Saturday, November 30, 2013

LCS Aviation

In a discussion awhile back, a commenter stated that the helo and hangar might be the only thing the LCS got right.  My first reaction was that the statement might be right but the more I thought about it, the more I think the opposite is true.

Before we go any further, let’s set the record straight on the aviation capabilities of the LCS.  Most people think the large flight decks (and they do have that!) mean fairly extensive aviation capabilities:  the ability to operate several helos of any type, the ability to act as a lily pad for any number of any type of helos, and, possibly, the ability to operate MV-22s.  The reality, however, is quite a bit less.  Ignoring UAVs, here’s what the LCS can handle.

LCS-1 – (1)SH-60 (hangar)
LCS-2 – (2)SH-60 (hangar) or (1)H-53 (flight deck only)

As a lily pad, the LCS can, presumably, accommodate any helo up to the weight of an SH-60 or SH-60/H-53, depending on the LCS class.  That’s tempered, though, by the fact that the flight decks are structurally weak.  I’ve never seen actual data on the flight deck weight limits or total capacity but LCS program engineers I’ve spoken to suggest that the structural weakness greatly limits the flight deck capacity.  My best assessment is that the flight deck can’t handle much more than the one or two helos the ship’s are credited with operating.

Thus, the LCS-1 class can operate a single helo and the LCS-2 class can operate one or two helos.  That’s not a lot.  Add to that the maxim that if you have one helo, you have none, in recognition of the helo’s extensive maintenance requirements and you begin to recognize that the helo is not as useful in practice as it would seem on paper.  Further, unlike, say, a ship’s gun which is ready 24 hours a day, a helo can only be used for several hours, at most, before it must return to the ship to rearm and refuel – a lengthy process even assuming a relief crew is available and, given the high maintenance requirements, the helo is only available for several hours out of 24.

Assuming it’s mechanically “up”, what can a helo contribute to the ship’s three main missions of ASW, MCM, and ASuW? 

ASW is the helo’s forte and the MH-60R is well suited for it.  The only drawback is the lack of numbers and limited endurance.  A single LCS can only operate one or two helos which provides pretty spotty coverage.  A helo can only operate for a few hours before it must return to the ship to rearm and refuel – a lengthy process that leaves gaps in the ASW coverage.

MCM was intended to be performed in large measure by helo towed or mounted MCM equipment.  Unfortunately, apparently no one checked to see whether the the -60 helo could safely tow the equipment.  As it turned out, it can’t.  Further, some of the helo mounted MCM systems have failed to pan out.  It looks like the helo is going to operate the Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS) which uses a remote controlled (fiber optic link) “torpedo” (Archerfish or similar) with a camera and explosive charge to relocate a target mine and destroy it.  It appears that a helo can neutralize up to four mines before returning to the ship to rearm.  Thus, a maximum of four mines can be neutralized over the course of several  hours, at best.  Further, unlike the MH-53E, the MH-60S cannot conduct MCM operations at night and has less endurance.  Overall, the helo is going to play a much smaller MCM role than originally intended. 

ASuW is a potentially useful role for the helo armed with up to 8 Hellfires, however, operational constraints greatly decrease the usefulness.  Aside from the spotty availability, the helo will only be useful if it happens to be airborne and armed with the proper weapons at the exact moment of an attack.  Given the probable short range and short warning of engagements, the odds of getting a helo into action are not great.  Add to that the vulnerability of the helo to Stinger-type missiles and the ASuW role begins to look a bit suspect.

Some of the LCS’s aviation limitations could possibly be alleviated by operating the ships in squadrons so that they can pool their helos.  Of course, that requires that the ships stay in fairly close proximity so as to maximize mission time.  If that’s the case, it would probably make more sense to simply operate a single amphibious ASW or MCM mothership, at least from a helo operations and support point of view.

So far, the discussion has been straightforward and the conclusion is that helos on the LCS are of much more limited usefulness than would appear on paper.  Add to that the fact that each LCS has to be its own helo support and maintenance center and it quickly becomes apparent that LCS helos are somewhat useful, though limited, and inefficient to operate. 

Now, let’s go a step further.  Recognizing both the potential usefulness of helos and operational inefficiency of the LCS, what about deleting aviation capability from the LCS and, instead, operate non-aviation LCS squadrons centered around amphibious motherships (retired Tarawas, for example)?  The LCS, now much cheaper to build and operate, and suitably modified for this new role, would provide the ASuW and AAW protection for the mothership, extended reach for MCM and ASW remote underwater vehicles (assuming they ever pan out), and extended area patrol, boarding, and other “peacetime” activities.  In addition to being able to operate more helos than a squadron of LCS’s, the mothership would provide the centralized support and maintenance that would allow for more efficient helo operation, a degree of materiel and maintenance support for the LCS squadron, and centralized command and control.

