Friday, October 11, 2013

The Future Navy

We’ve been examining trends, programs, and policies for the last year or so.  I think it’s time for some predictions!

The Navy has been in a state of flux for some time with a lack of clear strategic direction, uncertainty about funding, disagreement about weapons and platforms, and so forth.  Predicting the shape of the future Navy has been difficult if not impossible.  Now, however, the effects of sequestration and separate but on-going budget cuts are settling in, direction is being provided by the Pacific Pivot and AirSea Battle concepts, and the definition of the next round of weapons and platforms has become fairly clear and the shape of the future Navy is becoming visible.

It’s also clear that the 30 year shipbuilding plan is pure fantasy.  Let’s see if we can visualize a realistic future.  Note that this will be a realistic vision but not necessarily a desirable one!  That means that this may not be the future I want but, rather, the future I see.

It’s clear, now, that severely restricted budgets are here to stay.  There will be no net growth in shipbuilding or total budget for the next decade or more.  At best, budgets will hold with adjustments for inflation (though even that isn’t a given!).  At the same time, shipbuilding costs will continue to rise on a real basis.  Personnel costs will probably continue to rise but very slowly as Congress looks at cutting once sacred salaries and benefits for service people.  Research budgets will take steady cuts.  The result of the budget challenges is that shipbuilding will be reduced in numbers and acquisition times will be lengthened.

The Navy of the Future?

Major ship acquisitions will suffer and construction times will be stretched out.  The carrier fleet has already seen construction times stretched from around 4.5 years to 6-7 years.  The carrier fleet will drop from the current 11 to around 8.

New construction major units such as destroyers and amphibious vessels will be steadily reduced in numbers.  The Ticonderoga Aegis vessels will not be directly replaced in terms of function but will be replaced by a less capable, generic Burke Flt X vessel that will replace both current Burkes and Ticos – a drop in overall capability.  Amphibious vessels are experiencing ever increasing real costs, as are all ships, and will be acquired in significantly fewer numbers than currently anticipated especially as the Marine Corp undergoes significant personnel reductions.

Amphibious forces will be hamstrung by a lack of cohesive assault doctrine and ship-to-shore connector craft/vehicles.  The Marine’s EFV was cancelled and there is no viable replacement (or even rational need) scheduled.  The MV-22 is severely limited in weapons/vehicle lift capability.  The Marines are on the verge of losing the ability to conduct a major assault, if they haven’t already, and will not regain it in the foreseeable future.

The Navy shows no sign of abandoning the LCS and every sign of following through on the full 50+ unit acquisition plus the planned follow-on LCS.  Combined with decreasing numbers of major combatants, the LCS will come to make up a third to, more likely, half of the future combat fleet.

The SSBN(X) will prove to be vastly more expensive than currently estimated by the Navy (what ship hasn’t?!!) and acquisition numbers will be rationalized and reduced to around 8.

The SSN fleet will, on a relative basis, continue to receive strong support but will still be reduced by around 25% from current levels, probably steadying out at around 40 units.

Our MCM forces are almost non-existent, currently, and will not make much of a come-back.  There will be no replacements for the Avenger class, the last dedicated MCM platform.  Unless the LCS develops into a world class MCM platform, the Navy will be paralyzed in the face of future mine threats.

I won’t bother commenting on the JSF because you all know how that program is progressing.

Weapons wise, we’ll probably continue to develop the LRASM as Harpoon’s replacement.  We have no land attack Tomahawk replacement or serious upgrade in the works that I’m aware of.  We have no intermediate range ballistic land attack or surface attack missiles in development that I’m aware of (tell me again why we developed the larger Mk57 peripheral launch cells that were installed on the Zumwalts?).  In short, the Navy’s ability to reach out and touch someone is going to be shorter ranged and less explosive than our enemy’s.

As if the preceding weren’t bad enough, we’re witnessing an increasing rate of early ship retirements in an effort to fund new construction.  That’s the definition of a death spiral.  When the above trends are combined with the accelerated rate of early retirements, the fleet is realistically looking at a force level of around 230 ships within the next 10-20 years.  Quite a drop from the 600 ship fleet or even the current 285 ship fleet.  Factor in the drop in combat capability due to the LCS making up a third to half the combat fleet and we’re looking at a stunning drop in naval force projection capability.

There you have it …  Your future Navy.  Not a pretty picture.



    I don't see how the USA is going to be able to afford more than 8, maybe 10 new SSBNs, dear Thompson believes we need at least 12/14 or maybe "even 2 dozen". How we pay for them, he conveniently ignores....I think 8 SSBNs with Trident with some potential new ICBM would be plenty for MAD.

