Monday, October 8, 2012

Off the Shelf Warship

The Navy loves to build new ship classes that push the technology envelope.  The LCS, DDG-1000, Burke Flt III, and Ford class CVN, among others, all incorporate advanced and unproven technology.  Unfortunately, history has shown that that approach results in cost and schedule overruns along with excessively long lead times due to drawn out R&D requirements.  Certainly, new technology has to be incorporated into the fleet periodically but what’s wrong with building an off-the-shelf (OTS) ship class, especially to increase numbers and fill the lower end of the mission spectrum?  Why not design a ship that uses nothing but existing technology?  Remember, existing technology doesn’t have to mean obsolete technology.  Consider the Mk41 VLS, the Mk45 5” gun, TRS-3D radar, RAM, ESSM, and so on.  Those are state of the art technologies that have many years of service life still ahead of them.  Sure, some of those technologies may not remain state of the art for the next 30 years but so what?  Especially if the OTS concept is applied to low end ship designs, no one would reasonably expect that the ship would have a 30+ year lifespan and if OTS can give us a true low cost platform, who cares if it doesn’t last 30+ years?

I don’t have access to line item construction cost breakdowns for Navy ships so I don’t really know the impact that OTS could have but from the scattered costs that I’m aware of it seems pretty clear that we could build significantly cheaper low end OTS ships.

VLS - Nothing New Here!

Consider a frigate-ish ship of 300-500 feet in length with a small VLS, 5” gun, Harpoon, TRS-3D, RAM, towed array, and so on.  This would be a balanced, capable, low end ship using nothing but proven components.  R&D costs would be non-existent, on a relative basis, and construction costs ought to be on the order of an LCS or even less, if the Navy would apply some fiscal and programmatic discipline.  In short, an OTS approach offers the possibility of a modern, useful, cheap ship that could be built quickly and in numbers.

The “built quickly” aspect is particularly important.  New naval ship classes suffer from very long lead times from concept to construction which results in rapidly mounting costs and borderline obsolescence by the time they reach fleet service.  This is simply a result of trying to design, develop, test, and incorporate brand new, unproven technologies.  It’s unavoidable, in fact.  Contrast that to an OTS design.  There’s nothing new.  Nothing to be developed.  Nothing to test and prove.  It’s just an exercise in where to mount the equipment.  A competent ship designer ought to be able to take an OTS design from concept to construction in six months;  a year at most.  That, alone, would save significant amounts of money.

We don’t need to continually build cutting edge, futuristic ships.  Let’s occasionally build just a basic, modern, competent warship.  Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. 


  1. like you's just an exercise.
    The whole R&D industry branch would almost collapse..the USN is actually tending to fight a war against itself. In the meantime they don't sell a ship to other countries...

  2. OK, lets look at an OTS ship. DDG-51.
    - Engineering plant basically a repeat of the DD-963
    - Weapons and sensors pretty much the same (MK45 guns, VLS, MK32 TT, MK15 CIWS, SQR-19, SQQ-89, etc)
    - New SQS-53C but that was basically a repeat of the SQS-53B upgrade. SPY-1D was a straightforward update to the AEGIS baseline.
    - Same radios, phone systems, fire systems, etc
    - Hull and superstructure were new, just like in your mythical FFG.

    DDG-51 took some of the best ship designers in the world a lot longer "from concept to construction in six months; a year at most."

    Even without new systems, you have to design a hull and superstructure to hold everything, you have to complete all the required hydrodynamic studies, etc. Then you have to refine the design over and over (that's why its called a design spiral) to meet the requirements. Then you have to translate your design into a production process, not forgetting to have a competition to build the thing, procure equipment, etc. And don't forget HERO testing, radio interference testing, RCS testing, certificstion of equipment, shock testing, etc.

    As AESOP once observed, anyone can think of an impossible plan.

    1. The DDG-51 was a brand new design incorporating lots of new features. The entire hull and superstructure had never been done before. I don't just mean it was a new hull, it was a stealth design with radically sloped hull and superstructure which had to be studied and validated. The sloped superstructure caused problems with internal layouts that hadn't been encountered before. Every piece of equipment had to be re-evaluated and integrated to be compatible with the stealth and that hadn't been done before. The Aegis was a new version, if I recall correctly. I think the NBC system was a first. And so on. The DDG-51 was anything but an OTS.

      Besides, my point was to truly be OTS. For instance, reuse a Perry hull - it's not optimized for stealth but so what for a basic, low end design? Or, use a Burke hull - we now know all about it, and stealth, and how to integrate all its equipment. Or, purchase the design rights to a MEKO or something similar. Those have been in production for years and are, presumably, well known. Or, take a Burke hull and downsize it by 20%-30% if that can be done without incurring new studies. Or, use a Spruance hull.

