Foreign Aid to Egypt to Shut Down- Should the USN Seize the Corvettes?

News is coming across the wires that US foreign aid to Egypt will be suspended, not because of the Shutdown, but in reaction to the removal of the Islamist Morsi government. Mind you, I find it insane that we’d protest the overthrow of a government completely at odds with our interests, but that’s a story for another time.

But here’s the thing. Over the last 15 years or so, the US has been working with Egypt to design and build (on our dime, and here in the US) a class of four large Fast Attack Craft– or small Corvettes, however you wish to slice that distinction. Known as the Ambassador class, they’re nice looking, modern little ships,  Some open source stuff I’ve seen says the first has been delivered.

Galrahn on his twitter feed suggested the US should seize them and turn them over to the USN.

And there’s ample precedent for this. The four modified Spruance class destroyers built for the Shah of Iran were seized and entered service with the US Navy as the Kidd class, and provided yeoman service for 20 years.

While the Ambassadors weren’t designed for US Navy use, most of their systems share a fair amount of built-in interoperability. Further, they’d be pretty handy forward deployed in restricted waters, say, in the Persian Gulf, especially where they could routinely call on carrier or land based air support.

What the LCS should be…

So, in response to my babblings earlier about the US Navy’s destroyer strength in World War II, Ultima Ratio Regis had some thoughts on what an inshore warfare type ship should be. I disagree about the feasibility of his suggested ship, but I’ll note that contrary to the current US Navy Littoral Combat Ship, every weapon system he proposes is hardware, not vaporware. Proven technology. I’m not at all against innovation, but I recognize that starting a ship program in which EVERY part of the ship is untried is an almost certain road to failure.

Currently the Navy has a formidable force of high end surface combatants, both the Ticonderoga class cruisers, and the Burke class destroyers. Both classes feature the Aegis combat system, the SPY-1 phased array radar, and Mk41 Vertical Launch System missile launchers, with their ability to launch a variety of anti-air and land attack missile systems.  Both classes feature significant anti-submarine capability. Both classes were also creatures of the Cold War, originally envisaged as anti-air escorts for carrier groups in a blue water environment against massive Soviet saturation attacks. Over the years, they’ve certainly proven versatile enough to fulfill other missions across the spectrum of naval warfare. But these are high end assets. They aren’t cheap. Each costs billions of dollars.  There will always be more naval missions to perform than there are Tico/Burke hulls to perform them. Consequently, it makes sense to have a low end ship to fulfill those less critical missions.

Historically, that ship was the frigate or the “destroyer escort.” Conceived in World War II, destroyer escorts, later known as ocean escorts, and today, as frigates, had about half the engineering plant of a full destroyer. They were about 3/4 the length of a destroyer, but had a significantly smaller battery, with either three 3” guns, or two 5” guns, as opposed to a destroyer’s four or five 5” guns. They also lacked the large torpedo armament of destroyers. While most destroyers carried  from 10 to 16 tubes, DE’s carried, at most, three tubes. The point being, capability was sacrificed to gain numbers. Better a less capable ship on station than a perfectly capable ship that was busy somewhere else.

Today, the only frigates the Navy has left are about 30 of the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class ships.  Their main battery, the Mk13 guided missile launcher system was removed about a decade ago due to the high cost of maintenance.  While surrendering a good deal of the capability of a destroyer to achieve sufficient numbers makes a lot of sense, neutering the “Figs” has always struck me as silly. An FFG-7 is a lot of ship to carry around a 76mm gun.  The Figs were designed with a specific role in mind, the escort of merchant and amphibious shipping against limited air threats, and more specifically, against submarine threats.  That they have proven capable of fulfilling a wide variety of other roles is testimony to the inherent flexibility of ships as platforms of war and peace.

The Navy, has apparently decided that it no longer needs low end escort ships for open ocean protection of shipping. Fair enough. But if it doesn’t need low end warships for the ocean open, it has recognized that there are any number of places in “the littorals” that will require at a minimum a naval presence, and at worst, a tough fight in those waters. Similarly, there are a handful of key chokepoints where the majority of the world’s maritime trade passes through. Denying an enemy the ability to shut down those choke points is a key role for our Navy. The poster child for this concept, of course, is the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf. I think it is a fair assumption that the Navy should have at least some ships optimized for that environment. That’s where the people are, that’s where the shipping is, and that’s where the threat is. The question is, what kind of ship should we have in that environment. That leads to two questions. First, what is the threat? Secondly, how do we want to address the threat?

