Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Idled" Cruisers

As previously noted, the Navy has announced plans to idle 11 of the 22 Aegis cruisers.  The publicly stated plan is that the cruisers will, over time, be modernized and returned to the fleet.  Great!  So, that puts us back to 22 Aegis cruisers and they’ll be extensively modernized.  That’s a win in anybody’s book, huh?

Well, not so fast.  Let’s back the drydock up and look at this a bit closer.  When you check out the details, you see that the Navy’s plan is actually for the idled/modernized cruisers to rejoin the fleet as one-for-one replacements for retiring cruisers.  Thus, we’ll never see 22 cruisers again – we’ll only ever see 11.  Yeah, the Navy hasn’t exactly been striving to make that point clear.

Next, does anyone think the idled cruisers will ever be modernized?  The Navy isn’t modernizing its active ships to any great extent.  Why would they divert funds into modernizing idled ships when they could, instead, use the funds for new construction.  Can you picture the Navy someday saying, sure, let’s build one less brand new Burke Flt III so that we can modernize a Ticonderoga class cruiser that’s been sitting idle for several years?  Not going to happen.

Not sure I’m right about this?  Consider the case of the Avenger MCM vessels.  The Navy had the LCS coming along so they allowed the Avengers to sit and rot, literally.  Does it seem likely that the Navy will carefully maintain the idled Ticos with the new Burke Flt IIIs coming?  In fact, the more suspicious among us might think that allowing the idled Ticos to sit and rot would be exactly what the Navy would do so as to eliminate any possible alternative to the Burke Flt III from consideration.  The Navy eliminated the Spruances to avoid competition with Aegis.  They eliminated the Perrys and Avengers to avoid competition with the LCS.  It now appears that they’re eliminating the Ticos to avoid competition with the Burke Flt III.

The Navy wanted to early retire the cruisers, Congress balked and ordered the Navy to keep the cruisers, and now the Navy has found a way around Congress by “idling” and “modernizing” the cruisers.  The Navy’s ploy could not be more transparent.  Whether you agree or disagree with the Navy’s desire to retire the cruisers and Congress’ desire to keep them, the Navy has a duty and responsibility to comply with Congress’ intent.  It is reprehensible and shameful to pull this kind of maneuver which flagrantly disregards Congress’ direction.  If the Navy feels the cruisers must be retired then they need to make the case for it and accept the decision of Congress whether they agree or not.

The irony is that there might be a valid case to be made for idling ships (as long as they’re properly maintained) in this period of budget challenges.  Of course, there would be many difficulties involved in doing this properly but that’s a topic for another time.

Wave good-bye to the “idled” Ticos.  You’ll never see them again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Flt III VLS News website has an article (1) about the Zumwalt.  It’s just a sales brochure fluff piece but it did mention an interesting point.

Wade Knudson, Raytheon DDG 1000 program manager, had this to say about the Zumwalt’s Mk57 Peripheral VLS system.

“The ship is also built with a new kind of vertical launch tubes that are engineered into the hull near the perimeter of the ship. Called the Peripheral Vertical Launch System, the tubes are integrated with the hull around the ship's periphery in order to ensure that weapons can keep firing should the ship be damaged. Instead of having all of the launch tubes in succession or near one another, the DDG 1000 has spread them out in order to mitigate risk in the event [of] attack, Knudson said.

‘This divides the weapons up so if you take a hit, you don't lose all your weapons. This is a survivability enhancement,’ he added.”

I’m not at all sure that the Mk57’s placement was a survivability issue but let’s assume it was.  That begs the question why would the Navy consider moving forward with the Burke Flt III which will form the backbone of the fleet for the next four decades and carries the traditional clustered VLS system.  If the Mk41 VLS clustering has been deemed a sufficient survivability weakness to justify a radical VLS relocation in the Zumwalt, wouldn’t it also justify a redesign of the forthcoming Burke Flt III’s?  I understand that it would be nearly impossible to rework existing Burkes but the Flt III’s are new construction and are going to be extensively reworked anyway.

When you consider that the Flt III has been deemed by the Navy as unable to meet the full AMDR performance specs due to the inability to carry the full size AMDR and you combine that limitation with the survivability issue of clustered VLS, you really have to wonder why the Navy insists on moving ahead with a clearly sub-optimal Flt III rather than a new design.

