Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Most Important Factor In Naval Combat

In any discussion of fleet size, one of the common arguments used to defend the downward trend in ship numbers is that each successive class of ship is more powerful than its predecessor.  Sure, the argument goes, we may be replacing 20 cruisers with only 15 but those 15 have more VLS cells, better guns, farther ranging sensors, etc. so we’re actually coming out ahead in terms of net combat power.  That logic is intuitively appealing but does it stand up to analysis?  The only rigorous analysis I’ve ever seen says no.

Capt. Hughes (1) performed mathematical modeling on naval engagements in which he included the effects of offensive weaponry, ship numbers, armor, passive defense, active defense, sensors, scouting, ship size, damage control, etc.  After analyzing various scenarios with various factors he concluded that,

“Numerical superiority is the force attribute that is consistently the most advantageous.”

Now, some of you are saying, duh, how obvious but, I suspect, for the wrong reasons, at least according to the model.  However, others are saying, wait a minute, my newly designed ship with 2000 VLS cells, super long range hypersonic missiles with 5000 lb warheads, stealth approaching invisibility, and worldwide networked sensing will blow any combination of enemy ships away without even needing to sound General Quarters because it has so much more aggregate combat power than any combination of the enemy forces.  Well, unless you assign truly magical properties to the factors in the model, Hughes’ conclusion is valid regardless of the power of the ship(s) you have in mind.  To many people, this seems counter-intuitive and just plain wrong.

The mathematical model produces the results it does and I’m not going to delve any further into it for this post.  If you want to dig deeper, read the book and his analysis.  I, myself, have some issues with aspects of the model but nothing that changes the basic conclusion.  For the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss some aspects of fleet size (ship numbers) that may not be readily apparent but are suggested by the model and must be considered.

One of the popular conceptual arguments among naval commentators is that while fleet size is trending downward the aggregate combat power is trending upward so, therefore, the decrease in numbers is compensated or, more commonly believed, the smaller fleet is actually superior.  The flaw in this logic is that the aggregate combat power is invariably compared to previous levels of combat power rather than to the combat power of potential enemies over the planned 30 lifespan of the new ship(s).  This leads to an overestimation of one’s own combat power and an underappreciation of the value of numbers.

No ship is unsinkable – ask the Titanic.  Further, modern naval combat (since at least WWII, if not earlier) tends to be short, vicious, and has a high rate of attrition.  Rarely (never) is the magazine capacity of the combatants an issue.  In fact, ships tend to be sunk with significant portions of their munitions unexpended.  It stands to reason, then, that concentrating more and more of the fleet’s combat power in fewer ships (making for more attractive targets) risks the loss of large amounts of power for little or no gain. 

Numbers dilute an enemy’s strike and complicate target identification and prioritization.  Fine, you say, but an intelligent enemy will simply focus on the few high value units and leave the remaining units for leisurely mop up operations.  Hence, what’s the point of additional numbers of ships (unless they’re all major combatants!)? 

Well, for the case of the US fighting China, the astute observer will note that China’s trend is towards heavily arming all their combatants relative to their size.  Remember, with today’s highly destructive anti-ship cruise missiles a small vessel can inflict damage all out of proportion to their physical size if given the chance.  Thus, the US can’t risk picking a few high value targets to concentrate on because the remaining ships are capable of inflicting significant damage.  Therefore, the US must dilute their strike which, by definition, automatically enhances the enemy’s defensive effectiveness.

Now, consider the reverse case wherein China is attacking US naval forces.  The US Navy’s combat power is concentrated in ever fewer ships which facilitates the enemy’s targeting decisions and has the effect of enhancing their strike since all of their missiles are concentrated on fewer targets which increases the likelihood of success.  Don’t believe me?  The Navy’s plan, if followed through, calls for nearly a third of the combat fleet to be LCS’s.  Thus, the Navy’s combat power will be concentrated in fewer and fewer ships.  This isn’t me voicing an opinion – this is the Navy’s publicly stated plan!

Hughes, backed by his simulations, advocates for more ships of smaller size so as to achieve a greater degree of distribution of firepower.  Indeed, we see that there are significant factors related to fleet size (ship numbers) that are rarely accounted for in the common discussions.  Perhaps it’s time for the Navy to re-examine the trend of concentrated combat power?  Now, don’t misunderstand – numbers alone are not significant unless they come with firepower, often disproportionately so.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, a thousand LCSs with no offensive power won’t gain us anything in combat.  We need to look at frigate through destroyer size ships that pack useful firepower, both anti-ship and land attack.

(1) Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret), “Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat”, 2nd Ed., Naval Institute Press, 2000, Chapter 11


  1. Although small ships now have the firepower of battleships, they lack the survivability, the range, and most importantly, the ISTAR.

    Without CEC (of some sort) and a larger intelligence gathering platform to feed them targets, small vessels are of little use.
    Destroyed with no warning by targets they cant see.

    Without fuel, they are tied to ports, or to oilers.
    Destroy the oilers, much easier targets, and the "juan ecoles" are rendered impotent.
    I believe there was a study against the F35, in which the red force ignored them, took heavy losses, but wiped out AAR and grounded the F35s.

