Saturday, August 30, 2014

UCLASS Meeting

As you probably know, the Navy’s UCLASS design requirements list for industry has been expected to be issued for some time, now, but has just been delayed again as various factions call for additional and sometimes conflicting capabilities.

ComNavOps has received a recording of the most recent Navy UCLASS design meeting.  Here is the verbal transcript of the meeting of a select group of Admirals and Congressmen, chaired by a Navy Captain, and tasked with finalizing the design requirements.

Captain:  Thank you all for coming.  You’ve all read the list of intel, surveillance, and recon capabilities that are currently planned.  We just want to take one final pass and make sure we’ve got a tight, focused set of requirements and haven’t missed anything.  Does anyone have any comments?

Voice:  Son, we need to add at least a minimal strike capability to ensure maximum utilization of this thing.

Captain:  That’s been discussed and we could probably add that without a major impact on the program but …

Voice:  No buts, son.  Make it happen!

Another Voice:  And tanking!  We’re short tankers so we should give it a tanking capability.

Captain:  We are short of tankers but that would greatly increase the size and …

Several Voices:  Add it!

Captain:  I suppose we could delay the program briefly and look into …

Yet Another:  Hey, there’s no point being able to strike if it can’t fight its way to the target.  It needs a top notch air to air capability.

Captain:  We may be trying to add too many …

Congressional Voice:  It’s not getting through my committee unless it has a bomb load at least equal to a B-2.

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  But that would hugely increase the size and the carrier footprint is already …

Still Another:  If we’re increasing the size, why not give it a bigger radar so it can do AEW like the Hawkeye?

Chorus:  Add it!

One More:  If their group gets to add AEW, we want ASW.  Make sure it can drop sonobuoys.

Chorus:  Add it!

Voice in Back:  You know, if we add a vertical lift like the V-22, this thing would really be transformational.

Chorus:  Add it!

Voice:  What about some gunship capability?

Chorus:  Add it!

Another Voice:  Paratroop.  That’s what this thing needs.  Deploying paratroops.

Chorus:  Add it!

Still Another:  Humanitarian assistance is a core mission.  What about a large cargo bay?

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  Gentlemen, remember we were just supposed to finalize the requirements and make sure we hadn’t missed any last detail.  I’m not sure it’s a good idea to add so many …

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  But the cost and schedule will …

Chorus:  Add it! Add it!  Add it!

Captain (barely audible):  I really need to look into that truck driving school.

Faint Voice as the Meeting is Ending:  Could this thing act as a space shuttle?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Green Water Combatant

Recent posts and discussions about Hughes small combatants and The New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) have inspired a lot of conversation about so-called green water combatants.  These are small ships of a few to several hundred tons, depending on the particular version under consideration, and generally heavily armed, for their size, with missiles and guns.  Unit costs are typically estimated as being very low, perhaps unrealistically so. 

Now, before anyone starts typing out a reply purporting to show that Elbonia can build supercarriers for $19.95 or whatever your favorite example of a small combatant and the associated country is, remember that trying to obtain true cost numbers for US ships is virtually impossible and trying to compare costs between countries is pointless for a host of reasons.  Further, it doesn’t matter what Elbonia can build ships for – it only matters what the US can and the US Navy has not demonstrated the ability to build anything cheaply.

Moving on …  The NNFM document offers this general description of small, green water combatants.

Coastal combatants are heavily armed, but small enough to accept affordable losses. They should operate in tactical formations of two, four, eight, or twelve vessels. They carry no surveillance aircraft, so depend on CVLs or shore-based reconnaissance. They have small crews in combat and when put out of action the crew is expected to abandon, rather than try to save, the ship, and to be rescued by other vessels. They might team with friendly forces in constricted waters where the large blue water ships should not be put at risk, for example, operating from Turkey or Romania in the Black Sea, from Sweden or Denmark in the Baltic, from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait in the Arabian Gulf, from the west coast of South Korea in the Yellow Sea, or Colombia or Panama in the Caribbean.

They can serve as an advance force to screen blue water ships conducting amphibious operations, or protecting MSC (Military Sealift Command) or MARAD ships delivering men and materials that might be attacked while entering a friendly port.”

Well, that’s a pretty decent description of the kinds of uses proponents envision for them.  The problem is that most discussion of green water combat is conceptual and fails to incorporate any realistic assessment of threats.  By that I mean that the discussion describes the theoretical abilities of the ship without questioning whether there is any likelihood that those capabilities would actually be needed.  For instance, stationing ships in the waters of Sweden or Denmark or Colombia  or Panama or Philippines or wherever glosses over the fact that it is highly unlikely that any combat would there that would be appropriate for such a vessel. 

Consider the likely near term (because the vessel’s would have relatively short life spans) scenarios.

Iran is a likely point of conflict but the waters off Iran would see high end combat with massed missiles and aircraft on both sides.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

N. Korea is a likely point of conflict but there would be little need for green water combat.  N. Korea has no significant green water fleet that would need to be dealt with and the US would have massed carrier groups and submarines on site anyway.  This is not a green water combat scenario.


