Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brown Water Navy

The idea for this post came up as I was discussing the Ignatius article cited in the preceding post with seydlitz. The exchange there went something like this:

seydlitz: (quoting Ignatius) "I come back to Shen, the Chinese analyst. He says that he's grateful that the United States is willing to spend so many billions of dollars to protect the sea lanes on which China depends for its global commerce. But instead of competing to build ships and tanks, he says, China will focus on the weapons that can cripple them. Somehow, we need to stop being the suckers when it comes to defense."
Seydlitz then continues, asking:
"Obviously lots of military spending is the answer as well as "protecting the sea lanes" from . . . from whom exactly? Do you get the feeling that the Chinese are playing us like we played the Sovs back in the 1980s? Of course the Sovs were - in spite of being far too focused on their deteriorating, but still highly vaunted military power - smart enough to see through a lot of it, but were in such an economic mess as to be unable to use this realization to any advantage . . . The notion of American Exceptionalism will be our undoing."
To which I replied,
"The U.S. is currently a global maritime power. While at times I think our commitment to global blue water hegemony is antiquated - our merchant fleet is, what, four RORO ships and an old surplus fleet oiler? - its a mission we've chosen to take on. We have also chosen to act as a power-projecting imperial nation (in the sense that we engage in conflicts not directly related to defending our own territory) and that requires a blue-water navy. As always, the "what" determines the "how", and blue-water navies include large surface vessels; "conventional fleets and bases around the world". You can argue whether we have too many fleet carrier decks, but not that a power-projecting, global blue water hegemony naval power doesn't need conventional fleets and bases.

China, OTOH, is today what it has always been; an Asian continental power. Its maritime power projection is limited to its immediate "near abroad", places like the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. It doesn't need or want large conventional naval forces for that. Instead, it needs just what Chen says it needs; the ability to disable or deter a global navy from encroaching on those littoral areas.

Ignatius makes this sound like some nefarious yellow Red plot, when it's a simple A and not-A situation. The U.S. has certain maritime strategic needs and those needs dictate a certain naval force structure. China has very different needs, and can accomplish those with a very different force structure.

I don't think the Chinese are playing us. They're stating the simple reality of naval strategy; we don't care about the fucking Molucca Strait or the Somali pirates. We want the oil in the South China Sea, and all we need to defend that is enough patrol boats and submarines to sink one of your fleet carriers to make it unprofitable enough to deter you from challenging us."
But as I was writing that I was thinking over this article over at Danger Room, discussing the USN's purchase of the so-called "Littoral Combat Ship" or LCS.In the post David Axe discusses the many commentators, both inside and outside the Navy, who have problems with this vessel. It is built to commercial rather than naval standards, meaning that it is much less survivable when damaged. It has a exceptionally high top-rated speed; 50 knots, but at a huge cost in fuel. It is relatively underarmed, mounting a single 57mm cannon and carrying most of its offensive power in its deployable subunits such as aerial, sea-surface, and submarine drones. Its crew is listed at around 40-50, which many critics are saying is too small to fight the ship and perform damage-control duties, much less repel boarders(!).

Axe notes that at only about $500 million the LCS is a relatively low-cost platform, and observes that
"...(t)he Navy already has more than enough high-end, military-grade warships for any potential future showdown with, say, China. This force includes approximately 90 cruisers, destroyers and soon-to-debut stealth battleships. It’s the most powerful surface fleet in the history of the world, by far, and one that’s massive overkill in anything short of World War III. But, after retiring many of its minesweepers, patrol boats and frigates, what the Navy doesn’t have is enough low-end warships for all the mundane work of a busy, globally-deployed military. The LCS can help correct that imbalance."
So there's the pros and the cons.

My question would be: what is the mission we need to perform that needs this vessel?

