Monday, August 15, 2016

Distributed Cost

The Navy continues on its inexorable path to irrelevance – an irrelevance brought on by having too few ships that are too expensive and too vital to risk in combat which is the very task they are supposedly built for.  A force that’s too expensive to risk in combat is a force that’s irrelevant.  For example, a carrier that costs $15B (the equivalent of an entire year’s shipbuilding budget !!! ) and that is one of only nine or ten in the fleet is just too expensive and too vital to risk in combat.  That renders the carrier irrelevant.

We’ve seen this phenomenon play out.  For many years, the Air Force would not risk their (at the time) new B-2 bombers so the B-52 shouldered the work load.  The Air Force would not risk the F-22 until just recently.  The Marine’s combat ready (they told us they were) F-35s are not being used in combat even though a single F-35 is worth a hundred legacy aircraft, so they tell us.  Why?  Because of risk (and because they aren’t actually combat ready – they lied to us).

What can we do about it?  Well, the Navy has actually given us a model that can pave the way to a better force structure – a structure that we would actually be willing to risk in combat.  The model is the Navy’s woefully misguided “distributed lethality” concept.  We’ve discussed the flaws inherent in distributed lethality so I won’t repeat that, however, the underlying concept is exactly what’s needed to produce a force structure we’d be willing to commit to combat.  

The key is “distributed”.  For our purposes, what we need to distribute is not lethality but cost.  Instead of a single $15B carrier that we won’t even allow to go to sea in the event of war, two $7B carriers or three $5B carriers would be far better.  Or, instead of a $2.5B Burke that no one wants to risk playing tag with a submarine, despite ASW being a theoretical Burke capability, we need two $1B, pared down, generic destroyers or five $500M dedicated ASW vessels.

The concept is to distribute the cost so that when war comes we’re willing to risk using the ships for the jobs they were designed for rather than hold our ships back from combat because we can’t afford the cost of losing even one of them.  Wargame after wargame has shown that the commanders are unwilling to commit their high priced ships to combat because of the risk of losing a ship that is so expensive and contains so much capability.  Halsey would cry over this timidity but that’s another issue.

Now, here’s the truly ironic part.  If we pursued a distributed cost force structure, it would, inherently, give us a distributed lethality structure as well but without the idiotic failings of the Navy’s current distributed lethality concept.  Instead of putting Harpoons on tankers or supply ships and risking losing those very precious assets, we’d be distributing the fleet’s aggregate lethality across actual warships that are built to fight and built in sufficient numbers, at a low enough cost, to be able to afford losing some.

Make no mistake …  this is 180 degrees opposite the Navy’s current path of ever bigger, ever fewer, ever more capability-concentrated ships.  The Navy is knowingly heading down a death spiral of fewer ships that cost more which leads to fewer ships which cost still more which leads ... 

We must break that cycle and establish a new path and this is the way to do it.


Note:  Thanks to reader Jim Whall for the inspiration for this post.


  1. I think the irony is that the gold plated fleet led us to the LCS. 'We have to have a low end combatant!' - which is true, but so much money gets sucked up by the (non functioning) Fords and (questionable) Zumwalts of the world that they have no money to make a _war_ship.

    Now, the subs traditionally seem to get used, despite their great cost; Ivy Bells, insertions, listening to internal communications freakishly close to coastlines, trailing Soviet ships practically to their back yard.... I wonder if the mindset of the silent service is just different.

    I do have one question: In an era of super, and soon to be hypersonic cruise missiles, do you think its possible to make a surface ship capable of meaningful air defense somewhat cheaply?

    Or is it that you don't decry those so much, but more the fact that that is all we build with a ton of 'Burkes around?

    1. I've presented data on all the known historical anti-ship missile engagements and they show that ASM success is very poor. I do not think that the end of the surface ship is upon us. You're reading marketing hype not data.

    2. The problem with distributed cost being obtainable is the ship design & acquisition phase. Ever-evolving designs, capability creep, and over reliance on immature technologies to make those designs have those capabilities. Until the causes that make "distributed lethality" unobtainable are addressed, neither can distributed cost. Barring that, I would imagine, like you stated, the two concepts would work quite well together.

    3. Andrew, distributed lethality is not unobtainable. Quite the opposite. It's quite obtainable; either the Navy's version or mine. The Navy's is just idiotic.

      You might want to peruse the archives. We've discussed what it takes to design and build new platforms, ship or aircraft. There's nothing magic, just common sense and discipline backed up by accountability - all doable instantly.

