Friday, April 18, 2014

... Master of None

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.  China, 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.

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.


  1. What exactly where the Fletcher class destroyers optimized for? They carried ASW gear but also torpedoes and guns for surface encounters. They had anti-aircraft weapons, but also aforementioned ASW gear. So, no, optimization is not necessarily the best approach.

    1. Total, as designed and initially built, the Fletchers carried five 5" guns on a 370 ft hull, 10 torpedo tubes, were very well armored for their size, and they were fast and maneuverable with excellent range. They were exquisitely optimized for the Pacific anti-suface ship role. Their mission was to engage the enemy battle line with torpedoes and defeat the enemy's destroyers. Fletchers are an excellent example of optimization.

      Simply having some additional equipment such as ASW gear does not negate the optimization. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having secondary functions. The point of the post is that if a platform is intended for combat it had better be optimized for its intended combat role or it will lose to platforms that are optimized.

      During the later part of the war they were re-optimized for anti-aircraft duty.

      If you intend to bring up additional platforms for consideration, please think them through.

      I have to ask, are you trying to understand the concept and learn something from it or are you just looking for an argument? I have no interest in the later.

    2. Fletchers killed 29 submarines and participated in the gamut of destroyer missions. They were flexible, multi-mission combatants with effective AAW, ASW, ASuW, and shore bombardment armament for the time.

      If anything, the most successful variants were the ones with LESS ASuW specialization and greater AAW and ASW fIts.

    3. B.Smitty, do I really have to explain this to you, of all people? As I said, merely having a secondary capability does not negate the primary optimization. The Fletchers were an anti-surface ship, pure and simple. They had a basic, secondary ASW fit which was not very effective (to be fair, effective ASW sensors and weapons did not exist then!) and a minimal AAW fit, as built. Later in the war when the surface threat had been largely eliminated, the ships were reconfigured to emphasize AAW - they were re-optimized to AAW. Their success at shore bombardment was due to having the very heavy anti-surface fit of five 5" guns - a fortuitous development.

      Optimization does not mean that a ship can't perform secondary tasks and perform them well. It means that in their primary role they are optimized for success.

      Consider a Burke - they are optimized for AAW. They are most definitely not optimized for ASuW (max 8 Harpoons and a single 5" gun). They are not optimized for ASW - they are adequate (less than adequate due to lack of training) at best. They're no Spruance ASW vessel! That doesn't mean they can't perform secondary tasks. Indeed, they're versatile. However, a naval tactician would recognize what they're optimized for and what they aren't and not put them in a position they can't handle - like ASuW against a capable enemy.

      Please don't fall into the trap of arguing trivia. You're better than that!

    4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    5. Ok, I think I see where you are going. You aren't arguing against versatility. You want each platform to be good at (i.e. optimized for), at least, its primary mission set.

      To some extent you can have your cake and eat it too here. The F-15 was a phenomenal A2A fighter, and was turned into a very capable striker. Many successful fighters followed this path: optimize A2A first, then add A2G.

      Unfortunately the F35 did not.

      Lack of platform capability can often be overcome with sheer numbers, though.

      So commercial, less capable ASuW ships bought in large numbers may actually beat a smaller number of specialized ASuW ships.

      If military A, has a 3:1 numerical superiority over military B, then B's units need a 9:1 loss-exchange ratio to break even, according to Lancaster's Square law.

      Force optimization should maximize both individual platform performance AND numbers for a given cost.

      But it may be that the "best" force is one that encompasses the largest number of "good enough" platforms for a given mission set.

    6. B.Smitty, you're on the money. I'm making the point (to reiterate) that when a platform whose main attribute is flexibity or versatility goes up against a platform which is optimized for the combat under consideration, the versatile platform will lose every time, all else being equal.

      Your F-15 example is a good one. The F-15 is a purebred ATA platform. It's great that it can be adapted to other roles but it's optimized for ATA. If an F/A-18A/C Hornet, the epitomy of a versatile, non-optimized aircraft were to go up against an F-15 in ATA combat the Hornet would lose most of the time.