So, quite the opposite from the helo/hangar/flight deck being the one thing the LCS got right, I submit that it’s a serious failing in the ship design and concept of operations.  That’s not surprising, really, since the Navy, by their own admission, never had a concept of operations in place when the LCS was designed.  The proposed concept of operations offers the opportunity to salvage a degree of usefulness from the LCS while enhancing MCM and ASW capabilities in the fleet.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

R&D Production

R&D Production

Huh?!?  What does that title mean?  Aren’t R&D (Research and Development) and Production two separate, if not mutually exclusive, terms?  Isn’t R&D something you do separate from, and generally prior to, Production?  Doesn’t R&D mean the investigation and development of something that isn’t mature enough for production – something that may or may not eventually pan out?  Doesn’t Production mean the routine building of a known commodity?

You say your old rifle isn’t good enough anymore?  Well, you initiate an R&D program and when you have a proven design for a new rifle with the major kinks worked out of it then you begin production of that new rifle.  Seems simple, straightforward, and obvious - so obvious, in fact, that I’m beginning to bore you, right?  Talk about stating and belaboring the obvious!

Well, despite the obviousness, the Navy (and, to be fair, the military in general) seems totally unable to grasp the concept and has begun using Production as a means of implementing R&D.

The most obvious example is the LCS.  We’re producing hulls that have no purpose or capability so that we can justify an enormous and long term R&D program attempting to develop unmanned vehicles of various types as well as other far future technologies.  The Navy terms this practice “concurrent” production and design.  More accurately, it’s concurrent production and R&D.

The JSF is another good example.  We’re building an aircraft while simultaneously conducting an R&D program to develop an integrated, 360 degree sensor solution tied into a magic helmet.  We have no idea whether it will ultimately work.  It hasn’t so far and it’s unlikely to be operational for several more years, at least, yet we’re building the aircraft.

The Zumwalt is a floating R&D laboratory though the degree of R&D risk is, perhaps, a bit less than some other programs.  The very shape of the ship may or may not prove seaworthy and yet production is well underway.  The ship contains a host of developmental technologies that are not yet proven.

The Ford is intended to use radars that are still in the developmental stage even though the ship is already built.  The EMALS and AAG systems are still developmental.

The problems with this approach are many.  We’re wasting enormous sums of money building platforms and systems that, at best, will have to be extensively reworked as the designs mature and, at worst, may never pan out and will be discarded.  We risk our future combat capability with bets on technology that may not succeed.  Consider the LCS – if we can’t develop useful modules, and so far we have none despite a decade or more of R&D efforts, we may well wind up with a third of our battle fleet consisting of Coast Guard cutters.  If the Zumwalt proves unseaworthy, and the Navy is already writing guidelines to address the dangers of sailing a tumblehome hull in certain seas, we may wind up with a cruiser size, $4B ship that can’t leave calm waters.  If the JSF technologies don’t pan out we’ll have a $300B program that will have produced a near obsolete aircraft by the time it enters squadron service.

The sequence of R&D followed by Production is a time-tested and proven concept.  Concurrent R&D and Production is one more example of the endless string of very poor decisions and practices implemented by uniformed leadership over the last few decades.  The military desperately needs a return to common sense and time-tested procedures.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Industry In Charge

In an interview (1) with Real Clear Defense (RCD), CNO Greenert expressed concern about the Navy’s lack of anti-ship weaponry.  As RCD reported,

“Greenert said that while he is comfortable now, it’s “reasonably fair” to say there is a real long-term concern about being out-sticked in the future. “I’m not dissatisfied, let’s just say impatient in the near term to get something out there with what we have. Industry can come up with some pretty interesting payloads pretty quickly, and I’d like to see what they’re going to do in the nearer term. “
The Navy chief emphasized that the military does not “think of things like, ship-to-ship, air-to-air,” but rather places emphasis on systems. But he acknowledged “the need is there to deliver something from the ship.” “

Greenert’s statement demonstrates exactly the point I’ve been hammering on for some time, now, with regard to the Navy’s lack of in-house expertise.  He notes that “Industry can come up with some pretty interesting payloads …” and wants “… to see what they’re going to do in the nearer term.”

The Navy wants to see what industry is going to do about our national defense and about the Navy’s capabilities!?!  Not only does the Navy no longer have the expertise to design weapons and systems in-house but they don’t even have enough grasp of strategy, tactics, and requirements to come up with a list of requirements to present to industry for development.  The Navy should be telling industry what to build not waiting to see what industry comes up with and hoping it meets a need.

