Many commenters have, over the last couple of years, made reference to the New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) (
, “The New Navy Fighting Machine”, Hughes et al, Aug 2009) as a viable and desirable alternative to the current naval force structure. It’s time to take a closer look at the concept. This is a long post but, hey, the NNFM document is long! Naval Postgraduate School
The first aspect of the NNFM that requires understanding is the definition of the role of the Navy under the NNFM which is quite different from the Navy’s current role. The document introduces this change in role,
“… a substantially different American Navy, the purposes of which were, first, to influence
at one end of the conflict spectrum, and second, to support “small wars” on the ground and conduct maritime constabulary operations6 in many places around the world.” China
This is the key to understanding and evaluating the NNFM. The NNFM is envisioned to serve two purposes,
- Support small wars
Note the word “influence”. It is key to understanding the NNFM force structure.
As the document states in closing,
“… the most important goal of this study is to describe a more distributed combat capability for sea control and the projection of national influence from the sea.”
Notable is the change in direction away from an emphasis on fighting large, regional wars. As the document states,
“Our study conjectures the ships of such a new fighting fleet, … is affordable because it puts less emphasis on fighting large regional wars than in the past two decades.”
However, this change in emphasis has its own potential flaws and any fleet premised on these flawed points may, itself, be flawed. For example, the document goes on to say,
“… the threat of striking the Chinese mainland seems less and less valuable as a way to influence affairs in
That is an utterly ridiculous statement and concept. The threat of striking the Chinese mainland is, ultimately, the only viable threat that can influence them, militarily. Physical or economic destruction are the only credible threats any country will respond to. If the military rules out physical destruction then the military can have no influence on
which directly contradicts the initial premise that the one of the two main roles for this new Navy is to influence China . China
Moving on, NNFM postulates several components of the strategy of influence, some good and some questionable. For example,
“Forward offense with many submarines, to sink Chinese warships and merchant ships and lay mines near Chinese ports.”
This is an example of a good component. Submarine warfare offers the
an effective combat force that is able to operate in the A2/AD zone with relative impunity. Submarines offer the US a substantial advantage and we should emphasize it and build upon it. US
“Affordable numbers of small, lethal inshore combatants capable of demonstrating commitment to defend, alternatively, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, or Malaysia.“
This statement is an example of a questionable component. No conceivable small combatant is going to have the power to counter the type of attacks they would likely see. Pitting patrol vessels or missile boats against cruise/ballistic missiles and aircraft is a lopsided mismatch, to say the least. The likelihood of appropriate levels of combat for these small combatants is, at best, questionable, and, more likely, unlikely.
The document further pursues this emphasis on small combatants by postulating their use in potentially high risk, high end combat situations.
“Hold open the option of putting a large number (say, twenty) of new, small, lethal American coastal combatants in survivable locations on the
coast. (Thirty are included in the green water component of the new fighting machine.) This is less risky than deploying a high-value CVN task force near Taiwan to demonstrate American commitment to resist an invasion, should we chose to do so.” Taiwan
This is just an illogical concept. While there is a certain validity to using low end, expendable vessels as a tripwire, they will certainly not demonstrate our “commitment to resist an invasion”. A handful of easily destroyed, nearly defenseless vessels hardly demonstrate any commitment to resistance. Arguably, their presence could be interpreted as a lack of commitment and a signal to the Chinese to take action. After all, if we weren’t willing to risk a carrier group why would we respond to the sinking of a handful of small vessels?
The document continues to focus on the small combatants.
“Emphasis in the new fighting machine is on the flexibility of the green water component to scale to the intensity and duration of the operation.”
This concept is valid within limits. Obviously, small combatants can only be “scaled up” so far before they exceed their combat capabilities. I say “obviously” but it’s far from clear that it’s obvious to the authors given their belief that small combatants can be successfully used in defense of
The document offers some outstanding observations about training and the need to return to professionalism in areas such as MCM, ASW, and anti-swarm warfare. It further describes the link between failing education levels of society and the performance of personnel in the Navy. The ultimate conclusion drawn is that simpler ships may be easier to man and train for. This is a particularly astute observation although the conclusion stops short of full application. Overly complex and technologically demanding ships and systems are inherently unmaintainable (witness the fleetwide Aegis degradation). Simpler systems operating at full effectiveness may actually be more effective than more advanced systems operating at degraded levels. A comparison between a rotating radar system versus Aegis comes to mind.
The NNFM notes that maintaining the industrial base will be easier with a more distributed (smaller, single purpose ships) force structure. ComNavOps concurs!
Following is a brief discussion of the various types of vessels that the NNFM envisions.
Coastal Combatant. The NNFM envisions a class of small (600 t), fast ships armed with short range, multi-purpose missiles, 4 Harpoons, and a gun. Their role would be to clear the littorals for subsequent operations. Cost is estimated at $100M. This may be an optimistic estimate. Also, the concept of operations is, in my mind, somewhat suspect. I’ll do a post on this particular topic, shortly.
