I mentioned in a previous post I was unimpressed with Navy’s management of the the resources it has been given, primarily in terms of shipbuilding. Surprisingly, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget isn’t the prime driver of the overall budget. Personnel and the operations and maintenance accounts are larger. But the whole point of a navy is to operate ships, so getting shipbuilding right is a first priority.
There are a couple bright spots in the Navy’s program. First, the Virginia class nuclear attack submarine program has been pretty successful, on time, on budget, in spite of some seriously stupid mandates. The Lewis and Clark class of underway replenishment ships has been relatively successful as well. And while the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) carrier currently under construction is stupendously expensive, so far no major embarrassments have come to light. Not bad for a ship that contains quite a few technological innovations. Whether the Navy can afford to buy as many as they need is an open question, but as a program, the Ford has been reasonably well run.
Subs, logistics, and carriers are doing OK. That leaves amphibious shipping, and surface combatants.
Amphibs- Two current classes are under construction. The San Antonio (LPD-17) amphibious transport dock ship is replacing forty year old predecessors. The earlier class of LPDs were relatively simple ships. Some of the changes causing the LPD-17s to cost more are more or less inevitable. Greater volume for berthing spaces for the embarked Marines, greater air conditioning capacity, larger internal volume to accommodate larger Marine vehicles, and improvements in aviation facilities, communications and networking, and ship control facilities were needed. Similarly, changes in environmental law mandated making the ships “greener” than previous ships. All that costs money.
But almost from the start, the design of the LPD-17 was ripe for “gold plating.” While every warship needs at least some level of armament for self defense, historically, ‘gators have have only the most basic outfit. The assumption has always been that they would be escorted by destroyers or frigates and the ‘gators own weapons were strictly to handle any “leakers.” But the original design for the LPD-17 included a Mk41 Vertical Launch System missile magazine and all associated missile control systems. Eventually, that plan was deleted strictly on costs grounds.
LPD-17 was one of the first classes to be “stealthy.” The shaping of the hull, and an enclosed mast to minimize the ship’s radar reflection would seem to be a relatively low cost choice, but in fact added quite a bit to the cost of designing and building the ship. How effective such measures are is very much in dispute.
Reliability issues, quality control issues, and some odd choices in materials have also plagued the ship. Follow on ships seem to have fewer quality control issues, but still, the “utility infielder” of amphibious ships is staggeringly expensive.
The other class of amphibious ship under construction is the LHA-6 America class. The Navy’s huge LHA-LHD ships are bigger than most other navies aircraft carriers. Earlier LHA-LHD ships combined a huge flight deck, large spaces for troops, vehicles, cargo, and impressive command and control spaces (for the embarked Marines and for the amphibious shipping group’s admiral) with a large floodable well deck that could accommodate landing craft.
The LHA-6 is controversial because it eliminates the well deck in favor of much increased aviation facilities, primarily to allow it to embark a larger number of F-35B STOVL aircraft then earlier classes. With the well deck eliminated, spaces for vehicle storage and cargo are also much smaller. The Navy claims that the other ships in any amphibious group will suffice to haul and land the needed vehicles and cargo. That’s debatable. The last time the Navy tried an “all aviation” approach to the helicopter carrying amphib, the major complaint from the fleet and the Marines was that it lacked a well deck. In fact, there is a strong debate right now whether follow on ships in the America class should revert to a well deck design.
The traditional family of surface combatants has been cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. The current cruiser class, the Aegis Ticonderoga class, is aging. Of 27 originally built, 22 remain. Sooner or later, they’ll need replacement.
The Navy’s only destroyer class right now is the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class. An extremely successful design, the Burkes are the ultimate evolution of the Spruance class destroyer design of the early 1970s. An astonishing 61 Burkes have been built, not counting near sister ships serving in Japan and South Korea.
The only frigate class is the hugely successful Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class, of which 51 were built, again, not counting sister ships built for allies. But the Perry’s are old and tired. The ship’s main armament, the Mk13 missile launcher that fired the Standard SM-1MR air to surface missile and the Harpoon anti-ship missile, was removed from US Navy ships due to maintenance costs. Effectively neutered, the “Figs” still have decent anti-sub capability, but mostly serve now to provide presence, and fulfill tasks such as vessel board/search/seizure. There are only about 30 Figs left in the fleet, and they aren’t going to be around too much longer. The Navy has no plans to build a new frigate class.
That brings us to the Littoral Combat Ship. When the LCS program was started, the Navy swore up and down that it wasn’t a frigate, and wouldn’t be used for frigate missions. Never mind it was pretty much frigate sized (well, a little smaller), and was to be built in frigate numbers. And since there is no frigate design to replace retiring Figs, all the handwaving from Big Navy can’t conceal the fact that either LCS will take over Fig missions, or the missions simply won’t get done.
Here we are a decade into the program, with 24 of a planned 55 ships either commissioned, building, or contracted for. And yet, only now is the first ship on its first real deployment. And only now, with half of the planned buy contracted for, has the Navy admitted that the ships need more armament than the various vaporware proposals that have served as the main battery of the class throughout its development.