I agree that if we're going to continue to be a global maritime power - and while there are legitimate arguments that the U.S. does not really need to patrol the South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean, and risk potential engagements with the regional powers there the bicoastal location of the U.S. makes it perforce a maritime power of some sort - then it needs the capability to work, and, if needed, fight close inshore. Navies have fought over the littoral since Agrippa's day and are unlikely to stop now.

Historically the blue-water navies, including ours, have operated to within miles of the beach. Old-school hulls, from destroyers and frigates up to capital ships, have operated within sight of land. So the creation of a new class of warship for that purpose - especially one that cannot be turned to other blue-water missions - seems superfluous.

It can sweep mines - but not as well as a minesweeper. It can hunt submarines - but not as well as an ASW platform. This vessel seems like an odd Swiss-Army-ship replacement for a helicopter carrier and a menage of small patrol craft. It cannot really operate with the fleet but is not as adaptable as the helicopter-and-PBR combination for inshore operations.The other realm of naval warfare has taken place inshore of the strand line. This "brown water" naval force has usually been composed of a swarm of very light vessels backed by a handful of larger hulls. The USN has a great tradition of this sort of riverine warfare, beginning with the monitors and gunboats of the Civil War through the gunboats and monitors of the 20th Century Asiatic Squadron and the PBRs and Swift boats of the Vietnam "Brown Water Navy"

But the LCS is much too heavy for this sort of instream work. Too big to get right into the mouths of rivers chasing pirate skiffs, but too small, light and frail to take on a Chinese frigate or a swarm of Iranian patrol boats by itself. And if it's going to be backed up by carrier aircraft...what can it do that the carrier's aircraft combined with its escorts cannot? It seems to lack (at least, the articles I've found suggest that it lacks) the capability to act as a tender for a small flotilla of modern PCF/PBR patrol craft. It is fast...but why? Its own helicopters are faster, and accompanied by a cloud of Zodiacs or small speedboats would seem to do the advertised job better without the need for the voracious fuel-devouring speed.In a sense, this thing is a sort of large Coast Guard cutter. But if then...why not just make it a Coast Guard cutter and give its drug interdiction and border patrol mission to the Coasties?

I keep coming back to the question; what is this vessel for that is HAS to be this vessel and none other? What can this platform do that existing vessels can't, and - more importantly - is that thing, or those things, really important to the national defense of the United States?

I don't have the answers.

But I think that now that we're on the verge of ordering 20-some of these vessels, it might be a good time for we the People to start asking some more questions. Because even at half a billion a hull, ten billion ain't no pocket change.
(One important part of the thinking that produced this post is Rob Farley's post over at LG&M, in which he says "I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces." I agree, and so got to thinking about the conjunction between the Ignatius article and the non-debate-debate about the LCS. So, tip o' the hat to LG&M)


  1. OK, I'll bite.

    --Well, yes, assumed capability guiding strategy instead of threat assessments . . . but that's been the case since 1992. What we need today is a global strategy which fits the current US reality, not establishing new boondoggles for the various elite politico-economic interests, but this is the same problem we've been addressing on my thread . . .

    Brzezinski writes in the NYT:

    "The worst outcome for Asia’s long-term stability as well as for the American-Chinese relationship would be a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization. What’s more, the temptations to follow such a course are likely to grow as both countries face difficulties at home.

    The pressures are real. The United States’ need for comprehensive domestic renewal, for instance, is in many respects the price of having shouldered the burdens of waging the 40-year cold war, and it is in part the price of having neglected for the last 20 years mounting evidence of its own domestic obsolescence. Our weakening infrastructure is merely a symptom of the country’s slide backward into the 20th century."


    --(Cross-commented from the preceding thread.)

  2. Yeah, I guess the question that keeps bugging me is that, assuming we feel that close-inshore power projection is a mission the U.S. needs and wants to accomplish over the next 20 years, what does this vessel provide that a combination of aircraft, light fleet units (attack subs, minesweepers, destroyers/frigates, and LHD/LPDs), and small patrol craft couldn't do cheaper and more effectively?

