Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Evolving Threat

It’s occasionally instructive to look at the nature of the threats the Navy faces and how they have evolved over time.

During the Cold War, the threats were fairly well defined.  The Navy faced primarily a submarine threat augmented by a reasonably robust aviation based cruise missile threat.  Soviet subs were numerous, seemingly everywhere, lethal, and rapidly improving in performance and quieting.  In response, the Navy developed and refined ASW tactics and practiced them in the real world on a continuous basis.  Likewise, the Soviet long range bombers (Tu-XX) carrying cruise missiles constituted a serious if somewhat intermittent threat.  In response, the Navy developed Aegis, Tomcats, and a variety of AAW tactics to deal with the threat.  Again, the Navy practiced those countermeasures in the real world and on a continuous basis.

Well, the Soviet Union is gone (notwithstanding Putin’s efforts to resurrect it) so how have the threats evolved?  Here are the main threats from each of the likely enemy countries.

China – Mines constitute the main threat to the Navy.  China is believed to have hundreds of thousands of mines and the regional geography lends itself to numerous chokepoints, ideal for the employment of mines.  Combined with the Navy’s near absence of effective MCM, mines are clearly the major threat to Navy operations in the A2/AD zone. 

A secondary threat is anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.  China’s missiles are lethal although their effectiveness is compromised by a lack of long range targeting capability.  The media-famous DF-21 ballistic missile, the “carrier killer”, is the prime example of this.  It is a missile that, on paper, is quite lethal but, in reality, is quite limited by an inability to provide effective targeting.

A lesser but growing threat is China’s submarines.  While currently few in number and questionable in effectiveness, the submarine fleet is growing rapidly and the quality is improving steadily.

Iran – The restricted waters around Iran make mines the biggest threat to the Navy.  A secondary threat is land launched anti-ship cruise missiles.  The small craft swarm threat is only a threat prior to the outbreak of all-out hostilities.  After that, US aircraft can quickly deal with small craft.

North Korea – NK has nothing that constitutes a realistic and effective threat to the Navy.  Yes, they have a few small and mini-subs but while those might threaten an individual ship, they do not threaten the Navy as an operating force.  Mines could be a threat but it is unlikely that the Navy would seek to operate in any area suitable for mining (meaning that amphibious assaults into NK would be unlikely).

Russia – The main threat to the Navy is aviation.  Russia has large numbers of capable, modern aircraft of all types.  Mitigating this threat is the fact that AAW is the Navy’s strength. 

The Russian submarine threat is real but the available numbers are insufficient to constitute a major threat although this may change if Russia continues to rebuild its sub fleet.

What do we learn from this?

We see that mines are, far and away, the most serious threat the Navy faces.  With this realization, it is inexplicable that the Navy has allowed their MCM capability to atrophy almost to the point of non-existence and certainly to the point of near total ineffectiveness.  Consider that if an enemy such as China or Russia were to lay even a token amount of mines in a couple of US harbors, the Navy would have insufficient MCM resources to clear and maintain the homeland harbors while simultaneously clearing tens of thousands of mines from overseas operational areas.

We also see that since the Cold War ended we have seen a shift away from constant, real world practice of tactics to today’s situation where realistic tactics are only occasionally exercised.  We have lost our tactical proficiency through lack of practice.  Contrast the Cold War era Spruances that conducted actual ASW tactics against Soviet subs on a daily basis versus today’s Burkes that conduct a scripted ASW exercise once a year, if that.  It’s no wonder that the Spruances were the most effective ASW vessel the Navy ever had.  Of course, the same applies to the Los Angeles class ASW effectiveness versus today’s Virginias.

Recognizing the threats, what is the Navy focused on?  Presumably, it would be MCM.  Instead, it is AAW (Aegis) and ballistic missile defense (BMD).  While there is certainly a need for AAW, the almost total focus on AAW to the exclusion of MCM and ASW is, frankly, baffling.  Further, BMD, today’s pet focus of the Navy, is arguably not even most effectively performed by ships and, if it is, may well be better performed by a dedicated BMD vessel or a combination of a dedicated radar and fire control vessel that simiply uses Burkes as shooters.

Thus, the Navy’s developmental and tactical path seems not to be in sync with the threats we face.  We need to stop our haphazard procurement programs and PR type training exercises and start getting serious about growing to the actual threats.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Aegis Overhaul

Here’s an interesting tidbit about Aegis cruiser maintenance and upgrades.

BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair, Norfolk, Virginia, is being awarded a $38.6M modification to a previously awarded contract (N00024-11-C-4403) for USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55) fiscal 2015 extended docking selected restricted availability (ED-SRA).  Work is expected to be completed by February 2016.