China is a possible point of conflict but China’s goals for the near term would be focused on Taiwan.  Seizure of the first chain islands would be an unlikely afterthought.  The US, if it responded, would mass carrier groups and submarines.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

Africa offers points of conflict but the conflict would be land based against terrorist groups.  This is not a green water combat scenario.

Consider escort duties - supposedly another likely scenario.  Under what circumstance would ships need escort but only from a low level threat?  High level threats would necessitate high level escorts.  The escort scenario devolves into an anti-piracy type of role which any vessel with a machine gun can do.  It wouldn’t require a specialized green water combatant.

The NNFM suggested the need for host country basing for the green water fleet.  OK, that’s reasonable but what friendly country (friendly enough to grant us basing rights) is likely to be attacked by a low level threat that would justify stationing green water combatants there?

In short, the likely conflicts and proposed uses do not offer a reasonable real world green water combat scenario.

Now, this does not say that there would be absolutely no use for a small number of green water vessels but they would be used in peacetime patrol roles and certainly would not justify shifting the emphasis of the US Navy to a green water focus as the NNFM suggests.  I find the NNFM’s green water emphasis to be conceptually and generically valid but devoid of demonstrable real world need.

If you want to debate this with me (and you know you do!), tell me what real world location you’d send green water combatants to and what real world threat they would be countering.  Hey, I’m open to the concept if it serves a real purpose.  If you think you have one, tell me.  I’ll acknowledge it if it’s valid.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Large Scale Training

Marine Times website has an article about Marine wargames (1) that contains an interesting bit about the lack of realism in training – a ComNavOps pet peeve.  The article describes a weeklong exercise involving 5000 members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The article states,

“While the Large Scale Exercise only includes about a fifth of the approximate 20,000 Marines that typically make up a MEB, some of the missing forces will be provided via simulators.  Luccio [ed: Lt.Col. Doug Luccio, G-3, 1st MEB] said training a full MEB would’ve been too expensive, but the comination of real and simulated training will make a thoroughly lifelike exercise.

‘As far as we’re concerned, from where we sit, it’s all the same, ‘ he said.”

No it’s not!  Not by a long shot.  What’s going to happen when we actually have to move and fight as an entire MEB and no one has actually practiced it before?  That’s what actual, physical practice is for:  to uncover all the myriad problems that simulations and paper studies don’t reveal.  Simulating the unloading of a Maritime Pre-positioning Ship doesn’t reveal all the problems that the real exercise encounters.  Simulating the exterior sling load movement of cargo or vehicles doesn’t show you that you’ve got the wrong slings and that the new guys don’t know where the hook points are.  Simulating landing on the carrier doesn’t teach you to deal with the heart-pounding stress of the real event.  Simulating a parachute drop doesn’t teach the paratroopers a thing.

In its quest for dollar savings, the military has all but abandoned large unit exercises.  Now I know that we can’t afford to have every exercise be a division or corps level exercise but neither can we afford to never exercise large units.  When major war comes we aren’t going to commit a thousand troops and simulate the remaining fifty thousand;  we’ll commit them all and if they haven’t physically trained as a large unit they’ll encounter all the problems that have been hidden by simulations. 

Remember Grenada?  Despite extensive training, when we actually went into the field we found out that we were unprepared.  Thankfully, the scope and quality of the opposition was limited!

If we don’t exercise the movement, tactics, and logistics of operating and supporting large scale tank units I guarantee it will go badly when the time comes.

If we don’t actually practice moving 20,000 troops and all their equipment from ships to the beach I guarantee it will not go well when it needs to happen.

Here’s an example from ComNavOps industrial experience.  A large industrial chemical manufacturing and research site I worked at had a site evacuation plan in the event of a large scale toxic chemical spill.  It was carefully planned, documented, and practiced regularly in all respects except for the actual evacuation which was simulated.  Site leadership was quite happy and the relevant government agencies were satisfied.  Well, sure enough, an actual spill eventually occurred and the plan was implemented for real.  Guess what happened?  As it turned out, the site only had a single entrance/exit which was one lane for security reasons.  As thousands of workers attempted to drive out of the site at the same time the single exit instantly became a massive, unpassable chokepoint made worse by the presence of an automated gate arm that would only allow a single car to exit at a time and had an extended cycle time.  What was planned to be a twenty minute evacuation became a nightmare that completely failed.  Panicked drivers, realizing they couldn’t get out, left their cars and evacuated on foot.  The abandoned cars formed a blockade and prevented the fire department and HazMat teams from entering the site.  They had to knock down fences to provide emergency access.  As it turned out, the site’s local emergency responders were able to contain the spill without outside assistance so no harm occurred.  The actual, physical evacuation had never been practiced because it was felt that it would be too disruptive to the normal workings of the site and site management did not want to foot the bill for the lost time.