      Excellent point about numbers. If we're willilng to accept unfavorable exchange rates, a less than optimized platform can, indeed, succeed. As you say, a force carefully balanced between optimization and versatility is just fine. The problem arises when we begin building platforms whose main attribute is versatility and whose numbers dominate the fleet (whether aircraft or ships). For example, the LCS, will make up a third or more of the combat fleet (recent developments notwithstanding) without having any particular optimized combat attribute.

      You'll recall that in a previous, contentious post I postulated that numbers were the single most important factor in winning a war?

      My point is that if the task is to drive deep into the enemy's A2/AD zone, the platforms you're using had better be optimized for the task. A generic semi-commercial hull with modules won't last long.

      Great comment!

  2. What exactly was the P-47 optimized for? Air combat? Ground attack?

    1. Total, rather than try to "get" me, why not go back and research the P-47 and find out what, exactly, it was designed for and let me know. As I've said repeatedly in the other comments, the mere fact that a platform can be adapted to other functions does not negate its optimization or negate the need for optimization. You might also be interested in B.Smitty's comment about the F-15.

  3. We'll be going on with this for a bit because of particular definitions.

    Being there with the wrong highly specialized and superbly-tweaked tool is likely more painful than maximizing the strengths of a 'multi-purpose' tool of less than perfect discreet capabilities but with a range of other tools at hand.

    Waiting for the 'specialist ' to arrive to match the foe spot-on might be a challenge.

    So all this argues for and against everything from FFG-7 to DDG-1000s, and does so concurrently, because each tool's characteristics.

    " 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"...
    holds true if you see less value in peace-strengthening presence of Soft Power next to Hard Power. That's why a 'modest' LSD is so useful to retain and reinforce friendly relations in regions where an SSN would be pointless, an CVN overkill, a DDG too fat a target to squeeze into a modest bay or port.

    About FI/FO then for Hard Power....

    1. Another aspect to this that is shown time and again is the value of numbers. Lancaster equations, salvo model, "quantity has a quality of its own".

      A fleet of 10 AAW-optimized ships, 10 ASuW ships and 10 ASW ships is less flexible for any one mission than 25 multimission combatants. And it possesses less resiliency in any of the missions.

      Of course much depends on the cost to add multimission flexibility.

  4. Well-Deck Centric Thinking has a lot of merit to alter a combatant's capabilities even on the high seas.
    Float-In/Float-Out (FI/FO) options are hard to not think about.
    Which favors long-term the combat-value of small to large Amphibs, 8k-40ktons.

    1. I like the idea, but don't know how practical it is to mate a well deck to a relatively high speed (~30kts) warship.

      I'd prefer to just build a smaller class of LPDs in larger numbers. The Galicia class or one of its sisters seems like a good size. Unfortunately the MEU keeps getting larger and larger, which drives amphibs ever larger and more expensive.

    2. Smitty,
      USN Amphibs currently do between 22 and 24kts. For a 8000tons 50% LSD-41/49 type to feature a say 50-66% well-deck footprint, then it is down to higher-speed shape and easily doubling the power to move rom 24 to 30kts.

      The question then is how much of that extra speed is necessary, how much it costs in first and running cost, and how much that speed cuts the range. With modest LSD-type flat-top capability, drones, helos and F-35B might make up selectively for that speed-deficit.

      Of course with 8-10,000tons amphib hulls fit to do up to 24kts, you might be able to afford enough of them to have quite a few typically near where you'd expect trouble, making any longer-distance 'flank-speed' runs and its logistics less necessary.

      If there'd be half the initial LCS-fleet, with the remaining LCS-budget invested in at least 15-20 Frigate-armed 24kts 8000-tons amphibs on diesel-power, we'd have a much enhanced range of options.

      And then we'd take 'Well-Deck Centric' Thinking much more seriously, in fact seeing in the approach possibly the most bang for the bucks in light of life-time Float-In/Float-Out (FI/FO) opportunities to try out all sorts of semi-independent combat modules. Some of this will be brilliant, and some disappointingly-poor ideas. But instead of planning more 'classes' you plan more 2-500tons self-propelled system-modules until you've gotten near max'ing out that thinking.