Remember that the Navy told us it would take 4 years to modernize an Aegis cruiser which is why they had to take 11 cruisers out of service?  Well, here’s a significant maintenance and upgrade for an Aegis cruiser that is only going to cost $38.6M and be completed in less than seven months (it doesn’t say when the start date is).

To be fair, I don’t know what the complete scope of work is for either this availability or the Navy’s proposed four year modernization.

The other interesting aspect to this is that we often discuss modernization upgrades as a possible alternative to new construction.  For example, what if the Perry’s had been upgraded instead of retired in favor of new LCSs?  During these discussions, people often fling costs around with little or no supporting data – the costs, predictably, being either outrageously high or low as needed to support the position being argued. 

I’d like to gather some supporting costs for those types of discussions.  Of course, an Aegis cruiser ED-SRA is not an exact match for anything other than what it is.  It is not, to use the previous example, an exact match for, and estimate of, the cost to modernize a Perry.  Still, this is a pretty extensive piece of work on a pretty sophisticated ship and should, therefore, offer some insight into modernization costs.  The next time someone argues for modernization and claims a cost of $10M, I’ll have data that suggests that’s not a realistic figure.  Similarly, the next time someone argues against modernization and claims a cost of $750M, I’ll have data that suggests that’s not a realistic figure.

I’ll gather a few of these data points over time and across a range of upgrades and maintenance and see what kind of cost numbers are realistic.  I’ll share them with you as I come across them.

Friday, July 24, 2015


In the discussion comments about restarting the F-22 production line, a comment was made that the F-22 and F-18 aren’t STOVL (Short TakeOff Vertical Landing).  This comment prompted me to think - is there really any value to STOVL for the USN? 

Before I go any further, let me be quite clear and upfront about why I’m writing this post.  I am absolutely not using this as an opportunity to embarrass the person who wrote the comment.  Just the opposite, in fact.  The comment inspired me to continue the discussion and for that I sincerely thank the writer.  So, moving on.

Once upon a time we dreamed of hordes of jump jets operating from patches of jungle, rising up from nowhere, striking, and vanishing again with the enemy left helplessly trying to track down individual, well hidden mini-bases.  A nice idea, huh?  Well, reality has long proven that the dream is just that - a dream.  The logistics of supplying dozens of remote bases with fuel, munitions, and parts renders the concept void.  Further, modern stealth jets, the F-35B, in this case, require exquisite and extensive maintenance – hardly an enabler of remote bases.

The concept has never been used and as modern aircraft become ever more complex, the likelihood of it ever happening is as close to zero as can be.

That leaves operating from LHx amphibious vessels.  Now this is the real question: does the ability to operate a dozen STOVL aircraft really gain us enough to justify the impact on the LHx's main function which is delivery of fully equipped troops ashore? 

Given the significantly reduced size of current air wings, couldn’t we base the dozen extra F-35s on one of the carriers?  There will always be one or more around if we’re conducting amphibious operations.  Operating from a carrier will free up spots on the LHx for transport helos/V-22s and eliminate an entire maintenance line.  The carrier will already operate and maintain F-35s so, again, it makes sense to base the F-35Bs on the carrier.

Of course, this immediately leads to the next logical question:  why do we even need the F-35B if we’re going to base them on a carrier?  They have less range and less payload.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply have more F-35Cs?

OK, that covers the USN’s needs.  What about our allies?  Well, they have small carriers or limited carriers (like the Royal Navy) and may well have to operate a STOVL aircraft.  Honestly, I’m not familiar enough with foreign navies to understand their situations with certainty.  Still, are the needs of our allies enough to justify the abomination of a program that F-35 has become – and the F-35B is one of the major contributors to the disaster? 

What are we talking about for total F-35B sales?  A couple hundred?  Is that sufficient justification?  If it is, let the STOVL aircraft be a dedicated program with our allies paying the full cost.  I suspect we’d find that STOVL wasn’t all that important to them.

Recognize that I’m not trashing our allies.  They’re quite logically jumping on board to gain what benefit they can.  However, both the US and our allies need to recognize what the F-35 is doing to their budgets and their force structure.  The countries that want the F-35 will be forced to sacrifice major assets to free up enough money to get the aircraft or they will have to cut the buys to the point where, again, you have to ask what the value is.

The F-35, in general, and the F-35B, in particular, have wrecked the US Marine Corps force structure and many of our allies budgets and force structures, all in the name of a STOVL capability that is of very limited value.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Lockheed Martin Corp., Akron, Ohio, has received a contract for $7.6M for the repair and refurbishment of 11 vertical launch anti-submarine rocket motors (VL-ASROC). 