Mk41 VLS - Unsafe?

Of course, the reason is obvious.  By calling the Flt III a modification to an existing design, the Navy hopes to avoid a great deal of oversight and scrutiny that would come with an officially new design.  By being unwilling to stand up a new design, take it to Congress, and justify it, the Navy is knowingly saddling itself with a sub-optimal vessel with no growth margin.  That’s just sad.

Monday, April 21, 2014

LCS Replacement Process

As you know, the Navy has been directed to terminate the LCS program and evaluate a follow on, more lethal and survivable small combatant vessel.  One would assume that would mean carefully analyzing the role of the follow on vessel in the context of the overall fleet structure and the strategies and missions under which the vessel will operate.  What gaps do we have in the current force structure that need to be filled by the vessel?

For example, we’re in the midst of a Pacific Pivot.  Setting aside the wisdom or even the reality of that movement, how will the follow on vessel fit into a Pacific Pivot and what roles and tasks will it be expected to perform?  Having determined the requirements, the actual conceptual design becomes a relatively straightforward exercise.

Is a corvette/frigate type vessel even needed?  Most of us would think so but it would be nice to see such a conclusion supported by an actual analysis.  For instance, it could be easily argued that a dedicated MCM vessel to replace the Avenger class is a far more pressing need.  One could also make a good argument that a simple, dedicated shallow water ASW vessel to combat diesel subs is a more pressing need.  Perhaps a focused ASuW vessel to act in concert with the AAW Burkes is what’s needed, given the Navy’s lack of anti-surface warfare outside of the carrier airwing.  The point is that an analysis of needs is the first, logical step.

Unfortunately, the Navy appears to have skipped right over the needs, roles, and missions analysis and leapt straight into the design of an LCS replacement.  The lack of a rationale and developed concept of operations was the major failing of the LCS and the Navy appears set on repeating history.  I’m being as polite as I can when I say that the collective wisdom of Navy leadership is at an all time low, at least during my lifetime.

Alright, it’s obvious that the Navy is going to approach this thing ass backwards.  So be it.  We can still salvage something useful.  The next step is to at least make sure that the ship fits the requirements rather than forcing the requirements to fit the ship.  This means that you design the ship to be the size and shape that the requirements dictate rather than pre-selecting a ship and then seeing how many of the requirements you can fit on the ship.  Again, unfortunately, the Navy is going to choose the LCS as the follow on to the LCS.  This is simple, idiotic Navy logic.  They want hulls in the water as fast as possible and with as little oversight and justification as possible.  That means selecting the LCS with its pre-existing production line and pre-existing Congressional justification.  The Navy is going to add a bigger gun and some VLS cells to the existing LCS and call it done.  We will not build the ship around the requirements; instead, the Navy will attempt to force the requirements onto the LCS hull.

Yet another opportunity wasted. 

I really hope that someday I can write an apology piece stating that I was wrong about this. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014


I’ve said this before but it’s becoming ever more true with each passing day:  a ten year moratorium on new construction of ships and aircraft wouldn’t be a bad thing.  In fact, at this point, it would be highly beneficial.

Wait, you say, we can’t do that!  We’d fall behind our enemies!  The shipbuilding and aircraft industries would fail and we’d lose our industrial base!  Our technical expertise would vanish!  Crops would wither and die!  The world would end!  ComNavOps has really lost it this time!

Well, the last part might be true but the rest is completely false.

Consider where we’re at right now.  We’re procuring our little hearts out which is exactly what your initial reaction says we should be doing and what do we have to show for it? 

  • We have a JSF that is going to deliver a limited capability aircraft (relative to the current threats and needed missions) that is going to be borderline obsolete by the time it reaches squadron service.

  • We have a fleet that is steadily shrinking.

  • We have a Burke Flt III coming that even the Navy says can only meet a portion of the required AMDR performance spec and will have no growth margin.

  • We have a looming SSBN construction program that will cripple Navy shipbuilding budgets for a decade.

  • We have a fleet that is hollow and getting worse every day due to systematic deferred maintenance so that funding can go to new construction.

  • We have an LCS that has no combat capability but will make up a third of the combat fleet.

