Flight Ops

Flight Ops

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Small Ship Navy: Numerous and Expendable? Why not?

The U.S. Navy's newly designated "frigate" (nee "Littoral Combat Ship") is not a dead program, but it ain't all that healthy, either, as set out in Pentagon Cuts LCS to 40 Ships. This has set off some "I was right and you were wrong -ism".

Really, the FF/LCS is not the first Navy ship design that proved to be - uh - less than optimal.

It probably won't be the last.

Let's suppose we ask the question that underlies the size of our fleet: What do we plan to do with it?

If the answer is long-range standoff missions, then it would seem aircraft carriers and their assigned air wings are one part of the answer.

If the answer is killing submarines that might threaten our country or those aircraft carriers, it should be clear that ASW attack submarines are a large part of the answer, along with long-range maritime patrol aircraft and real honest to goodness ASW destroyers.

If the answer is support of forces ashore, then perhaps the new Zumwalt-class destroyers are part of the answer.

USS Pegasus (PHM-1)
If the answer is local sea control in contested waters in narrow straits, inshore, then the answer probably is a force deigned to go into harm's way in those waters. As set out in this 2001 Wall Street Journal article by Greg Jaffe describing a 2000 war game:
The U.S. is at war with China, and U.S. Navy commanders are using a new breed of ship called Streetfighter to sail perilously close to the Chinese coast.

There, the small, fast, inexpensive warships -- designed to go into harm's way and, if necessary, be lost -- hunt down Chinese subs and missile launchers hidden among fishing boats and cargo ships. Some Streetfighters are sunk by enemy fire, and casualties are high, but they help the U.S. win earlier than the military pros had projected.
The Streetfighters existed only on paper. But their performance in that mock battle was enough to convince the war college's director, Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, that a fleet of Streetfighters could give any foe fits -- provided the Navy is willing to endure casualties.

"Streetfighter is alive, well and an inevitability," he crowed.
Even then, there were "cautious voices, like a now former CJCS,
Some top Navy commanders have grave doubts. "I look at the Streetfighter concept and worry that we are saying, 'It's OK to lose ships,' " says Vice Adm. Michael Mullen, commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet in Norfolk, Va. Others question whether sailors in an all-volunteer force would sign up to serve on the ships, or whether Congress would approve the money to build them.
Yeah, well, the FF/LCS is a lot of things, but it does not appear to be so robust that if confronted by a threat it wouldn't be "expendable." More from Cebrowski:
The 58-year-old admiral immediately homed in on one of the most vexing weaknesses in the current fleet. In the past 10 years, the proliferation of cruise missiles and cheap diesel subs has made it easier for enemies to strike U.S. vessels. A recent General Accounting Office report concluded that the Navy's ability to deal with the threat posed by cruise missiles and diesel subs in coastal regions was "marginal" and that nothing the Navy is currently buying will "provide adequate protection against improved versions of these weapons."

To protect its precious ships and crews, the military leadership is pushing them farther and farther out to sea, where they are safer but not nearly as effective. "We've become risk-averse," Adm. Cebrowski says.
Re-read Adm Mullen's comment again to see what Adm. Cebrowski was speaking about.
The idea of building a new class of small ships had been kicking around at the Naval War College and the Naval Post Graduate School, where retired Navy Capt. Wayne Hughes, one of Adm. Cebrowski's former commanding officers, had been playing with some concepts. Adm. Cebrowski had been thinking about the need for a new class of small ship as well. So he and Capt. Hughes put the concept on paper.

Because Streetfighters would be cheap -- one design would cost only about $70 million a ship, compared with as much as $1 billion for a new destroyer -- the Navy would be able to buy hundreds for the price of one 10-ship carrier battle group. The ships would operate along crowded coastal waters, hiding in coves and springing out to destroy enemy subs, hunt down mines and disrupt enemy missiles that could more easily target larger, slower ships.

After a few days or weeks of heavy fighting, the bigger ships would move in and take over the fight. Some Streetfighters would be lost, and some sailors would die. "Streetfighters must be designed to lose," Capt. Hughes wrote at the time. "If the ships become too costly or too heavily manned, commanders will be unwilling to put them at risk."
I am not sure in this age of near real time satellite imaging that "hiding in coves" might still work, but there is that "quantity has a quality all of its own" thing.

