetic signal] that was coming off the target, develop lines of bearing, then launched the missile.” (2)


You developed the target’s location using lines of bearing?!  A pure passive location technique?  No radar?  That’s so advanced it borders on magic!


Do we know any details about the conditions of the exercise?


The target was equipped with a small radar reflector and a repeater that put out an electromagnetic signal. The signal from the repeater was detectable by sensors on the uncrewed aircraft and manned and unmanned surface vessels, said Carrier Strike Group 3 commander Rear Adm. James Aiken during a Monday call with reporters. (2)


The amphibious ship USS Anchorage disgorged a barge simulating an enemy warship. The barge apparently carried emitters duplicating radios, radars and other electronics. The destroyer USS John Finn stood off over the horizon—exactly how far away is a secret—and initiated a hunt for the pretend enemy ship. (3)


UAVs and robot boats crisscrossed the ocean. To avoid detection, they kept their active sensors off. Instead, they used their passive electronic receivers to “listen” for the enemy’s own electronic emissions. (3)


The drones pinpointed the barge and passed the data to a satellite, which relayed it to John Finn. The destroyer fired an SM-6 missile. The $5-million missile—which can hit targets on the sea or in the air—struck the barge “well beyond the line of sight,” according to the Navy. (3)


So, the Navy floated a barge, as a simulator for a Chinese destroyer, and loaded it with emitters of various types to ensure plenty of radiated electromagnetic noise … and we were able to find it passively?


I’m running out of adjectives to describe just how amazing this feat was!


I’m going to pause to catch my breath for a moment and let the excitement die down.  While I’m doing that, I’m going to jot down a few thoughts that the Navy’s exercise prompted in me.



Thought:  Didn’t we have remote unmanned (UAV) targeting decades ago?  I think we did!  From the mid-1980’s until the mid-2000’s, the battleships used RQ-2 Pioneer UAVs to spot for their guns in Desert Storm and elsewhere.  In fact, many Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a battleship UAV in a famous incident.  See, “Battleship UAVs”.


Thought:  Didn’t we develop beyond the horizon missiles decades ago in the form of Harpoon and Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile, among many others?


Thought:  Haven’t submarines, surface ships, and aircraft routinely used passive target locating for many, many decades?  In fact, it used to be called triangulation.



So, now that my initial euphoria has worn off, I’m left to wonder  … what’s the new part of this exercise?  You know, the part that hasn’t actually been done many decades ago?


In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if this near miraculous exercise might not have been all that miraculous?

Miracle UAV in USIBP21 … Oops!  My Mistake.  This is
the RQ-2 Pioneer UAV that provided passive targeting 
for battleships several decades ago.


Further, now that I’m more calmly thinking about it, there is one glaring omission from all the descriptions of the miraculous achievements … an enemy force.  One of the defining characteristics of the old Fleet Problems was the existence of an active, free-acting enemy force equal to the friendly force.  So, where was the enemy force in this exercise?  Where were the enemy SAMs and aircraft shooting down the Sea Guardian?  Where were the enemy ships, aircraft, subs, and missiles attacking our ships while they leisurely worked to develop the enemy’s location using purely passive means?  Where was the enemy back-tracking the Sea Guardian to its source and destroying the facilities and communication and control capabilities?  Where was the enemy satellite surveillance that finds and attacks us since we seemed able to use satellites?


Without a free-acting, unconstrained, well equipped enemy force the exercise is just a live presentation of a sales brochure.  Without an enemy, this exercise didn’t validate anything.  It was just an animated PowerPoint presentation.


Why not make this a real battle problem?  Instead of using a barge with noisemakers to simulate a Chinese destroyer, why not use a Burke?  Let the Burke use its passive sensors to try to detect our sensor platforms and let the Burke ‘shoot’ them down if they can find them.  Let the Burke use its helo and Fire Scout to conduct its own hunt for our cruiser and unmanned vehicles and destroy them, if they can.  Let the Burke call on long range, long endurance UAVs, as China would, to search for our ships.  Give the Burke a submarine to assist it.        Now you’ve got a real battle problem!  Well, not really.  The old battle problems involved huge portions of the entire fleet.  This barely qualifies as a cruise around the harbor.


This was an insult to every real Fleet Problem from the pre-WWII era and an embarrassment to the Navy.


So, aside from over-the-top exultation, what was the Navy’s reaction?