Well, yeah, it’s a shame we can’t exercise complete, large units but the cost is prohibitive, right?  Wrong!  All we have to do is sacrifice a couple of JSFs, for example, and we can fund all the training we want.  Or, how about a couple of useless LCSs?  It’s just a matter of priorities and the military would rather have shiny new toys than trained personnel.  That’s about as backward thinking as you can get.

While this particular example involves the Marines, that’s not the point.  This criticism applies equally to all branches of the military.



(1) Marine Times, “War Games at 29 Palms Echo Real World Conflicts, Joshua Stewart, 11-Aug-2014, http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20140811/NEWS/308110017/Marines-vs-Russia-29-Palms-wargames-showdown-Ukraine

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Next Pearl Harbor

Prompted by a comment in a previous post, ComNavOps devoted a few minutes thought to the next Pearl Harbor scenario initiating a major war, presumably with China.  What would be a likely Pearl Harbor type target? Here’s my thought:  the Military Sealift Command pre-positioning ships.  They’re loaded with equipment, their location is precisely known, and they are, essentially undefended.  Their loss would be a major blow.  China probably already has the capability to reach them and, if not now, will have very soon.

Hand-in-hand with this pre-emptive strike would be an attack on Guam (and Diego Garcia?).

What do you think?  Any other likely possibilities?

One can only hope the Navy is also thinking about this kind of thing because China surely is.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

New Navy Fighting Machine

Many commenters have, over the last couple of years, made reference to the New Navy Fighting Machine (NNFM) (Naval Postgraduate School, “The New Navy Fighting Machine”, Hughes et al, Aug 2009) as a viable and desirable alternative to the current naval force structure.  It’s time to take a closer look at the concept.  This is a long post but, hey, the NNFM document is long!

The first aspect of the NNFM that requires understanding is the definition of the role of the Navy under the NNFM which is quite different from the Navy’s current role.  The document introduces this change in role,

“…  a substantially different American Navy, the purposes of which were, first, to influence China at one end of the conflict spectrum, and second, to support “small wars” on the ground and conduct maritime constabulary operations6 in many places around the world.”

This is the key to understanding and evaluating the NNFM.  The NNFM is envisioned to serve two purposes,

  • Influence China
  • Support small wars

Note the word “influence”.  It is key to understanding the NNFM force structure. 

As the document states in closing,

“… the most important goal of this study is to describe a more distributed combat capability for sea control and the projection of national influence from the sea.”

Notable is the change in direction away from an emphasis on fighting large, regional wars.  As the document states,

“Our study conjectures the ships of such a new fighting fleet, …  is affordable because it puts less emphasis on fighting large regional wars than in the past two decades.”

However, this change in emphasis has its own potential flaws and any fleet premised on these flawed points may, itself, be flawed.  For example, the document goes on to say,

“… the threat of striking the Chinese mainland seems less and less valuable as a way to influence affairs in East Asia.”

That is an utterly ridiculous statement and concept.  The threat of striking the Chinese mainland is, ultimately, the only viable threat that can influence them, militarily.  Physical or economic destruction are the only credible threats any country will respond to.  If the military rules out physical destruction then the military can have no influence on China which directly contradicts the initial premise that the one of the two main roles for this new Navy is to influence China.

Moving on, NNFM postulates several components of the strategy of influence, some good and some questionable.  For example,

“Forward offense with many submarines, to sink Chinese warships and merchant ships and lay mines near Chinese ports.”

This is an example of a good component.  Submarine warfare offers the US an effective combat force that is able to operate in the A2/AD zone with relative impunity.  Submarines offer the US a substantial advantage and we should emphasize it and build upon it.

Another component,

“Affordable numbers of small, lethal inshore combatants capable of demonstrating commitment to defend, alternatively, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, or Malaysia.“

This statement is an example of a questionable component.  No conceivable small combatant is going to have the power to counter the type of attacks they would likely see.  Pitting patrol vessels or missile boats against cruise/ballistic missiles and aircraft is a lopsided mismatch, to say the least.  The likelihood of appropriate levels of combat for these small combatants is, at best, questionable, and, more likely, unlikely.

The document further pursues this emphasis on small combatants by postulating their use in potentially high risk, high end combat situations.

“Hold open the option of putting a large number (say, twenty) of new, small, lethal American coastal combatants in survivable locations on the Taiwan coast. (Thirty are included in the green water component of the new fighting machine.) This is less risky than deploying a high-value CVN task force near Taiwan to demonstrate American commitment to resist an invasion, should we chose to do so.”

This is just an illogical concept.  While there is a certain validity to using low end, expendable vessels as a tripwire, they will certainly not demonstrate our “commitment to resist an invasion”.  A handful of easily destroyed, nearly defenseless vessels hardly demonstrate any commitment to resistance.  Arguably, their presence could be interpreted as a lack of commitment and a signal to the Chinese to take action.  After all, if we weren’t willing to risk a carrier group why would we respond to the sinking of a handful of small vessels?

The document continues to focus on the small combatants.

