Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naval Trends

Over the past several months we’ve covered a lot of information.  I think it would be useful, at this point, to identify the trends that we currently see in the Navy and, briefly, compare them to worldwide naval trends.

Throughout the world’s navies, we see the following trends. 

  • proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs
  • increasing dependence on the use of mines
  • increasing numbers of small patrol/missile boats
  • use of the frigate as the high end ship
  • increasing development of aircraft carriers
  • movement towards lower end, modular platforms

Now, bear in mind that some of these trends are due to factors, such as cost, that have no relation to naval requirements.  In other words, just because world navies are doing, or not doing, something doesn’t necessarily mean that the various countries think it’s the best or preferred thing to do – it may be that what they’re doing is all they can do given the limitations they’re operating under.  So, be very careful about jumping to the conclusion that because everyone else is doing something, it must be the smart thing to do.  Also, remember that America’s role in the world places different requirements on our Navy compared to any other.  Still, the trends are informative.

Now, what trends do we see in the US Navy? 

  • decreasing fleet size coupled with decreasing overall capability
  • movement away from specialized ships towards do-everything platforms
  • abandonment of the small patrol vessel
  • movement towards ever larger ships;  every class is physically bigger than the one before it
  • decreasing numbers of platforms in favor of increasing capability (contrast this with the first trend!)
  • proliferation of unmanned vehicles
  • decreasing numbers of aircraft carriers

Frigates - World Standard?

It’s interesting to compare the Navy’s willingness to build fewer of a given ship class or aircraft in favor of greater capability to the overall fleet trend of decreasing numbers and decreasing capability.  For instance, aircraft carriers are steadily decreasing in number yet increasing in capability.  SSNs are decreasing in number while increasing in capability (more Tomahawk launch capacity, more SOF support, more unmanned vehicle support, greater surveillance and communications).  The JSF buy will be less than the Hornet buy but will have greater capability (in theory!).  And so on …  Despite this trend, the overall capability of the fleet is decreasing.  This is due mainly to the LCS which has no serious combat capability and yet will make up a quarter of the fleet if the Navy follows through on its plans.

We also see a notable trend towards fewer but larger ships.  Aircraft carriers are getting larger (despite the air wings getting smaller!).  The Zumwalt destroyer is hugely bigger than the Burkes.  Each amphibious class is bigger than the one it replaced.  The Virginias are bigger than the Los Angeles.  Thus, the Navy’s combat capability is being steadily concentrated in fewer and fewer numbers of larger and larger platforms.  This is at odds with the world’s trend towards greater numbers of less capable vessels (Britain being a notable exception to the world trend).  The world is following the Hughes path of decentralizing combat power among larger numbers of less capable platforms.  Of course, this may well be a response to budgetary pressures more than a carefully considered operational and tactical movement!

The world is investing in mine warfare while the US Navy largely ignores both offensive mining and mine countermeasures.  Given that most of the damage done to Navy ships in modern times has been due to mines, it’s puzzling that the Navy would ignore the offensive use of mines for itself.  Combine that with the lack of mine countermeasure (MCM) capability and the Navy would seem to be unwisely missing out on an entire area of naval warfare that the rest of the world seems to understand and embrace.

Those countries in the world that have the resources are trying to increase, or develop, their carrier forces while the US is decreasing carrier numbers and debating whether the carrier even has a future.  That’s an interesting comparison.  China, India, France, Britain, Italy, and others would like more and bigger carriers if they could afford them while the US is debating whether we should even have carriers in the future!  Are the other countries striving to build a ship that has no future in modern combat or are we considering prematurely abandoning a hugely effective platform?

The world’s proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs is notably at odds with the Navy’s steadfast refusal to consider such vessels.  Of course, the Navy’s requirement for worldwide deployments certainly and understandably drives the nuclear requirement but there are many shallow water chokepoints of interest around the world (the Chinese A2/AD zone being a good example) where a cheap, non-nuclear sub would be quite effective.  Is the Navy demonstrating a blind spot on this subject or is the nuclear sub fleet adequate?  And, if it is adequate, is it cost effective compared to the use of non-nuclear subs deployed outside home waters?

