17 December 2005

Dear Santa, Love, The Navy.

It is the time of year when children write to Santa asking for gifts (well, not mine, but that's another story). Some kids never grow up. Some of those kids work for the United States Navy and their wish list is very expensive.

The U.S. Navy’s plan to boost its shrinking fleet to 313 ships . . . would require the Navy to spend an average of $13.4 billion on new ships starting in 2007, a big jump from the $11 billion level of recent years. . . . The plan, which has the approval of Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations (CNO), is to be submitted to the Pentagon’s top leadership. . . . Navy officials said the 313-ship number is . . . a “steady-state” requirement around which numbers will rise and fall as ships enter or leave service. The plan sees a high of 333 ships in 2019 — 53 hulls more than today’s 280 — before falling to 312 ships in 2030, with 318 in service in 2035. . . . The plan keeps the number of aircraft carriers at 11 and eliminates today’s guided-missile frigates. A large chunk of the fleet will be the 55 Littoral Combat Ships, new low-cost, frigate-sized vessels intended to fight close to shore. It also sets the requirement for nuclear attack submarines at 48, only four boats less than today’s 52. Many in the undersea warfare community have feared that the attack fleet could shrink to 30 or fewer subs, which would be the case if new construction orders can’t rise above one hull per year. . . . It also . . . includes getting the price of each SSN-774 Virginia-class attack submarine down to $2 billion from about $2.5 billion today, and putting a ceiling of $8.8 billion on the second CVN 21 aircraft carrier.

The service already is working on reducing the cost of one of its most expensive warships, the advanced and controversial DD(X) destroyer. A months-long effort to find cost-saving design and production changes has trimmed some $200 million from the price tag for the first DD(X), which would bring it down from the official estimate of $3.3 billion to less than $3.1 billion. . . . Under the Navy’s new plan, the service intends to ask for two DD(X) destroyers in the 2007 budget, which will go to Congress in early February. The plan essentially moves the previously planned 2008 ship up a year, and still includes one ship in each budget for 2009 through 2013, for a total of seven DD(X) destroyers.

The budget plan also shows the first CG(X) missile-defense cruiser in the 2011 budget, with one each in 2013 and 2014 and two ships in 2015. The first CG(X) would be delivered in 2017, and a total of 19 are planned to be in service by 2030.

One main approach to keeping DD(X) costs down is to redesign it with cost consciousness in mind, even at the cost of military capabilities. Another has been two split construction of two to four trial ships between two shipyards with the understanding that the winner in the trial ship competition will get the rest of the DD(X) contract.

A few nuances of the story bear particular attention. First, these plans are based on grossly unrealistic price projections -- the money requested won't build the ships asked for, and the goal is to get Congress hooked on a particular fleet and then appropriate more than originally requested to build that fleet. Second, someone at the Pentagon has apparently woken up to the fact that existing cruisers and destroyers serve exactly the same naval purpose and are very similar ships. So, they came up with a new mission statement for the cruiser, which is now a "missile-defense" cruiser and hence going after a different pot of money than the previous version. This is pretty easy to for the Navy to do because the ships haven't even reached a serious design phase yet.

The Pentagon should promptly shred this wish list, and if the Pentagon doesn't, Congress should. These are very expensive weapons systems that are looking for reasons to exist and not finding them. They are based on tweaking the status quo, which was set by Reagan during the Cold War and then trimmed on basically an across the board basis, rather than looking at the military needs of the United States.

The existing Navy is designed to refight World War II in the blue seas. But, the next war won't look anything like that. The only country in the world that could and is at all likely to present that kind of conflict right now is China in an invasion of Taiwan. Russia could develop the capabilities to do so in a few years, but would face strong European navies if it chose to act in the North Atlantic, and has no good reason to launch naval warfare in that theater, and Russia lacks the resources and inclination to fight expeditionary naval warfare. The only other navies in the world with anything approaching the resources to challenge a blue sea navy of even a fraction of the scale of our existing one are allies. Most plausible naval scenarios involve rooting out a modest fleet of coastal diesel submarines, taking on pirates, escorting commercial ships, or supporting ground troops from a coastal region. Our existing Navy can address these needs, but it isn't designed to deal with these missions and is much more expensive than a Navy designed to do so.

While the Navy's plans make some nods in the direction of a changed approach, they don't go nearly far enough. For example, if you buy the theory that a national missile defense system has merit, maybe there is place for a naval component of that plan. After all, the Navy as passed most of its missile defense program tests, while the Air Force has flunked most of its preliminary tests. But, if you are going to do so, why should a "cruiser", which is the biggest and most expensive surface combatant other than an aircraft carrier, be your model, rather than a submarine or a smaller ship? The change in mission seems too serendipitous to be true.

The same can be said of the evolving sales pitch for the DD(X). It was initally sold as being an improved stealth replacement for the existing destroyers which serve as aircraft carrier escorts, provide cruise missile bases for attacking ground based targets, and, in theory, engage in ship to ship combat. Now, it is primarily being sold as a platform for a couple of glorified howitzers to support Marines engaged in amphibious invasions. But, I have yet to see a serious study that convincingly shows that this is a cost effective way of providing that kind of artillery support.

