23 September 2009

Pundits Give Edge To Boring New Warship Design

3089 ton Lockheed Martin Freedom LCS 1

2784 ton General Dynamics Independence LCS 2

The U.S. Navy decided a number of years ago that it needs a new class of warship, called the littoral combat ship (LCS). Frigate sized, non-nuclear powered warship, with high peak speeds that can operate in shallow waters, would be outfitted with removable modules. These modules would be designed for missions like anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, and anti-surface craft; additional modules for missions like supporting special forces operations, naval fire support, and medical-disaster relief have been considered. The LCS would have less than half the crew of existing U.S. Navy frigates which are similar in size.

The original plan was for two ships to made made of each competing design. The first ship, the Lockheed Martin Freedom (LCS 1), looks pretty much like any other traditional warship at first glance (although it is innovative compared to many other recent new Navy ships) and is now estimated to cost $640 million per ship. It is further along in the process. The competitor, the General Dynamics Independence (LCS 2), has a a trimaran aluminum hull and is estimated to cost $700 million per ship. Both were wildly over the $220 million per ship budget (all prices before "modules") and behind schedule; so each company will make only one ship before a decision is made by the Navy early in Fiscal Year 2010. Ships 3 and 4 were cancelled. Current plans call for a buy of 51 additional ships, with two ships being built each year from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2014, although the greatly inflated purchase price of the ships may lead the U.S. Navy to buy far fewer than originally anticipated.

While these per ship prices remain the lowest of any U.S. Navy ships currently in production, they are expensive relative to their size and capabilities.

Pundits think that lower costs and lower technology risk give the traditional LCS 1 design the edge in the competition. In a similar competition to build the F-35, the most recent big contract prototype contest, Lockheed Martin won with a more traditional design over the more radical Boeing design. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel expressed interest in a modified version of the Freedom Class vessel, the LCS-1, but Israel have dropped out of this project in favor of a new frigate design to be built in Israel.

Fiscal Year 2010 for the federal government starts October 1, 2009 and goes until September 30, 2010, so the decision will be made soon.

The Big Warship Picture

The Littoral Combat Ship will probably be the only new surface warship design to be decided upon during the Obama Administration. Five other classes of U.S. Navy surface ships (three of which have not yet had a ship in that class commissioned) and one class of U.S. Navy submarine are currently in production.

The Littoral Combat Ship was been developed in lieu of new frigate designs, new coastal patrol ships for the Navy, or new anti-mine warfare ships for the Navy. The existing FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class (first commissioned 1979) is being phased out. The Navy has MCM-1 Avenger class Mine Countermeasures ships (first commissioned in 1987) commissioned in 1987-1990, and MHC-51 Osprey class Coastal Mine Hunters (first commissioned in 1993), but the Navy is in the process is transfering Osprey class ships to foreign navies and has already transferred two to the Greek Navy, as it has expected the LCS to come online sooner. The 331 ton Cyclone class coastal patrol ships (PC-1) (first commissioned in 1995) also have no replacements other than the LCS in the works, although they have received renewed upgrade priority and use from the Navy since 9-11.

There were to be 32 ships in the 14,500 ton USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class destroyer (larger than any surface combatant other than an aircraft carrier in current service and closer in concept to a battleship), which has a current estimated cost of $3.5 billion per ship, with the first scheduled to enter military service in 2015. The buy is currently expected to be two or three ships. It was designed to be useful in supporting ground troops on coasts and in amphibious invasions.

The current generation Ticonderoga class cruiser (first commissioned in 1986), remains closed. The 22 ships in the class currently in service will gradually be replaced by new destroyers. This is because the 9496 ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (first commissioned in 1991), which was developed not long after the Ticonderoga class cruiser was very similar in size and concept. Basically, the Arleigh Burke represented an upgraded version of the Ticonderoga. Both classes of ships are currently used mostly to escort aircraft carriers, although they are multi-purpose ships, with advanced sensors, helicopter pads and cruise missiles as their core features. Both classes are just under 10,000 tons in size. The last Spruance-class destroyer, which preceded the Ticonderoga and Arleight Burke classes, left service in 2005. The production line for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers has been kept open as its replacements are failing to come on line, with new destroyers in this class costing something like $1.1 billion each.

Efforts to build a next generation cruiser,CG(X), have been basically abandoned for now. Two separate classes, one conventional and the other for missile defense and nuclear powered had been contemplated.

A next generation aircraft carrier, the 100,000 ton Gerald R. Ford-class (CVN-78), which is a modest modification from the current Nimitz class of aircraft carrier, is currently under construction and scheduled to enter service in 2015 at a cost of $23 billion including $14 billion of costs involved with developing a new class of ship. The last Nimitz class carrier, the George H.W. Bush, entered service in 2009. Current plans call for a slow rate of construction (one every five years) for future ships in this class, which would allow the nation's aircraft carrier fleet allowed to dwindle.