One area of agreement between the Navy and the world is the trend towards modular platforms.  CNO Greenert has certainly made his desire to emphasize payloads over platforms quite clear.  The question is, is this a wise trend that maximizes capability, takes advantage of easy upgrades in response to future technical developments, and makes best use of limited budgets or is this a knee-jerk reaction to limited funds and an attempt to shoe-horn less capable payloads onto generic platforms that are not optimized for either the payload’s role or combat in general?

Many navies are moving towards the frigate as the high end ship of the fleet.  Clearly, this is a budget issue in large part.  Still, it’s interesting that the US has totally abandoned the frigate as a useful naval vessel.

I’ve attempted to point out various trends and raise questions.  You’ll note that I’ve not attempted to answer any of the questions.  Answers will come in future posts.  For the moment, consider the issues yourself and see what conclusions you come to.  Given its role and budget, is the Navy on the right path or are we straying from the proper course?


  1. I agree with the trends of small navies to have frigates and subs with AIP.

    Mine warfare has been an ongoing threat. Iran mined the Persian Gulf in the 1980's. The USSR maintained a huge naval mine stockpile; China as well. The biggest difference between the Cold War and now is the American public and USN's tolerance toward casualties. It is right now close to zero. A single mine hit could cause dozens of deaths on a ship.

    Another trend is many navies acquiring LHD/CVL types platforms that can operate helo, STOVL, and LCU. France, ROK, Japan, Spain, Austrailia are some countries that have this new type. If the F-35B enters service there may be a lot more fixed wing naval air afloat.


  2. Hi

    proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs - i would include nuclear (brazil, india)
    increasing dependence on the use of mines
    increasing numbers of small patrol/missile boats
    use of the frigate as the high end ship
    increasing development of aircraft carriers
    movement towards lower end, modular platforms- I thought only the US has so far gone down this road/dead end.

    The LCS is designed to be able to counter the mine and submarine threat, the latter being the (high end) role that the RN task to their frigates. The US can afford to save money by reducing the number of aircraft carriers to 8-10 as this provides more than enough capability. They would be better served though changing them to non-nuclear propulsion. The main worry about the US fleet is the reliance on multi-role ships that lead to much higher costs per ship and therefore fewer of them.

    The problem with Diesel submarines is that its another type of vessel to design, build and maintain which is going to cost a lot. These vessels cant replace the nuclear powered Submarines as they don't have the speed,range or endurance of nuclear powered submarines.

    1. Hi Mick! A lot of countries are looking at lower end, modular platforms in various forms. The Danish Absalon, for instance, is a popular template. MEKOs are modular, though that's more of a construction level of modularity. The small semi-amphibious ship which can be configured as a small assault or humanitarian assitance or patrol or whatever, is becoming a popular choice.

      I'm using the term modular in the generic sense as opposed to the very narrow US Navy LCS module. Thus, general purpose ships that can be configured to multiple roles would be considered modular.

      You make a good point about the infrastructure and costs associated with a non-nuclear sub class in the US Navy. It would certainly entail additional costs. Whether the benefits of the subs would justify the extra costs is a debatable point. Remember, though, that a non-nuclear sub is not (at least as I'm discussing it!) intended as a replacement for a nuclear sub. Instead, it would be a complement suitable for shallower water chokepoints such as are common around the Chinese A2/AD zone.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. "proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs"

    Are there more operators than there used to be?
    And how many of the new ones are, crap.

    "increasing dependence on the use of mines"
    Sadly, an area "the west" has been entirely handcuffed in

    "increasing numbers of small patrol/missile boats"
    But usually, at the cost of proper warships.