  • We have an LCS replacement that will likely be just an upgunned LCS with all the same inherent structural flaws.

  • We have a fleet that has lost any semblance of tactical training.

And so on …

Is this really what we want to keep going?  It’s not even debatable that the fleet is becoming smaller and less capable relative to the current and future threats.  Alright, so the current system isn’t perfect but what are the benefits to stopping new construction and what about the problems associated with stopping?

Let’s look at the benefits, first. 

The most obvious benefit is that stopping new construction would free up enormous sums of money, $15B per year from the shipbuilding budget alone.  This money then becomes available for the deferred maintenance that is crippling and hollowing the fleet.  We simply can’t build new ships as fast as the existing ones are being allowed to fall into disrepair and subsequent early retirement.  We absolutely must reverse this decline in the physical state of our ships and aircraft.

Existing ships can be upgraded.  While upgrades are not cheap they are still far cheaper than new construction.  A good example is the Australian’s upgrade of the Perrys.  If you think the US is poor at program management, we look positively efficient next to the Australians – no offense, down there.  Even so, the upgrade cost $100M or so and they obtained a modernized, capable frigate.  Compare that to the $1B or so cost for a new frigate.  We could upgrade ten frigates for the cost of a single new one.

Existing aircraft can also be upgraded, rewinged, refuselaged, or whatever is necessary to maintain a competent aviation component during the moratorium.  Even without new construction aircraft, we can apply many of the Advanced Super Hornet features (conformal fuel tanks, stealth weapon pods, advanced avionics, etc.) to existing Hornets via upgrades.

A break in new construction would allow us to go back to the drawing board and work on carefully thought out designs for our next ships and aircraft.  We wouldn’t be under the gun to rush something out.  Does anyone think the Navy is carefully evaluating LCS alternatives right now?  Of course not.  They’re going to recommend the quickest option that can make it into production regardless of whether it’s a useful design or not.  That’s why it’s a near certainty that the LCS replacement will be an LCS!

We’re talking about a Pacific Pivot to deal with the coming Chinese threat although the Navy won’t speak the name out loud.  A break would allow us to pivot on paper first.  Let’s take the time to game out what strategies we would use and what capabilities we would need to implement those strategies.  Then, and only then, should we proceed to the design and procurement phases.  A moratorium would give us the unpressured time to do our homework and lay the proper foundation for the next ship and aircraft designs.

A moratorium would allow us to focus on training so that we can maximize the potential of the weapons and systems we have instead of constantly moving on to the next system coming down the line before we’ve mastered the current one.  We have Burkes that rarely practice ASW, a Marine Corps that’s re-inventing the amphibious assault wheel, an Aegis system that is seriously degraded fleetwide due to the lack of highly trained technicians (and parts!), and so on.  Our command element is woefully untrained in battle tactics – that’s the Navy’s opinion, not mine, though I agree fully.  We could come out of the moratorium fully trained up and battle ready, unlike our current state.

A moratorium would allow us to complete some of the advanced technologies that we’re currently attempting to include in new construction despite the fact that they don’t exist in a functional form.  We can develop unmanned vehicles of all types to a more mature level, complete a Harpoon replacement, develop a Tomahawk replacement, and dozens of other programs that desperately need to mature before being rushed into the fleet in an incomplete and only marginally functional state.

We see, then, that the benefits of a moratorium are many and profound.  What about the potential drawbacks, though?

The most commonly cited argument against a reduced construction pace (or moratorium, in this case) is the impact on the industrial base.  The logic of this argument insists that the need to maintain the base outweighs any other concern.  It’s why proponents say we must accept sub-standard products like the JSF, LCS, and LPD.  Well, you just read the proposed benefits.  They would include massive upgrades and maintenance of all ships and aircraft.  The industrial base would be kept fully occupied, fully funded, and fully employed filling this need.  Aircraft carriers would still need nuclear refueling and overhauls.  Designers would be fully occupied developing the next round of new designs but at a pace that would allow them to actually do it right.  Thus, industry would not lose any funding, capacity, or expertise.  In fact, they might well have to expand to meet the demand!

