This little tidbit caught my eye and emphasizes one of my pet peeves. The French frigate Forbin (Horizon class) conducted a missile firing exercise, launching an Aster-30
“This is the third Aster 30 firing by Forbin since it entered active duty.” (1)
Forbin’s first deployment was in 2009 so the vessel has been in service for 8 years and has fired 3 Aster missiles in that time. That’s one missile firing every 2.7 years. Is that sufficient to keep the crew trained, thoroughly exercise and debug the system, and establish a baseline of performance and reliability?
I don’t know how the French Navy works but in the US Navy a ship’s Captain could come and go during that 2.7 year interval and never fire the ship’s main weapon. Crews can come and go during that interval and never see a live firing. Is that really the degree of training that a WARship should have?
Before anyone jumps on me, I know little about the French Navy’s practices so if this article misrepresents the state of training to some degree, bear with me. Perhaps the crew fires a thousand live missiles per year at some other training facility. They don’t but the point is that the specific details don’t matter. This article illustrates my theme that the Navy (I’m now talking about the US Navy) needs to engage in much more realistic and frequent training.
Yes, missiles cost money and there’s a limit on how many we can go flinging around in the name of training ………. or is there?
A Standard missile costs around two million dollars depending on the specific version. If every Burke were to launch a single Standard each month in training, that would be 12 missiles per year per ship. Hey, let’s call it 10 per year because ships invariably are unavailable at times for maintenance and whatnot. There are around 70 Burkes in the fleet so that equates to 700 Standard missile firings per year which would cost $1.4B in missiles.
Hmm, that’s a lot of money, you say? Well, consider these benefits – because it’s all a cost-benefit balance, right?
- Hugely enhanced training quality with the crews operating actual systems with live missiles rather than simulations. Crews become accustomed to the real thing.
- We’ll get a much better idea of the baseline reliability of the missiles and sensor/launch systems. Today, a live missile firing is a major event preceded by days of preparation, tweaking of systems, inspections, etc. all designed to produce a successful launch. That won’t happen in war. Combat launches will be a little or no notice, come as you are event. More frequent training launches will allow us to get a better feel for how the system works without a major workup period leading to the actual firing.
- We’ll get a much better idea of the baseline performance of the missiles and systems. What can we actually expect from the missile in terms of shoot-down effectiveness? Of course, the Navy would probably still use simplistic, canned scenarios so the performance value would be vastly overstated but more launches would still give better performance data.
- We would have to produce many more missiles per year which would increase the production capability of the manufacturer. This would be vital in the case of war where would need large quantities of replacement missiles on a continuous basis. This kind of training would force us to be better prepared for wartime production capacity.
- Producing many more missiles per year would drive down the cost substantially, one would have to imagine. That $2M figure becomes, perhaps, $1M per missile. See, we’re saving money already! So now this level of training only costs $700M per year. That’s the cost of a single LCS and is almost insignificant compared to the overall Navy budget.
Is $700M per year still too much for you to consider? Okay, how about cutting the launches in half and only doing 5 per year per ship? Now we’re down to $350M per year. That is insignificant. That’s almost round off error in the Navy’s accounting ledgers.
The benefits of live fire training, especially if coupled with more realistic scenarios, are immense. If even a single Burke is saved in wartime by being better trained and having missile systems whose reliability and performance are better understood, we’ll save the $2B cost of a lost ship and the $XB cost of its replacement. That alone justifies the expense of the training.
Live fire training inevitably reveals the little things that aren’t accounted for in simulations. Remember the
invasion when, despite all our military’s training,
we discovered that none of the units could talk to each other? Remember the Marines “return” to the sea and
the first major amphibious exercise they attempted after decades of land
combat? They found hosts of “little”
things that failed or that no one knew/remembered how to do. You can simulate all the training in the
world but until you do it live, you don’t realize that no one has the right
size wrench to do the job. And so
Live fire training is absolutely vital and needs to become a commonplace event. We need to find out how our systems perform without special tweaking prior to the event. We need crews to be completely comfortable with the weapons and systems. We don’t need to be able to make the system work with the most brilliant operator on the ship – we need to be able to make the system work with the worst operator on the ship.
It should not be noteworthy that a ship launches an AAW missile in training. It should not generate an article read world wide. It should not be the third time it’s happened in the eight year history of the ship. Missile launches should be routine, commonplace events that evoke no particular notice.
The larger, overarching point is not the exact number of missile launches per ship per year but, rather, the incredible dearth of such events and lack of live fire exercise of all of our weapons and systems. The Navy is supposed to be prepared to fight tonight, to use the latest buzz phrase, and the only way to ensure that level of preparedness is to conduct frequent, routine live fire exercises in as challenging scenarios as possible consistent with a reasonable degree of safety.
I’ve previously stated that the Navy should be largely non-deployed (I hesitate to use the word “homeported” because that has a different, inappropriate meaning) and should be spending its time training and this is exactly the type of training that the fleet should be routinely conducting.
(1)Navy Recognition website,