Aside from my absolute disgust with Navy leadership, we also can see a system that is ingrained with an industry-first bias.  A company is going to propose and develop the products that it can make a larger profit on and that enhance and support its existing product lines rather than developing weapons and systems that are actually needed.  That’s understandable.  That’s why industry exists – to make a profit.  That’s also why, when you approach industry, you tell them what YOU want rather than having them tell you what THEY will give you.  If a company can’t deliver what you want you go to another company that can.

This is incompetence and irresponsibility on a scale that makes our naval forefathers roll over in their graves.  This CNO hasn’t got a clue how to run a Navy.

(1) Real Clear Defense, Justin Walker, 19-Nov-2013, “Navy Chief Impatient To Avoid Being Out-Sticked”,

Friday, November 22, 2013

Shallow Draft

As regular readers know, I’m often critical of the Navy and for good reason.  However, there’s one thing the Navy is exceedingly good at and that’s selling a project.  The Navy will use whatever spin, made-up stories, distorted facts, and creative accounting is needed.  The corollary to this is the old saying that if you repeat a lie long enough it becomes the truth.  Let’s look at the littoral combat ship and, specifically, the myth about the need for shallow draft.

We all know that the Navy can’t operate near shore or in littoral waters because of the extreme danger from enemy actions.  How do we know this?  Because the Navy has told us this over and over.  The fact that an incoming anti-ship missile doesn’t really care what the depth of the ocean is under it is kind of glossed over.  Be that as it may, even if we ignored the immediate combat threat, we know that Navy ships can’t operate in shallow waters simply due to their extreme draft.  Only a specialized vessel like the LCS can even go in shallow water.  That alone is justification for the LCS program.  How do we know this?  Because the Navy has told us this over and over.

Let me pose this question:  How close do you want to be to the shore?  That’s another way of asking, what activity can a ship perform in 10 ft of water that it can’t perform in 20 ft?  What activity can it perform in 50 ft of water that it can’t perform in 100 ft?  The entire “argument” about draft presupposes that there is some worthwhile activity that can only occur in very shallow water. 

Let’s think about this, for a minute.  A typical shore drops off fairly steadily and quickly from 0 ft to 100+ ft within a few hundred yards to, say, half a mile or so.  Is there some beach, somewhere on Earth where the depth is only 6 ft a mile out from shore?  Probably but that’s hardly typical.

Now, let’s do a quick check of some actual naval vessel drafts.

Nimitz Class – 40 ft
Burke Class – 30 ft
LCS Class – 14 ft

Well, that’s interesting.  Referring back to our notional shore profile, and even allowing for a depth of twice the draft for operating safety, a Nimitz could stand to within a few hundred yards to a half mile or so off a beach.

Now think about that.  What needed function is there that would require a ship to get closer to shore than a few hundred yards or a half mile or so?  Because that’s exactly what the Navy sold us on – that there was some function that only a shallow draft ship could perform and therefore the LCS program was needed.  What is that function?  Chasing a guy in a motorboat? – I guess so but that hardly justifies a $500M+ LCS and the LCS can still only operate within 28 ft of depth so it can’t “run down” a motorboat in shallow water anyway.  Neutralizing near-shore mines?  Yeah!  No, wait.  Now that I think about it, the LCS is meant to stand well off from mines so shallow draft isn’t needed.  Shallow water ASW?  No, even diesel subs require a hundred plus feet of water to operate in and, besides, the LCS can’t perform ASW in shallow water – the towed arrays can’t deploy.  Gun support for troops ashore?  Burkes can get within a few hundred yards to a half mile.  Would an extra hundred yards of inland range make any difference?  Besides, the LCS isn’t a gun support ship anyway.

You get my point.  I can’t think of a naval ship function that is required in the 28 ft – 80 ft depth that can’t be performed in 60 ft - 80+ ft which is what a Nimitz or Burke can do.

People have bought into the shallow draft story because the Navy has repeated it so long and so often that it has become “truth”.  With a little common sense thinking, we now know better and we see that a major portion of the LCS justification was based on an invalid assumption.  Shallow draft gains us little or nothing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Freedom To The Rescue!

The USS Freedom (LCS-1) is being dispatched to the Philippines, laden with 10 pallets of supplies.  That’s right, a 3000 ton vessel carrying a whopping 10 pallets!  I guess every little bit helps in a disaster but that’s the definition of a little bit. 

Is it just me or does this smack of a PR ploy?  The mighty LCS rushing to save the day with enough supplies to feed a family of four for a couple of days? 

Setting aside my absolute disgust over this transparent stunt, has the Navy considered what will happen if Freedom experiences another one of its all too frequent mechanical failures?  Unlike the Singapore deployment where no one really cared or kept too close a track on the ship’s activities, a failure during this operation, with international press keeping a close watch, would be an enormous embarrassment for the LCS program.  You’ve got to believe there will be some Admirals keeping nervous fingers crossed for the duration of this PR operation.