    "use of the frigate as the high end ship"
    As above, most powers are protecting hull numbers, and sacrificing capability to do it.
    Seventy Years ago, Argentina had two battleships and three heavy cruisers
    Forty years ago, two CATOBAR Carriers
    Today, its capital ships are four destroyers, that the builders term frigates, but 17 corvettes and patrol ships.

    "increasing development of aircraft carriers"
    Again, are there many more than there used to be, given those who dropped out of the carrier club.

    "movement towards lower end, modular platforms"
    Its a trend, but mostly one to be avoided, in my view.

    1. "proliferation of small, non-nuclear subs"

      Are there more operators than there used to be?
      And how many of the new ones are, crap.


      We should not underestimate the ASW problem. One or two crappy diesel submarines in the wrong place can ruin your day.

      Just ask Brits in the Falklands. They dropped thousands of sonobuoys and dozens of torpedoes against a Type 209. According to rumor the sub was still able to shoot 2x torps at the Task Force. And Brits in early 1980s were very good at ASW.

  4. "Decreasing fleet size coupled with decreasing overall capability."


    Decreasing size depends on when you start measuring... but decreasing overall capability? I'm not sure I can agree with that statement. I guess it depends on your metric for overall capability.

    SURFACE - This site seems to be very surface ship centric. If you are just looking at surface fleet, then I might agree.
    LCS will undoubtedly dilute the aggregate power of the surface line. Then again, we'll still have the same number of DDGs and CGs for quite some time to handle AAW and ASW defense.

    AVIATION - I would say that overall capability of the aviation community is probably trending upwards:
    - We're replacing the legacy SH-60B/F with the MH-60R which is supposedly an excellent ASW and SUW helo.
    - We're just about to field the BAMS and P-8A which should have enormous impact on our ISR and wide-area ASW capabilities.
    - From what I have read open source, EA-18G is probably quite a bit better EW system than legacy EA-6B.
    - F-35 is a mess, but when compared to F/A-18 it'll probably yield a net increase in CVW strike and anti-air capability. The problem is that they are so expensive that we can't field enough.

    SUBMARINE - from a subsurface perspective, I don't think anyone would argue that introduction of Virginia class SSN is a step backwards in terms of capability from the LA class.

    I actually think overall fleet capability is trending along pretty well. The major problem to me is path forward on the surface combatants. LCS is a failure, yet we do need a small corvette or OPV to take stress off of major combatants.

    1. The site is not surface fleet specific, at least not by intention! For whatever reason, it just seems to be easier to get reliable information on surface ships, to a degree.

      You make a very good point about BAMS and the P-8 which, by all accounts should yield significant improvements relative to the Orion. However, balance that against the total loss of the S-3 Viking in the carrier based ASW, surveillance, and refueling roles and there's an overall drop in those segments of aviation capabililty.

      I just don't know enough about the EA-18G versus the EA-6B to know whether the Growler offers improvment. It's probably safe to say, however, that the total Growler numbers will wind up less than the Prowler which would be a drop in overall capability.

      Who knows what capabilities the F-35 will actually bring. It's noteworthy that the weapons carrying capacity will be far less than the Hornet it's replacing. I call that a decrease in strike capability. Air to air may turn out to be an improvement depending on what actually works as intended. Regardless, the numbers will be less than the Hornet and the Navy has stated that carrier squadrons will drop by 2-4 aircraft each when the F-35 comes on line.

      The Ticonderoga cruisers have already had 5 retired of the 27 built with 7 more scheduled for retirement in 2013-14. The remainder are at or beyond mid-life and will begin retiring in the next 10 years or so.

      The oldest Burkes are 20 years old and will begin retiring in the next 10 or 15 years.

      Numerically, the Ticos and Burkes will be replaced by the LCS. That's a huge decrease in capability.

      Carrier numbers are steadily dropping (down to 9 active when Enterprise retires) and air wing size is steadily decreasing (see my previous posts).

      Submarine numbers are steadily dropping. The replacement SSBN(X) will be at least two fewer than current numbers with fewer tubes per sub. The SSGNs will not be replaced, at all. SSN numbers are going to steadily decrease. I don't see any of that as overall improvement.