      The other stuff you mentioned like shock testing, RCS, and so forth are things that are done after completion of the ship. My comment was 6-12 months until start of construction. With the computerization that's available now, and true OTS, I stand by my statement. Now, could the Navy screw even this simple concept up and add five years to the program? Sure they could! But the point is that it could be done in a fraction of the time currently needed.

    2. I agree with your premise. A low-end ship should be something that doesn't take ten years to bring about. Call it the anti-LCS.

      What made the Spruance class so successful was the large design margins of weight and space, yet the ships entered service with a ASW suite and basic defensive armament already installed.

      I think the Perry or Spruance hull and power-plant could be a great start for a OTS ship. Your picture of what the Australians did to their Perrys with the VLS shows that the class still has growth left in them

      It bothers me that the USN's low-end shortage is completely self-inflicted. So many good ships were retired prematurely over the past decade. While the Perrys and Spruances were getting old, they could handle anti-drug or piracy patrols. We would not be looking at a huge drop-off in total numbers right now if we had kept those ships in service longer. Now it is a crisis.

      And the Navy, in its great wisdom, expended nearly all of the Spruance class in SinkExs; the Perrys have all been given away to foreign navies as soon as they were decommissioned. So we have no way to reverse the low numbers without new construction.

      Yet we have LKAs, LSDs, and AORs mothballed with no chance of seeing service ever again. They would make even better targets for 5" shellfire and JDAMs.


    3. I've heard stories that the Spruances were SINKEX'ed so that they wouldn't represent a threat to the emerging Aegis Ticos and future Burke. There was a vocal faction that wanted to go the path of NTU for the Spruances, instead of new Aegis construction. At that time, NTU was nearly a match for Aegis in performance. In any event, with the Spruances on the ocean floor, the issue became moot.

      Likewise, some say that the Navy has been aggressively retiring and giving away the Perrys so as not to present a viable alternative to the LCS. Again, there was a very vocal faction that wanted to upgrade Perrys.

      I doubt we'll ever know the inner thought process of Navy leadership regarding these issues!

    4. While DDG-51 had some new features, virtually all systems were re-used from previous ships. Citadel protection was new to the US, but widely used in other navies. The hull form used no new technology, and greatly resembled the Soviet Navy ships in that it was more optimized for seakeeping. Nothing unique there. The superstructure was sloped, but construction was simple welded steel. AEGIS was a new baseline, but really wasn't new and reused most of the CG combat system. Even the GFCS was basically an upgraded DD. So it was basically fitting existing systems into a new hullform, just like your OTS ship. I don't care how you slice it, that is what it was.
      Reuse the FFG-7 hullform you say. No problem, but you can't just reuse the hull design as things like the MK13 launcher don't exist today. And why have the gun in front of the stack? Better move it to the front. Do you want to reuse the hull and superstructure cracking too? VLS is too long if you want to add Tomahawk and in any event, it messes up the trim. SQS-56 is no longer in production and besides, it wasn't that good, so what do you do? You will have entirely new engineering and combat systems which means you probably need entirely new (or at least different) chill water systems, electrical systems, radars, and capacity, etc. Now you are moving bulkheads, intakes, etc so you need to reconfirm floodable length calculations, metacentric heighth, etc.
      Why do you think just restarting DDG-51 production cost in excess of $1 Billion? All of the systems were 20years old and many of the suppliers needed to retool to produce them again.
      Sorry, six months is out of the question and then you better not decide to make any changes once you start.
      Sorry, you have provided no compelling justification of why your plan isn't impossible. AESOP still wins.

    5. OK, so you disagree with my time estimate. Do you disagree with the basic premise that OTS would significantly reduce the time to production?

      To review, my premise is twofold: OTS would reduce costs and OTS would reduce time to production. Do you disagree with the premise?

    6. Absolutely, of course it comes at a price. If I just want a ship to meet todays threats, say the WWII DEs, that is great.

      What if I want to meet new or projected SOLAS requirements, or IMO oil discharge requirements, etc. I need new equipment.

      What if I want to take advanatge of new technology for fuel savings or reliability or watchstander reduction? New systems.

      We don't always need to have leap ahead technology like AEGIS, but what about the ability to utilize new systems like Lasers or Rail Guns? Then I need more power, which means developing integrated electric drive (which also has huge potential fuel savings). But it costs.

      A good example would be the Lewis and Clark class replenishment ship. New where it made sense, re-use existing systems when it makes sense. But that is an replenishment ship, not likely to be obsolete any time soon.