Naysayers would argue that we would fall behind our enemies.  The reality is that that’s happening now.  Our enemies have intermediate range ballistic missiles, highly advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, fleets of brand new ships packed with modern missiles, huge inventories of mines, etc. while we’re building ships and aircraft that are being outpaced even before they’re completed.  The fact is that a moratorium would not cause us to drop any further behind than we are and it would allow us to come out of it with brand new, well thought out designs based on actual proven technology.

By the way, this moratorium would include a moratorium on new Admirals until such time as we reduce the number from the current 350 or so to around 50.

Of course, the entire premise of a moratorium depends on doing the things I’ve outlined and doing them correctly.  Could the Navy institute a moratorium and totally bungle the execution?  Of course, they could.  They’re the same Navy and same leadership we have now.  However, one of the major aspects of a moratorium is that it would relieve current leadership from the pressure of having to produce new ships and planes no matter how badly flawed and no matter what the negative impact on other programs.  It would be a chance for naval leadership to catch their breath, relax, and start over, so to speak, without that pressure to provide instant short term results to the detriment of long term gains.  Hey, what we’re doing now isn’t working.  Isn’t it worth trying something else?

Friday, April 18, 2014

... Master of None

ComNavOps just finished reading yet another article extolling the versatility of a weapon system.  It doesn’t matter which one – the idea’s the same regardless.  The system is able to be adapted to perform a seemingly infinite variety of tasks according to the manufacturer.  So what’s the problem?  Who wouldn’t want a versatile system?  That’s cost effective, isn’t it?

Yes, it is, as long as maximum performance isn’t required. 

Consider the example of a car that’s designed for ultimate versatility.  It would have a large cargo bed, good mileage, moderate speed, decent handling and it would get utterly destroyed in a race against dedicated race cars.  It’s not optimized for anything.  It can do a lot but nothing well.  You know the saying for this:  jack of all trades, master of none.  If you want to win a race, you design a dedicated, optimized race car whose every feature and characteristic is focused on racing.

If you want to win an ASW engagement, you design a dedicated, optimized platform (helo, surface ship, submarine, fixed wing aircraft – doesn’t matter, the concept is the same) whose every feature and characteristic is focused on ASW.  This means that every nut, bolt, rivet, and weld is carefully evaluated for quieting, every sensor is tuned to anti-submarine use, the engines are carefully selected for the perfect combination of required speed and quieting, the hull is shaped to minimize self-noise and maximize maneuverability, and so on.  A generic, semi-commercial design that has an ASW module tucked in the modular cargo area is going to be marginally effective, at best, and sunk, more likely, because it will be a sub-optimal platform going up against a specialized enemy submarine that is optimized to kill it.

This doesn’t just apply to ASW.  The same concept holds true for any weapon system or mission.  Asking a generalized, combination strike fighter to go up against a purpose built, single function, optimized, air supremacy fighter is simply going to get the strike fighter killed.  For example, the JSF is badly overmatched against an F-22 or the enemy’s equivalent of an F-22.

Despite understanding this simple concept, the Navy is insisting on building non-optimized, multi-function ships that will someday have to go up against specialized enemy vessels.  China, for example, is building some specialized, lethal warships.  The Zumwalt has been given the versatility of an ASW capability but is not optimized for the mission and will become a multi-billion dollar target if it tries to play tag with modern submarines.

Having said all that, there is a role and a need for versatile platforms and systems.  The Perry class FFGs were a great example of a versatile platform (though they were reasonably specialized for ASW) that was adequate at multiple things but not outstanding at anything.  The JHSV looks to be adequate at generic transport of equipment and personnel but not optimized for any particular transport function.

If one thinks carefully about the platforms and systems that are acceptable as versatile but non-optimized versus highly specific specialized ones, it quickly becomes apparent that the quality of versatility is most acceptable in non-combat roles.  A platform or system that engages in combat against a technologically advanced enemy must either be optimized or it will be destroyed.

Versatility is fine for tasks that don’t require maximum, optimized performance.  A platform, whether sea or air, that swings between cargo, personnel transport, humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, show-the-flag, international training exercises, etc. is perfectly acceptable because none of those tasks require maximum performance.  In fact, such a platform may well prove to be a cost effective way to carry out multiple tasks. 

Let’s recognize, though, that while the majority of the Navy’s time is spent on peacetime, non-critical tasks, the reason the Navy exists is combat.  For that, nothing less than perfectly optimized systems are acceptable.  Anything less is a recipe for defeat.