    ISTM that what you want for this isn't a sort of super-high-speed light attack ship but a kind of new-model AGP (motor torpedo boat tender) type vessel with an internal moorage for a half-dozen 40-50 foot long missile boats/patrol boats and a big hangar to ship 3-4 Seahawks. That way the helos patrol the littoral looking for trouble and when they find it the PBs/MBs can chase it down.

    The cynical reason I can see for doing this the way we're doing it is to make some cash for the boatbuilders; they seem to stand to make a lot more from the fancy new LCS than a poky old tender and some plywood patrol boats. Or am I being TOO cynical?

    I'm willing to accept there's a mission here, and I'm willing to be sold on the LCS as the platform to do it, but I just can't find a way to make the LCS the BEST way to do it without closing my mind to several different alternatives. This seems to me another case of capabilities (in this case, the supposed capabilities of the LCS) driving the strategy or at least the operational planning rather than looking at this from the other way around; what are the most likely/most dangerous ECOA and what would be the best way to deal with that?

    Am I being too harsh on the Navy?

  3. Chief,

    As an ex-navy guy I don't get the LCS either, but I've been out of the Navy for ten years now.

    I did bookmark this a couple of months ago when I read it. I don't follow the LCS, but it seems like pretty good analysis to me.

  4. Andy: your guy at the bookmark kept hitting on the single thing that looks wierdest to me; the bizarre requirement for 50 knot top speed. WTF? What does this do for the vessel? Why sacrifice so much else for pure speed?

    I keep coming back to Jckie Fisher and his insistence that speed would substitute for armor when battlecruisers fought battleships. Well, THAT didn't work out well, as several thousand matlots could have told him if they hadn't gone down with their battlecruisers at Jutland. Speed seems like one of those military qualities that appeals in the abstract but doesn't really produce all that much in practice.

    I don't want to sound like I'm picking on the USN; I think they're done a pretty decent job of tailoring their force to their assigned missions (other than their obdurate unwillingness to examine the possibility that having fewer, larger carrier decks is not a good idea in an antiship missile age). But this LCS seems to me like an extreme outlier of what seydlitz nicely summarizes as "capability guiding strategy"...or perhaps better described as "substituting capability FOR strategy". And the spectre of the military-industrial-congressional complex keeps floating up from the background.

    Just seems like a poster child for "piss-poor strategic thinking"...

  5. Well, Chief, to qoute Bruno in regards to the ship, "i haz de sexy, yes?"
    500 million for that sexy target for air and sea munitions, eh?
    Well, I suppose if congress critters are trying to keep their consituents employed with this sea-borne travesty this is how they're going to do it.

  6. Not sure I like the price tag either. I agree that we are pissing away our national treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in many defense boondoggles that Ike warned us about 50 years ago.

    But let me play devil's advocate: On the 50-knot speed requirement anyway.

    The LCS mission is in shallow waters. What are the threats there? It seems to me two of the most deadly threats are small fast torpedo boats armed with cannon, and the new breed of quiet inshore diesel submarines. So the LCS should at least be able to outrun those. Why be a sitting duck lijke the slow-moving tender you mentioned if you can take hi-speed evasive manuevers? And yes, I know that the Russkies supposedly have the super-cavitation SHKVAL with speed in excess of 200 knots, and the Brit Spearfish and a few others could probably go close to 100 knots. But the vast majority of torpedos run below 50 knots. Plus you would also want to outrun those fast surface patrol boats.

    A fast mover like the LCS also gives you some limited protection against incoming shore-to-ship missiles like the Silkworm. Could you outrun one - NO, but speed combined with other countermeasures would give you a better chance.

    Not sure I agree with the Jutland analogy either. Would you want a 105 or 155 battery that took hours to scoot to a new firing position when you have incoming counterbattery fire? I think not.

  7. Mike,
    I see your point, but technology is out pacing our military's ability to keep up, and when our vaunted military still has mastabutory fantasies of Helicopter assaults against heavily fortified insurgent positions with heavy machine guns...it makes me wonder if we wouldn't be better off as a nation if Obama just asked for all the senior officers resignations effective immediately.