USS Chancellorsville Hit By Drone

The Navy has reported that a BQM-74 target drone went out of control and hit the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) on 16-Nov while the ship was conducting air defense and radar tracking exercises.  The hit left a two or three foot hole in the port side of the ship.  The Information Dissemination (ID) website reports that the ship and crew attempted to defend the ship but failed.

I have no independent confirmation that the ship attempted to defend itself, however, I also have no reason to disbelieve the ID report as their reports are generally factual and true.

ID correctly notes that the issue is not the loss of control of the drone but, rather, the failure of the ship’s defensive systems.  I’ll be watching this one closely to see what the Navy offers in the way of an explanation.

Here’s a link, below, to the ID article.  They have an extensive writeup and cover all the points I would make so I won’t bother repeating their efforts.  I encourage you to follow the link and read the article.  Plus, they have a great photo of the damage.

LCS Report Card

As reported by the Wall Street Journal online site (1), the Navy has received an early report on the performance of the USS Freedom, LCS-1, Singapore deployment.  As we’ve discussed on this blog, Freedom has suffered from generator failures, blackouts, power outages, leaking piping, flooding, propulsion, and steering problems among other lowlights.  The ship has had to routinely carry several tech reps to assist with maintenance.  From the article,

“When Navy leaders were given an expedited assessment on the ship's performance last week, they found the scope of those problems to be "a little stunning," says Rear Adm. Tom Rowden, the Navy's director of surface warfare.”

As the demonstrated shortcomings of the LCS are becoming more apparent, Navy officials continue to ratchet down the expectations and offer revisionist history.  Again, from the article,

“Some Navy officials have distanced themselves from one original selling point: the ability to shift between missions in 72 hours.  "I'm not sure that I ever bought into that concept at all," says Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, who led a council created last year to review the littoral-ship program.”

You never bought into it.  Sure ...  I believe you.

Another issue that has surfaced is the automated maintenance reporting system.  The ship collects large amounts of data on a continuous basis with the data being automatically communicated back to the shore based support facility so as to facilitate the needed maintenance and repairs when the ship returns to port.  However, the maintenance reporting system has suffered from bandwidth issues causing data reporting to be delayed for many days or more.

As the evidence mounts against the LCS, the Navy’s public support for the program seems to increase proportionally.  The Navy seems determined to ride this program right to the bitter end.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Save the Industrial Base?

As we discuss the costs of various programs, such as the JSF, LCS, or Zumwalt, one of the common points that keeps recurring is that we can’t afford to cancel the programs because of the impact on the manufacturing base.  We’re down to one or two manufacturers in many of our key areas.  If we were to cancel a program, the manufacturer would fold or downsize to the point that we would lose vital expertise.  Thus, we’re forced to procure weapons and systems that may only be marginally useful in order to support the manufacturer.  The military is, in effect, operating a jobs program simply to maintain an industrial base.

In principle, this is an easy issue.  The military is under no obligation and, indeed, has no tasking or responsibility to ensure the solvency of commercial companies.  If a company can’t survive, it should fail.  That’s the Darwinian law of the free market.

Of course, the reality is that much of the manufacturing and technical expertise that the military depends on is narrowly focused (can’t be transferred into the general market place) and highly concentrated in a very few manufacturers.  If one does fold, it will have an enormous impact on our ability to design and produce new weapons and systems. 

We see, then, that a policy of propping up companies does, in fact, have some validity and strategic worth.  Unfortunately, this leads to two very bad consequences:  high costs due to lack of competition and the procurement of systems of questionable utility.  There is a third, perhaps worse, consequence and that is the concentration of expertise in commercial companies rather than within the military.  Currently, the Navy does not have the engineering expertise to design or even evaluate a ship design.  The Navy does not have the expertise to design new radars, missiles, launch systems, aircraft, or even more mundane and lower tech items such as turbines, motors, valves, etc.  The military has become totally dependent on commercial companies for expertise.  Too often, tech reps keep the Navy running instead of our own sailors.

What has lead us to this situation?  How did we go from having many shipyards, manufacturers, and widespread commercial expertise plus extensive in-house expertise in the 1940’s to the current situation?  There’s many factors, of course, but two main developments have dictated the trend. 

First, the abolishment of BuShips (see here) meant that the Navy gave up its internal ship design expertise.  As we said, not only can the Navy not design new ships, it can’t even evaluate industry designs (no cathodic corrosion protection on the LCS???  no bridge wings on the LCS? vibration so severe on the LCS that the 57mm gun can’t hit a target?).  The Navy forfeited its technical competence to industry. 

Second, the Navy embarked on a pursuit of high end, multi-function, extremely high tech ships and planes which resulted in a spiral of fewer numbers and ever increasing costs.  As the costs increase, the numbers decrease.  That’s a death spiral.  It also means that fewer and fewer ships and aircraft are built which means that fewer and fewer manufacturers can be supported.  Again, a death spiral.