“Emphasis in the new fighting machine is on the flexibility of the green water component to scale to the intensity and duration of the operation.”

This concept is valid within limits.  Obviously, small combatants can only be “scaled up” so far before they exceed their combat capabilities.  I say “obviously” but it’s far from clear that it’s obvious to the authors given their belief that small combatants can be successfully used in defense of Taiwan.

The document offers some outstanding observations about training and the need to return to professionalism in areas such as MCM, ASW, and anti-swarm warfare.  It further describes the link between failing education levels of society and the performance of personnel in the Navy.  The ultimate conclusion drawn is that simpler ships may be easier to man and train for.  This is a particularly astute observation although the conclusion stops short of full application.  Overly complex and technologically demanding ships and systems are inherently unmaintainable (witness the fleetwide Aegis degradation).  Simpler systems operating at full effectiveness may actually be more effective than more advanced systems operating at degraded levels.  A comparison between a rotating radar system versus Aegis comes to mind.

The NNFM notes that maintaining the industrial base will be easier with a more distributed (smaller, single purpose ships) force structure.  ComNavOps concurs!

Following is a brief discussion of the various types of vessels that the NNFM envisions.

Coastal Combatant.  The NNFM envisions a class of small (600 t), fast ships armed with short range, multi-purpose missiles, 4 Harpoons, and a gun.  Their role would be to clear the littorals for subsequent operations.  Cost is estimated at $100M.  This may be an optimistic estimate.  Also, the concept of operations is, in my mind, somewhat suspect.  I’ll do a post on this particular topic, shortly.

Gunfire Support Ship.  The concept of a dedicated gun ship is outstanding, however, the suggested use of the AGS may well put the size and cost of the ship and gun out of reach.  In its automated guise, the AGS is a volume hog in ship design and very expensive given its very low production rate.  A better option might be the Mk71 8” gun.  Regardless, this is an excellent conceptual ship class.

Green Water CVL.  The NNFM calls for 8 CVLs intended primarily as green water support ships.  They will operate UAVs and vertical aircraft including 20 F-35Bs.  The document’s cost estimate of $3B per ship is reasonable based on the demonstrated cost of the America class assuming the size can be significantly reduced over the America class.

MCM.  The NNFM calls for 12 MCM vessels.  This number is nowhere near adequate for MCM operations and represents one of the biggest weaknesses of the conceptual force.  Numbers aside, the idea of a dedicated MCM vessel is outstanding as it will keep costs down and maximize competence.

ASW.  The NNFM calls for 12 inshore ASW vessels.  The same comments apply as for the MCM vessels.

Arsenal Ships.  The NNFM proposes small corvette size arsenal ships containing 50 land attack missiles (Tomahawk).  These ships would specifically replace the current SSGNs which carry around 150 missiles.  The document acknowledges the SSGN’s superior stealth but claims the Arsenal Ships will have an acceptable degree of risk.  This is another dubious claim that is unsupported.  These ships would offer tempting, lucrative, and visible targets for enemy forces.  The vastly superior stealth and survivability of the SSGNs more than compensates for any perceived advantage of distributed power.

Submarines.  The NNFM proposes a mix of 40 SSNs and 40 SSKs (AIP).  The document states that the focus of the submarine force is China.  That’s an outstanding observation.  Unfortunately, the viability and combat effectiveness of SSKs in a China scenario is unknown and represents a substantial risk.  If SSKs are not viable, that leaves the Navy with a very small SSN force.  In addition, the projected cost of the SSK at $700M each is highly suspect.  Nothing in the Navy’s procurement and construction history suggests such a price is achievable.

SSBN.  The NNFM calls for a force of 9 SSBNs which is substantially below current and historical levels.  I can’t address the wisdom of this as it involves nuclear strategic considerations and capabilities that I don’t have access to or data for.  I’ll leave this aspect with the simple observation that this is a substantial red flag that may or may not be wise.  In addition to a suspect number of submarines, the assumed cost is $4.5B per ship which even the Navy doesn’t believe can be achieved for the new SSBNs.  A far more likely cost is on the order of $6B.

BMD.  The NNFM calls for 9 BMD vessels and, in a departure from current design philosophy, envisions them as dedicated, single function ships incapable of anti-cruise missile defense or general area AAW.  In fact, the document suggests that the BMD ships may have to be protected by other ships.  Again, though, a force this small only allows for three ships to be routinely deployed and that seems woefully insufficient given the apparent emphasis on ballistic missiles by potential enemies.

Amphibious.  The NNFM proposes a mix of sealift ships but, significantly, does not support large opposed assaults.  As the document states,

“We emphasize amphibious lift, but not forcible entry.”

Again, this is an example of the NNFM’s de-emphasis on high end combat.


Green water ship support needs are acknowledged but somewhat glossed over with reference to tenders and vague, non-specific host nation basing.  The later, in particular, is a suspect assumption, given the historical difficulties in arranging host nation base rights and flyover rights during previous conflicts and events.

