Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Reserve Fleet??

In recent decades, America has grown used to short wars:  Desert Storm, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan (if you don’t count the protracted nation building and policing after the initial combat), Libya, and so forth.  However, this short-war mindset has had a detrimental effect on many aspects of our military.  For example, many munitions have insufficient inventory for a protracted affair, spare parts inventory and supply chains are sized for peacetime, ship design/construction/cost has become so exaggerated and complex that ships can no longer be replaced in a “quick” time frame, and R&D programs require years or decades to come to fruition, if ever, and so on.

What happens if we ever get into a protracted war given that “protracted” almost certainly means heavy attrition of ships, planes, and supplies?  Seriously, though, is a protracted war likely?  Well, I don’t think China is going to be defeated in 90 days.  In fact, there has been a great deal of discussion in professional journals of this very concept as regards a war with China.  Strategies have been put forth whereby we fight a stand-off war around the periphery of contested areas, never really attempting to penetrate or deliver a decisive blow.  Instead, the strategy would be to slowly strangle the enemy’s warfighting capability over time.  Whether this is a viable strategy or not (ComNavOps thinks not) there is no question that attrition would be a major factor.  From the Navy’s point of view this is going to lead to a steady decrease in available ships and planes with little capability to build replacements in any useful time frame.  Of course, one assumes that attrition would be two-sided;  China would also suffer attrition.  However, unlike the U.S. Navy, China is trending towards much greater numbers of platforms than the U.S. and has recently demonstrated markedly faster development and construction cycles.  In other words, China is much better positioned to win a war of attrition and that advantage is only going to grow over time. 

One of the traditional solutions to this type of scenario is to maintain a reserve fleet (Mobilization Category B) from which units could be reactivated in relatively short time periods.  Additionally, reserve units could be used to take over lower intensity tasks thereby freeing up more modern and capable units for front line duty.  Sounds good and obvious, right?  Well, there’s a problem.  We don’t have much of a reserve fleet. 

It’s difficult to get accurate listings of reserve ships partly because there are many different classifications of inactive ships and administrative responsibility is shared by several different organizations with sometimes overlapping responsibilities.  Ultimately, it appears that only those ships classified as Mobilization Category B (Cat B) are actually maintained in a state that would allow a reasonable opportunity for reactivation.  These would be the ships that one would typically think of as reserves or “mothballed”.  Unbelievably, examination of several sources indicates that the Cat B fleet consists of only 10-20 ships of which only half a dozen or so are combat ships – the remainder being amphibious or logistics.  For practical purposes, the U.S. has no reserve fleet!  Unwisely, for the last several decades we’ve been scrapping, selling, or SinkEx’ing our more capable potential reserve units.

Reserve Fleet - No More?

For example, the entire Spruance destroyer class was SinkEx’ed.  They were the best ASW units ever built and with software systems upgrades would be more effective, even today, in the ASW role than the current Burkes.  With a New Threat Upgrade (NTU) type of upgrade they would still make formidable platforms in a Chinese war especially later on when both sides had suffered attrition (in other words, our old ships would be better than their old ships). 

The Perry FFG’s are being sold off to other countries as fast as we can find buyers.  Perry’s would be a perfect example of filling low intensity roles that would free up more capable units.

Retired Los Angeles class nuclear attack subs are being scrapped rather than placed into a reserve status.  These SSNs are still superior to most or all current Chinese subs.

The retired Ticonderoga Aegis cruisers appear to all be slated for scrapping as opposed to reserve status.  Truly baffling!  Even the older, non-VLS cruisers are highly capable Aegis AAW platforms and ought to be upgradeable to VLS if it came to that.

The USS Kitty Hawk is the only non-nuclear inactive aircraft carrier being maintained in Cat B status.  The Ranger, Independence, Forrestal, Constellation, Kennedy, and Saratoga are all in various stages of scrapping or donation as memorial/museum ships.  The Enterprise is already slated for scrapping.