Gunfire Support Ship. The concept of a dedicated gun ship is outstanding, however, the suggested use of the AGS may well put the size and cost of the ship and gun out of reach. In its automated guise, the AGS is a volume hog in ship design and very expensive given its very low production rate. A better option might be the Mk71 8” gun. Regardless, this is an excellent conceptual ship class.
Green Water CVL. The NNFM calls for 8 CVLs intended primarily as green water support ships. They will operate UAVs and vertical aircraft including 20 F-35Bs. The document’s cost estimate of $3B per ship is reasonable based on the demonstrated cost of the
class assuming the size can be significantly reduced over the America class. America
MCM. The NNFM calls for 12 MCM vessels. This number is nowhere near adequate for MCM operations and represents one of the biggest weaknesses of the conceptual force. Numbers aside, the idea of a dedicated MCM vessel is outstanding as it will keep costs down and maximize competence.
ASW. The NNFM calls for 12 inshore ASW vessels. The same comments apply as for the MCM vessels.
Arsenal Ships. The NNFM proposes small corvette size arsenal ships containing 50 land attack missiles (Tomahawk). These ships would specifically replace the current SSGNs which carry around 150 missiles. The document acknowledges the SSGN’s superior stealth but claims the Arsenal Ships will have an acceptable degree of risk. This is another dubious claim that is unsupported. These ships would offer tempting, lucrative, and visible targets for enemy forces. The vastly superior stealth and survivability of the SSGNs more than compensates for any perceived advantage of distributed power.
Submarines. The NNFM proposes a mix of 40 SSNs and 40 SSKs (AIP). The document states that the focus of the submarine force is
. That’s an outstanding observation. Unfortunately, the viability and combat effectiveness of SSKs in a China scenario is unknown and represents a substantial risk. If SSKs are not viable, that leaves the Navy with a very small SSN force. In addition, the projected cost of the SSK at $700M each is highly suspect. Nothing in the Navy’s procurement and construction history suggests such a price is achievable. China
SSBN. The NNFM calls for a force of 9 SSBNs which is substantially below current and historical levels. I can’t address the wisdom of this as it involves nuclear strategic considerations and capabilities that I don’t have access to or data for. I’ll leave this aspect with the simple observation that this is a substantial red flag that may or may not be wise. In addition to a suspect number of submarines, the assumed cost is $4.5B per ship which even the Navy doesn’t believe can be achieved for the new SSBNs. A far more likely cost is on the order of $6B.
BMD. The NNFM calls for 9 BMD vessels and, in a departure from current design philosophy, envisions them as dedicated, single function ships incapable of anti-cruise missile defense or general area AAW. In fact, the document suggests that the BMD ships may have to be protected by other ships. Again, though, a force this small only allows for three ships to be routinely deployed and that seems woefully insufficient given the apparent emphasis on ballistic missiles by potential enemies.
Amphibious. The NNFM proposes a mix of sealift ships but, significantly, does not support large opposed assaults. As the document states,
“We emphasize amphibious lift, but not forcible entry.”
Again, this is an example of the NNFM’s de-emphasis on high end combat.
Green water ship support needs are acknowledged but somewhat glossed over with reference to tenders and vague, non-specific host nation basing. The later, in particular, is a suspect assumption, given the historical difficulties in arranging host nation base rights and flyover rights during previous conflicts and events.
NNFM proposes a mix of carriers, 6 CVNs and 10 CVLs. This results in a total aircraft reduction of 12% but that reduction is claimed to be offset by greater flexibility. While flexibility may be an attractive quality (and that’s a dubious claim in this context), at some point numbers of combat aircraft matter and accepting a 12% reduction over an already reduced combined air wing size is problematic. This also optimistically assumes the F-35 will be procured in the required amounts. A realistic prognosis indicates that the F-35 buy will be significantly curtailed.
NNFM calls for the CVNs to be procured at a cost of $10B each. This cost has already been shown to be $2B-$4B short for new carrier construction and the document, to be fair, acknowledges exactly this shortfall. However, it then proceeds to use the suspect number in the cost calculations thus demonstrating a greater NNFM procurement capacity than can actually be had. This aspect of the document is a bit disingenuous. To estimate a low-ball cost, acknowledge that it’s low, and then proceed to use it to make a better looking case is deceptive, to say the least.
The NNFM addresses sealift and takes note of the total number of vessels available of all types. The document offers an interesting statement,
“Delivery and sustainment ships are not expected to be attacked and so they are, properly in our judgment, large with very big capacities.”