OK, so now we clearly see the problem and recognize the dilemma but no one seems to have a solution.  Is there nothing we can do but wring our hands and ride the death spiral down to the inevitable end?  That’s what the Navy is doing!

Well, having recognized the cause of the problem, what if we reversed it?  What if the Navy stopped the pursuit of technology (or at least tempered it!) and regained its in-house expertise?  Would that have any positive impact?  What if we built more ships and planes?  That would support a larger industrial base, wouldn’t it?  Well, sure, but where would the money come from to build more ships and planes?  We haven’t got enough money to even build sufficient numbers to maintain the fleet size let alone increase it!  So, yeah, I guess those actions would improve the situation but they’re not really practical or even possible … … …     Are they?

To build more ships without increasing the shipbuilding budget just requires a philosophical adjustment.  Let’s give up a few of the top end ships in exchange for greater numbers of solid, highly useful ships that don’t have to be technological wonders.  For example, the three Zumwalts are going to add a very marginal improvement in capability to the fleet.  At a construction cost of $12B or so (not to mention the R&D costs!), we could have bought twelve modern, highly useful $1B frigates or twenty four basic but still quite useful $500M frigates.  If we gave up a single $14B Ford class carrier we could afford a lot of AFSBs, MLPs, four air wings worth of brand new Super Hornets, an entire new class of MCM vessels, and so on.  If we gave up the LCS we could afford to build dozens of dedicated MCM vessels and low end dedicated ASW vessels.  I could go on with example after example but you get the idea.  Note that I’m not advocating giving up technology or high end ships – just saying that not every ship and plane needs to be ultra high end.  A judicious restraint on our technology pursuit fetish can still give us the high end we need, provide lots of extra ships and planes to support our industrial base, and significantly expand the fleet size while still providing useful platforms.  Throw in more upgrades rather than early retirements and the industrial base is further supported.

Reconstituting BuShips would provide the Navy with the in-house expertise it needs to better monitor the products and services it gets from industry.  If we had had in-house naval engineering expertise, how much money would we have saved on the LCS corrosion debacle?  Yeah, I know, a drop in the bucket compared to overall budgets and costs.  However, over time, enough drops eventually equal a bucket.  With in-house expertise, perhaps we wouldn’t have had to accept a clearly sub-standard LCS design, or EMALS that has no electromagnetic shielding and glows like an electromagnetic beacon, or an F-35C that doesn’t have enough rear end to get its tailhook to engage, or an LPD-17 design that has a boat launch that is inherently dangerous, or a Burke Flt III AMDR that is too small for the required task, or ….  All of those things cost extra money to fix – some drops of money and some quite a lot.  The more money we save, the more money we have available for additional ships and planes thereby strengthening the industrial base.

Greater in-house expertise also offers another, radical possibility.  If we can’t fully support the industrial base we need, what about absorbing it?  Why can’t the Navy actually design and build their own ships?.  Sure, we’d have to essentially create a shipbuilding company within the Navy but we would no longer have to pay the profit portion of the costs.  I don’t know what the profit margin on a ship is, for instance, but it’s got to be at least 20% or industry wouldn’t do it.  My guess is that it’s a lot higher than that.  Regardless, do the math.  A profit of 20% on a $12B carrier is $2.4B.  That could buy a lot of additional planes and ships or fund a great deal of maintenance and upgrades so that our existing fleet could last longer!  Instead of having to try to separate industry sales spin from reality maybe the Navy would have the expertise to know the straight story - not that the Navy is exactly renowned for straight talking or wise decisions but, you know, theoretically…

It comes down to this:  we can all say that the current system is too fragile to change – while riding the death spiral to complete failure – or we can peek outside the box and consider some more radical changes.  Would they be easy to implement?  Probably not but faced with a death spiral, isn’t it worth trying something different?  The Navy has 285 or so ships now and can’t meet the mission demand.  What’s going to happen when the fleet shrinks to 230?  Yeah, those are the numbers that even CNO is throwing around although he seems not to understand the reason why it’s happening.

The choice is simple:  die or change.  I’d like to try changing.

Shoup Returns

The Burke class destroyer USS Shoup, DDG-86, is wrapping up an extended deployment just shy of 10-1/2 months, having left on 9-Jan-2013 and scheduled to return on 18-Nov-2013.  Wanna bet there will be a few extra divorces and ultimatums waiting pierside?  The answer to dwindling ship numbers is not longer deployments.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

JSF - Any Alternatives At This Point?

In a previous post, The Good That JSF Is Doing, an anonymous commenter, while acknowledging the problems with the JSF program, posed the question, is there really a better option than to see this through?  He then posed the follow up question, if we did cancel JSF, what’s Plan B?

