Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sea Control Ship

One of the common suggestions that I encounter is the need for a sea control ship.  This is one of those concepts whose definition, and therefore capabilities and requirements, depends on the person bringing it up.  Everyone seems to have a different definition.

The original sea control concept was derived from the convoy escort mission and consisted of a helo carrier which would provide continuous ASW presence.  Around 14 helos on the ship would ensure that a couple were always airborne.

Sea control as often discussed today has evolved to include anti-surface and medium range anti-air in addition to the original ASW role.  Some even credit a sea control ship with a Marine complement for limited land operations.  The sea control ship most commonly described is a small hybrid carrier with a combination of fixed wing aircraft (Harriers, originally, and now F-35Bs) and helos with, perhaps, some AEW aircraft depending on who’s proposing the idea.

The Navy has experimented with the idea in the past.  The USS Guam was set up as a sea control vessel for a time.  Other countries have also experimented with the concept.  Notably, the Japanese have developed the helicopter destroyer (DDH) and the Soviets developed the Moskva class which combined a bit of a cruiser with an ASW helo carrier.

A sea control ship is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but may not be worth it in reality. 

Let’s consider its function.  All sea control concepts seem to have ASW as the core function with the major capability being provided by helos.  Fair enough.  Now let’s think through the ship’s usage in a war against a peer. 

A helo carrier is not going to have much in the way of AAW protection other than RAM type short range self-defense weapons.  That means that in combat it would either need to be defended by more capable ships (a Burke, presumably) or relegated to peripheral combat areas that would not expect to see major enemy activity.

An escort is feasible but removes a highly capable vessel from other duty.  On the other hand, a Burke is, theoretically, ASW capable.  I say theoretically because Navy destroyers do not practice ASW enough to be proficient.  Still, a helo carrier and a Burke or two acting as a hunter-killer group is not a bad idea if we have enough Burkes to devote to this.  Presumably, this kind of group would be effective protecting approaches to other naval groups or attempting to deny known enemy submarine transit routes or operational areas.

Without an escort, a helo carrier would be relegated to peripheral activities such as protecting distant sea lanes or sitting on chokepoints.  Is this a worthwhile activity?  A carrier, even a smaller helo carrier is still very expensive to build, man, and operate.  If we think we can get enough benefit for the low risk then it would be worth it.  On the other hand, if the risk is low it’s probably because the possibility of reward is also low.

Finally, let’s look at the more modern definition of sea control.  Some people advocate a sea control vessel that is a jack of all trades.  It would have fixed wing aircraft (F-35B) and helos, anti-ship missiles, and at least medium range area AAW.  Frankly, I’m not sure what role such a ship would play in major combat.  It would be like an aviation frigate:  capable of lots of tasks but incapable of anything serious on its own.  It could operate with a carrier group but would be redundant since a carrier has its own ASW helos.  It could operate with an amphibious group but an amphibious group would always have a carrier supporting it so, again, it would be redundant.  It might be useful as a convoy escort which, of course, is what the modern frigate was intended to be.

Notional Sea Control Ship

Considering the various options and scenarios, it seems as if the Japanese DDH might be the best implementation of this concept.  If so, that’s not exactly the sea control concept.  Instead, it’s more of a focused ASW vessel.

The very idea of a sea control ship during war is on of those concepts that is appealing when considered in isolation but fails to stand up to rigorous analysis.  Proponents envision a sea control ship staking out a patch of ocean and then destroying enemy patrol craft and submarines.  Voila, a secured patch of ocean at a fraction of the cost of a carrier group! 

Now, let’s apply some analytical thinking to that concept.  Can a sea control ship fight an enemy destroyer similar to a Burke?  No.  That’s not even remotely realistic.  Can it fight fast attack craft (anti-ship missile boats/FAC)?  Under the right circumstances, possibly.  A helo, armed for anti-ship missions, can certainly defeat a FAC since very few FACs have any significant AAW capability.  However, the FACs generally far outrange the detection limits of a sea control ship’s sensors.  For example, the Chinese Type 022 (Houbei) missile boat carries C-80X anti-ship missiles that have a range of 60-200 miles, depending on the missile type.  A sea control ship’s onboard sensors would have an effective range out to the horizon (20 miles, say).  Of course, the ship’s helos could extend that range but every helo dedicated to surveillance is a helo subtracted from the ASW mission.