My view is that cruise missile base role served by the Navy's cruisers, destroyers and frigates is ill conceived. A couple dozen converted Boeing 747 freighters could meet the vast majority of our nation's need to deliver cruise missiles to distant targets more cheaply, more flexibly (particularly when there are multiple conflicts going on at once, as there are now in Afghanistan and Iraq), and while putting fewer people in harm's way for shorter periods of time. As one part of the Navy is fond of saying, there are two kinds of naval combatants, submarines and targets. To the extent that we do want to deploy cruise missiles from bases very close to an opponent's territory to allow quick deployment, the stealth provided by using one of the four converted ballistic missile submarines planned for that purpose is superior and numerically sufficient to handle any reasonable military plans we might have in place. To the extent that we feel that it is nice to have some cruise missile capability in a battle group, in case they are needed on notice so short that a long range bomber can't respond, that could be done with a dozen or two of our newest destroyers that are already in existence for several decades to come out of the nearly a hundred cruisers, destroyers and frigates in service now.

Likewise, if we are going to provide fire support for Marines engaged in amphibious invasions, the Littoral Combat Ship, which is designed to work close to shore and will have a module designed for that purpose, seems a better choice than a far larger and fifteen times as expensive next generation destroyer. And, I'm also not convinced that alternatives like using an unmanned combat aircraft loaded with cheap dumb bombs, or flying modified Apache AH-64 helicopters off Littoral Combat Ships wouldn't be a better approach than the naval guns planned for the D(X) if the goal is to support Marines engaged in amphibious assaults from ships. No Marine engaged in an amphibious assault would say no to having a DD(X) 40 miles off shore providing prompt fire support with inexpensive rounds for days on end, if the choice is that or nothing. But, I'm not sure that the same Marine, given $9.3 billion up front to pay for fire support, which is what it costs to buy three DD(X) destroyers (which is necessary to keep one afloat and ready to be used at all times), would choose a DD(X) over other possible alternatives.

This does leave the role served by cruisers, destroyers and frigates as aircraft carrier escorts designed for anti-submarine warfare and air defense roles. An aircraft carrier is the biggest target of them all, yet lacks significant self-defense capabilities other than its aircraft. For this reason aircraft carriers are always deployed with many surface combatants (and usually a submarine or two) escorting them. But, if one simply set out to make a carrier escort limited to those roles (which is the vast majority of what cruisers, destroyers and frigates do now anyway), the escorts could be smaller and cheaper, and yet fill that narrow but important capability role just as well. A dedicated carrier escort, unlike the new Littoral Combat Ship, wouldn't have need to have the high peak speeds of the proposed Littoral Combat Ship, since it would be tied to its comparatively slow aircraft carrier. It wouldn't need to have the expensive long range 6" advanced naval guns proposed for the DD(X), as it wouldn't serve a fire support role for ground troops. Instead, something like the 3" guns found on current frigates, which are designed primarily for defeating small craft, would be sufficient. It also wouldn't need to have the cruise missile capabilities that are the defining feature of the current surface combatant fleet. For that matter, it wouldn't even need to have the facilities to fully support its own helicopters, as the aircraft carrier it is escorting would have superior maintenance facilities. And, it might make good sense to make those carrier escorts nuclear powered. What is the point of having nuclear powered aircraft carriers, as we do now, if the rest of the fleet needs the same diesel fuel supply line of a conventionally powered aircraft carrier? A next generation nuclear powered carrier escort could be a 5,000 ton ship, with small crews made possible by automation and a narrow military purpose, might have a crew of 60 sailors and cost $800 million each, yet have thin supply lines, instead of the $3.1 billion each (not including the costs of ships to provide significant fuel tanker support) foreseen for the next generation destroyer. This approach could cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars less than current plans to replace the existing fleet of ships used mostly for that purpose.

We would also do well to abandon an all your eggs in one basket philosophy which the Navy has adopted. Even if large nuclear attack submarines are better for many purposes than the small diesel submarines favored by almost every other Navy in the world, that doesn't mean that we should follow the recommendations of previous U.S. Navy study commissions and not buy any. Why not buy a dozen for the niches where they might be useful? Similarly, I'm baffled by military planner's reluctance to think of our nation's fleet of amphibious assault ships (which would be called aircraft carriers in any other world navy), in an aircraft carrier role, instead of as tour buses for Marines, to make it possible for us to reduce the size of our aircraft carrier fleet. It we put mostly Harrier AV-8B or F-35B fighter planes (both of which are capable of VTOL landing), instead of predominantly helicopters, as we do now, they could serve easily in that role without significant modification. This wouldn't be ideal for the East China Sea, but would be entirely appropriate if we wanted to project force in Sri Lanka or Indonesia or Liberia or Panama, for example. The U.S. military shouldn't have all small carriers, but could save a lot of money and reduce the carrier fleet from 11 to 10 without much military sacrifice if it took this approach and dispatched mini-carriers to the place where a full fledged carrier's force was least likely be be needed.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The DD(X) is much more expensive. Previous model destroyers have run about $1 billion each, and even with inflation and some minor upgrades, the likely cost would be more like $1.5 billion each.

Some of the factors that make it more expensive are:

(1) An entirely new system for running the engines and ship systems. Old ships are like a car with separate propulsion engines and power systems for other components, only loosely linked. The DD(X) is more like a Prius which centrally manages energy production and can divert, for example, propulsion energy to running the weapons systems.

(2) The DD(X) has a hull designed for stealth.

(3) The DD(X) is highly automated.

(4) The DD(X) has a designed and built from scratch weapons system.

(5) The DD(X) at about 12,000 tons, is about 30-50% larger than existing destroyers.

Sonny L. said...
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