There are two generations a helicopter carriers (which can also be used for Harrier Jump Jets and soon to enter service F-35Bs) in US Navy service, two of the Tarawa class (first commissioned in 1976) which is now closed, and eight of the Wasp class (which entered service in 1989), with the last of this class of ships to enter service in about a month, in 2009. A third ship class of this type, the 45,000 ton America class LHA(6), is under construction and currently scheduled to enter service in 2013 at a cost of $2.4 billion.

There are also no new designs for attack submarines on the drawing board. The 7,800 ton Virginia class nuclear attack submarines (which first entered service in 2008) remain in production at a cost of about $2 billion each. The two prior classes, the SSN-668 Los Angeles class (first commissioned 1976), the SSN-21 Seawolf class (first commissioned 1997 with only three ships of the class built) have been closed. The Navy is also in the process of converting four Ohio class submarines (which entered service in 1984) built to carry ballistic nuclear missiles to conventional cruise missile carrying submarines, leaving 14 unmodified and carrying nuclear missiles. Current plans call for a next generation nuclear missile submarine based upon the Virigina class design to enter service in 2019, but is merely a concept that has not entered a detailed design phase.

While not strictly speaking a surface combatant, the 25,000 ton San Antonio LPD-17 Class ship (first commissioned in 2006), which carries Marines and the vehicles and equipment by sea, but has only defensive weapons, is one of the few other classes of new ships in the U.S. Navy that remains in production at a cost of about $1.4 billion each. This replaces multiple classes of old Marine transports. Five Austin class ships (first commissioned in 1965) remain in use but will be phased out in the near future as new San Antonio class ships come into service. Ships of the LSD-41 Whidbey class (first commissioned 1985) and the similar LSD-49 Harper’s Ferry class (first commissioned 1994) have closed. No plans are in place to replace an existing class of "command ships" for the Marines.


A slow down in U.S. Navy ship building and ship class development is appropriate right now.

The U.S. has the largest blue sea navy in the world. Russia and China are the only potentially hostile real contenders that would seriously rival U.S. dominance in naval power, although North Korea and Iran have naval forces that could pose real challenges to U.S. forces. If naval combat with Russia or Iran were ever required, European allies would be expected to add their naval power to that of the U.S. Japan and South Korea could likely join the U.S. in a coalition effort against a North Korean adversary if that became necessary. Also, the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces would play a role in contending with any naval opposition faced by the U.S. military.

There has been very little naval combat anywhere in the world by any party since World War II. What little combat there has been, together with naval exercises and posturing encounters with foreign potentially hostile forces, suggest that surface ships are at a disadvantage against near peer threats like advanced diesel submarines, mines and advanced missile attacks. The defensive systems on U.S. Navy ships designed to cope with threats from missiles, enemy aircraft, enemy ships and submarines haven't been put to any real world tests. The cruise missiles that are the main offensive weapon of all U.S. surface combatants are largely untested in real world combat situations. Naval combat involves a highly complex set of offenses and defenses whose interactions are the subject of educated guesses, but models are frequently poor gauges of the factors that turn out to be most important in practice.

There is good reason to believe that the F-35 may be the last aircraft carrier delivered manned aircraft that the United States will ever build, as unmanned combat drones replace them. If this happens, it may be appropriate to rethink the conceptual underpinnings of the existing U.S. Navy fleet which has a large force of aircraft carriers and supporting ships at its core. Unmanned combat drones can be smaller and less crew intensive than comparable manned aircraft. The greater ability of unmanned combat drones to stay in the air for prolonged periods also reduces the advantage of having the persistent on location presence in a theater of battle that a ship provides, and need of carrier ships to be as close to where combat will take place. Drones may also prove to be a more cost effective way of providing fire support to ground troops than the Zumwalt class ships designed for that role.

The great cost of Virginia class nuclear attack submarines, at a time when destroying opposing surface combatants and attack submarines in non-coastal areas is not a very high priority, is hard to justify. New diesel submarines used by our allies are proving to be even more stealthy than nuclear submarines and are much cheaper to build and operate.

It also isn't clear how the U.S. will choose to use its amphiphious ships in the next several decades. It is hard to see how major amphibious operations make sense. They were used in World War II because air transportation had not really come into its prime at that point. The more likely use of these ships is to provide a stable base of operations beyond the range of technologically inferior military forces for small U.S. Marine units off the coast of unstable third world powers, as U.S. Marines take on limited missions like evacuating expatriots and foreign dignitaries, protecting U.S. installations, providing security to shipping, or disrupting primative, particularly genocidal waves of military activity in foreign civil wars. Severe development problems with the expeditionary fighting vehicle which was at the core of the Marine's ship building plan also call for caution in developing these resources.