    Lets face it pilots are last century. The limiting factor to all our currently hoo-ahh high-techo airplanes are the human pilots inside them.
    Remove the human factor from the plane, and we now have holy-shitbird planes that could omg things that are only found in hollywood fx movies.
    Same-same with this stupid ship...this is last centuries thinking...all it takes is one punk-ass kid without a highschool education planting the next generation 20,000 yuan limpet mine and voila, we're out a 500 million dollar boondoggle.

    I say that if we're going to update our military equipment the first thing to do is retire each and every senior officer of the military, and then tell the damn congressmen to stfu and leave the military equipment needs to the defense department.

    Well...this is just my opinion, who knows, I could be out of my mind.

  8. mike: the "outrunning torpedoes" thing is one of the arguments for this vessel, and I can't disagree; it seems like a good thing to have. But if it's such a good thing, why isn't this argument being made for ALL the new fleet units, not just this craft?

    And the other problem would be actually detecting the torp prior to launch, which I understand isn't the LCS' strong point. Again, I'm not saying that this vessel can't do a shallow-water ASW mission...but it doesn't seem like it does it all THAT much better than a combination of standard fleet units while it seems to be taking some awful big risks.

    And as far as outrunning Somalis with zodiacs...isn't the point being to BEAT the Somalis? ISTM that a big, tough AGP backed up with its helos and PBs should be able to slug it out with these gomers - that's why we're chasing them, right, to bring them to a fight, board or sink them?

    As far as analogies go, Jutland seems more appropriate than Korean counterbattery. FA, like other land forces, can use many elements of its surroundings for tactical advantage. A ship at sea cannot; you can't hide, and regardless of how fast you go you can be seen and what can be seen can be hit. So the analogy is more like the difference between a heavy tank and a light tank. A light tank can go further, faster, and in places a heavy tank can't go. But what it can't do is stand and slug it out, even with infantry if they're armed with RPGs or ATGMs. It's a recon platform, basically - it has to avoid being hit to survive. But this craft isn't supposed to be for recon...

    So the speed is a good thing...but it seems to come with a LOT of sacrifices for pure speed. Has anyone done any actual simulations to see if the speed actually makes it more survivable? If they have, I haven't seen them. And a lot of other people don't seem to have seen them, either.

    I'm not asking the proponents of this platform to show that its bulletproof and invisible. But I would like to see some examples of wargamed missions that demonstrate how a very thin-skinned, lightly-armed but VERY fast naval vessel succeeds against the sort of enemies we're likely to see along the world's coastlines.

  9. IIRC the price is for the ship as it is. Fitted for, but not with mission modules. A coast guard cutter basically, not a useful warship.

    There are strong question marks behind the effectiveness of the mission modules.

    Doing mine hunting with a 4kt ship (that was the lower end of light cruisers in WW2!) is hardly a good idea if you can do it with 500 t ships as well, for example.

  10. Chief -

    I never said the LCS should run from Zodiacs. There is a whole class of fast patrol boats both torpedo and gunboats in various navies. Even our WW2 PT boats designed and built in the 30s over 75 years ago had speeds of over 40 knots. And yes, you are right that the LCS should be able to stand and fight. But it also needs the capability to maneuver, especially against swarming tactics. Speed enhances maneuver.

    I do agree with you that we should "see some examples of wargamed missions that demonstrate how a very thin-skinned, lightly-armed but VERY fast naval vessel succeeds against the sort of enemies we're likely to see along the world's coastlines." But lets do reasonable tests. Don't have it standing still while putting missiles and projos thru it like the testing fiascos they did way back when with the Army's Bradley IFV.

    Shirakhan - Who in their right mind is advocating "Helicopter assaults against heavily fortified insurgent positions with heavy machine guns." Drum them out of the service I say. Or send them to Hollywood to write screenplays for the teenage male audience.