      If you want a cheap ship that meets your requirements, set the requirements correctly and the current system will be able to deliver. But, you need to know why you are buying the ship for in the first place. You need to look at your requirements for the entire service life.

      Look at purchasing a new Frigate. What does that mean. What will it do? What capabilities will it need? Most people are clueless when it comes to setting requirements. Get the requirements right, and don't get out of control, and the current system will deliver what you need.

      The new Ford class CVN is a case in point. Even at 12 billion plus a pop, it is cheaper across its service life than a Nimitz Class and it delivers more deployed days during its 50 years of service! 10 FORD class can do the same numer of deployments as 11.5 NIMITZ class! But it is expensive and developed a lot of new technologies even if they were just straight forward engineering work (not to be confused with cheap). But they should ultimately be worth it.

  3. Did you read the interview with John Lehman where he said that Romney would build a new FFG?

    I think that would be a perfect opportunity to test this theory.

    1. Do you mean the laser firing, rail gun, anti-gravity, invisible FFG for 10 trillion dollars each that the Navy will undoubtedly opt for instead of a simple, functional, cheap ship?


      Granted, but... if their goal is to boost numbers, I sure hope not. Maybe Lehman can get discounted anti gravity invisible tech from the Romulans or something. I seem to recall he was (or at least thought he was) a penny pincher.

    3. You know, this brings up a good point. Who decides whether to pursue a simple, cheap ship versus an expensive one? Well, Congress controls the purse strings but they don't design ships - they can only say yes or no to a Navy proposal. Unfortunately, the Navy has lately been backing Congress into a corner on ship acquisitions. Congress either has to say yes to a dubious program or be seen saying no to national defense. Thus, it's Navy leadership that is putting the country in the position of having to choose between an unaffordable path or nothing. The Navy is offering no middle ground. Yes, I know the LCS was supposed to be that low end ship but that was never a realistic goal. The Navy packed every futuristic, unmanned technology they could think of into that concept and then blamed everyone but themself for the cost and technology failures. Something to think about when we're looking for someone to blame.

  4. What you are speaking of is a war production scheme. Now it as been decided to reuse the Burke baseline for the battle fleet and to push on with LCS.It is a decision and the consequenses are for the taker. Now, you allways seem to refer to the Perry's and Spruance ships. I recall huge and vociferous discussions about the worth of both types. The Perry's were underarmed, cheap, slow, merely good convoyescorts, the Spruances were too big, crew was too big, they were underarmed, gasturbine was lousy, fuel consuption too high! etc,etc. In the end , both types came trough but only after years of use! Where I follow you wholehartly is the fact that nearly none of these types were sold to other countries, as new ships then. (some Perry's where indeed sold to Australia) During the 60' my country's MCM fleet was 100 percent US origin! So, what is important here is the fact that US naval industry survives only trough the orders of the US Navy. These companies are not interested in refurbishing ships, they have huge intrests in new construction and development. (R and D). The ship type you are actually referring to is the new Coastguard Cutter. Not too heavy, long radius, good seakeeping, easy build and, if armed accordingly, perfectly suited to your suggestion. But, I am afraid, the LCS will win the day. At some point they will start arming them as a GP frigate and use them accordingly.And when they will start to leave the service, someone will complain that the replacement is lousy and the LCS was better....

    1. Actually, shipbuilding companies care about cash flow and don't particularly care whether it comes form new construction or refurbishment. That's standard for all types of industry, not just shipbuilding.

      Sadly, your last sentence is probably correct! An excellent perspective!

  5. On a related note to this subject, I read the Chris Cavas article interviewing John Lehman with the Romney campaign. Lehman wants a new frigate design to replace the Perrys and a missile defense ship built on a Zumwalt or LPD-17 hull. LCS will be used for MCM and low-end missions.

    I know it is part of a campaign but it sounds as if someone is taking hull numbers and frigates seriously.


    1. Well, we can hope. Of course, there is that pesky little part about having to win the election, first!

  6. We don't need to build OTS warships. We can do new designs. As others have said, we just need to aggressively manage risk, requirements, Congressional meddling, and so on. And we need to build enough of them to amortize the cost of development over a large enough buy.

    The cost of an LCS has come down as we've built more of them. I still don't think either variant fits our need, but LCS-10 will cost a lot less than LCS-2.

    I would rather see the LCS replaced with two ships: a true multi-purpose frigate, and a low-end, modular, utility vessel (e.g. Black Swan, Venator).

    IMHO, this makes more sense than building two different classes of ship to fill the exact same role.

  7. I found GAO-09-322 really interesting on this topic.

    1. We've done a dedicated post on this topic and this report. You can see it here.

      Care to elaborate on what you found interesting? If you'd like to comment further, consider moving to the post cited above just to keep things organized.


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