ComNavOps just finished reading yet another article extolling the versatility of a weapon system. It doesn’t matter which one – the idea’s the same regardless. The system is able to be adapted to perform a seemingly infinite variety of tasks according to the manufacturer. So what’s the problem? Who wouldn’t want a versatile system? That’s cost effective, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, as long as maximum performance isn’t required.
Consider the example of a car that’s designed for ultimate versatility. It would have a large cargo bed, good mileage, moderate speed, decent handling and it would get utterly destroyed in a race against dedicated race cars. It’s not optimized for anything. It can do a lot but nothing well. You know the saying for this: jack of all trades, master of none. If you want to win a race, you design a dedicated, optimized race car whose every feature and characteristic is focused on racing.
If you want to win an ASW engagement, you design a dedicated, optimized platform (helo, surface ship, submarine, fixed wing aircraft – doesn’t matter, the concept is the same) whose every feature and characteristic is focused on ASW. This means that every nut, bolt, rivet, and weld is carefully evaluated for quieting, every sensor is tuned to anti-submarine use, the engines are carefully selected for the perfect combination of required speed and quieting, the hull is shaped to minimize self-noise and maximize maneuverability, and so on. A generic, semi-commercial design that has an ASW module tucked in the modular cargo area is going to be marginally effective, at best, and sunk, more likely, because it will be a sub-optimal platform going up against a specialized enemy submarine that is optimized to kill it.
This doesn’t just apply to ASW. The same concept holds true for any weapon system or mission. Asking a generalized, combination strike fighter to go up against a purpose built, single function, optimized, air supremacy fighter is simply going to get the strike fighter killed. For example, the JSF is badly overmatched against an F-22 or the enemy’s equivalent of an F-22.
Despite understanding this simple concept, the Navy is insisting on building non-optimized, multi-function ships that will someday have to go up against specialized enemy vessels.
, for example, is building some specialized, lethal warships. The Zumwalt has been given the versatility of an ASW capability but is not optimized for the mission and will become a multi-billion dollar target if it tries to play tag with modern submarines. China
Having said all that, there is a role and a need for versatile platforms and systems. The Perry class FFGs were a great example of a versatile platform (though they were reasonably specialized for ASW) that was adequate at multiple things but not outstanding at anything. The JHSV looks to be adequate at generic transport of equipment and personnel but not optimized for any particular transport function.
If one thinks carefully about the platforms and systems that are acceptable as versatile but non-optimized versus highly specific specialized ones, it quickly becomes apparent that the quality of versatility is most acceptable in non-combat roles. A platform or system that engages in combat against a technologically advanced enemy must either be optimized or it will be destroyed.
Versatility is fine for tasks that don’t require maximum, optimized performance. A platform, whether sea or air, that swings between cargo, personnel transport, humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, show-the-flag, international training exercises, etc. is perfectly acceptable because none of those tasks require maximum performance. In fact, such a platform may well prove to be a cost effective way to carry out multiple tasks.
Let’s recognize, though, that while the majority of the Navy’s time is spent on peacetime, non-critical tasks, the reason the Navy exists is combat. For that, nothing less than perfectly optimized systems are acceptable. Anything less is a recipe for defeat.
We know that the Navy is in the process of defining the replacement for the cancelled LCS. [ Of course, it will be a revised LCS rather than a true frigate but that’s another topic ] The salient point is that the Navy is probably about to design a versatile, master-of-none vessel that will be make up a significant portion of the combat fleet and will be expected to engage in combat against some pretty lethal threats. We need to think very carefully about what degree of non-optimization we’re willing to accept.