      If you see all that as "trending along pretty well", I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree!

  5. @ComNavOps,

    We lost ASW capability in S-3 close to a decade ago. I'd definitely would like to have S-3 back, but unfortunately I think there are bigger priorities.

    I am NOT a fan of JSF, but I think the weapons carriage number you are quoting are internal carriage. I am pretty sure JSF can carry weapons externally, at the cost of stealth. I actually think JSF will be as good as an aircraft as F/A-18, although the cost is troubling.

    One thing to note is that way we have 10 carrier airwings and one reserve carrier air wing. Yet we have never deployed 10 carriers simultaneously. So... that's an awful lot of spare aircraft. If a contingency arises, I'm not all that concerned about filling carrier decks.

    I'm not sure where you are getting your projected ship force structures. Per FY2013 Shipbuilding Plan, tables ES-1 and ES-2:

    CVN: Drops to 10 in FY13-14, and then at 11-12 for the next thirty years. Never drops to 9. Over time, the majority will be CVN-78 which are much more capable than Nimtz.

    SSN: You're correct in terms of decline in #s. We've got 55 now and it looks like it will drop to around 45-48. But most of those will be VA class. Submariners I've talked to have told me VA class is pretty impressive when compared to 688. It should also be able to pick up some of the SSGN mission.

    SSBN: We currently have 14... and should have 14 until 2026 when it dips to 10. Strategic forces are kind of a different issue than the conventional fleet, so not sure if this is really how this aligns with overall nuclear strategy.

    CG/DDG: Currently at 80 CG and DDG. If we can keep building two larger surface combatants a year, as in the plan, it looks like it will stay at ~80 for the next two decades.

    LCS: You are incorrect. LCS is not replacing CGs and DDGs. LCS is ostensibly replacing FFxG, MHC/MCM and PC.

    Please note that I have MANY, MANY problems with LCS. I think Navy's reliance on LCS as its small surface combatant is the "glass jaw" in our fleet structure.



    1. Matt,

      Regarding carriers, I said active which takes into account that at least one is always in extended refit/refueling and totally unavailable. So, our active (deployable) carrier force is [total-1]. Active carriers will be 9 when Enterprise decomissions.

      JSF can carry weapons externally at the cost of stealth, range (due to weight and drag), speed, and maneuverability. Doing so drops the JSF to Hornet or less levels of performance from what I can gather. Either way, not an increase in performance. By the way, JSF does not have an internal gun. Thought we learned our lesson on that from the F-4 Phantom. I guess not.

      Regarding air wings, one was scheduled to be deactivated this year but CNO pushed it back one year due to political pressure from Congress. That air wing, and most likely Enterprise's, will both be deactivated next year.

      Also, the air wings are not up to strength. Returning air wings are cross-decking to deploying air wings to meet squadron size requirements. We are well short of full air wing numbers and the majority of the planes we do have are at their arrested landing and flight hours limits due to JSF having been delayed so long. For practical purposes, we have no spare aircraft.

      I said the LCS is numerically replacing the Ticos and Burkes, not functionally. Numerically (numbers of vessels in the fleet) the LCS is replacing the Ticos, Burkes, and Perrys that are being retired. Look at all the ships that have been retired in the last couple of years and the 13 (if memory serves) that have been announced for early retirement in 2013-14. Numerically, what's taking their place? The LCS, mainly.

      Presumably you know that the current 30 year shipbuilding plan has been deemed a fantasy by every organization and authority outside the Navy. The fleet is actually going to drop from the current 280 to around 220-240 and possibly as low as 200-220 given current budget issues and the early retirement trend. Analyze the 30 year plan for yourself. Look at the costs versus the annual shipbuilding budget. I've stated the costs in pevious posts. You'll see that the plan is a total fabrication.

      The fleet is not trending in any positive direction.

    2. @ComNavOps,

      I suppose before we argue whether the fleet is trending up or down, we have to at least understand what the other person thinks it should be used for.