“We need to move things into the hands of sailors and then let sailors use their ingenuity,” Aiken said last week. (2)


Hey, Admiral, here’s a wild thought … why don’t you have a half-assed idea of what to do with ‘things’ before you give them to the sailors and tell them what to do with them rather than wait and hope they can tell you what to do?  If you’d like, Admiral, I’ll be happy to tell you what you can do with your things.






(1)Commander, “Unmanned aerial vehicle Sea Guardian operates with naval assets”, US Pacific Fleet website, posted 21-Apr-2021


(2)USNI News website, “Unmanned Systems, Passive Sensors Help USS John Finn Bullseye Target With SM-6”, Sam LaGrone, 26-Apr-2021,


(3)Forbes website, “Robots Hunted A Mock Chinese Ship—Then a U.S. Navy Destroyer Lobbed A $5 Million Missile At It”, David Axe, 28-Apr-2021,

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Hurry Up and Wait

You may have heard the USS Boise (SSN-764, Los Angeles class), which has been sitting idle since 2015 and has long since lost its dive certification, is finally, maybe, scheduled to begin maintenance later this year … maybe … history suggests more delays will occur.(2)

USS Boise - Abandoned and Forgotten

Several other subs have been waiting multiple years and have lost their dive certifications.


In fact, the idle time accumulated by submarines waiting for maintenance is stunning.  Here’s what a GAO study found:


Last year, the Government Accountability Office found that in total, between 2008 and 2018, attack boats waiting to go into maintenance had sat idle for 10,363 days. (1)


A quick calculation shows us that 10,363 days is 28.4 years of idle wait time for maintenance.  That’s a lot of submarine idleness … and the Navy wants more ships and a bigger fleet?  That is mismanagement on a nearly criminal scale and should at least be grounds for recalling several retired CNOs to active duty for the purpose of instituting courts martial for gross negligence.


So, not only is there a shortage of numbers of submarines but the Russian US Navy can’t keep the ones they do have operational.   We quite literally have submarines sitting pier side, rotting.


Congress should cut all new construction ship funding until the Navy demonstrates that it can properly maintain the ships it has. 







(1)Defense News website, “With the Navy’s submarine maintenance woes, there may yet be hope”, David B. Larter, 7-May-2019,


(2)Navy Times website, “The Navy’s saddest fast-attack sub will finally get the tender loving maintenance it needs”, Geoff Ziezulewicz, 29-Apr-2021,

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Requirements Drift

In theory, an acquisition program, be it aircraft, ship, software, or whatever, lays out a set of requirements, locks them in, designs the product to those requirements, and then produces the product.  In reality, the Navy constantly alters the requirements all the way through the design and construction phases which leads, inexorably, to massive cost overruns and schedule delays.  However, for the sake of this discussion, we’ll ignore that reality and consider the ideal acquisition process.


Having produced a product that meets the requirements, that product then enters service and, if the requirements were well designed, the product winds up being reasonably useful and productive because it meets requirements that are relevant to the fleet’s needs – a win all the way around.


Let’s consider requirements.  Even in the best case, where the requirements were reasonably and logically established and meet actual needs, the needs – and hence, requirements – begin changing the day after they’re established.  Why?  This isn’t a trick question.  The answer is obvious.  Threats change, circumstances change, technology changes, geopolitical strategies change, and, therefore, the needs of the fleet change on a daily basis.  The longer the time span from the locking in of the requirements to the time of entering service, the greater the deviation will be between the design requirements and the current requirements.  Thus, the longer the time span from the locking in of the requirements to the time of entering service, the more pronounced the loss of applicability and usefulness of the product will be relative to the current requirements. 


The blindingly obvious conclusion from the preceding is that we must do everything possible to minimize the time between locking in of acquisition requirements and entry into service.  The shorter the time span, the greater the usefulness of the product.


To illustrate what happens when we fail to minimize that time span, consider the example of the F-35.  Conceptual design and, hence, the process of establishing requirements, began as far back as 1993 with the establishment of the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program and prototype construction contracts were awarded in 1996.  Thus, requirements were being locked in as early as the early to mid 1990’s.  It is now thirty years later and the F-35 is just now entering service and has yet to achieve full combat status as provided by Block 4 software and a functional ALIS support program.  Without a doubt, requirements have changed drastically over the intervening thirty years.  What might have been an applicable, useful, and capable aircraft if it had been fielded twenty years ago has become a marginally applicable, barely useful aircraft that is ill-suited for the Pacific/Chinese challenge we face today.  The time span between establishment of requirements and entry into service was too long for the aircraft to retain applicability and usefulness.