NNFM proposes a mix of carriers, 6 CVNs and 10 CVLs.  This results in a total aircraft reduction of 12% but that reduction is claimed to be offset by greater flexibility.  While flexibility may be an attractive quality (and that’s a dubious claim in this context), at some point numbers of combat aircraft matter and accepting a 12% reduction over an already reduced combined air wing size is problematic.  This also optimistically assumes the F-35 will be procured in the required amounts.  A realistic prognosis indicates that the F-35 buy will be significantly curtailed.

NNFM calls for the CVNs to be procured at a cost of $10B each.  This cost has already been shown to be $2B-$4B short for new carrier construction and the document, to be fair, acknowledges exactly this shortfall.  However, it then proceeds to use the suspect number in the cost calculations thus demonstrating a greater NNFM procurement capacity than can actually be had.  This aspect of the document is a bit disingenuous.  To estimate a low-ball cost, acknowledge that it’s low, and then proceed to use it to make a better looking case is deceptive, to say the least.

The NNFM addresses sealift and takes note of the total number of vessels available of all types.  The document offers an interesting statement,

“Delivery and sustainment ships are not expected to be attacked and so they are, properly in our judgment, large with very big capacities.”

That statement totally ignores the history of submarine warfare.  Do we really think China will not devote effort toward submarine attacks on these ships?  The entire history of U-Boat wars strongly suggests the reality of this issue.

The NNFM proposes a relatively small investment in sealift vessels based on the premise that these ships have very long lifetimes.  As we just stated, that may be true in peacetime but in a war with China those ships will have the same short lifetimes that cargo ships of all nations had during WWII.

The document addresses the conventional amphibious assault ships with some very pertinent observations.  Among them is this gem,

“At the same time, for forcible entry, the amphibious ships are too large and there are too few in an Expeditionary Strike Group—only three or four—to be effective when an enemy counterattack is possible. The loss of even one ship would probably abort the landing.”

Unfortunately, the document does not go on to specify a specific alternative beyond calling for a moratorium on new construction while studies are carried out.  That’s fair but a bit weak considering the scope and purpose of this document.

The NNFM notes that the surface combatant force (Burkes and Ticos, currently) is susceptible to anti-ship missiles.  The document proposes substantially reducing the DDG force to a level of 30.  Given the standard 3:1 deployment ratio, that only allows for 10 ships to be deployed at any given moment.  The reduction in numbers would be made up for by acquisition of 90 highly capable, blue water frigates at a cost of $400M each according to the NNFM force structure.  Given the cost of the LCS which has only a fraction of the capabilities that the proposed frigate would have, this seems an absurdly low cost estimate!

The NNFM proposes operating ships in tactical units of two which would pair ships with similar or complementary capabilities although what those complementary characteristics would or should be is not spelled out.  This is an interesting departure from the Navy’s tendency to operate ships individually and is worth exploring.  The document astutely notes that this type of tactical thinking has been lost due to the development of expensive, multi-purpose ships.

Finally, to repeat, the NNFM is founded on certain assumptions that are, themselves, suspect.  For example,

“… the weaknesses of the present fleet—which is excessively focused on delivery of combat power at an enemy on land …”

The famous and true saying is that the seat of purpose is on the land.  That being the case, delivery of combat power at an enemy on land IS the purpose of the Navy.  To base a force structure on some other premise is wrong.

In summary, the NNFM study makes some good points, some highly suspect ones, and is based on some highly questionable costing which is acknowledged in the document but used anyway. 

The biggest problem with the concept is its underlying assumption that a less high end combat capable navy is preferred.  The assumption is skewed towards the lower end of the combat spectrum and peacetime, policing actions.  Admittedly, these constitute the vast number of tasks a fleet performs.  Still, when the time comes for serious, high end combat, you do not want to find your fleet at a disadvantage and this is exactly the state that the NNFM creates with proposed decreases in numbers of SSNs, CGs, DDGs, SSGNs, SSBNs, and CVNs.

The second biggest problem is the overvaluation of the small combatant capabilities and this is, undoubtedly, a direct result of Hughes’ involvement.  While I’m totally in favor of building a prototype small combatant and exercising it to find out what it can do for us, I’m highly skeptical that it will perform anywhere near as well as suggested either individually or as a component of an overall force.  I also highly doubt the need for the extent of green water capability that the NNFM assumes.  As I said, I’ll offer a post on this topic in the near future.

The emphasis on CVLs is also potentially troubling.  A CVL with a capacity of 20 F-35Bs is a marginal fighting force.  In any contested combat scenario, even of a lower order than all out war with China, the prime responsibility of the air wing will be defense of the carrier.  Given sortie rates, maintenance requirements, and some combat attrition, it’s difficult to imagine much of a useful offensive sortie rate from the air wing.  Of course, multiple CVLs can come together to generate greater combat capacity but then one has to wonder why a CVN wouldn’t be the preferred choice.  In an uncontested scenario, a CVL would certainly be adequate and useful but, then, so would a barge!  Again, this is a concept worth testing and gaming out.  Operation of the America class may offer some insight on this issue.