Using the Strait of Hormuz as an example, the threat is actually a wide variety of weapon systems. Iran of course, is the most likely aggressor. Shipping in the area can be held at risk by Iranian conventional naval forces, submarines, airpower, sea mines, land based anti-ship missiles, and swarms of small boats, possibly including suicide bombers. Clearly, if things go to hell, it will be an unhealthy place.

If all threats are to be faced simultaneously, the full spectrum of our naval capabilities should be brought to bear, with the high end ships of the Tico and Burke classes engaging in anti-air and missile defense, as well as anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. They would be supported by carrier based tactical air power, as well as land based airpower and other land based support such as signals intelligence.

But we can’t be strong everywhere at every time. Sometimes, at some places, you have to accept a degree of risk, and utilize a less capable platform. And if you are talking about a lower end platform, you’re almost by definition talking about a platform optimized for one warfare arena. In this case, I’d argue that the need is for an anti-surface warfare (ASuW) platform. Traditionally, since World War II, the US Navy has viewed the airplane as the best ASuW weapon, followed very closely by the nuclear powered attack submarine. That’s fine, if you’re facing a blue water fleet like the Soviets had.  Starting in the 1970s, surface combatants also began to be equipped with the A/R/U/GM-84 series Harpoon missile. It too was optimized for a blue water role.  But in the context of choke points like we’ve discussed above, the current threat isn’t a  large blue water fleet. It is a number of small missile armed Fast Attack Craft (FAC) and swarms of small boats, possibly operating as suicide boats.

The current LCS was originally designed to counter this threat. To successfully engage numbers of FACs meant that it had to be missile armed. The Harpoon is getting long in the tooth, and isn’t as effective against modern defenses as it once was. The missile chosen to replace it, the NLOS missile, was developed by the Army, but cancelled for technical reasons- they couldn’t get it to work. That left the LCS with no viable mid range weapon system against missile armed FACs.  As a counter to swarms of small boats, the LCS is armed with the 57mm Mk110 gun. This rapid fire gun has a short range, but a high rate of fire. Against small boats, it should be quite effective. The problem is, there’s only one gun on a 3000 frigate sized ship. And it only has an optical director. There’s no radar director for the gun. That limits its effectiveness as a defense against missiles, or during periods of limited visibility. And with only one gun, facing a potential swarm of boats, it has to “service” targets at a very high rate, killing quickly, and moving on to the next. That also has a tactical effect in that it virtually requires the ship to maneuver to keep all threats on one side of the ship. That is one reason the LCS has such an absurdly high speed requirement, to outmaneuver any swarm.

So we know what we don’t want. What do we want?

Well, in a perfect world, we’d be able to afford a specialized ship for constricted waters. That was the original intention for Streetfighter, that eventual grew into the colossus that is LCS.  My choice would be something along the lines of the South Korean Pohang class corvette.

About 1200 tons, 32 knots, up to 4000nm endurance, and a decent gun armament.  That’s the ASW variant above. I’d be tempted to combine it with the Harpoon armament of the ASuW variant. I’m willing to lose of of the twin 40mm mounts for that.

URR has a different take:

I assert that a Littoral Combat Ship that can actually survive combat in the Littorals would be an updated Gearing-type, with gas turbines, a helo deck, at least two 5″/62 mounts, CIWS, SeaRAM, and all the other modern features of the LCS designs. Tough, survivable, powerful units.

But alas, not “transformational”.

As I said in reply to him in that thread, I don’t think he’s calling for starting up the Gearing line again. I think he IS arguing that for 3000 tons, and well over $700 million dollars a pop, we should get more bang for our buck. And I certainly agree.

The problem is, the Navy has never liked small ships. First, the Navy has to send ships all over the world. That itself leads to larger ships, if only for the longer endurance.  Also, with the traditional reliance of quality over quantity in the US, a “second rate” ship is by itself something of a hard sell to Congress. So the tendency has been to make every platform as capable as possible. Finally, having vanquished every other fleet in the world, either by battle or mere existence, the Navy hasn’t fought a major surface action in a long time. Given the tight constraints on dollars, and especially on manpower (which is essentially the same thing as dollars), the temptation is to build a “fleet in being” as Mahan would say, and leave the smaller vessels to be procured on an expedient basis when needed. But there’s an old saying. A ship can only be in one place at a time. There is a need for a certain number of ships, and the only way to get them is to build a certain number of ships in the low-end of capability. As noted before, in the post World War II era, this role has been filled by the Destroyer Escort, or as it has variously been known, the Ocean Escort, or currently, the Frigate.  But those vessels were almost exclusively tailored to the blue-water Anti-submarine Warfare role. Today’s low end ship faces a different threat. In fact, a wide variety of threats.