We know that the Navy is in the process of defining the replacement for the cancelled LCS.  [ Of course, it will be a revised LCS rather than a true frigate but that’s another topic ]  The salient point is that the Navy is probably about to design a versatile, master-of-none vessel that will be make up a significant portion of the combat fleet and will be expected to engage in combat against some pretty lethal threats.  We need to think very carefully about what degree of non-optimization we’re willing to accept.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I May Have Misjudged You

It is the American way to bend over backward in the peaceful direction.  We continually accept provocations, insults, humiliations, and even acts of war without significant response.  We naively assume that if we humble ourselves then our enemies will respond in a peaceful and reasonable manner.  Most Americans see nothing wrong with that approach, even as we recognize that it rarely works.  We’re comfortable with it because we know that while others may push us around, there’s a point beyond which we won’t submit.  We will strike back, and violently, if pushed far enough.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world misinterprets our actions as a lack of resolve.  For example, the Japanese badly misread US resolve prior to WWII and paid the price.  Iraq’s Hussein and Libya’s Gaddaffi (or whatever spelling you care to use) misread US resolve and paid the price.  And so on… 

The tragic aspect of this is that enemies, emboldened by a misread of our resolve, initiate actions which we ultimately have to counter with force.  If our resolve were clearer, fewer forceful actions would be required.  In other words, a small show of force early can prevent a much larger use of force later.  We had many opportunities to prevent the original Gulf War by responding emphatically and forcefully to numerous provocations.  The follow up invasion of Iraq would not have been necessary if we had acted more decisively in concluding the original conflict.  I can go on and on with examples but this is not a history lesson beyond establishing the premise.

Currently, N. Korea, China, and Russia are misreading our actions and are setting the stage for future conflicts.  This is not a political blog so I won’t go any further with this.  Instead, I’ll tie this premise back to the Navy.

The Navy, in its search for missions and justifications for the LCS, has latched onto the “presence” mission.  For example, the Navy plans to operate several LCS’s in the Pacific region.  ComNavOps has already made clear his opinion of that and this is the underlying reason.  The LCS is incapable of providing a forceful response.  Flooding the Pacific with LCS’s sends the (incorrect) message that the US lacks the will to forcefully confront N. Korea and China.  China is building modern, highly capable warships at an accelerating pace.  The US is countering with the LCS (and soon, the LCS 2.0).  China is not reading that as resolve – it’s reading that as weakness. 

The Navy claims that deterrence (see, "Deterrence and Bluff") is a vital mission but is failing to provide the force necessary to establish that deterrence.  Building the LCS is not accomplishing the presence/deterrence mission and the follow-on LCS is not going to either.  The Navy needs to get back to building credible warships if it wants to deter future conflicts.  To do otherwise is simply setting the stage for a future war.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

F-22 Lessons

As we attempt to understand the JSF (F-35) program and assess the F-35’s role in Navy and Marine operations, it is instructive to look at its closest relative, the F-22 Raptor program and, specifically, the operations and maintenance aspects.  A GAO report (1) offers some insight with the following parameters.

  • The F-22 has an availability standard, defined as the percentage of the fleet available to perform assigned missions at any given time, of 70.6%.  For 2011, the F-22 fleet achieved an availability of 55.5%.

  • The F-22 has a maintenance goal, the mean time between maintenance (MTBM), of 3 hours between maintenance events, excluding routine servicing and inspections.  This was a contract performance requirement but has never been met.  The MTBM as of 2011 was 2.47 hours.

  • The F-22 operational and support costs were estimated in 2005 to be $23,282 per flight hour.  However, updated projected costs for 2015 are estimated to be $49,549 per flight hour.

What do we learn from this?

  • First, and most importantly, modern aircraft are complex machines that are difficult to build, operate, and maintain. 

  • Promised capabilities will only partially be met (depending on whether you consider unconscious pilots to be a drawback, the F-22 fleet may not even be flightworthy!). 

  • Maintenance will be far more challenging, time consuming, and expensive than anticipated. 

  • Aircraft will not be mission ready at anywhere near anticipated or desired levels.

How does this relate to the F-35?