Finally, the consistent use of suspect cost figures renders the NNFM model invalid.  Even the document repeatedly admits that the cost figures may be too low and even provides much more reasonable values but declines to use them.  Thus, the numbers of ships called for seems patently unachievable.  An otherwise coherent NNFM model is thus reduced to the level of fantasy much as the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan is.

On the plus side, the emphasis on single function vessels is spot on and offers an opportunity to field greater numbers of ships at a lower unit cost.  In particular, the recognition that MCM and ASW, among other functions, are better performed by dedicated vessels is astute and in this respect alone the document is valuable and worthy.

The overall goal of generating a greater number of ships is worthy although achieving that goal at the expense of high end combat power is suspect.

The goal of building an in-shore patrol capability is also worthwhile.  Again, the extent of such a program needs to be strategized and gamed out.  The small combatants are a very worthwhile experiment.  Although I’m dubious about the widespread usefulness of such a vessel, I believe that there is a need for at least some small number of such a ship.

In summation, the NNFM is a worthwhile study offering a mix of good and bad ideas but, overall, well worth serious examination.  The biggest potential flaw is the underlying premise of a shift in emphasis from high end combat capability to lower end patrol, peacekeeping, and minor conflicts.  The emphasis on green water combat capability without a corresponding analytical basis renders the concept suspect but still worth a careful evaluation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Undisputed and Unaccepted

There are certain enduring naval debates such as large carriers versus small carriers.  One of these debates is the value of small missile boats versus large multi-function vessels.  The leading proponent of the missile boat is Captain Wayne Hughes Jr., USN(Ret.).  He has literally written the book on the subject.

To summarize, his contention is that naval combat power is better distributed among many small vessels (the missile boat) than concentrated in fewer and larger vessels (Burkes, for example).  A mathematical model has been developed which factors in the various characteristics of naval warfare such as offensive power, defensive power, damage resistance, numbers of vessels, etc.  The model clearly shows that the single most valuable characteristic of a naval fleet is numbers.

It is a major irony that Capt. Hughes theories are simultaneously undisputed and unaccepted.  The model results are what they are.  There’s no disputing them.  What can be disputed, however, are the underlying assumptions that go into the model.  To repeat a saying as old as computers, “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.  If the data or assumptions are flawed then the results will also be flawed even if they are mathematically correct.

Chinese Houbei Missile Boat - Distributed Power


Is the Hughes model flawed?  I believe so.  For starters, the model is based on the assumption of fleet versus fleet.  It only loosely takes into account air power, for example.  Consider the contention of distributed power (small boats) versus centralized (Burkes).  While the salvo model reasonably models the surface versus surface action and associated factors, it does not really account for air power.  The lowly helo, or any other form of air power, would be essentially 100% effective against any number of missile boats since they have no AAW capability.  In contrast, a Burke would offer a significant defensive capability against air power.  So, the model suggests that missile boats are the preferred force structure but a consideration of air power suggests the opposite.

Or, consider the effect of scouting.  The model considers scouting but in a generic way.  As such, the model predicts the value of numbers and dispersion when evaluated against a generic scouting factor.  However, the model does not consider the impact of modern satellite systems, over-the-horizon radars, ESM dectection, and other scouting methods on the pre-combat scenario.  If the missile boats can be tracked before they ever get into the area of operations then they are just another drone target exercise for the defenders.

One of the central implications of Hughes’ model is that the enemy who faces a distributed fleet (missile boats) faces a dilemma – does the enemy radiate to find the distributed forces and thereby reveal his own location or does he remain silent and risk detection and destruction by the distributed force.  What is not considered is the third option which is to remain silent and let air, space, or subsurface assets do the detecting.

Another example…  The model does not really take into account the impact of an area AAW capable ship which can extend and provide its level of defense to the ships around it.  Further, CEC (cooperative engagement) effects are not accounted for.

One more …  Electronic warfare is not factored except in a generic way such as an improved defensive “rating”.  Things like deception and misdirection via decoys and false signals can have a huge impact on the conduct of a battle and yet are unaccounted for.  Small craft have little or no capabilities to wage this type of combat. 

Finally, the model deals only with the actual combat portion of the force structure issue.  It does not address seakeeping, range, endurance, support requirements, refueling, supply, or any other issues that strongly influence ship type selection.  The small missile boats are just “there” at the start of the battle in the model.  How they got there, or even whether they’re capable of getting there over vast distances and through heavy weather, is not addressed.  The combat model may suggest that small vessels are useful but the logistics and other issues may (or may not) preclude their use and this is not addressed.

Study of Hughes’ model quickly reveals that the model is very simplistic which is ideal for grasping basics or performing quick and dirty analyses, however, it falls well short of simulating actual combat involving the full range of combat assets and effects.  The model is equivalent to an introductory exposure to modeling and tactics.  It’s a good starting point for further, in-depth study but is not the end point.  To be fair, Hughes makes no claim that his model is a full featured simulation.  It is his supporters that have taken the model’s results and run with them beyond the model’s capabilities.