Wow!  That’s a lot of money for simple repair and refurbishment of rocket motors. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

F-22 Production Line Restart Costs

How often have we had discussions about various aircraft (and occasionally ships) that involved the question of reopening production lines?  Invariably, someone makes the claim that reopening a production line would be more expensive than a new design.  That’s ridiculous for a variety of reasons but no one has actual data or facts to prove or disprove the contention.  One common proposal and point of debate is the F-22.  Given the cost and questionable performance and usefulness of the F-35, it has been proposed that we simply reopen the F-22 production line.  Along the same line, people have proposed a navalized F-22 but the idea gets shot down by the contention that reopening the line would be cost prohibitive. 

ComNavOps hates debating points that have no supporting data.  Well, I stumbled across a data point for the F-22 production line courtesy of a Reuter’s article (1).

“… the Air Force has taken steps that leave open an option to restart the premier plane's production relatively cheaply.”

“The Air Force is preserving the hardware used to build the jet, not scrapping it … “

“A total of more than 30,000 jigs, fixtures and other "tooling" used to build the plane are being logged into a database and tucked into containers, some custom built, for long-term storage at Sierra Army Depot, Herlong, California.”

“Lockheed is under Air Force contract also to preserve the shop-floor know-how used to manufacture the fighter. It is accomplishing this through a video library of "smart books," DVDs designed to capture such things as how to hold a tool for best results.”

Now, here’s the ultimate point.

“Bringing back the F-22 line would take less than $200 million, "a fraction of the costs seen in previous line restarts of other weapons systems," Alison Orne, a Lockheed spokeswoman, said by email, citing preliminary analysis.”

So, for the cost of a one or two aircraft, the F-22 production line could be reopened.  That should answer a lot of questions.  Even if the aircraft were altered, say for a navalized version, the vast majority of tooling would still be applicable and available.

No matter what you do to the restart cost estimate (double it, triple it, whatever), it remains a cheap option.

As an interesting and related side note, the article mentions a few other production lines that have been reopened but does not offer any costs.

“Arms production lines have shut in the past only to be brought back, including aircraft such as the submarine-hunting P-3, U-2 spy plane and B-1A bomber resurrected as the B-1B.”

Of course, this represents the best case scenario where the production tooling is carefully preserved along with the production knowledge.  This doesn’t apply to most other programs although companies generally do crate and retain tooling against future need.  So, reopening the Perry FFG production line, for example, might cost significantly more but probably less than the cost of a single ship (there I go, offering an opinion with no supporting data – I hate that!).

The point is that options involving restarting F-22 production are viable and financially attractive.  So, go ahead and offer up your favorite F-22 restart scenario and know that it is feasible.

(1)Reuters, “U.S. to mothball gear to build top F-22 fighter”, Jim Wolf, 12-Dec-2011,

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Chain Gun Research

Alliant Techsystems Operations LLC, Plymouth, Minnesota, has received a contract for $12M to lease a test vehicle to the Navy for chain gun prototype development.  The work will include prototype fabrication, pre-production, integration, testing, evaluation and development of chain gun weapon systems hardware, associated gun control system software and ammunition.  The work will be performed in Mesa, Arizona, and is expected to be completed by July 2020. 

That’s interesting.  I wonder what the Navy is doing with chain guns?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hornets Deleted?

Here’s a fascinating little tidbit that almost escaped me.  The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) is asking Congress to remove the 12 extra F/A-18E/Fs that were included in the defense authorization budget bill.  You may or may not know that the Navy included 12 extra Hornets on their unfunded requirements list which is a list submitted to Congress containing “wish list” items if Congress feels so inclined as to provide extra funding.  Essentially, it’s a priority list for unanticipated, extra funding.  Guess what?  To everyone’s surprise, Congress actually funded the extra Hornets and now OSD is trying to remove them from the budget.

So, what do we make of this?  The Navy has extra Hornets on their unfunded requirements list, Congress funds them, and now OSD is asking Congress to delete them.  ComNavOps can see only one explanation.

Someone is nervous about the viability of the F-35 and wants to ensure that there are no viable competitors in the form of the Hornet and that no one gets the bright idea to keep the Hornet production line going.  An active Hornet production line represents a viable alternative to the F-35 and people higher than the Navy don’t want that.  Add in the possibility of the Advanced Super Hornet with some of the F-35’s technology and you’ve got a seriously viable alternative.  It’s easy to see why that would make F-35 program managers nervous.

The Navy tells Congress what it needs.  Congress funds the need.  OSD attempts to prevent that.  That’s a seriously screwed up system.  Is there any further doubt about who’s calling the shots in the military?  I’m looking at you, Lockheed.

The request from OSD to Congress states that,

“…the additional 12 F/A-18E/F aircraft unfunded requirement is not required.”

Well, they’re not needed by Lockheed Martin, that’s for sure!  However, the Navy seems to think they’re needed.  I guess we see who’s running the Department of Lockheed Martin Defense.

(1)USNI, “Pentagon Asks Congress to Reverse Decision to Add 12 Super Hornets for Navy”, Megan Eckstein, July 17, 2015,