      My view is that with the "Pacific Pivot", the US Navy can and should be used primarily as a high-end balance to China - specifically its growing naval and maritime capabilities. Everything else is secondary. You may disagree on that, but at least you understand my view.

      I tend to think that 10-ish CVNs, 80-ish DDG/CGs, and 45-ish SSNs is sufficient for that task. And as I've pointed out in other posts, we're making pretty important investments in ISR and ASW enablers (P-8A and BAMS) which are well-suited to support that task.

      I apologize. I missed earlier where you said active carriers, so thank you for the clarification. Still - I don't see a planned dip to nine active CVN for a period of approximately two years as particularly alarming. That is an awful lot of deck space. If anything, I think we have too many carriers.

      Everything you've said about external weapons (drag, stealth, maneuverability) is as true for F-18 as it is for F-35. The difference is that F-35 has the stealth option which F-18 does not. F-35C doesn't have an internal gun but can carry one externally. I don't see that as an insurmountable disadvantage. (I am not defending JSF... in a perfect world the navy would've designed its own strike fighter!)

      I don't know where you got info on planned carrier air wing deactivations. It is true we do not regularly deploy squadrons with their full complement. I would imagine that is a choice of economy.

      To me the question is how many air wings would we need in an actual crisis? In OIF-1 (2003) we deployed a peak of five CVNs. Give that we have nine air wings worth of strike fighters plus a reserve wing, I'd think we could 'fill' five CVNs rather easily for a short period of time.

      In terms of fatigue limits, I flew an aircraft (P-3) that was 10+ years past its planned service life. Modern aircraft will fly a lot longer than you might think, if properly managed and maintained. This does not mean we do not need a replacement, just that exceeding fatigue life is not a 'red-line.'

      Respectfully, your argument about LCS replacing DDG/CGs numerically does not ring true to me. I would presume you are aware that while these CGs/DDGs are retiring, we are buying DDG-51s.

      I'm as alarmed as you at LCS constituting a large part of the fleet force structure. It's definitely not up to the task of high-end combat in PACOM. But what is worse, I don't think it will be able to operate / survive independently in ANY THEATER - which means we'll have to deploy real ships (DDGs) to cover them. That's the true cost of LCS that no one talks about.

      Lastly, I've looked at the shipbuilding plan, and am not so sure that it is as fantastical as others have stated. In the near-term (within the budget horizon), barring any surprises, it seems relatively stable. Uncertainty grows over time, but that's why you revise the plan annually.

      Great debate!


    3. Matt, Well that pretty well concludes our debate. Essentially, we see the same data but draw different conclusions. That's fair enough.

      On a related note, the 5 year portion of the 30 year plan (the only portion that has any degree of certainty) calls for construction of 20 combat ships (that excludes the LCS which I don't consider combat capable). The remainder of construction consists of logistics vessels, JHSV, and other non-combat (though essential!) ships. So, 20 combat ships over 5 years is an average of 4 ships per year. Assuming a 35 year life (somewhat optimistic given the trend of early retirements dating back to the Spruance days) gives a combat fleet size of 140 versus the current 227 (the remaining ships of the current 285 are also non-combat). That's quite a drop and illustrates both the fiscal unreality of the shipbuilding plan and the impact of the LCS.

      If the LCS were counted as a combat ship (I can't even write that without laughing!), the total combat ships built over the next 5 years would be 36 for an average of 7.2 ships per year. For an average life of 30 years (the LCS has only a 25 year planned life, so the average drops) that translates to a combat fleet size of 216. Clearly, the LCS has a huge impact on the composition of the fleet. Even so, the drop in combat numbers is still quite evident.

      These numbers are taken from the DoN's FY13 Budget highlights summary document.

    4. @ComNavOps.

      I'm not sure what the 'end date' is for the ship numbers you quote. The data I've seen from CBO appears to indicate that given DONs plan and assuming a 35-year service life for CG/DDGs, we can expect to have 80-90 CG/DDGs until 2032. It drops off from there certainly.