The fun one can have imagining a fleet with a combination of large capable ships and small, fast "sea-going fire ants" boiling out of hiddie holes is immense. Capt Wayne Hughes' The New Navy Fighting Machine: A Study of the Connections Between Contemporary Policy, Strategy, Sea Power, Naval Operations, and the Composition of the United States Fleet suggests:
The “New Navy Fighting Machine” promotes a wider mix of ships, in a more numerous fleet, with better-focused capabilities, to meet a range of scenarios in green and blue water environments. The new fighting machine does this within an affordable SCN (Ship Construction Navy) budget ceiling, because the U.S. defense budget already dominates defense spending in the rest of the world.

The fleet’s new component is a green water force of small vessels to fulfill the three sea service chiefs’ maritime strategy of collaboration and support of theater security operations now manifested in Navy global fleet stations. The green water force also includes coastal combat forces, and additional reconnaissance for the land and sea side of a littoral. These capabilities are achieved with 10% of the SCN budget.
How many "green water ships? Hughes suggests 240 (+400 inshore patrol craft). Hughes rightly compares the need for a new command to drive developing this green water component of naval power to that that developed Naval Aviation in its infancy. Hughes:
We also show, in rough outline, that the new fighting machine is better suited than the present projection-heavy 313-ship1 Navy to support regional conflicts and, if it should become necessary, to constrain Russian ambitions.

Submarines in greater numbers are central to the maritime strategy, but within a constrained budget the larger force cannot be exclusively nuclear powered. We find that diesel submarines with air-independent propulsion not only allow twice as many submarines, but they also nicely complement the SSNs in the critical scenario.

Because the United States has not conducted an opposed amphibious landing in nearly 60 years, the new fighting machine emphasizes amphibious lift rather than amphibious assault. We stress the unparalleled success of national sealift in timely delivery of ground forces where needed, when needed, and for as long as needed. It is a national treasure that has received too little attention. We assiduously maintain this strong sealift component in the new fighting machine.

The study does not eliminate high-end warships, the individual capabilities of which are unmatched by any other nation in the world. To do so would end America’s maritime superiority. On the other hand, a Navy of only large, multibillion dollar warships will result in a smaller and smaller force that cannot fulfill its roles around the world. Some of those roles, maritime interdiction operations and coastal patrol for example, can be handled by smaller ships in greater numbers.
That 313 number above has now shrunk to 272.

Some are going to debate the building of new frigates or corvettes to boost ship numbers. I suggest instead building the "green water" force using technology that already exists. Further, I suggest building up a corps young officers to drive these new toys hard with some LCDR and CDR supervision.

If you don't think there are some young people who like this idea, see this from 2012 New Navy Fighting Machine in the South China Sea by a couple of then Lieutenants, Dylan Ross and Jimmy Harmon:
This thesis advocates fleet growth as articulated in Hughes' New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) study. Comparisons of the NNFM, the U.S. fleet, and the PRC fleet demonstrate both the disparity facing the American surface forces, and the near parity obtained in the NNFM. CT through unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and naval obscurants provide American surface forces increased staying power and tactical advantage. Scouting and communications networking through a theater wide constellation of airships provide the American fleet with persistentsituationalawareness of the battle space, tactical communications with subsurface forces, and improved emissions control (EMCON) measures for surface forces. The distributive properties of the NNFM, combined with this study's CT [counter-targeting] and scouting findings, offer American surface combatants success over the PRC Navy in the SCS scenario.
ANd who wouldn't like to drive one of these:

or be the a squadron CO of 8 or 10 of these:

We could do worse than building a few of these.

In fact, we have done worse. Too bad the PHMs like Pegasus were killed. We could have had 38 years of experience with small fast, heavily armed war ships by now. "Coulda, shoulda."


  1. "small fast, heavily armed war ships by now. "Coulda, shoulda."

    Weren't some of Russia's initial missile attacks into Syria from such boats situated in the Caspian Sea.

  2. Anonymous2:53 PM

    Fast, highly maneuverable craft with lots of fire power, JO commands, makes me wish I was still in the zone for this sort of thing.

    1. JO command now might well mean something completely different with the advent of real time visual communications between ship and headquarters.