    4. I'm not dicussing distributed lethality merits or flaws. In fact, Im highly critical of it, because it goes against a key tenant of modern miltary doctrine; concentrated firepower.

      I was just stating if we are going follow the discredited Jeune Ecole theory thats been rebranded as "distributed lethality" by Mr. Greenhart, then we need to act like it, by building ships fit for that role at the price needed to obtain the numbers needed.

      "...common sense and discipline backed up by accountability..." we don't do these things and we point them out, no one listens. I recommend you read "military dissent is not an oxymoron" on war is boring or "War is a racket" by MG Butler.

    5. "... concentrated firepower. ... the discredited Jeune Ecole theory ..."

      You may be misunderstanding what concentrated firepower is in relation to distributed lethality. The concept is that the entire distributed lethality is available as concentrated firepower - it's just not all on the same platform. In concept, a hundred ships, each with a single missile, can, if properly co-ordinated, strike a single target with a pulse of 100 missiles - that's distributed lethality and concentrated firepower. There's nothing wrong with that concept.

      Conversely, "concentrated firepower", as you seem to be using the phrase, equates to concentrated target - a single (or few) platforms with a concentration of firepower but which are susceptible to total loss of firepower if the single platform is destroyed.

      Consider the naval history of WWII. The Japanese employed distributed lethality / concentrated firepower brilliantly in their destroyers which wreaked havoc on US forces with their Long Lance torpedoes.

      Consider a carrier air wing. That's distributed lethality (each aircraft is lethal) and concentrated firepower when the air wing strikes a target.

      Concentrated firepower means concentrated at the target. It doesn't mean concentrated on a single firing platform.

    6. If we're going to do distributed lethality, lets do distributed lethality. 3 Zumwalts is not distributed lethality neither is 1 Ford with a small airwing of high maintenance F35s. LCS's are not lethal nor likely to be so for reasons covered in past topics, so why build them? Thats my statement, why are we building things incompatible with the doctrine we are currently following. "Distributed lethality" doesn't mean build junk that may work. You build things to fit doctrine.

      The Japanese destroyer were built to fit their doctrine as was their torpedoes. The fact they were as effective as they were, was we underestimated the Japaneses' capabilities.

  2. I just saw the note at the end. Thanks!

  3. Cost should never be a part of a CO's decision making matrix. How is it OK for a DDG to conduct AW but too much of a risk to prosecute an ASW threat. The Navy has to fight with the fleet that exist and the brass chose to pursue expensive Burke's instead of keeping the Spurance's around or restarting that line. If the ADM's feel that it is too financially risky to sail the fleet into harms way, then they either need to be fired or the CONCOPS moving forward for the USN should RTB when the shooting starts.

    Arleigh Burke and John Paul Jones would be horrified at such timidness.

    1. "Cost should never be a part of a CO's decision making matrix."
      In theory, yes, in practice, not losing scarce assets is a key military requirement, not losing expensive assets is a key political requirement.

      The US *might* be able to deploy three Carriers to a theater, the loss of one of those is a military disaster, because its the loss of the third of the fleets striking force.

      The loss of one is a political disaster because they are manned by 5000 plus sailors who are quite literally irreplaceable and the US cant build them much quicker than it does already, it might take a generation to replace a lost in combat carrier *and* replace lost to age carriers, especially if a new one (or recently refitted) one is taken out.

      The problem isnt so much "this war", as "the next war".
      The USN can go all in, eat the losses, and beat China, or Russia, or anyone else. The problem is, the next war. After you've lost that carrier and those cruisers and those destroyers, sure, you've obliterated China, but if the next war isnt against China, you're in a bad way and they arent.

    2. Plenty of blood and treasure have been lost in previous conflicts. Most of what the US considers 'losses' stem for the fact that we refused to go all in.

      If the threat is worthy of that level of commitment then the folks wearing all those stars need to have a plan to ensure not that the losses are minimum, but that any loss is a result of trying to achieve an mission objective.

      If China is indeed a threat then it would constitute a littoral engagement that the USN is ill suited for. How is the US covering that deficiency? IMO, that conflict has to be met with forces stationed in theater. If actually US presence would constitute a trip wire then our supposed allies need to be ready to bring local assets to the table.

      The fact China and the US know that SK, JP, PH, and Australia don't constitute real threats speaks volumes. If the ASEAN players don't really seem to care about China enacting their own Monroe Doctrine, its hard to find a reason for the US to do so.

    3. "If the ASEAN players don't really seem to care about China enacting their own Monroe Doctrine, its hard to find a reason for the US to do so."