  11. mike: I agree that speed is a good thing, tactically speaking. But why so much? A zodiac in good condition is rated at about 40-50mph; that's 38 knots. To rate the thing for 50 knots...and at the cost of armaments and armor?

    Seems like a bad tradeoff. No matter how maneuverable this vessel is, it's not going to turn inside a zodiac full of pirates at 50 knots!

    Again - let's turn back to the main engagement here. The question isn't merely "Is it a good idea to build an LCS with a 50 knot top speed?". The question is "What is the actual likely "littoral combat mission", and will spending 500 million a copy for an LCS with (insert strengths and limitations here) the best answer as opposed to (insert alternative equipment and/or tactics here)?"

    To me it seems that to be at this stage - with the program ready to go to construction - with so many unanswered significant questions about the platform, the tactics, and even the mission parameters is to be far ahead of where we should be. That's why it smacks of a decision that was made because of a shipbuilding lobby's power, or an LCS group of enthusiasts in the Navy, or...

    Anyway, there just seem like a hell of a lot of questions about this vessel for the state of the program. It's like the USN started out in 1920 not with the USS Langley but with the USS Nimitz...

  12. The speed is likely more about dodging long-range cruise missiles and torpedoes than about the hyped-up speedboat issue.

    The high speed requirement is said to be responsible for up to 40% of the costs (not sure if this already includes electronics), and many people wonder why exactly the USN insisted on this requirement.

    It's just a hyped OHP replacement, after all.

  13. How is this for a mission for a 50 kt ship:

    Assume global warming reduces the ability of various Latin American countries to feed themselves. This creates millions of refugees.
    A wall is built between USA and Mexico, but many people want to cross by sea.

    The US Navy needs to intercept those ships *before* they can drop their load of refugees.

    Simply sinking the refugee boat isn't an option.
    You need to get a ship there quickly. Dropping commando's from helicopters onto the refugee boats with no backup is also a silly idea.

  14. Ael: How the heck are 20 of these things - no matter how fast - going to stop "millions of refugees"?

    Let's assume they zoom off and intercept a refugee boat/raft/whatever. Then what? There's no cargo space on them, where are they going to put the people? With 40 guys in the crew, what happens if the 200-or-so desperate Hondurans decide to human-wave over the side? And even if not - then what? The LCS zooms off to dump it's human cargo somewhere...

    I can't imagine this working. Assuming this Beyond Thunderdome scenario comes true, it's going to take whole fleets worth of naval interdiction on both coasts. A handful of superfast ships doesn't seem to make a spit in an ocean's worth of difference here...

    Sven: 5 knots or 50 knots; a surface ship ain't outrunning a crusie missile. Torpedoes, maybe. But that brings up the question whether the thing will get enough of a start on the torps - it's not supposed to be a very good ASW platform. But I agree that the speed helps with evading torps.

    ISTM that if this IS a replacement for the Perry-class frigates it's an odd one. It can't do, well, pretty much anything that the FFG-7 types can do. It seems more like a sort of modern day mixture of "Insect-class" gunboat with a multihull auxiliary cruiser.

    Wonder if this program i going to take a hit what with the recently announced DoD budget cuts?

  15. Ya, on reflection, they do seem a rather silly idea. Can't even get a good conspiracy theory going for them.

  16. Chief -

    You seem obsessed with trash-talking the speed requirement. Not sure why? The speed to me is just one part of the ships capability. But without the 50-knot speed I would say scrap it.

    I am more concerned with the GAO report that cited potential extremely long crew training times and unrealistic maintenance plans. The GAO did agree with you though that a comprehensive risk assessment was needed.

    It looks like with the new budget cuts suggested by Gates that the EFV will be canceled. If EFV survives there might be a chance to scrap LCS, but I do not see both of them biting the bullet. Especially since they are being built in Bath and Mobile. No matter what John McCain says about this program, I don't see the Republican House scrapping jobs in Maine and Alabama.