For many people, the program really has boiled down to the sentiment expressed above.  The program is a poster child for how not to run an acquisition program and we can describe a litany of problems but, at this point, it’s too late to change, many feel.  There’s no realistic alternative.  Is that really the case?  Has it reached that sad point?  Let’s look a bit closer.

From a technical and tactical perspective over the next 20+ years the JSF is either inadequate for the high end scenarios (ASB, A2/AD) due to limited range, limited payload, and only moderate stealth or it’s a vast overkill for the low end scenarios where any number of much cheaper aircraft would work just as well. 

With that framework in mind, does it make sense to commit to building 2000 or so aircraft at $150M each for a total cost of $300 BILLION ?!!

To those of you who have already started to pound out your replies telling me how the JSF is going to have 360 degree magic vision, total situational awareness for 10,000 miles in all directions, act as a command and control node for the entire Western war machine, and whatever other promises have been made about it, do yourself a favor and stop reading this post.  You’re the type that believes in Santa Claus and believes that one LCS and one JSF will win any war single-handed (honestly, either one could do it alone, right?).  For the rest of us, the reality is that the JSF will offer modest improvements on the F-16’s dogfighting (maybe), a bit better range and stealth than the Hornet, and will be fortunate to realize half the claims made for it.  The JSF will eventually be a bit better than what we have now but at a crippling cost.

The question in this post, though, isn’t about the JSF’s technical abilities but whether there’s any real option or alternative at this point.  Let’s consider some alternatives.  I’m going to discuss this mostly from the Navy’s perspective while acknowledging that the impact on the Air Force and our allies is equally important.

The argument for continuing the program basically boils down to the fact that the current Hornets are reaching the end of their life and if we stop the program we’ll have a gap over the next 15 years where Hornets are retiring and we have nothing to replace them with.  Similarly, many of our allies are also in the position of needing an aircraft now. 

Is there an alternative?  Can we avoid the gap created by canceling the program?  Do we even need to worry about the gap?

Alternative 1 – Cancel the program and use the $300B that will be saved to start over using the lessons learned and any technology that can be salvaged.  With a better managed program, $300B can buy a lot of airplane!  The thinking under this scenario is that we accept the risk of a 15 year gap.  What better time?  The world is relatively quiet.  There is no high end threat that is considered a likely problem for the next 15 years so an aircraft gap is a reasonable risk.  The lower end conflicts can be adequately handled by existing aircraft.  We can continue to purchase Hornets to simply fill aircraft numbers.

Alternative 2 – The JSF offers only a modest improvement in performance and is not optimized for the ASB, A2/AD scenarios.  Cancel the program and put the $300B towards improved Hornets (conformal fuel tanks, improved sensors, etc.) which the manufacturer has already developed to a large degree.  We can purchase 1.5 improved Hornets for each JSF cancelled.  This will buy us the time to start a new aircraft program at a relaxed and reasonable pace while still improving the aircraft fleet via the improved Hornet.

Alternative 3 – Drop the F-35C carrier version but continue the F-35B buy for the Marines.  Again, the carrier version offers only modest improvements and the Hornet can continue to serve with supplemental new Hornet purchases.  This mitigates the budget damage to some degree while still obtaining an improved STOVL aircraft.

Related Observation:  The Navy is in the throes of a severe and worsening budget shortfall.  It is quite likely that either the number of carriers will be reduced by two or three or some carriers will be placed in long term caretaker mode and their air wings deactivated.  Thus, the aircraft gap that would result from canceling the JSF may well turn out to be nowhere near as severe as predicted.  We may, in fact, have a few air wings worth of surplus Hornets for the next decade or more.  The fact is that the Navy has already sidelined a few carriers and their air wings so this scenario is already playing out. 

None of these alternatives are particularly palatable but we’ve backed ourselves into a corner which has no good solutions.  However, the only thing worse than one of these alternatives is to spend ungodly sums of additional money that will cripple and kill future programs across the military while delivering a platform that is only a modest improvement and may be overmatched before it even reaches squadron service.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tarawa, LHA-1 - Additional Service?

We saw in the last post that the Tarawa (LHA-1) class amphibious ships were retired early at just 30 years of service and with no real justification.  All right, let’s set that aspect aside.  Given that the class was retired, the next logical question is could any further worthwhile use have been gotten from the class even in another role?  Well, here’s a few possibilities.

LCS Mothership.  The LCS is going to be operated in squadrons (maybe – the Navy still isn’t sure what it’s going to do with the LCS!) which, given the concept of off-board maintenance for the LCS, just cries out for a mothership as the anchor for a group of ships.  The Tarawa mothership can provide the centralized, off-board maintenance support the LCS’s need, as well as providing refueling, rearming, reprovisioning, centralized command and control, and additional aviation support that would enhance the effectiveness of the LCS’s.  With no embarked Marines to support, the Tarawa should be able to operate with greatly reduced crews.