      That region hosts the passage of a staggering amount of global shipping - shipping the US economy ultimately depends on. So, yes, we do have a reason to care about China.

      I think you're selling Japan's concerns a bit short. Japan is actively opposing China - at least more so than we are. There is no love lost between China and Japan!

    4. "That region hosts the passage of a staggering amount of global shipping - shipping the US economy ultimately depends on. So, yes, we do have a reason to care about China"

      I'm doubtful that China would threaten US shipping because of the economic hazard that would impose on the CCP. I do think they would try to increase their EEZ and disrupt and/or deny access to regional players though.

      WRT to Japan and its active opposition, China turned reefs into floating bases on both the US and JPN watch. I know that you don't think much of FONOPS, but building ships and not deploying them doesn't fill me with a great deal of confidence.

    5. "I'm doubtful that China would threaten US shipping because of the economic hazard that would impose on the CCP."

      The Chinese take the long view. If suffering a little short term economic distress (remember, it will only be the people suffering, not the party elite - they can always get more people) will gain them a long term goal like removing or significantly reducing the influence of the US, they would do it in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, they're already doing it, aren't they? They've made the calculation that whatever sanctions or other actions the US might take in response to their illegal island building is worth it to gain total control of the South China Sea. As it happens, we did nothing so it was a major win for them. But, your assumption is already proven false by their current actions.

      FONOPS??? Seriously, what have they accomplished?

      What does fill you with confidence? Pointlessly sailing by once in while, while the Chinese continue to build their illegal islands and make false claims in the face of international law and norms? Does that make you feel more confident? It's certainly not accomplishing anything but I guess if it makes you feel better, that's fine.

    6. I would have suggested unmaking the islands as fast as China was bringing then from the sea both that strategy is off the table. Either we are in a war with China and should act accordingly, or we are not and needn't concern ourselves with the CCP's actions in the South China Sea.

      The fact the their tactics are directed at thwarting the US means they don't think the regional countries are much of a threat IMO. What would fill me with confidence it that America either fights Chinese control of the SCS or we leave. Some believe there is a middle ground akin to the Cold War but that doesn't appear to be the case this time around.

    7. If there's a middle ground, someone needs to tell the Chinese because they're expanding as fast as they can! They don't see a middle ground. They are at war to claim the entire South China Sea and they have won. Our strategy of appeasement has failed utterly.

    8. "They are at war to claim the entire South China Sea and they have won. Our strategy of appeasement has failed utterly."

      I concur. So why is the US acting is if there is anything that can be done to reverse the situation?

    9. America's stance, at this point, is just face saving, mainly for the benefit of internal US politics rather than admitting we gave away the entire South China Sea.

      Of course, we could confront the Chinese but that would require a willingness to engage in potentially violent encounters and there is zero chance of us doing that. Since we won't confront, we may as well retreat. All we're doing is putting wear and tear on our platforms and increasing regional tensions while accomplishing nothing.

  4. This hits home with me on several fronts.

    One, you know I'm big on lessons learned from the Falklands, and a couple come to mind:

    1. Sandy Woodard took some heat for keeping his carriers so far to the east throughout the duration of the conflict. This increased transit time, reduced loiter time, and impaired ability to respond quickly to threats. But Woodward reckoned that up until almost the last day when the Argentines surrendered, the loss of a single carrier would have required him to abort the mission and return home.

    2. The primary air defense platform was the Type 42 destroyers with their area defense Sea Dart missiles. But the Type 42s had no close-in point defense missile, and the Sea Dart fire control radar had difficulty separating aircraft approaching over land from ground clutter. Therefore, they lost some 42's until they started pairing them with cheaper Type 22 general purpose frigates, whose Sea Wolf close-in point defense missiles neatly filled the gap in coverage. This would also obviously go to your point about diversity in another thread earlier this month.

    This also goes to my idea of reviving the Zumwalt high/low procurement mix. With the Fords costing $14 billion a pop, we are looking to be down to 7 carriers by mid century. For the same $98 billion, we could have 12 $8 billion Nimitzes, or 16 $6 billion UK Queen Elizabeths, or some mix of all the above (but no more Fords until their catapults and arresting gear work). Same or similar with cruisers, destroyers, subs, amphibs, you name it. Build some Virginias, but lengthen out the sub numbers with a smaller nuke based on a quieter version of the French Rubis, or the DARPA Tango Bravo concept, and possibly add some fuel cell powered conventional subs like the German Type 216. Not to mention aircraft. Instead of the F-35, we could build three aircraft more nearly tailored for each service. We could probably come closer to meeting each service's requirements with the Eurofighter Typhoon for the air force, the Dassault Rafale for the navy, and the SAAB Gripen for the Marines, all at a fraction of the cost of the F-35. Add some more F-22s and some other types--a modernized A-6 and S-3 would be good additions, plus something with longer legs. And both the Typhoon and the Gripen have STOBAR versions at least on the drawing boards.