Now consider the example of the WWII F6F Hellcat.  The contract for the prototype XF6F-1 Hellcat was issued in 1941 and the Hellcat entered fleet service two years later in 1943.  The Hellcat was relevant and useful because the time frame between requirements and service was short.


Well, sure, the Hellcat could be quickly fielded because the technology was so primitive.  Okay, how about a more modern example? 


The Grumman F-14 Tomcat contract was issued to Grumman in 1969.  First flight occurred in 1970 and Initial Operating Capability was declared in 1973.  First deployment occurred in 1974.  The Tomcat went from design (requirements locked) to deployment in 5 years.  The Tomcat was relevant and useful because the requirements were still applicable thanks to the short time frame.  The Tomcat was every bit as advanced for its time as the F-35.  We’ve just forgotten how to produce aircraft (or anything else!) in short, relevant time frames.  Can we still produce aircraft quickly?  Of course we can!  See, “How To Build A Better Aircraft”.


Lest anyone think that the lag between requirements and service is only an aircraft issue, the same concerns apply to ships. 


The LCS, for example, was conceptualized in the 1990’s and requirements were locked in in the 2003-4 time frame.  Now, 12-17 years or so later, as the vessels are entering service and the Navy looks to actually employ the ship, the requirements have changed so much that the LCS is nearly useless - of course, a total absence of useful modules doesn’t help!  The 12-17 year lag between requirements and entry into service proved too long and the ship had no role by the time it was completed.  The littoral combat role it was intended for had vanished to be replaced by a Pacific/China focus that the LCS was entirely unsuited for.


Another example is the Zumwalt whose conceptual origins date back to the SC-21 program in 1994 and, subsequently, the DD-21 program whose requirements were being locked in via a 1997 Operational Requirements Document and an Advanced Development Memorandum.   Many of these requirements eventually carried over to what became the Zumwalt program.  Final requirements were set by 2005 when the detailed design phase began.  Now, 16 years later, the Zumwalt, the lead ship of the class, has just completed the final combat systems installation and is undergoing final testing.  There’s no rush, of course, because the ship no longer has a purpose and the Navy is relegating the ship to experimental unmanned squadron testing – of course, the utter failure of the Advanced Gun System didn’t help!  The 16-27 year lag between requirements and entry into service proved too long and the ship had no role by the time it was completed.  The littoral combat/bombardment role that the Zumwalt was intended for had vanished to be replaced by an open ocean, naval warfare need directed towards China and for which the Zumwalt was unsuited.





What we learn from this is that the time between requirements and entry into service is, arguably, the most important factor in determining whether a ship or aircraft will prove useful.  An asset, no matter how well conceptualized and designed, will lose relevance with every day that passes after the requirements are set.  It is imperative that the lag between establishment of requirements and entry into service be minimized.  We need to recall the example of the F-14 development time frame and relearn how to quickly produce new ships and planes.


Contemplating the various programs that have come and gone over the last few decades, a very good argument can be made that any lag period that exceeds 5 years from requirements to service will result in an asset that is highly likely to have lost the majority of its usefulness.  Recognition of this constraint mandates that we abandon our fascination with attempting to build in non-existent, fantasy level technology and, instead, stick to existing technologies – a theme ComNavOps has repeatedly preached. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Decline of Firepower

We’ve touched on this in posts and comments but it’s time to bring it together and hammer it home.  The Navy is headed down a path of smaller, weaker unmanned vessels as replacements for the retiring Ticonderogas and soon to be retiring Burkes.  The result is a loss of missiles, guns, and sensors – what we collectively call firepower and what is responsible for the actual destruction of the enemy.  Data and networks don’t destroy the enemy … firepower does.  Data and networks enable firepower;  they don’t replace it.  Unwisely, the Navy is actually replacing firepower with data and networks.  Let’s take a look at the magnitude of the problem.


Let’s start by looking at what we currently have in the way of surface ship firepower.  Note that the following analysis is somewhat affected by what one chooses to classify as existing versus replacement.  For example, is a Burke that is currently being built considered as existing or replacement?  I’ve made my best attempt to present a reasonable interpretation of what’s coming and what’s going but one can easily and validly debate the classification of a few ships.  However, the classification of a few ships won’t change the overall conclusion so view the analysis in that light:  an overall assessment rather than a rigid tally since we have no way of actually knowing what will happen beyond the next few years in terms of retirements or new builds.  We may find that the Navy early retires even more ships than anticipated (the Navy routinely does that!) or we may find that the Navy builds a few more Burkes than anticipated (the Navy loves them!).