So, yes, if a sea control ship were willing to partially or completely sacrifice its ASW mission, it could detect and effectively attack FACs.  Of course, ASW is the foundation mission for a sea control ship so detracting from that mission is a risky proposition.

Now, what about when the sea control ship is detected by the enemy and faces aerial attack from aircraft and/or missiles.  The ship’s defenses would be limited to short range or point defense (RAM, most likely).  This is completely inadequate for AAW.  Some people argue for a sea control ship with a sizable fixed wing aviation component (F-35B, presumably).  Of course, once you upsize the ship to carry both a large helo and fixed wing component, you’re no longer talking about a sea control ship – you’re now talking about a nearly full size carrier which has been proven to be almost as costly to build, man, and operate as a supercarrier but without the full size carrier’s capacities and capabilities.  So, sticking with a small to moderate size sea control vessel, we see that it is completely vulnerable to air attack.  An escort, such as a Burke, could be provided but, again, that takes the Burkes away from their other high end tasks and negates the very rationale of the sea control ship which is that it can free up high end ships for high end tasks.  We could add VLS cells to provide a medium range AAW capability but, again, that increases the size of the ship for what would be a very modest increase in AAW.

What about ASW, the foundation mission for a sea control ship?  A sea control ship with a handful of ASW helos would be as effective as a surface ship can be and, in the right scenario, could be a useful and effective asset.  The problem is that helos are notoriously unreliable and high maintenance.  Thus, you need several helos in order to maintain a few in continuous operation.  That’s fine – inefficient but fine.  Such a sea control ship sitting atop chokepoints or transit routes could prove highly effective at controlling enemy submarine activity.  Recall, though, that in order to protect itself from enemy FACs the ship would have to dedicate several helos to surveillance which would not leave enough helos available for effective ASW.  Unless we postulate a very much larger ship (America class size), a sea control ship just can’t carry enough helos for both the surveillance/counter FAC mission and ASW, simultaneously.

All of this leads us to the conclusion that a sea control ship is not an effective or efficient concept for war unless we’re willing to dedicate one or more high end Burke escorts for its protection.  If we have sufficient Burkes then this becomes a viable concept.  If not, it isn’t.  This also suggests that a lesser Burke, say a modern frigate, might be a viable escort although the Navy currently has no plans to acquire a frigate.

Thus, the sea control ship, with ASW as its primary mission, is appealing in concept but fails when one considers the details of wartime employment unless a high end escort is provided.


  1. For me the idea of a 'sea control ship' was always kind of a CVS type ship.

    This brings up to me the question: What is the state of modern ASW? I have a couple of buddies who served on 'Burkes. I also have done some reading on some of the exercises.

    The results seem to point towards the same thing:

    Surface ships are there almost at the pleasure of the submarines. Finding them is a cast iron bear and finding them before they can get into a spot where they can fire som AShM's is hugely difficult.

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    2. Sea control ship? Let's call it what it is - a world control ship.

  2. Nice little piece.

    I think yes, we are talking about escorted for AAW. That is a given.

    Yes it has to be America sized.

    Needs to be fast moving.

    It must have organic AEW, and at America sized this is going to have to be Helo or V22. These concepts exist or are in development. All this is a must else like you say you’re wasting your time.

    I would argue that a air wing of 6 F35B fully loaded with long range anti-ship in a coordinate saturation attack is going to give just about anything a hard time, with minimal chance of loss of the airframe, and no chance of threat to the battlegroup, with a nominal strike range of 400mn +

    Assuming a magazine for this class that can be considered very deep, your burke will run out of missiles before your sea control ship does.