That statement totally ignores the history of submarine warfare. Do we really think
will not devote effort toward submarine attacks on these ships? The entire history of U-Boat wars strongly suggests the reality of this issue. China
The NNFM proposes a relatively small investment in sealift vessels based on the premise that these ships have very long lifetimes. As we just stated, that may be true in peacetime but in a war with
those ships will have the same short lifetimes that cargo ships of all nations had during WWII. China
The document addresses the conventional amphibious assault ships with some very pertinent observations. Among them is this gem,
“At the same time, for forcible entry, the amphibious ships are too large and there are too few in an Expeditionary Strike Group—only three or four—to be effective when an enemy counterattack is possible. The loss of even one ship would probably abort the landing.”
Unfortunately, the document does not go on to specify a specific alternative beyond calling for a moratorium on new construction while studies are carried out. That’s fair but a bit weak considering the scope and purpose of this document.
The NNFM notes that the surface combatant force (Burkes and Ticos, currently) is susceptible to anti-ship missiles. The document proposes substantially reducing the DDG force to a level of 30. Given the standard 3:1 deployment ratio, that only allows for 10 ships to be deployed at any given moment. The reduction in numbers would be made up for by acquisition of 90 highly capable, blue water frigates at a cost of $400M each according to the NNFM force structure. Given the cost of the LCS which has only a fraction of the capabilities that the proposed frigate would have, this seems an absurdly low cost estimate!
The NNFM proposes operating ships in tactical units of two which would pair ships with similar or complementary capabilities although what those complementary characteristics would or should be is not spelled out. This is an interesting departure from the Navy’s tendency to operate ships individually and is worth exploring. The document astutely notes that this type of tactical thinking has been lost due to the development of expensive, multi-purpose ships.
Finally, to repeat, the NNFM is founded on certain assumptions that are, themselves, suspect. For example,
“… the weaknesses of the present fleet—which is excessively focused on delivery of combat power at an enemy on land …”
The famous and true saying is that the seat of purpose is on the land. That being the case, delivery of combat power at an enemy on land IS the purpose of the Navy. To base a force structure on some other premise is wrong.
In summary, the NNFM study makes some good points, some highly suspect ones, and is based on some highly questionable costing which is acknowledged in the document but used anyway.
The biggest problem with the concept is its underlying assumption that a less high end combat capable navy is preferred. The assumption is skewed towards the lower end of the combat spectrum and peacetime, policing actions. Admittedly, these constitute the vast number of tasks a fleet performs. Still, when the time comes for serious, high end combat, you do not want to find your fleet at a disadvantage and this is exactly the state that the NNFM creates with proposed decreases in numbers of SSNs, CGs, DDGs, SSGNs, SSBNs, and CVNs.
The second biggest problem is the overvaluation of the small combatant capabilities and this is, undoubtedly, a direct result of Hughes’ involvement. While I’m totally in favor of building a prototype small combatant and exercising it to find out what it can do for us, I’m highly skeptical that it will perform anywhere near as well as suggested either individually or as a component of an overall force. I also highly doubt the need for the extent of green water capability that the NNFM assumes. As I said, I’ll offer a post on this topic in the near future.
The emphasis on CVLs is also potentially troubling. A CVL with a capacity of 20 F-35Bs is a marginal fighting force. In any contested combat scenario, even of a lower order than all out war with
, the prime responsibility of the air wing will be defense of the carrier. Given sortie rates, maintenance requirements, and some combat attrition, it’s difficult to imagine much of a useful offensive sortie rate from the air wing. Of course, multiple CVLs can come together to generate greater combat capacity but then one has to wonder why a CVN wouldn’t be the preferred choice. In an uncontested scenario, a CVL would certainly be adequate and useful but, then, so would a barge! Again, this is a concept worth testing and gaming out. Operation of the China class may offer some insight on this issue. America
Finally, the consistent use of suspect cost figures renders the NNFM model invalid. Even the document repeatedly admits that the cost figures may be too low and even provides much more reasonable values but declines to use them. Thus, the numbers of ships called for seems patently unachievable. An otherwise coherent NNFM model is thus reduced to the level of fantasy much as the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan is.
On the plus side, the emphasis on single function vessels is spot on and offers an opportunity to field greater numbers of ships at a lower unit cost. In particular, the recognition that MCM and ASW, among other functions, are better performed by dedicated vessels is astute and in this respect alone the document is valuable and worthy.
The overall goal of generating a greater number of ships is worthy although achieving that goal at the expense of high end combat power is suspect.
The goal of building an in-shore patrol capability is also worthwhile. Again, the extent of such a program needs to be strategized and gamed out. The small combatants are a very worthwhile experiment. Although I’m dubious about the widespread usefulness of such a vessel, I believe that there is a need for at least some small number of such a ship.
In summation, the NNFM is a worthwhile study offering a mix of good and bad ideas but, overall, well worth serious examination. The biggest potential flaw is the underlying premise of a shift in emphasis from high end combat capability to lower end patrol, peacekeeping, and minor conflicts. The emphasis on green water combat capability without a corresponding analytical basis renders the concept suspect but still worth a careful evaluation.