      To extend CNO Greenert's thinking Fiscal Austerity, the needs of USMC, and recent vessel-definition and -acquisition challenges suggest 'Payloads in Well-Decks over duper-specialized Platforms'.

      In fact, we may come to think it 'normal' for say a fifth or a quarter of the fleet to swap out major combat-capability at sea to rapidly match an emerging challenge.

      And FI/FO would make this a routine practice and offer major enhancements in the flexibilities of fleet commanders.

    3. Almost forgot, that you'd add up such FI/FO mission-modules to a vehicle and mission-load weight of up to 2x 500-tons or likely up to 2x 250-tons per whatever-suite.

      In the context of 'Sea-Basing' and thus including such semi-autonomous self-propelled mission-module, that constitutes a good amount of tactical flexibility right there.

      And since the adversary would not know what is actually carried aboard the 8k-Amphib, that would add to the unpredictability of the encounter. Aerial recon would just show the same ship before and after the mission-suite swap but no indication of what's on hand inside.

      Spotting USN vessels thus may come not necessarily mean as much as it used to.

  5. "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."


    Your theory is not born out by historical record. Consider that the principal killer of U-Boats during WW2 were land-based long-range bombers, and carrier-based torpedo bombers.

    Each of these platforms were designed to fulfill a "high-end" mission (strategic bombing, attacking enemy ships). Neither were designed from the ground up to do ASW.

    But what they did have was flexibility and modularity to bring aboard new equipment suitable to the mission (radar, depth charges, leigh lights, etc.). Payloads over platforms to quote a certain admiral.


  6. Matt, I'm not going to allow comments that attack myself or anyone else. Feel free to debate or disagree about anything you wish but not at someone else's expense, mine included. Comments that denigrate the person will not be allowed on this blog. If necessary, I will moderate all comments prior to their being published. Please do not ruin everyone's experience on this blog for your own satisfaction. I urge you to consider finding a blog that is a better fit for your needs or publishing your own.

  7. I'm surprised with the reaction to your post. Sounds like common sense to me.

    I like the direction in which the Royal Navy is heading; aaw destroyers, asw frigates and the Mine Countermeasures, Hydrography and Patrol Capability programme (MHPC) ship.
    If the US navy followed this route, it would be able to afford a LOT of ships. The frigate would from the backbone of the fleet in terms of numbers. Basically, you had it right, the Perry! Optimized for ASW but with decent AA defences and in enough numbers that they fulfill a patrol role.

    1. Dave, good observation. I am not an expert on the Royal Navy but my understanding is that the Type 45 is optimized for ASW, much like the Burke. It undoubtedly has secondary functions but it's clear (I think!) what the intended main combat function is. Versatility is fine for a combat vessel as long as versatility is not the main or only attribute.

    2. Dave,

      Excellent observation.

      The internet seems to encourage people to talk past one another.

      When there is debate, it tends to devolve into predefined arguments that often do not fit the situation at hand.

      Not that I would ever be one of the internet Taliban…


    3. Hi from Britain Again,
      Thanks for the mention. I have to agree with your post. Daring Class is dedicated AAW.
      It has some capability for ASW and ASuW but these are largely defined by its helicopter complement, deck gun and a towed array. ( oh and some harpoon we found in a cupboard somewhere last year )
      But to fight the very best air threats in the world you have to train train train for supersonic saturation attack from every angle at once and have the very very very best platform.
      I think your race car analogy is apt.
      If your AAW crews are only 80% training on AAW and are only good enough to handle an 80% top notch threat, that’s great nearly all the time, but ….
      Having said that when you specialise you can’t leave dedicated ships without complimentary platforms to provide a full suite. And here for the Royal navy things start to get sticky. We simply don’t have the hulls to let a T45 wander the world escorted but a fleet sub to provide ASuW ( cos that’s the way we do things ) and a T23 to provide ASW. Now in a Battle group your fine, but how about the day to day work when 1 ship might be nice ?
      ( see T26 G.P. variant hopefully )


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.