The promised capabilities of the F-35 will only partially be met.  We’ve already seen several performance specifications scaled back (G-limits, acceleration, etc.) or simply not met.  Some capabilities have already been deferred to future blocks or indefinitely deferred.  Some capabilities have been unachievable, thus far, with no sure guarantee that they are even technically achievable (the helmet issue, for example).  Some capabilities depend on the capabilities of other platforms that are having their own problems (the F-22’s communications link with the F-35 has been deleted from the F-22 modernization program – not sure exactly what that means since I don’t follow Air Force matters closely – maybe someone can explain that issue?).

F-22 - Predicting the F-35's Future?

F-35 maintenance will be every bit as challenging as the F-22’s maintenance.  In fact, the F-35 maintenance will be more challenging.  Think about it.  The F-22 is maintained on large, well equipped bases with a large pool of technicians and civilian experts to draw on and large stockpiles of spare parts, spare engines, stealth materials, and diagnostic instruments with maintenance performed under scrupulously clean conditions.  In contrast, the F-35 will be maintained in grimy, salty carrier hangars or Marine bases with much smaller supplies of spare parts and a limited pool of technicians.  For instance, the Navy has noted that none of the resupply (UNREP) ships has the capability to transfer the F-35 spare engines to a carrier and only one carrier, the Ford, has the capability to receive and handle the spare engines even if the resupply vessels could provide the engines.  Stealth maintenance has proven to be a severe challenge for the F-22 and will prove every bit as challenging, if not more so, for the F-35.

There is no reason to expect that F-35 availability will be any better than the F-22.  Even the F-22’s goal of 70% is a very low level of availability.  The Navy’s (and Marine’s) inherent lack of maintenance, parts, and manning will only exacerbate the problem.  The F-35 will be fortunate to achieve 50% availability.

How does all of this help us assess the F-35’s role in fleet and Marine operations?

For one thing, it tells us that the fantasy of stationing a few F-35’s here and there on austere or disbursed bases is just that, a fantasy.  Without access to high tech, well stocked bases with large pools of highly skilled maintenance techs backed by civilian experts, the F-35 availability is going to plummet.  Throw in actual combat conditions (deferred maintenance, combat damage, insufficient spare parts, challenging conditions, etc.) and availability is going to be in the 30% range.  The F-22 is only 50% now so it’s not much of a reach to make that prediction.  Further, the availability, whatever it may start as, will only decrease over time in a combat situation as damage, shortages, and cumulative wear take their toll.  Austere or disbursed basing is a fantasy after the first couple of sorties.  If you think otherwise then you’ll have to explain what miracle is going to elevate the F-35 maintenance and availability over the Air Force’s pampered F-22 levels under wartime conditions as just described.  This is just a common sense exercise.  Layer on the logistical difficulties of supplying multiple tiny bases under wartime conditions when we’ll have enough trouble supplying our major bases (you may have noticed that we don’t have much of a merchant marine fleet anymore) and the whole austere/disbursed basing concept becomes unworkable.

This takes us directly to the Marine’s vision of their future.  The Corps appears to be betting heavily on becoming an expeditionary air force.  Unfortunately, the preceding argues against that unless the Marines want to co-habit Air Force bases (as was done during Desert Storm) in which case one has to ask why we need a Marine air force.  The Marine Corps’ self-vision is truly baffling. 

Now, what about the Navy’s plans for the F-35?  Setting aside questions about the suitability of the F-35 for the Navy mission, the Navy is looking at an aircraft that is going to be largely a hangar queen due to the difficulties of providing the demanding level of maintenance that such an aircraft requires.  Again, to think otherwise requires a belief in miracles that the Air Force has thus far been unable to perform.  To be fair to the Navy, they do seem to be less than totally enthused about their acquisition of the F-35.  They won’t have much choice but to accept the aircraft although they seem to be doing everything they can to delay and, ultimately, reduce the required buy.

You’ll note that this is not F-35 bashing.  Instead, I’m looking at the nearest actual data point, the F-22, and making reasonable extrapolations.  It’s not bashing;  it’s a realistic assessment.  That the assessment is less than favorable is just the way it is.  Kill the program, not the messenger!

(1) Government Accountability Office, “Tactical Aircraft F-22A Modernization Program Faces Cost, Technical, and Sustainment Risks”, GAO-12-447, May 2012