So, if we become engaged in a protracted war of attrition, where are the replacement ships going to come from?  Clearly, it won’t be from a reserve fleet.  I’m assuming that the lack of a reserve fleet stems from the costs of maintenance that such a fleet entails.  As we’ve discussed previously, Navy leadership is so focused on new construction that they are unwilling to allocate any funds towards reserve fleet maintenance.  This is a very short-sighted policy that could prove costly down the road.  In the relatively near future, the Burke class destroyers will begin to retire along with the remaining Ticonderogas and Los Angeles subs.  These ships, along with Enterprise, would form the basis of a viable reserve fleet.  The Navy needs to look beyond new construction and start building a reserve fleet especially given the downward trend in active ship numbers.


  1. "ship design/construction/cost has become so exaggerated and complex that ships can no longer be replaced in a “quick” time frame,"

    But thats always been the case.
    The UKs last battleships took 5 years to build.
    Even at the height of our power, it took over two years to build a dreadnought.

    The US managed to start and complete over 100 carriers during the war, but as far as I can tell, none survived 1946. They were essential for the war, but after it, even third world countries didnt think they were worth operating.

    1. I'm getting mixed signals on this one. You say that long construction times have always been the case but you cite the US building 100 carriers in a four year span. That's pretty quick! Similarly, the US produced hundreds of destroyers during WWII as well as cruisers and all the other types of ships needed - many hundreds in a four year span.

      Contrast that to the five years required to construct a single Nimitz class carrier today or even the year and a half to two years for a Burke DDG.

      Remember, too, that the US' abiity to construct so many ships in WWII was due in large measure to having so many active shipyards. Today, there are only a very few yards left that are capable of constructing warships. Even in a max war, ramped up effort, the US would be hard pressed to build more than a couple of DDGs per year.

      I think you're suggesting that the WWII carrier build, while impressive in numbers, did not produce ships worth keeping as reserves? You might want revisit that thought. The Essex class fleet carriers served well into the 1960's and '70's with many undergoing angled deck modifications. These were the carriers that fought the Korean War. Many were converted to specialized ASW or LPH carriers towards the end of their careers. Not only would they have been worthy reserves, they served actively for decades! If I've misinterpreted your point, let me know.

      If you're talking about the various escort carrier classes you're correct that fewer of them served much beyond the end of the war. Several served into the 1950's, one served in the Korean War, and a couple saw service with the French Navy. Many (the majority?), though, were decommissioned at the end of the war. Remember, though, that they were never front line ships even during the war but were intended as stop gap vessels that could supplement the fleet carriers.

    2. Long construction times are simply a fact of life for proper warships.
      2 to 5 years depending on size and production run.

      If you want to build it in six months, what you get cant really be called a warship.
      And wont be as soon as the war ends.

      Essex was a "proper" warship, it took 18 months to build, and was being designed from about 1937.

      The US could maintain, and speed up the production of proper warships, but the reality is, no warship not already under construction is going to make it in to war.
      That's always been true.

      Now, in the second world war, the US managed to build a massive fleet or "improper" warships, which were a great stop gap.
      It couldnt do that today, because the shipyards that built those ships are all in SE Asia now.

      But I question if it would need to.
      Japan and the US Pacific fleets were, roughly, equal in numbers at the start of the war.

      That simply isnt the case today.
      Even the planned pacific/indian ocean fleets of Russia, China, Japan, India, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, ect cant bring parity to the US Pacific/Indian Ocean Fleets.

      Could rushed "not quite war"ships tip that scale? I dont believe so.

      I just dont see anyone being able to run the legs off the USN to the point where it needs such ships, but I could be wrong.

  2. This is why I think the US Navy should maintain a Reserve fleet of ships that can be mobilized into a carrier battle group, Surface action group and expeditionary amphibious assault group. The assets worth saving in the Reserve fleet are the Tico cruisers, Spruance class destroyers and even the Perry frigates.

    1. There might be one hanging around somewhere but for practical purposes the entire Spruance class were all sunk in live fire exercises (SinkEx). I assume you're talking about future retired carriers, Ticos, and Burkes. The Perry's will be completely decommissioned as a class next year, I believe, and to the best of my knowledge none are slated for reserve status.