So, what is the takeaway form this discussion?  Hughes model is too simplistic to be an authoritative answer to any question of force structure.  Thus, the conclusion that distributed forces are the preferred force structure is a suspect conclusion.  The model offers suggestive conclusions that merit further investigation but far more factors need to be accounted for.  We have, therefore, a model which is undisputed but, because of the limitations, unaccepted and rightfully so.  A more distributed force structure may well be desirable but the model does not prove it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Amphibious Assault Doctrine

We’ve had several recent posts on Marines and amphibious assaults.  We’ve looked at various specific issues.  What we need to look at now is the broad picture view of amphibious assaults.  We need to look at the doctrine of amphibious assaults.  This will be a longer than normal post but it’s necessary and worth the time to read.

The Marines and the Navy pretty well mastered the art of amphibious assaults by the end of WWII.  They had the equipment, the training, the experience, and, most importantly, the doctrine.  With the benefit of hindsight, can we look back and come up with some improvements that could have been implemented?  Probably, but the point is that they had developed a system that worked and worked well.

Let’s consider the doctrine of amphibious assaults.  What has changed since the end of WWII?  The answer is, remarkably little.  The doctrine is largely unchanged despite the evolution of guided missiles, better sensors, more advanced weaponry, attack helos, advanced aircraft, and so forth – and I’m talking about the enemy’s side more so than ours though all the same advances impact our side, offensively, as well.  Despite all these changes our amphibious assault doctrine remains substantially the same as it was.

Three factors stand out as significantly different from the WWII scenarios and yet are not specifically accounted for in current doctrine beyond vague, generic statements.

Weapon Ranges – The development of rockets and missiles of various types have greatly increased the effective range of the enemy’s defensive efforts.

Weapon Lethality – The development of guided munitions of various types has greatly increased the lethality and destructive efficiency of weapons.  In addition, shaped charges have conferred great lethality on small warheads;  the ubiquitous RPG being a good example.  Finally, the widespread availability of mines greatly enhances anti-access efforts.

Sensors – Sensors, including radar, IR, satellite, etc. have greatly increased  detection ranges and target classification capabilities.  Surprise is much harder to achieve.

One might also be tempted to add the development of helos, especially attack helos, to the preceding list of factors.  These highly lethal platforms offer a formidable defensive capability.  Their effectiveness is, however, countered by their vulnerability to shoulder launched SAMs.

The preceding factors have not been directly and systematically accounted for in our current doctrine.  For example, increased defensive weapon ranges have been dealt with only to the extent that the Navy has shifted the amphibious force location from the horizon to 50+ nm.  No allowance has been made for dealing with defensive weapons fired from distances well beyond the landing area.  Thus, even with outstanding suppression or destruction of landing area defenses, the landing force may still be subject to significant fires.

The existence of guided weapons grants the defender greatly enhanced combat efficiency.  A handful of troops with a supply of RPGs could wreak havoc on the armored amphibious vehicles and connectors.  Small guided anti-ship missiles (Hellfire-ish, Maverick-ish) would be a significant danger to connector craft.  Despite this, no change in doctrine has been made to provide protection for the connectors beyond the general hope that such weapons will be suppressed or destroyed in the general support fires.

Mines are a significant impediment to an amphibious assault and yet the Navy has no effective means of mine clearance and mine countermeasure forces are dwindling almost daily.  The LCS may or may not pan out as an effective MCM platform and will, in any case be far too few in number, given the curtailed buy, to be tactically effective.

Increased sensor effectiveness will greatly impact the degree of surprise that can be achieved at both the strategic and tactical levels.  The concept of exploiting gaps, in particular, as an alternative to a direct frontal assault is rendered suspect.

The combination of the above factors suggests that the doctrinal concept of the establishment of a “supply dump” on the beach may be highly suspect.  Such a lucrative target will be easily detected and long range, guided, lethal weapons may render such a setup nothing more than a spectacular pyrotechnic display.  The total lack of a doctrinal means of protecting the immediate landing area from incoming fires is a major weakness.

The guiding document for amphibious assaults is Joint Publication 3-02, “Amphibious Operations”.  Here are some interesting observations from the document.

  • No mention is made of port assaults;  only beach, despite the fact that we probably no longer have the capability and capacity to move sufficient amounts of supplies and equipment over an unimproved beach as was done at Normandy, for example.

  • Over-the-horizon (OTH) is mentioned as a less desirable option to a close assault despite the fact that it now appears to be the norm.

  • There is an emphasis on establishing aviation assets ashore despite the fact that the maintenance and operating demands of modern aircraft almost preclude this option, short of the seizure of an existing airbase.

  • Rehearsal is considered a vital aspect of an assault plan.  I’m doubtful that we have the afloat resources and supplies to conduct the actual assault let alone a full dress rehearsal.  Look at the training exercises (very few!) we currently conduct and the amount of shortcuts and simulations we take during them due to lack of money and resources.