  5. Aside from its sole aircraft carrier and submarines, the Chinese combat fleet presently consists of 27 destroyers, 47 frigates, 26 corvettes, and 109 missile boats. That is distributed lethality.

  6. We send all of the Admirals/SESs to high flaueting schools, yet none of them can figure out that EVERY OTHER industry brings costs down or adds functionality for the same cost?

    Either get our money back from these schools or send smarter students. This is NOT THAT HARD of a problem, it requires discipline, vision, and drive. I always thought the Flags had these values - SIGH another myth busted.

  7. In regards to carrier issues, I just read about a problem with the CVM-22 testing. The C-2 can fold its wings and taxi to a parking spot for off load-on load. The great CVM-22 can't fold without blocking its ramp. So the plan is for this new COD aircraft to remain on a main landing area blocking usage as it loads and unloads, so the crew gets no rest either, as it turns around, refuels, and launches. I think that may prove a major problem, but like always, the aircraft was selected before even simple tests were done. This might be worth a post.

    1. The V-22 was chosen by the US navy, no competition, IE sole source, to replace the C-2. There were other competitors (some of them w/pretty significant capability) but the competitors went away.

      IE- this was a US Navy decision ONLY. No oversight. no DoD, no Congress. No one cared.

      Why? The USMC desperately needed to keep the V-22 line open- this deal along with their relentless FMS customers push helps them. They are very good partners with Bell-Boeing, the biggest winners in this.

      More- the chairman of the HASC, a Texas lawyer with no military service, has a vested interest too- they assemble V-22's in Amarillo. It goes on and on.

      The bottom line is the V-22 will never fit into fixed-wing cyclic carrier ops and God forbid if it breaks in place and fouls the angle (this will happen). This decision is almost as bad a decsion as making the F-18E/F the carrier airwings tanker aircraft....

      The V-22's range (the most important factor) was the lowest of all the "paper" evaluated aircraft replacements that were proposed, it carries less people, will not accommodate an F-35 engine and costs 3-4 as much cost/hr! All the requirements were scaled down to allow the V-22 to compete for the win. Rigged or what?

      Yep, our new has to be made to work just like the F-35 will have to be made to work. Who suffers- you can answer that yourself.

    2. 'Almost as bad a decision as making the F-18E/F...'

      I think its worse.

      What's the saying? Amateurs study tactics, experts logistics?

      If what you say is half true we just hamstrung our logistics chain.

  8. A concern: Turnaround time to unload or load the Osprey might take longer than the Greyhound, potentially cutting into the deck cycling window between flight operations. That’s because deck crews would offload and load the Osprey while it’s still in the landing and launching spot — spots 6 at the “waist” or 9 by the fantail — rather than outside the landing area where the Greyhound and cargo go when being moved or pre-staged for delivery. Both spots will require different approaches to safely move cargo and passengers.

    And note they are testing the Marine Corps version, without the needed extended range MATS internal fuel tank promised to extend range.

    This cuts payload and internal space by a third.

  9. And two more things. Those MATS tanks are available to the Marines (but never used) sometimes used in the CV-22s. Did they install them for the carrier tests? Hell no! They didn't want the carrier crews to ask "What the hell is that thing." The tank itself weighs 850 lbs.

    And when they quote range, they assume it flying empty at 25,000 feet with test pilots wearing oxygen masks and arctic gear, since the V-22 is only partially heated and unpressurized. If it has passengers or stuff that can't freeze, it will have to plow through thicker air at 10,000 feet with those huge proprotors and range suffers. It will not make the range specs with one MATS at 10,000 feet even with zero payload. A single OPEVAL test could tell us the answer, but they'll skip all that since it will fail.

  10. I will bring up the Japanese battleship Yamato analogy again - they were too scared to risk it. Fuel shortages compounded the problem.

    I wonder - the US only has a handful of carriers and they are immensely expensive whether or not the US will, in a serious nation state warfare, use them to their potential out of fear of losing their precious carriers.

    Keep in mind that the loss of a carrier would be a huge propaganda victory for any opponent as well.

    A serious discussion of value must be made, especially before the US commits more money to the expensive Ford class.


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