    2. That's why the US Navy should have kept one or two Early Tico's, Spurance class destroyers and Perrys in Reserve status or give them to the Navy Reserve Units.

  3. I agree completely with the need to keep older ships in reserve. They are very handy when a crisis or need arises. We are crippling ourselves as a nation unnecessarily.

    After Pearl Harbor, all the older "four stacker" destroyers mothballed from WWI were needed for secondary missions like convoy escort and fast troop transports (APD). Eventually new production DDs filled all those needs but there was a critical shortfall in the meantime.

    With the Korean War the numbers needed for carriers, battleships, and escorts again was met with reserve ships. Some were recommissioned quickly, others took longer.

    Vietnam had a smaller but significant use of reserve ships. Old LSTs, LSDs, CVEs, and freighters were used to support the "brown-water navy" and help transport the men and equipment needed in South Vietnam.

    Now the reserve fleet seems to be for keeping ships the Navy can't get rid of easily. After the debacle in the 1990's with trying to recycle the ex-Coral Sea in Baltimore, no carriers since then have been scrapped. The old super carriers in Bremerton and elsewhere are rusting away, not being preserved. The JFK will be a museum and the America was sunk for classified damage-control tests. The Enterprise will be scrapped as part of the nuclear decommissioning process.

    It would cost next to nothing in the DOD/Navy budget to keep the Kitty Hawk, Constellation, and Ranger preserved with dehumidifiers and cathodic equipment. Ditto the old LHAs like the Nassau. Large flight decks like that are priceless real estate when needed.

    What really aggravates me is the sad state of surface combatants you mentioned. I never understood the rationale for disposing of the early Ticonderogas, they easily could have been upgraded with VLS. And the Spruances were real assets; perfect for ASW.

    Now that the first Burkes are hitting the 20 year mark I hope the Navy, if they don't upgrade them, keep them mothballed instead of sinking them.

    1. "It would cost next to nothing in the DOD/Navy budget to keep the Kitty Hawk, Constellation, and Ranger preserved with dehumidifiers and cathodic equipment."

      I believe the bill to update and restore the Iowas was estimated at $750mn before they were struck off.
      Its not so much the cost of keeping them, its the cost of getting them combat ready again after they have spent ten years sat, at best, in drydock, if not, sat in wet dock.

      Things like getting the engines working are simple, but wont be easy.
      But what do you do if the missiles it relies on have been updated, and wont work on the installed radar?
      Upgrade the radar? Downgrade some missiles?
      None of that sounds quick.

    2. With all due respect, you're comparing apples to oranges. Three of the Iowas weren't updated or even in service since the 1950's. By the time of the Reagan buildup they had spent almost 30 years in mothballs. Even the New Jersey, hurriedly activated for one year during Vietnam, needed almost the same level of updating.

      The fossil fueled CVs have been out of service for much less time, the Kitty Hawk was decommissioned in 2009; the Constellation in 2003. The last time I checked, Nimitz CVNs will be using much the same aircraft and the means to launch/recover them for at least another decade as the Constellation did when retired. Unless you want to upgrade the Constellation to a Ford class carrier level of technology, it would not be insurmountable to bring back an old CV.

      The $750 million price for each Iowa reactivation in the Eighties was equivalent to the price of a then-new frigate or gun destroyer. The USN gained tremendous combat power at relatively little cost and time. One estimate at the time for a brand new Iowa with missiles would have been $2-3 billion and at least ten years.

      No one that supports a reserve fleet believes ships can be brought back into service overnight. A truly rushed reactivation, like the New Jersey in Vietnam, will be austere. But I believe it is worth keeping retired ships with unique abilities like the Iowas after WWII or the Spruances five years ago in mothballs. Once scrapped or sunk, you lose the option. If the need doesn't arise, then scrap them. The only added cost in the grand scheme of things is several years of mothball costs.