    Likewise for ASW. With an airwing of 12 dedicated assets OR.
    Possibly ASW frigates under a F35 CAP umbrella.

    What do you get for this; You get a patch of sea that is yours for a bit.

    This patch is about 800nm in diameter, moving and its edge is at least 200mn away from enemy shore line.

    Is this literally statically useful, errrr….. Probably not. In this sense is it worth it, NO.

    But this asset does represent a threat that must be constantly countered, and enough of a threat that it can effectively deny easy transit of the blue to the enemy without then deploying significant force and planning.

    Just a few of these groups create enough uncertainty, that they must be directly hunted and countered before a peer can move freely or plan freely for blue water operations.

    Hence in this sense the term sea control.

  3. Id actually come at it another way

    Imagine you are a middling power
    Take an Izumo and add
    A solid Broad Air Defence system, long, medium, short and point defence.
    4 V/Stol fighters
    The requisite number of ASW helicopters

    That single ship represents the, 5th(? ok, 10th) most powerful fleet in the world?
    Away from the enemy shore, of course.

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    1. Smitty, overall a reasonable comment. Your comparison to the WWII escort carrier is interesting. There were some differences that might render that conceptual model less relevant.

      The CVE carried a large amount of combat aircraft (around 30, if memory serves) versus the 6-12 F-35s that most sea control designs call for. Thus, the CVE was more powerful on a relative basis. Further, the CVE aircraft were somewhat second tier (Wildcats versus the Hellcats/Corsairs of the large carriers). Our modern sea control concept calls for F-35s. Will we assign our limited number of top of the line aircraft to sea control? Perhaps, if the possible reward is great enough. The analogy would be to assign Harriers instead of F-35s. I'm not disagreeing with the CVE concept but I wonder if the model is still as applicable?

      CVEs were viable and successful in large part because we had tons of extra aircraft. That's clearly not the case today. Again, I wonder what that does to the model.

    2. "Ships don't fight alone."

      A common theme on this blog. Unfortunately, lacking an actual naval strategy we're left to consider ships and aircraft somewhat in isolation. Is a sea control ship/group a good idea? It depends on what our naval strategy is. Not having a strategy, we're left to debate the sea control ship in isolation or in the context of whatever assumptions each of us wishes to make on our own. Most unfortunate.

      This limitation applies to almost everything we look at. Is a frigate a useful vessel? In isolation, of course. In the context of a non-existent naval strategy, who knows? Is an LCS useful? Green water ships? Arsenal ships? And so on.

  5. The Invincibles would be the obvious comparison - although note they shed their Sea Dart in order to make more room for aviation. ASW-led aviation was their raison d'etre. The Cavour is probably the nearest modern equivalent - 15 F-35 or a few more helicopters, 32xAster15, in under 30,000t and <$2bn.

    If this is a strategically-significant area where enemy FACs are already patrolling, then wouldn't you have other members of the team in the vicinity, like Triton? There's also other ways to hoist a radar than with helicopters, like blimps or DARPA's new TALONS parafoil.

    >relegated to peripheral combat areas that would not expect to see major enemy activity.

    There could be "important" combat areas that are threatened by submarines but which are too far distant from the homeland to be significantly threatened by FACs etc. That's not to say there's no threat from non-submarine forces, but eg PLAN submarines could play off Alaska or the Panama Canal or off India, with relatively little backup from other forces.

    The other thing to think about is as B.Smitty says, think smaller and unmanned. Look up BAE's UXV Combatant, a concept for a "mini-Kiev" based on a Type 45 hull with the AAW armament intact but two runways sticking out either side on the back for UAV use.

    1. Spain's Principe de Asturias was based on the US Navy's design of the Sea Control Ship. At 17,000 tons, she carried about Harriers and 12 helicopters. Her radars included the SPS-52 and SPS-55 found on many US warships. For self-defense, she was armed with 4 CIWS.

      I could imagine an SCS is the 30,000 ton range carrying 10 F-35's, 16-18 SH-60R/S's, 4 CV-22 for aerial tanking and COD duty. With 1-2 Burke's and a couple of LCS/FF's as escorts, you could off load 4-6 helicopters.