To a certain extent, on a warship, more valuable than its weapons are its sensors. This fundamental shift in the role of a surface combatant was seen in World War II, where destroyers went from being an offensive and defensive adjunct to the battle line, to being screening vessels providing anti-aircraft fire for the carriers, to the picket role at the end of the war, where destroyers were positioned well in advance of the main body and their primary weapons weren’t their guns or torpedoes, but rather their air search radars, and the overhead Combat Air Patrol of fighters that they directed against Japanese attacks. Weapons on hand were strictly for last ditch self defense.

One large Aegis equipped cruiser or destroyer may have an awesome array of sensors, but the fact is, radar range hasn’t changed significantly since World War II. The physics of radio wave propagation mean the radar horizon for a surface mounted radar just aren’t going to be pushed back much. Signal processing advances have improved the likelihood of detection against a cluttered background, but not the range of that detection.  That in itself is a powerful argument for an approach emphasizing numbers over quality.  Sharing that information requires datalinks among all the platforms in a task force. Indeed, the Navy was among the very first computer users to use any form of networking. And it is the very cost of those combat systems, far more than the hull, machinery, and even the weapons mounts themselves, that drives up the costs of warships. The need to include them drives not just direct costs. In spite of the enormous leaps in computer technology over the years, the space required to operate these systems has actually grown. First, no commander has ever thought he had enough computer power or features. Second, the improvements in television technology means the displays for these systems have grown. That provides better information to the warfighter, but still drives up the size of the space needed to control a warship. And if you drive up the size of one space, you tend to drive up the size of all spaces. Which, since it’s a bigger, more expensive ship… you’re tempted to add just one more weapon, sensor, or technology. Don’t forget, the Ticonderoga and Burke class ships were both designed as austere alternatives to programs that died. Heck, the 14,0000 DDG-1000 Zumwalt program was originated as an austere, single mission alternative to the Burke! So, if you wish to design a smaller, low end platform, you, as  CNO, NAVSEA, or a program manager, must be utterly ruthless.  The very first thing you have to accept is that your ship won’t do all the things you want it to do. The one thing it can do, that other ships can’t, is BE THERE.

You have to, very early on, make the decision to freeze the weapon systems, combat systems, and other basic characterisics of a ship. In reviewing the design history of many ships, particularly those in the last 50 years, even Admirals seem consistently surprised to find that adding “just one little thing” drives the size and cost of ships into an ever increasing spiral. Simply adding 500 miles to the endurance of a ship can cause radical changes, and with those changes comes the desire to add ever more to the platform, since you’re already spending so much on it.

CDR Salamander, Galrahn at Information Dissemination, and a whole hatful of naval bloggers have pondered on what the best low end design for a ship would be, with many of them pointing to various European designs, particularly the Absalom class.

As I see it, the Navy actually needs two new ship designs, one a classic escort, and one a corvette sized vessel.

One of the reasons the LCS grew to such proportions was the realization that it would be forced, by the lack of other ships, to fulfill the role currently played by FFG-7 OH Perry frigates. So, why not just build a frigate instead? I’d be very happy to see repeat Perry class frigates. About 50 of them. The ONLY change I would make is to replace the Mk-13 guided missile launcher system (which has been removed, in any case) with a small, 8 to 16 cell Mk41 Vertical Launch System. We know that’s feasible. The Australians have done it. And the ONLY missile I’d plan for would be the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). It has almost the same range and capability as the earlier SM-1 Standard/Tartar system. It would also provide a significant, if expensive, anti-surface capability against small craft.

If that wasn’t enough, there was a notion back about 1990, to build “half a Burke” with half the powerplant (that is, only two LM2500 turbines) on two screws. The SPY-1/Aegis system would have been deleted in favor of a Mk92 fire control system similar to the Perry class. It would have cost more than a Perry, and been slightly slower, but would still maintain a 64-cell VLS, longer range, and more space for growth.

The link above has several other viable approaches to low cost frigates. The Navy has the ideas, what they don’t have is the power to decide on a reasonable course of action.

As for a corvette sized vessel, one which could fulfill much of the routine work in coastal waters, such as Vessel Boarding, Search and Seizure, Search and Rescue, Counterdrug Patrols, Presence Patrols, and Surveillance and Sea Control, I’d look to a ship the US has already designed and built, the Israeli   Sa’ar V class of ships.  That’s right. They were designed and built here in the US, and Litton already holds the license to build them.

Of course, none of this matters. The Navy, with the aid and comfort of the OSD, will continue on its idiotic plan to buy the LCS in large numbers. And it will continue to suffer the consequences.