      I don't miss the steam-powered CGs and DDGs scrapped in the 1990's. Their sensors, weapons, and power-plants were dated and they had no reactivation potential.

      In the case of the Spruances, much of the equipment is identical to a brand new Burke, only older marks. The LM2500, SQS-53, SLQ-32, SPQ-9, Mk 41 VLS, CIWS, 5" gun, Harpoon, Mk 32 LWT launchers are all the same. H-60s are still flying, so the hangar and flight deck remain compatible.

      A Spruance would have been perfect for convoy escort or any secondary duty that didn't require Aegis. If mothballed properly, the time and expense to bring back such a ship could be surprising.

  4. Regarding the China scenario: what if they don't follow the script? In a China - US conflict, they can send some of their SS/SSNs to the eastern Pacific to disrupt commerce at West Coast ports. P-8s could try to sanitize a few hundred miles offshore but escorts might be needed for convoys further out and to boost public morale. Where would those ships come from?

  5. Just as a point of interest, the Midway class carriers completed at the end of WWII, were modernized and flew Hornets before eventually being retired. Had they been put in reserve, they could, even today, operate a full air wing since the wings are strictly Hornets anyway. Admittedly, the -E/F's are enlarged somewhat but a large number of -C/D's are still operating.

    Operating a reactivated Midway would not be an ideal situation from the US perspective but a Midway operating Hornets would still be more than a match for any other carrier group in the world.

    We may scoff at our own older ships but compared to the rest of the world's ships, especially our enemy's (which is all that matters), even our outdated ships are still pretty potent and would be even more so with relatively simple upgrades.

    A reserve fleet is a priceless advantage which we have squandered.

  6. CMO
    The Midways were designed and built as proper warships, design studies started in 1940, and construction took 23 months.

    Bringing back a constellation today is easy, bring it back in 5 years, not too difficult.
    Bringing it back in 20 years?

    It was just a few thoughts.

    1. TrT,

      Like I said, Nimitz CVNs will be using steam cats and hydraulic traps for quite a while. Ten years from now, a fossil fueled CV will be relatively easy to integrate with current aircraft. Even if it only uses F-18Cs and E-2Cs from a reserve unit that's still a capable ship. The only foreign carriers that would be better than that ten years from now might be the UK, France; maybe China?

      But what if we need a MOB like in Haiti in '94 or Afghanistan in '01? Instead of taking a precious CVN, stripping it of its air wing and loading it up with choppers and grunts, we take an old CV and use it? It doesn't need the latest n' greatest gear; hell, it doesn't even need cats and traps. Just make sure the elevators work. It would be a super-carrier sized LPH.

      Earlier, you said the war-built carriers were useless post-war. The Essexes served all the way into the 1970's. Three were turned into LPHs. Half their powerplant was shut down for a reduced top speed and lower manning level, but they helped pioneer helicopter assault in a quick way. I see something similar for an old CV should we need it. You can call it a MOB or an LPH, but if wartime losses or needs dictate it, this might be perfect.

      The key is how well they were decommissioned. I read how the Iowas were brought back as quickly as they were because during decommissioning previous crews took the time and effort to preserve the ship, knowing it might be needed again. If the three Kitty Hawk CVs were mothballed poorly, as I believe they have been, then bringing them back will be more difficult. So like the Spruances, it is yet another lost opportunity.

    2. "But what if we need a MOB like in Haiti in '94 or Afghanistan in '01? Instead of taking a precious CVN, stripping it of its air wing and loading it up with choppers and grunts, we take an old CV and use it? It doesn't need the latest n' greatest gear; hell, it doesn't even need cats and traps. Just make sure the elevators work. It would be a super-carrier sized LPH."

      Well there you have me beaten.
      Although it is a "none combat role".

      I couldnt say if its worth keeping a couple in an operable state as MOBS (as opposed to buiding them their own)

      However they would need to be kept at a relatively high state of readiness.

      "Earlier, you said the war-built carriers were useless post-war. The Essexes served all the way into the 1970's"
      The essexs were built during the war, but they werent built for the war.