      With the right electronics and a small number of VLS or box launchers, she could be equipped with ESSM, ASROC, and Harpoon missiles.

      Offload some fighters and helicopters and and load with a few more MV-22's, and you could carry a large piece of a MAGTF-CR force.

      Just an opinion.

    2. Yes, and that is the sort of weight class that I would pick for my SCS, with a minimum loadout of 15+ fixed wing aircrafts (of various roles), configured into a ASW and ASuW role.

      And to work in conjunction with the Attack Submarines,Unmanned Surface Vessals (equipped for submarine hunting), and continuous endurance (very high altitude, solar powered drones) drones, often reffered to as virtual sattelites.

      Such a ship would in effect, replace the cruisers from WW2 in role and functionality, and conduct independent operations. A larger ship would ofcourse allow you to increase provisions and endurance, increase the amount of aviation fuel and munitions, and put more missile stations and aircraft in the ship. So it would be a balancing game.

  6. I think that we may end up with something that is not worth it in reality as you have noted.

    What kind of displacement are you looking at? That will drive the costs and the capabilities this thing can carry. Judging by what you are saying, you're looking at something approaching Forrest sized.

    1. Not useful in air to air combat for sure with helicopters, and probably not VTOL aircraft either

    2. Would need a very high reliability model of helicopter (that's hard to come by) to make this whole concept work out

    3. Escorts, and perhaps as many as a full carrier, especially in a serious conflict would be needed

    4. Heck, you could even consider some piston or turboprop driven aircraft (shorter takeoff distance), which might be better than rotary wing aircraft.

    It might work out with a few prop aircraft but that is it.

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    1. The only thing you left out was if the destroyer's radar was down for repairs or maintenance and the destroyer's missiles were completely depleted in which case the destroyer would have even less chance. Seriously, if you want to craft the most one-sided scenario you can, you need to include some of the admittedly unlikely occurrences. Remember, just because they're unlikely doesn't mean they can't happen.

      On the plus side, your analysis gives us the size needed for the sea control ship: the smallest ship that can carry a single F-35. Since only a single F-35 is needed to defeat a modern destroyer, there is no need for a sea control ship any bigger than that.

      I wonder why other countries even build destroyers? What a waste of their resources. I hope they don't read this and realize the error of their ways.

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    3. Im a little shocked you had to give that answer B.Smitty.

      "I wonder why other countries even build destroyers? What a waste of their resources. I hope they don't read this and realize the error of their ways."

      Well yes really.

      Its totally arguable which is the master of the sea the SSN or the carrier. I'd still argue the carrier when it comes to surface vessels.

      Pretty much since the Bismark, YES there is very little a surface vessel or fleet can do against a properly commanded carrier in blue water sinario.

      B.Smitty covered the basics. But remember during any engagement you'll never even knew where it was. Even if you got a fix ( which you wouldn't ), you wont be able to touch it, and by the time you get there it will be hundreds of miles away, all the time it will monitor you.

      It can disengage whenever, but you will never outrun even a harrier.

      Stand off air launched weapons are always going to have the range advantage. And once it fires the launch platform is out of there. Your priority will always then be the missiles.

      You can take hours to sortie, it really doesn't matter, even at 30Knts your not going to get to safety OR get to the carrier before your bludgeoned to death buy continuous bombardment.

      Midway tended to show that you really don't have hours generally, what was it 15 minutes for near total fleet loss ?

      Yes your going to tell me AA missiles have improved, but ASh Missles have too, And even playing the every A2A missile is 100% perfect and Every AShM 0% you still cant win.

    4. Ben, you deserve a reply that's as informative and friendly as I can make it, so here goes. If we want to construct a scenario wherein a helpless destroyer with absolutely no support of any kind wanders into the sea control ship's area and is totally unable to find the ship and can't kill the aircraft sent after it then, sure, the destroyer loses. Of course, to be fair, we can probably concoct a scenario wherein a guy on a raft with an RPG sinks a carrier.