ASW/MCM Mothership.  The main platform in both ASW and MCM appears to be helos, at least until the magic remote unmanned vehicles pan out, and what better vessel to host helos than a former amphibious ship.

Littoral Combat Ship.  What are the attributes that the Navy claims make for an effective littoral combat ship?  They include extensive helo support and large flight decks, the ability to launch and recover remote unmanned vehicles, and sufficient weaponry to fight small boat swarms.  The Navy also claims that stealth and speed are necessary but the speed requirement has already been pretty well debunked and stealth is a debatable characteristic, at least for the ASW and MCM missions.  The Tarawas have the requisite characteristics in spades, other than stealth.  A single Tarawa operating a couple of dozen helos and with the capacity to launch and control dozens of remote, unmanned vehicles would be many times more effective than even a squadron of LCS’s.  Additional guns could be added to deal with small craft in the ASuW role.

Afloat Forward Staging Base.  This has already been done, just not with a Tarawa.  If AFSBs are a useful asset, the Tarawas are ready made and already paid for.  They simply need a relatively minor conversion.  Again, the crew requirements ought to be greatly reduced.

I can go on but you get the idea.  I leave it to you to come up with other uses.  You’ll note that these conversions would generally require only modest upgrades or conversions and would result in reduced crew sizes.

Normally, I would end the post at this point but I’m going to go a step further.  The post discussions have been disappointing of late.  People are fixating on trivial, ancillary details rather than the larger themes presented in the posts.  I’m going to attempt to improve the quality of discussion by explicitly pointing out what the larger themes are and challenge you to think and dig a bit deeper.

I have no problem with someone offering an amplifying thought about one of the uses I’ve proposed but that’s not really the point of the post.  The main theme is the Navy’s tendency to retire usable ships early without giving any consideration to alternate uses even if the ship is no longer suitable for its original purpose.  Combine this with the budget challenges facing the Navy and the dwindling size of the fleet and the overarching question is why can’t the Navy extract additional useful service out of older ships, ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING THAT THEY’RE ALREADY PAID FOR?  How do we justify the policy of early retirement of ship classes that can still provide useful service?  How does the Navy reconcile their stated desire for a larger fleet with their demonstrated policy of early retirements coupled with, generally, numerically smaller replacement classes?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tarawa, LHA-1 - What Was Wrong With It?

The Tarawa, LHA-1, class amphibious ships are being replaced by the America, LHA-6, class.  The five member Tarawa class was built in the mid-1970’s and ‘80’s and are now retired after individual service lives of 33, 30, 27, 32, and 34 years.  That’s not very old by major ship standards.

What’s wrong with the Tarawa class that they have to be replaced after barely 30 years of service?  The America class design is largely a repeat of the Tarawa class with some minor changes to better accommodate the MV-22 Osprey and the anticipated JSF so the basic design must be suitable.  America will use hybrid electric propulsion and incorporate gas turbines which will offer fuel savings but that’s hardly a reason to scrap an entire class.  I’ve never read any document outlining the flaws in the Tarawa class that justify such an early retirement.  Similarly, I’ve not read any document that describes sufficient advances and benefits in the America as to justify early retirement of the Tarawa class.

Consider that the official Marine need for amphibious lift was 36-38 major amphibious ships, depending on what document or statement one wishes to reference.  Recognizing fiscal realities, the Marines grudgingly accepted a requirement for 33 ships.  The reality is that we only have around 30 ships and appear headed for around 25-28 ships given the current budget challenges.  Given a current and worsening shortfall in amphibious lift capacity, then, does it seem reasonable or wise to retire five fully capable amphibious ships in the prime of their lives? 

Tarawa - What Was the Problem?

Let’s speculate …  One possible reason for the actions is that the Marines have stated publicly that frontal amphibious assaults are a thing of the past (so why are they trying to get a new EFV/AAV/ACV?) and that inland airborne assaults are the wave of the future.  If that’s the case then the Tarawas with their well decks and LCACs might well be considered obsolete and an accelerated movement to the all-aviation America class might be justified.  The only problem with that theory is that the America class is only going to consist of two all-aviation ships, LHA-6 and -7.  Starting with LHA-8, the class is returning to the standard well deck arrangement, apparently for all future ships of the class.  So, it’s obvious that a movement towards all-aviation assaults is not the reason for dumping the Tarawas (along with the previously stated contradiction by the Marines in continuing to pursue amphibious EFV/AAV type vehicles).  In fact, the abrupt reversal back to a well deck in the America class could be interpreted as recognition that the all-aviation concept is already a failure before the first of class is even commissioned!  On the other hand, this may have been the Navy’s way of sneaking a couple of small JSF carriers into the force structure without having to go through the usual oversight and reviews – and if that’s the case, it might not be a bad thing but that’s a topic for another post.