    3. I think we are talking past each other on this. My idea of readiness is keeping the ship in a preserved state. The important part is keeping the interior climate controlled and the hull from being corroded. For one of the Iowas it came to roughly $250,000 a year. The DoD probably spent more than that on ball point pens in the same year. But IF the ship is decommissioned properly, then the opportunity can be there for unforeseen future needs.

      If an LPH is non-combat, then why were the Iwo Jima class LPHs built with self-defense weapons, naval levels of shock damage resistance, and heavy compartmentalization?

      “The essexs were built during the war, but they werent built for the war.” What does that mean? And how does that affect the argument that WWII ships like the Essex class which served into the 1970’s as CVAs, CVSs, and LPHs? And the succeeding Midway class served into the 1990’s. Never mind all the cruisers and destroyers that were in service during that time.

    4. That's why I think we should keep the Tarawa class LHA's in Reserve or transfer them to the Military Sealift Command so they can be used as Disaster Response and Humanitarian ships. The Tarawa class would have been perfect as a HA/DAR ship for the US and having one on each coast for Disaster Response and Humanitarian mission. It would be similar to the Mercy class hospital ship. You can have them manned by Civil Service mariners, Navay/Marine/USCG personnel. Medical would come from USPHS, DMAT teams and FEMA would have USAR teams

    5. Nicky, agree completely about the Tarawa LHA's. Great point. I've been unable to find out definitively what's being done with them. Do you have any information?

      I also don't know why we're in such a rush to retire ships like the Tarawa. There's nothing wrong with them that I've ever heard. There's no shortcoming or role they can't perform within their mission set that I'm aware of. I'm sure they could benefit from serious upgrades but the most expensive upgrade imaginable is still far cheaper than new construction. I'm baffled!

      Great comment! Thanks.

    6. I won't retire the Tarawa, I would repurpose them for Disaster response and Humanitarian missions. I would simply transfer them to the Military Sealift command. They would be run by CIVMAR and surge with Navy/Marine/Cast Guard Personnel and even Medical personnel from USPHS commissioned corp, DMAT, and FEMA USAR teams. The old Tarawa class would be run in similar fashion to the Mercy class hospital ships. It would give a new lease on life for the old Tarawa class LHA by giving them a Disaster response and Humanitarian mission. Imagine what would happen if we had used an old Tarawa class LHA as a Disaster response and humanitarian ship for the Earthquake in Haiti and Tsunami in Indonesia.

    7. Nicky,

      Just curious ... Do you see humanitarian missions as a core Navy mission?

  7. The USN is doing the same thing to the Tarawas as what they did to the Spruances - get rid of them, fast.

    Four were retired, one is still in service. Out of the four, one is already scrapped, another sinkex'ed. These ships would also be great candidates for possible future replacement.

    What really bothers me is that there are plenty of far older, less useful ships that can be sold for scrap or used as targets. It's criminal that Spruances, Perrys, and two Tarawas are being used this way.

  8. Sometimes I think military chiefs of operations are using mush to think or they are staying in their officeses with blinders on and wanting to satisfy the politicians. If you are watching the world situation with Russia looking like she wants to rebuild her empire and China trying to claim big parts of the south china sea parts of the pacific, this don't seem like the time to be downsizing and gutting our military. The scuttling our mothball/reserve fleet is running along the same lines. To be scuttling and selling ships that we could and would probably have to use in any major conflict seems terribly short sighted bordering on foolish to me. All of the postings her seem viable and correct. I do wish some of us old salts and warhorses were running thing about now I sure feel a lot more secure. Thanks John J. Denton MMC (SW) (RET.)

  9. It seems new ideas and management should be applied to the reserve fleet. While not maintaining a whole class, what about retiring ships to form reserve CVBGs? A conflict that has one or more carriers damaged enough to be in a shipyard for even a couple weeks is crippling!! How about an east and west coast reserve CVBG maintained at very high levels??? The loss of the capable Spruance class was a huge mistake!!

    1. I agree completely. Of course, a reserve carrier group is useless without an air wing so where will that come from?


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