      Now, let's look at this a little more realistically. A USN sea control ship would be an electromagnetic beacon just as every other USN ship is. CNO Greenert, among others, has spoken to this very issue. So, the sea control ship is an easy target to find right from the start. Now, let's credit the enemy destroyer (a Burke-ish) with the same passive and active sensing that we have. Let's throw in helos out searching a hundred miles or more. Add the fact that we're probably talking about being in the enemy's home waters and therefore within range of airborne AWACS, patrol craft, and UAVs. Toss in potential acoustic "sightings" from enemy subs. Add in the odd report from enemy civilian fishing boats. Maybe credit the enemy destroyer with operating its own UAVs like we do. Possibly add satellite surveillance. Add this all up and ask yourself how realistic it is to expect that an enemy will have absolutely no idea where the sea control ship is? I would estimate a very slim chance.

      Now, if the destroyer does detect the sea control ship, what's the outcome? The destroyer will have anti-ship cruise missiles (probably supersonic) with a range of hundreds of miles, most likely. Can our sea control ship stop such a missile attack with nothing more than short range RAM? Not even remotely conceivable.

      Perhaps you're thinking that the sea control ship's fixed wing aircraft (let's say F-35Bs) will function as some sort of AWACS and always allow us to spot the enemy first? How would that work, exactly? Would the F-35s spot the enemy visually? The odds on a very few aircraft spotting a ship visually are near zero. OK, will the F-35s use radar? If so, they broadcast their location which offers the enemy a directional clue and puts our aircraft at risk of long range AAW or vectored enemy aircraft. Plus, the F-35 doesn't have an AWACs type radar. It's still a very large ocean for a few aircraft with very small radars to search. Have you considered the size of fighter aircraft radars and the limited amount of power they can put out? You get the idea?

      The sea control ship is not a Romulan warbird with cloaking. Quite the contrary. It's a very easy to find target in large measure because we've badly neglected our EMCON design requirements and partly because any carrier makes for a marvelous radar return.

      Have you considered, by the way, how many electronic devices a carrier operates and is emitting with on a continuous basis? Navigation radar, main radar, comms with aircraft, air traffic control local radar, giant electrical motors of all kinds, deck personnel comms, ship to ship comms, and so on. As I said, a carrier is a floating electromagnetic beacon. EMALS (which wouldn't apply in this discussion) can be detected a hemisphere away!

      By the way, the F-35 does not have a standoff anti-ship missile capability, does it? I'm not sure about this.

      Are you starting to see the more realistic scenario?

      Also, once an enemy destroyer gets a sniff of our sea control ship do you think they'd call for all kinds of reinforcements, additional air assets, land launched cruise or ballistic missiles, subs, and whatever else was available? Once detected, our sea control ship is in for a very short life.

  8. I think we are thinking about it the wrong way, ignore the helicopter destroyer implementation with STOVL aircraft that was originally proposed. Think about a larger, IEP implementation with EMAL, defensive missiles, and armed with fixed wing aircraft.

    Aircraft like a modern interpretation of the S-3 Viking, armed with a single (internally) centrally mounted, ASM (preferably hypersonic), and two torpedoes adjacent to that (one on each side) , as well as potentially WVR AA weapons, Sonar Buoys, MALD, a Searchmaster ASW Radar, IRST, and at the very least RWR (radar warning recievers). Doesn't need to be fast, doesn't need to be highly manouverable...

    Supported by a small contingent, of cheap Lightweight fighters, specialized in Air-to-air operations, and a utility aircraft, with a AWAC and a Tanker variant. Such a ship would be able to excert a controlling influence (that can only be countered by naval aviation) over a very large area. Whilst it may not be able to go tow to tow against a proper super-carrier, nothing but another super-carrier can do that.