Our Navy has since the end of World War II been a largely home based, but forward deployed. The need for US ships to be able to deploy for six to nine months at a time in often austere environments drives up the cost and size of our ships compared to those of other navies. And generally, that’s a worthwhile investment. And in that same time period, we’ve tended to see two main thrusts in shipbuilding- high end ships suited for the main line of battle, that is, the fast carrier task force, and low end ships suited for escort of amphibious, replenishment, and merchant shipping. This is roughly a split between two major roles for any navy, power projection and sea control. The fast carrier task force (often in concert with amphibious shipping) projects power to impose our will on distant shores. Sea control provides us the use of sea lines of communication and denies them to our enemy.*
We find ourselves in the interesting position that the high end is actually fairly well provided for. It is the low end that has badly atrophied. From World War II destroyer escorts through the 1980s Perry class frigates, the low end had been built with a focus on open ocean anti-submarine warfare, largely due to the enormous Soviet submarine fleet. Having been caught short of escorts for the Atlantic in two world wars, the Navy was determined to have at least some capability in place at all time. But with the demise of the Soviet Union also came the demise of that huge submarine fleet. And at the same time, the Navy found itself operating in constricted waters, facing a multitude of threats. Shore based aircraft, anti-ship missiles from land batteries or small fast attack craft, quiet diesel electric subs in shallow, congested waters, the threat of mine warfare in places like the Strait of Hormuz, and swarming attacks by small craft all posed threats that traditional open ocean escort designs were not well equipped to deal with.
Faced with the changing environment, the institutions of the Navy floundered. One idea, for a very specific, niche role, was to build a small combatant specifically for waters such as the Straits of Hormuz. This small, low cost ship, similar to fast attack craft of other navies in the region, would be responsible for dealing with other FACs or swarm attacks. It would be stationed in a friendly port in the region. Rather than deploying for 6-9 months at a time, it would deploy for a year or 18 months, and swap out its crew at the halfway point. Most routine maintenance would be done in the forward port, but periodic returns stateside would allow major overhauls. It was intended to be small enough and cheap enough, and most importantly, have a small enough crew, that quite a few could be bought for little impact on the shipbuilding budget.
But our Navy has long had a bias against small combatants. Every generation or so, a handful would be bought, then shuffled off to the backwaters of the bureaucracy, doing missions no one else wanted, or falling to the malign neglect of those communities that opposed them in the first place, but were tasked to support them. As this small combatant was proposed, two other important issues rose. First, the Navy’s fleet of mine warfare vessels were aging, showing a lack of capability against a modern mine warfare threat. Second, the “Revolution in Military Affairs” arrived, with the notion of the totally networked warfighting environment, and especially the idea of using unmanned vehicles in virtually every area of warfare. And so the “good idea fairy” came to add its two cents to the proposal for a small combatant. What originally began as a small anti-surface warfare ship soon needed the space, power, weight, and plumbing to support mission modules that could be swapped out to perform inshore Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW), or Mine Warfare (MiW), using remotely operated vehicles. And ASW requires the use of helicopters, so the ship had to have a flight deck, hangar, and all associated support. And since the Navy was designing an unmanned helicopter system, might as well make sure it could carry and operate three of those, in addition to a conventional helicopter. Oh, and those mission modules? Build the ship with the space and weight reserves for them, but we have no real idea just how big or heavy they will be since we haven’t designed them yet, let alone tested how they perform at sea, as opposed to on PowerPoint. Worse still, while its fairly easy (if not cheap) to build a 1000 ton ship capable of 40-50 knots, the Navy insisted that this growing ship (roughly 3000 tons) meet that same speed requirement, without really putting any great thought into the cost/benefit analysis of that requirement.
Let’s talk about ship speed vs. cost for a moment. Yes, you can build a ship that goes that fast. A traditional hull form with sufficient power will get you anywhere from 30-35 knots at a reasonable price. But speeds above that require vastly increased power, or a different, more exotic hull form, or more commonly, both. Vast increases in power mean more of the ship is taken up with the powerplant, and need more fuel. They also tend to be inefficient, as ships don’t spend a lot of time at top speed. So you also need a second powerplant for routine operations at lower speeds. In the case of the LCS, this means huge gas turbines for top speed, and diesels for routine speeds. But the top speed on diesels alone is actually lower than the cruising speed the rest of the fleet normally operates at. The LCS also has an unusual hull form, with its own issues. Even with the huge powerplant, the LCS is very sensitive to changes in weight and balance. This means further restrictions on the size and weight of any future mission modules, restricts the growth potential of the ships, and has implications for damaged stability.
The worst thing the Navy has done in the LCS program (other than start it, I suppose) is that where they first wanted to vastly different technology demonstrators to highlight the choices available, and show the best future path, when it came time to choose between one or the other, the Navy chickened out and chose both. Two entirely different designs, two different hulls, two completely different poweplants, two different sensor suites, two different combat systems**, two entirely different training pipelines and two entirely different supply and contractor support chains all mean any hope of cost savings through mass production are gone.
Is there future in the Navy for a relatively small (3-4000 ton) combatant? Sure. There will always be a need for low end ships. Will future ships likely be designed to accommodate mission modules to swap roles? Maybe. The plug and play idea has a lot of merit, but foreign experience shows that most ships plug and leave the modules in, in effect, building variants of a basic hull design. We probably will see more of this modular approach to mission capability.
Will the Navy axe the LCS program and start a smarter approach to small combatants? Not likely. Will this folly suck money and political goodwill away from other more important programs. Almost certainly.
*That’s a gross oversimplification of naval strategy, of course. In the end, power projection provides the ultimate in sea control when you conquer your enemy and hold his ports and fleet.
**And neither system is supported by the existing infrastructure of the Navy, either. I’m not saying either system is good or bad, but they are both a complete break with 60 years of evolution in Navy combat systems.