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.