Now, here are some interesting quotes from the document.

“With no current capability to conduct OTH surface gun fire support, missions normally conducted by NSFS will initially rest with aviation assets.”

Wow!  We are formally recognizing that we have no fire support capability.  What we are failing to recognize is that against a peer defender the aviation assets will be tied up protecting the fleet and protecting themselves.  They will be only sporadically available for air support.  So, we have no naval fire support and only sporadic air support and yet this issue is not addressed in our doctrine.

“Although ships can use land attack missiles for OTH fire support, their quantities are limited.”

So much for the magic of Tomahawks.  Effective but limited.  How many thousands of rounds of naval gunfire were used in pre-invasion bombardments during WWII?  Our entire national Tomahawk inventory would be totally depleted in the first hour of the first assault.

“Fire support has a major effect on the development of the LF [Landing Force] plan for operations. Until the LF’s organic artillery is ashore, NSFS and aviation assets (fixed- and rotary-wing) are normally the only means of fire support for the LF. A portion of these assets may also be tasked to defend the AF [assault task group] as a whole, limiting their availability to the LF.”

See the logical inconsistency?  The previous statements noted that there is no naval fire support from OTH and yet this vaguely hopeful statement ignores the reality and counts on gun support.  The statement also notes that initial support will have to come from aviation assets, as well, while simultaneously noting that aviation assets will be limited.  Remember, the number one priority of aviation is to protect the carrier.  The issue is not addressed doctrinally.

“Initially, the LF is able to employ only a small fraction of its total potential power. Tactical operations are initiated by small units that are normally only supported by NSFS and attack aircraft. Before long, the preponderance of the LF is ashore and functioning as a cohesive organization exerting its maximum combat power.”

Well, there’s a bland statement that relies mainly on hope!  A previous statement from the document acknowledged that there is no gun support and yet doctrinally we’ll depend on gun support to assist the initial small unit actions!  Further, despite all the enemy’s increased weapon ranges, lethality, and sensing, we will casually move most of our combat power ashore “before long”.  We should doctrinally include sending a polite thank you note to the enemy for their cooperation in allowing us to move our combat power ashore unhindered and in a timely manner.

“As a general rule there will be one NSFS ship in direct support for each battalion and one NSFS ship in general support for each regiment.”

And that one ship has only a single 5” gun.  Yikes!  And that assumes the Navy is willing to move within range which they have stated they will not do.  So, that statement should actually read that there will be NO ships in direct support of each battalion!

Finally, here is a historical quote found within the document that recognizes the logistical aspect of an assault.

“The logistical effort required to sustain the seizure of Iwo Jima was enormous, complex, largely improvised on lessons learned in earlier . . . operations in the Pacific. . . . Clearly, no other element of the emerging art of amphibious warfare had improved so greatly by the winter of 1945. Marines may have had the heart and firepower to tackle a fortress-like Iwo Jima earlier in the war, but they would
have been crippled in the doing of it by limitations in amphibious logistical support capabilities. These concepts, procedures, organizations, and special materials took years to develop. . . .”

“From Closing In: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima, Joseph Alexander”

This is exactly the issue that we’ve discussed in some of our posts – the Navy no longer has the numbers of ships or connectors or the transport capacities to sustain the flow of material needed for a successful combat assault.  Further, as every example of combat throughout history has demonstrated, our estimates of the amount of supplies needed will be woefully insufficient, further compounding our already suspect logistics capability.

So, does the preceding sound like we have a solid doctrinal grasp of modern amphibious assauts?  No, it sounds like a re-hash of WWII doctrine updated with a few references to helos. 

Here are some of the doctrinal gaps that need to be addressed.

  • How will preparation of the landing site occur given our near total lack of naval fire support (Zumwalt notwithstanding)?

  • How will we provide counter-rocket, counter-artillery, and counter-missile protection for the initial landing wave given the Navy’s refusal to operate inshore?

  • How will we move sufficient quantities of supplies over the beach without the plethora of WWII craft and devices dedicated to just that task?

  • How will we provide sufficient air support given the decreasing number of carriers, shrinking size of airwings, likely reduced buys of F-35s, and the recognition that protection of the carrier is the top priority for aviation assets?

  • How will we utilize helo support in the face of determined shoulder launched SAMs?

  • How will we protect the connectors from small guided weapons?

  • How will we counteract the threat of mines in the landing area and how will we do so while under fire?

  • Where will we get sufficient numbers of connectors from given the limited carrying capacity aboard current amphibious ships (smaller or no well decks in newer ships)?

  • How will we stage and/or protect suppy dumps on the beach in the face of modern sensing and weapons?

  • How will we address the suppression and destruction of long range missiles, rockets, and artillery launched from well outside the landing area?

If the Marines wish to remain in the opposed landing, amphibious assault business they will need to address these doctrinal gaps.  Failure to do so will render the Corps irrelevant in the minds of our military planners.