      Taking a step back, our argument on this issue might be fundamentally bigger than simply comparing numbers of ships. I'd actually challenge how much ship count really matters - or rather what value counting hulls has in measuring warfighting capability.

      I actually (somewhat) support Undersecretary Work in his push to look at the capabilities of the total battle force and not just the ship count.

      I would argue that the past Navy needed to have large numbers of ships simply to 'see there' and 'be there' - conducting ISR and presence. Yet our future fleet will have unprecedent ISR capabilities (BAMS, Fire Scout, UCLASS?), which could allow us to be smarter about when/where we deploy our warships.

      One could take this trend to a ridiculous extreme; of couse we couldn't get by with a fleet of say 150 ships. ISR can't do it alone. I am just attempting to challenge whether or not the 'benchmark' of 300 (or 285) is a valid point of comparison, and whether a downward trend in numbers is indicative of a decrease in capability.

      And if one looks at the 'core fighting power' of our fleet (CVNs, DDGs, SSNs, NOT LCS!!) our ships are generally much more capable than they have been in the past. Hence I am not as concerned if the numbers drop off.

      My biggest concern is LCS. Like you I do not believe that LCS will be of much value as a true surface combatant. But we are probably stuck with it.

      I am guardedly hopeful that we can at least get some value from it as a forward presence vessel (read 'gunboat') to deploy in areas where we expect limited action - thus reliving pressure on our real surface combatants.


    5. Matt, you make very good point about numbers and overall fleet capability for which I don't have a fact based (or even theoretical based) answer. Are 300 ships too much, about right, or not enough? 250? 200? I doubt that anyone outside the Navy has a valid answer. We all have opinions but they're not based on fact since none of us have access to the classified performance data for our own ships let alone China's. None of us has ever wargamed a conflict with China. So, my opinion is that our Navy is too small and headed even further in the wrong direction but I can't factually back that up. Your opinion may on fleet size may well be more correct - it's not, but in theory it could be. :-)

      One of the main reasons I believe the fleet is too small is the problem of attrition in a war with China. We can't absorb many losses with the numbers we're at and moving to fleet where 1/4 is LCS only makes it worse.

      The US has become used to wars where we have minimal losses. A war with China will inflict enormous air and sea losses and, frankly, China can absorb losses far better than we can. Can we achieve a sufficiently favorable kill ratio to overcome superior numbers? Today we probably can. However, as China builds more ships, planes, and missiles and they become increasingly effective, that answer is going to change.

      We're moving to a situation where too much fighting power is being concentrated in too few platforms. The impact of each loss is going to become unacceptable.

      By the way, the numbers are for the 5 year shipbuilding plan through and including 2017. I can send you the link to the Navy's summary if you want to see it.

    6. I don't have any hard analytical grounding to justify a number either! :) However, I do feel that grabbing onto 285 because "that's what we've had" isn't very defensible. More is better - but how much is just enough?

      In a theoretical war with China I'd think we'd reach a political breaking point long before we ran out of destroyers. Heck, even losing a half-dozen ships would have voters at the polls.

      Regardless - attrition-based warfare is probably not the way you want to fight an asian country with a population of 1.4 billion, and which views history in 100 year increments.

      I think the PRC will almost always be able to build more 'stuff' faster and cheaper. We need to maintain an overwhelming qualitative edge. And if that means sacrificing numbers, then so be it.

      (That being said, in a perfect world I would replace LCS with a light frigate that actually has some sort of purpose in the fleet and can provide warfighting capability).

  6. "while the US Navy largely ignores both offensive mining"

    This is in great part a USAF mission ("Quickstrike" mine sets) and has been so since the U.SA.A.F. launched Operation "Starvation" (the most successful and most decisive offensive mining campaign ever).

  7. The US Navy is a blue water navy that has allies in all disputed regions. They can develop different than the common trend.


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