    Anyone wonder why we can't replace Minutemen with shore based Tridents or it's replacement? Or USAF can't buy something designed for the Navy? We are going to have to replace Minutemen someday,right? Why not replace them with Tridents or a joint design? Not that has worked out well for the Russians, seems their joint ICBM/SSBM hasn't been working great, the last one blew up again (last month?) but if we have Trident that works fine being launched from an SSBN, how hard should it be to shore launch it?

    The Marine Corps is probably going to lose most of it's armor in the coming years, just seems that most their ground programs are getting canned. It will turn into an air assault force with little armor/transport, it will hope helicopters and F35B will give it all the firepower it needs because they aren't going to have anything else.

    It's scary to think that LCS is going to become a third of the Navy fleet, we better hope for those sailors they will never have to engage against a force bigger than a pirate ship off of Somalia because they are just about as good as dead if the enemy has any kind of firepower. Reading a comment on another blog, made a good point about the LCS, it's too big to be a corvette and too small and not enough firepower to be a frigate. It's the WORST of both worlds. Foreign navies have Corvettes like LCS but much smaller or bigger Frigates with far more combat capability, somehow the USN got this completely wrong.

  2. Another issue is deferred maintenance. And surely before the DoD cuts salaries it will cut training.

    On the bright side, if we have smaller, less capable, armed forces, then maybe someone will come up with a coherent national defense strategy simply out of necessity. The idea is that, when you have all sorts of ships, planes, weapons, well-trained people, there are so many things you can do that it's tempting to try them all. Whereas if you have a severely limited budget, then maybe you'll be disciplined enough to limit your goals and strategies to those few that you can handle.

  3. The problem with simply counting USN hulls is that it completely overlooks context. The question that should be asked is how well do our capabilities compare to an enemy’s ability to counter them? Take undersea warfare against our most likely enemy: the Chinese.

    Even under the most pessimistic fleet projections I’ve see, we're likely to have 42 nuclear-attack submarines (SSNs) through 2032. This doesn't seem like much when you stack against 62 Chinese subs.

    If we conservatively assume that we could only surge/deploy 50% of that total, that's still around 21 highly-effective and extremely modern ship-killers. More would be available if a war goes longer.

    Every single one of our subs is nuclear powered, extremely quiet, and equipped with lethal sensors and weapons. They are fast and can stay forward almost indefinitely - food and torps would be main limitation.

    The PLAN sub force is mostly diesel boats – slow and incredibly vulnerable in the open ocean - and a dozen or so 1970s generation nuke boats. Both types would be ‘easy meat’ for US SSNs should they venture into open waters.

    Assuming they can keep 50% forward (which would be very hard with diesels) that's 31 boats. Substantially less than a 2:1 numerical advantage.

    And numbers won’t matter all that much if you never hear the other guy coming. For all the hoopla on carrier development and the DF-21, China has very limited ASW capabilites. They are generations behind the USN and JMSDF - and we have a hard time finding our own subs.

    The USN possess an overwhelming advantage over our principal rival in the undersea domain. Perhaps that’s where we should be focusing our resources - rather than trying to make a mediocre warship passable.

    1. Anon, that's a relevant observation ... today. Given the trend in Chinese naval development compared to ours, what will the comparison look like in 2020 or 2030? The post was about the future Navy, hence, comparisons should be about the future relative capabilities between us and our enemies. China is cranking out new and capable warships at an amazing rate - far surpassing our production. They are developing carriers, though still many years away from having a credible carrier force. They are rapidly developing nuclear submarine forces and exercising further and further out into the deeper oceans. They're developing aircraft equal to our own. And so on. Their naval trend is towards larger and more capable fleets. Our trend is the reverse.

      The point of the post is that the direction of our Navy is towards fewer numbers and significantly less overall force projection capability (thanks LCS!).

      If you want to take a shot at comparing future naval forces that would be fascinating. I'm not enough of an expert on Chinese naval development to go much beyond broad trends.

    2. If we conservatively assume that we could only surge/deploy 50% of that total, that's still around 21 highly-effective and extremely modern ship-killers.
      Answer: That is the party line, but the British deployed three (3) SSNs around the Falkland Islands and never held contact, let alone successfully prosecuted a single Argentine submarine. I am incredulous that 21 (or 42) SSNs are going to successfully prosecute a major naval campaign.


      The PLAN sub force is mostly diesel boats – slow and incredibly vulnerable in the open ocean - and a dozen or so 1970s generation nuke boats. Both types would be ‘easy meat’ for US SSNs should they venture into open waters.
      Answer: Ah, but the Chinese do not have to venture into open waters to achieve their primary strategic objective: Taiwan. The burden is on the U.S. to prosecute Chinese submarines.