The versatile Littoral Combat Ship is an appropriate approach at a time when we aren't precisely sure what our future needs in surface combatants will be, and when there seems to be increased need for ships that can operate efficiently against inferior forces in coastal areas in anti-piracy roles, in shipping control, against obsolete forces like the North Korean navy, against coastal missile boats, and against small craft.

Meanwhile, other parts of the U.S. military have needs that appear more urgent at the moment. Iraq, a war we remain engaged in despite the fact that U.S. involvement in it is winding down, is almost landlocked. The war in Afghanistan and related war in Northern Pakistan is ramping up in areas that are completely landlocked. Both wars are a major drain on U.S. military resources. The only hot conflict the U.S. Navy is engaged in right now is the conflict with Somolian pirates. Relations between China and Taiwan appear to be thawing. The greatest threat North Korea poses to South Korea involves North Korea's nuclear missiles, not its sea power. When there is a war on, parts of the military's wish list that aren't necessary for those wars may have to be put on hold.

Does Something Different Make Sense?

Given the press of other demands for U.S. military resources, and the risk that we may be building ships that are ill suited to our future needs, a slow down in the construction and design of new ships for the U.S. Navy is appropriate.

The U.S. Navy has been operating on something close to autopilot since World War II, replacing old classes of ships with improved versions when the old ones need to be retired, rather than approaching naval warfare from a clean slate. All but a couple of countries in the world have navies that look very different, with very different mixes of ships and objectives, than the naval forces of World War II.

The U.S. Navy may very well need more ships, but even if it does, they may not be the ones we are building now.

Experience may prove that the littoral combat ship concept is useful, but that smaller, possibly less capable or less versatile ships are more suited to the mission. Perhaps the U.S. Navy really needs more ships in the 300 ton size class of the Cyclone class patrol ship or ships similar to the small, but offensively powerful missile boats that are common a large share of all world navies. The Cyclone class ships operate with crews of about thirty, but modern technologies might make it possible to reduce crew sizes of small ships to ten or twenty. Armed drone helicopters could also become the optimal way to deal with hostile small craft.

High speed, intermediate capacity transport ships may prove to be a valuable middle ground between very fast, very expensive and very low capacity air transportation and very slow, very cheap and very high capacity conventional sea lift capabilities for U.S. ground troops. Alternately, it may make more sense from a cost perspective to pre-position caches of heavy equipment on a large number of slow, cheap sea lift ships which could roam the blue sea out of reach of most potentially hostile adversaries, and to bring troops to this equipment via air, possibly by seaplane. Or some hybrid of these approaches may make sense, for example, with high speed, intermediate capacity transport ships dispersed among regional hubs with transport plane bases where they can receive troops to deploy, making an intermediate stop at cache ships to load in gear en route to their final deployment locations.

The drone carriers we may decided we need in a decade or so may call for different designs than the Ford and America class ships currently under construction, or make make overhauls of existing carriers look like a sensible option. There may be room in the fleet for unmanned surface ships or submarines as well. If existing aircraft carriers could carry significant more drones with greater range than their existing (under utilized) capacity to carry manned aircraft, or if current helicopter carriers can carry useful numbers of drone aircraft, it may be possible to meet the nation's military needs with fewer aircraft and helicopter carrier ships. Drone tanker aircraft, similarly, could reduce the need for sea base aircraft carriers.

If anti-surface ship technologies sufficiently outpace defensive technologies, it may be useful to consider reviving the World War II era concept of submarine transports as a medium capacity embargo buster for coastal allies with shipping lanes closed by hostile forces.

Our own anti-surface ship forces may be more appropriately handled by long range, cruise missile carrying aircraft, manned or unmanned, rather than ship based missiles.

If advanced diesel submarines are much cheaper and more stealthy than nuclear attack submarines, it may sense to deploy them in distant locations with a large "mother ship" or "mother submarine" to support them, rather than requiring each submarine to have the persistence of a nuclear vessel.

If North Korea's nuclear missile threat becomes a trend, rather than a unique threat, it may be necessary to return to the notion of a missle defense oriented cruiser design, or if anti-surface ship threats become acute, a similar anti-missile submarine design, perhaps supported by sensors on unmanned surface ships. But, if Air Force deployed missile defense concepts catch up with the Navy's progress on this front, the missile defense cruiser could be obsolete before it is commissioned.

I don't claim to know for sure which path makes more sense for the U.S. Navy. But, given the press of other demands on military resources anyway, and the lack of current serious rivals to U.S. naval power, it may make good sense to pause and put naval ship development in low gear while we consider other options for the U.S. Navy for a few years in light of new technological and military developments. When the time comes to gear up military procurement, if it does come, this should be done from a blank slate by leaders with greater vision than some of our more recent stewards of the Department of Defense's resources.

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