    What it can do, is provide unprecedented situational awareness, defeat any adversary not able to field an air-based defensive capability, and fullfill an auxilary role in a war with another carrier power, providing support for larger operations, and conducting skirmishes. I would peer this with a submarine force wielding hypersonic, stand-off balistic missiles, and have those shadow the super-carriers, outside of the range of their ASuW capabilities, IMO.

    1. Interesting. How many aircraft would this vessel carry and what approximate size would it be?

    2. Probably has to be big enough to carry 15 jets minimum, 9MPC, 3Fighter Jets, 2 Awacs, and a Single Tanker, plus say 16 large VLS Cells, mainly for local defensive weapons like CAMM, and support a radar mast, and a towed sonar array, with decoys and torpedo launchers.

      Any less, and your ratio of support planes to combat planes is too high, you won't be able to cover enough water to justify it's existence, the ship won't have enough fighter planes to protect itself, nor will it have the equipment to defend itself requiring an escort. And it's probably not worth the cost of adding the EMALS.

      So upwards of 15, but no more than say perhaps 25. Looking at the smaler carriers currently fielded, its probably going to have to weigh upwards of 20,000 Tonnes unloaded, upto maybe 30,000 Tonnes fully laden. And Have at least a 'partially' angled flight deck.

      Its not supposed to be a 'Medium Carrier', that would probably be around 60,000 Tonnes and hold upto 40ish fighter planes.

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    4. Keep in mind with the Searchmaster radar, a group of 3 such aircrafts could simultaneously monitor an area of 1,000x1,000KM in a ASW mode (no idea of what the range would be in ASuW operations with MALD), that means one SCS with even just 9MPC could effectively monitor a very large amount of ocean every day.

      And each MPC has the capability to provide firing solutions for it's own single ASW stand-off munition. Meaning it has a very high combat potential. You could peer this with ASuW ship based drones, and missile equipped submarines (again shadowing the super-carriers) and excert a very powerful influence over the trade lanes.

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    6. Sorry for double posts, it posted everything twice....

    7. Doesn't this sound like the perfect job for the first two ships of the America class? Of course, we don't have a Viking that could take off from it, but if we had an analog of some sort...

    8. Unfortunately no, that class of ships lacks a Catobar system and an angled flight deck, so it is unable to be used to launch standard CATOBAR equipped planes and is therefore limited to stovl.

      Meaning F35s and Helos for AWAC and ASW, at this point we may as well revert to the many proposed 'Harrier Carrier' designs which are from 7k-10kTonnes. What I proposed was a genuine SCS ship equipped with true fixed wing, MPCs supported by Fixed wing AWACS, Tankers, and Light fighters.

      Sure something that is STOVL could be designed, but I would prefer not, it would only complicate things, it would most certainly cost more than just building a catobar vessal, and it would be difficult as what I propose would surely be heavier and larger than the S3 Viking to accommodate the extra equipment.

  9. Don't forget American's western pacific allies are basically building Zummwalt's "second tier navy" with middling flat tops, aegis frigate/destroyers, and non-nuclear subs.

    leaving major fleet action to the USN while sea control task forces keep the ocean nailed down.

    When decrying small flat tops it's worth bearing in mind they did a useful job at Leyte Gulf.

    1. Yes but what the USN is doing, it is litterally building a navy out of TWO classes of warship (three if you include attack submarines), it would be very hard to argue that the optimal number of classes to effectively fullfill the USNs requirements during peace and wartime is TWO....

      >The missile submarines fullfill and belong more to the 'strategic strike' branch of the US military rather than tactical operations. The LCS, lets face it, they are a joke, more of a danger to their own crew than any adversary, they actually have many seakeeping issues which interfere with normal operations...

  10. The problem with this concept is the short range of our current generation helicopters. Endurance of MH-60R in ASW configuration is around 2.5 hrs.

    This effectively limits ASW search operations to within 75-100 nm of mothership, which compares rather unfavorably to WW2 era CVEs.

    I am guardedly optimistic that Joint Future Vertical Lift (FVL) technology demonstrations will eventually lead to a much longer-legged helos. But that is decades away.


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