With that in mind, here’s a table showing the current surface force ships and their firepower as measured by missiles and guns.






VLS / Ship

Total VLS

Guns / Ship

Total Guns




















a current, building, or on order




I have not included the LCS or Zumwalts because they have no useful, effective combat capability.


Now, let’s look at the replacements that are coming.  To be fair, we don’t have a lot of details on the unmanned vessel configurations, yet, so we’ll have to use our best guesstimates based on the little information we have and based on comparisons to similar size vessels.  Recall that the Navy has identified two classes of unmanned replacement surface vessels:  a small unmanned surface vessel (SUSV) which will be an unarmed sensor platform and a large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV) which will be a mini-VLS barge with few, if any sensors.  Note that the Navy nomenclature of “large” unmanned surface vessel is a joke since the LUSV is described as being 200-300 ft long and 1000-2000 tons which would make it significantly smaller than the 380 ft long, 3500 ton LCS.  So, here’s the anticipated replacements.





VLS / Ship

Total VLS

Guns / Ship

Total Guns





















a  guesstimate based on announced plans for the moderate future

b  estimate based on size of LUSV compared to frigate



There has been talk of a future new cruiser but given the trend towards unmanned vessels and the extreme uncertainty of budgets combined with the absolute certainty of ever-increasing ship construction costs, the likelihood of the proposed new cruiser making it to production is far from certain and, realistically, is probably unlikely.




Now, let’s combine the data and compare the current firepower to the replacement firepower.





Avg VLS / Ship

Total VLS

Total Guns














The problem, the decline in firepower, absolutely jumps off the page.  The total VLS cells are being hugely reduced.  We’re going to lose mammoth amounts of firepower.


In addition to the immense loss of VLS cells, we’re also going to lose almost all of our already meager naval gun firepower.  In fact, there are no plans to replace the 5” gun, at all.  The replacement Constellation class calls for the Mk110 57mm (2.2”) which is barely more than a machine gun and there has been no mention of a gun of any kind on the LUSV.


Now, we have to be fair and assume that additional ships will be built in the future to continue replacing the steady stream of retiring Burkes but all indications are that the Navy will switch to mostly or completely small (although they call them large!) unmanned vessels with fractional weapon capacities so the declining firepower trend identified here will continue or accelerate.  In fact, the Navy has stated publicly that some portion of the Burkes will be replaced by unmanned vessels.  As stated above, the possible appearance of a few more replacement Burkes doesn’t change the overall assessment.


It’s worse than just the loss of firepower and naval guns.  Other sources of firepower are declining, also.


Submarines.  The long known and anticipated shortfall in submarines has begun and will result in a decline from the current 68 subs to around 39.  Even the SSBN replacements will be reduced from the original 18 (later 14 + 4 SSGN) subs with 24 missile tubes to 12 subs with 16 tubes which is a 43% decrease in total missile tubes even compared to the current 14 SSBNs.


Helicopters.  To the extent that helos represent firepower, the 99 Ticonderoga and Burkes represent a helo force of 2x per ship for a total of 198 helicopters.  Compare this to the replacement helo capacity of 20 Constellation frigates with a single helo each for a total of 20 helos.  The LUSV, of course, has no helo capability.












Sensors.  Sensors enable firepower.  The contribution of sensors to the firepower assessment is difficult to quantify but hundreds of Aegis systems will be replaced by the handful of Constellation small SPY-6 Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR) and unknown Small Unmanned Surface Vessel sensors.


Carrier Air.  We’ve already seen a steady decline in air wing size from the 80-90 of the Cold War era to the current 65 or so.  As F-35C squadrons are activated, the Navy has stated that squadron size will be decreased from 12 aircraft to 10.  We’ve also seen that the number of combat aircraft has been effectively decreased by 6-12 aircraft due to their use as tankers although the Navy hopes that the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker will free up those aircraft for their intended use as combat aircraft.






To be fair, it’s much easier to see what’s going to be retiring from the fleet in the near to moderate future than to see what will be joining the fleet.  It is quite possible, likely even, that more ships will join the fleet than are noted in this post but the addition of a handful of extra ships does not significantly change the conclusion.


We seem to have forgotten that, ultimately, even after you’ve collected every bit of data there is about your enemy, you eventually have to destroy their assets to achieve victory.  That requires firepower and lots of it.  We’ve lost sight of that elementary fact.  We’re so focused on data and networks and AI-assisted command and control that we’ve forgotten about the firepower side of things.


Firepower?  Yeah, it’s declining and in a big way.