Returning to the Tarawas, we have a perfectly capable ship that served as the design basis for its successor and had many more years of service life left at a time of declining amphibious lift capacity and yet the entire class was retired early.  People, I don’t get it.  This one is a head scratcher.  The Navy is consumed by the drive to fund new construction above all else and I just don’t understand it.  The Navy routinely makes poor decisions but this one is bad even by their standards.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Poland Upgrades Perry

Oh, the poor nation of Poland.  Those fools are about to invest $34M into upgrades on the Perry class frigate, the ex-USS Clark.  Don’t they know that the Perrys are completely obsolete and quite likely to spontaneously sink at any moment?  Don’t they know that they’re totally incapable of being upgraded?  We know that because the Navy told us that as part of the justification for the LCS.  I bet Poland wishes they had an LCS instead of an FFG with nothing more than up to 40 Standard missiles for AAW defense backed by Phalanx, Harpoon anti-surface missiles, 76 mm gun, anti-submarine torpedoes, Kaman Super SeaSprite ASW helos, and a hangar for two helos, among other capabilities.  Pity poor Poland, unable to afford a mighty war machine like the LCS.  

As reported by Defense News website, Poland has contracted with the US for a $34M upgrade to extend the operational capability of the Perry FFG until 2025.  The vessel’s combat, radio, reconnaissance, sensor, computer, and propulsion systems will be updated.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Marine CAS

The Marines are counting on the F-35B as their new close air support (CAS) aircraft.  Heck, let’s be honest, they’ve bet all-in and by all indications this is the hill they’re willing to die on to get it.  OK, that’s fair.  The Marines need CAS they can count on, in their view, as opposed to CAS that’s only available when the Navy or Air Force has the time or feels like it.  I get that.  But, is the F-35B really a great CAS platform?  It’s a single engine, unarmored airframe that has a very limited weapons load (2-1000 lab JDAM) in stealth mode (internal weapons only) and a modest weapons load (15,000 lb according to the LM website spec list)  with external hardpoints.  As best I can determine, the aircraft has only 4 external hardpoints plus 2 internal for a total of 6 hardpoints.  While the weapons weight capacity is adequate the number of hardpoints is quite limited and restricts the aircraft’s flexibility and number of combat drops per sortie.  Note that the external weapons load is a theoretical maximum and would be difficult to achieve in practice if the aircraft were used in its short take off and vertical landing modes.  Also, a full weapons load would severely reduce the combat radius.

The Marines want to purchase 350 F-35Bs to replace their current Hornets and Harriers.

Wiki reports that the Air Force looked at the F-35B to replace the A-10 but opted not to due to the F-35’s inability to generate enough sorties.  Wiki further reports that the Marines plan to operate the F-35B from “unimproved surfaces at austere bases”.  However, they go on to note that this will require “special, high-temperature concrete designed to handle the [exhaust] heat”.  It’s not really an unimproved surface then, is it?  The exhaust heat issue is severe and has even required the America class to have special, more heat-resistant decks installed.  F-35B shipboard testing has cause heat damage to the test ship’s deck.  I guess this invalidates the popular notion of operating the F-35B from remote roads, fields, or “unimproved” airstrips – they’ll all melt or catch fire.

Marine CAS?

As noted, as a CAS platform, the F-35B has limited weapons flexibility and capacity.  Further, the plane has only one engine and no armor – not good characteristics for an aircraft intended to fly low and slow over the battlefield and if it’s not going to fly low and slow then it’s not really suited for CAS.  Add in the presumed lack of loiter time and this is not an ideal CAS platform. 

Now, here’s the interesting part.  The Air Force wants to get rid of their A-10s.  The Marines ought to give serious thought to acquiring the A-10s.  To be fair, I’m not the first person to come up with this thought.  Regardless, the A-10 is the finest CAS platform we have.  It has a weapons load of 16,000 lb on 11 hardpoints plus the Avenger cannon.  The aircraft has a 250 mile combat radius with a nearly 2 hour loiter time.  Decades of actual combat have proven the worth of the A-10 as a CAS platform and it’s the one that the men on the ground call for by name.  It’s rugged beyond belief.  If the Marines are serious about CAS for their ground force, they’ll drop the F-35B and jump on the A-10s.  I don’t know what the current inventory of A-10s is but over 700 have been built.  This option makes overwhelming sense.  If they want some F-35s for some other purpose that I don’t really understand, then fine, buy a handful.  For now, though, the A-10 is the undisputed master of CAS and it’s apparently free for the taking.  That’s a tactical and budgetary win for the Corps.