      And numbers won’t matter all that much if you never hear the other guy coming. For all the hoopla on carrier development and the DF-21, China has very limited ASW capabilites. They are generations behind the USN and JMSDF - and we have a hard time finding our own subs.
      Answer: We will never hear the Chinese mines either! The Chinese have an overwhelming advantage in mines both quantitatively (more than the US inventory of bombs) and qualitatively. The Chinese also devote a massive amount of effort to MCM. The Chinese also have the means to deploy their mines rapidly by air, sea, and even clandestinely through merchant shipping. Again, the burden is on the U.S. to prosecute Chinese submarines – when was the last time our boats penetrated minefields?


    3. GAB,

      #1. I actually said SHIP-killers. Not sub-killers.

      You're factually correct that UK subs never actually killed any Argentinean subs. However, you overlooked the fact that the British never actively EMPLOYED their SSNs to hunt Argentina’s two outdated diesels. I'll recap:

      British SSNs were used early in the war to enforce the maritime exclusion zone and track Argentinean SAG(s). And to avoid blue-on-blue encounters, ADM Woodward forbade them to engage sub contacts. It’s hard to kill something if you’re not allowed to shoot.

      Once the ARA BELGRANO was sunk, the Argentinean surface fleet was effectively put out of the picture. UK SSNs were then used to provide indication and warning (I&W) of inbound air attacks originating from the Argentinean mainland. ASW was never part of their role.

      The SATF ASW screen was hard pressed. No one said ASW is not easy. And they probably killed a lot of whales in their attempts to find and kill those Argentinean boats! But the final scorecard was one Argentinean diesel sub out-of-action (ARA SANTA FE) against zero losses to submarines on the UK side.

      (The source for all the above is “Submarine Operations in the Falklands”, LCDR Stephen Harper, US Naval War College, 1994. Perhaps worth a read).

      #2. The water gets pretty deep East of Taiwan. And it’s very debatable if Taiwan is China's sole or even principal focus. They show clear intent and growing capability to exert naval power well beyond the first island-chain. And that means open-ocean operations.

      #3. Completely irrelevant to the point I was making. But I'll address it just the same.

      The US has got a heck of lot more real-world experience in mine-warfare than the Chinese. We’d also likely have the Japanese on our side – and they just as proficient at MIW as they are at ASW.

      Mining also works both ways. And the fights probably in the China’s backyard, which means their ports and sea lines of communication (SLOC), are just as vulnerable to mining and submarine warfare. China has an awful lot of vulnerable coastline…


    4. Edit: "No one said ASW is easy."

    5. A comment by Anon was removed due to personal attacks. People, feel free to disagree but do so respectfully and impersonally.

      Anon, feel free to remove the personal aspects and re-post, if you wish.


  4. "I am incredulous that 21 (or 42) SSNs are going to successfully prosecute a major naval campaign."


    History has shown that a small number of aggressively-handled submarines can have decisive effects, particulary against an unprepared enemy.


    A single German submarine (U-21) torpedoed and sunk the battleship HMS Triumph, firing in support of ANZAC troops. The sinking of this one ship causes the withdrawal of the entire Allied battle line. They returned two days later – and U-21 sunk yet another battleship (HMS Majestic).


    This was the zenith of the U-Boat arms effectiveness in WW2. Sinkings averaged more than 300,000 tons a month – yet there were still rarely more than 15 U-boats at sea. In fact, the number of U-Boats at sea didn’t begin to climb much until the early spring of 1941.


    The Germans initiated submarine war against the US almost immediately. Yet due to the distances, the Kriegsmarine was only able to maintain about 5-6 boats on-station at a time along the US east coast. They had a field day against weak and disorganized US ASW forces, sinking 3.1 million tons in 8 months.

    MEDITERRANEAN (WW2, 1940-42)

    Royal Navy subs sunk scores of Italian and German supply ships transiting the Med in in 1940-42. It was this lack of supplies (fuel, spares, ammo, etc.) which ultimately doomed Rommel. The RN did so with a force of less than 30 submarines based in Malta, Alexandria and Gibraltar – of which probably 10-15 were underway at any one time.

    PACIFIC (WW2, 1941-45)

    The US Navy submarine campaign was perhaps the single most effective aspect of the Pacific War. The Japanese merchant fleet was decimated, while the IJN lost many carriers and battleships. Yet due to the immense distances, the US Navy was never able to sustain >20 boats at sea in enemy waters. This changed in mid-1944, as newer boats arrived in numbers and the US captured closer basing.


    A force of three Royal Navy SSNs sunk Argentina's largest surface combatant and neutralized the rest of its surface force. Three nuclear submarines made the entire South Atlantic a 'no-go' zone.


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