    Survivability, well thats a red herring I suppose, no ship is going to be looking pretty after getting hit by a 500lb warhead.

    "The flaw in this logic is that the aggregate combat power is invariably compared to previous levels of combat power rather than to the combat power of potential enemies over the planned 30 lifespan of the new ship(s). This leads to an overestimation of one’s own combat power and an underappreciation of the value of numbers."

    That is a very important point, but it doesnt only apply to numbers.

    Closing point
    How would you feel about an unmanned surface vessel, something like a CB90, maybe its bigger brother the CB2010, carrying 4 NSMs?

    The fleet could run them in advance of the main task force gaining some extra range and a shorter reaction time on its weapons, or even deploy them like mines.
    Kind of like a mini arsenal ship?

    I see a use for hundreds of those.
    I dont see a use for hundreds of 3000t frigates.

    1. TrT, the reality today is that with modern sensors, satellites, submarine coverage, etc. the likelihood of smaller vessels (I'm not talking about patrol craft operating on their own) being attacked by an unseen enemy is pretty remote. If the attacker is in range to attack you, then you're in range to attack them (assuming the Navy builds some better ASMs, as it seems to be wanting to do). So, any smaller vessels that survive an attack will be able to launch a potent counter attack.

      You're certainly correct that, individually, a small vessel can be easily defeated. Collectively as part of a battle group they greatly complicate the enemy's targeting task and increase the enemy's risk while enhancing their own group's defense efficiency (even without CEC or, indeed, much in the way of active defense contributions of their own).

      Give some deeper thoughts to the points in the post. Corvette/frigate/small destroyer vessels that are armed well above their weight, so to speak, present an enormous challenge for the enemy.

      The model proves the concept. The model is simply mathematics and the results can't be disputed. What can be disputed is the assumptions that go into the model which, of course, determine the results that come out. I, myself, have problems with some of the assumptions. If this is an area you find interesting, I encourage you to read the book. It's packed with thought provoking information.

      Your closing point addresses the type of smaller vessel and is an excellent point. The form/type of vessel is quite open for consideration and would depend on many other factors such as supportability, basing, peacetime use, etc. I'm open to consideration of any type of smaller (than the current Burke/Zumwalt sizes) vessel.

  2. "If this is an area you find interesting, I encourage you to read the book. It's packed with thought provoking information."

    Its in my amazon basket now :)

    I figured they were talking about 2k-3k ton frigates as small vessels.
    Theres a limit as to how big a radar they can carry, how much power they can devote to running it, how high they can mount it ect.

    The UK added three thousand tons, 10m of length and 7m of beam between the T42 and T45 destroyers, just to provide a more stable and higher platform for the radar.

    By CEC I meant a more general idea than the trademarked one, if there is a high end platform, be that a big ship cruiser or an AWACS/MPA, that can feed targets to a small ship, then the small ships are down to just having logistical issues.

    I think once upon a time I hit upon the idea of a "fleet" being a Carrier, Three Cruisers (15-20kt), 6 destroyers (under 10,000) and 12 frigates (under 5,000)

    1. "in my amazon basket now"

      Outstanding! Be warned that the book contains a fair amount of mathematical equations (simple ones, though) to develop the model. If you're comfortable with mathematical modeling you'll find it quite illuminating. Even if the math is not your thing, the book is still crammed with great discussions, historical points, actual data on modern missile engagements, etc. so you'll still get lots out of it!

      It's one of those books that I keep reading and rereading and find new points each time. Having praised it, I'll also offer the thought that I believe there are some flaws in it but I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusion about that.


  3. I agree wholeheartedly on the LCS. It cannot be cancelled soon enough.

    Having said that, I have a little problem with the numbers argument and am glad you acknowledge that. If all things were equal, then numbers are all-important; but endurance and seaworthiness are important considerations as well.

    This argument is similar to one in the pre-WWI era and the torpedo. Some believed that the torpedo was a great equalizer; and to an extent it was, but it needed to be in the right place for launch to be effective. In WWI, only torpedo-boat destroyers could do that in the open ocean against capital ships moving at speed. Small torpedo boats and subs could only succeed if a cruiser and battleship was caught unaware. In WWII aircraft used the torpedo to great effect exactly because they could set up the launch point so well. I see something similar with anti-ship missiles.

    Our ships need to travel great distances as a matter of routine. In a China-U.S. conflict in the waters of the East China or South China Seas our ships will be based out of Japan, Guam, Hawaii, or even the West Coast. If we do station some ships in Singapore that will help, but many of our assets will have a long way to go. In addition, their on-station time will be much longer than the PLAN in order to have sea control.

    China has an advantage in that the PLAN can be built with a large number of FACs, missile boats, corvettes, whatever we want to call them. Their distances and objectives are shorter and simpler. If the Type 022 FAC has a combat range of 700 miles or so, it can easily cover the waters around China and the first island chain. Sea denial is an easier mission than sea control, especially if it’s off your own coast.

    In addition they will use their land-based assets, like Su-30 derivatives armed with anti-ship missiles and in the future ASBMs, to help achieve sea denial. Land based air, and long range SAMs like the SA-10/HQ-10 can also help in providing area air defense for the FACs.

    They are also taking advantage of their industrial base, which can build simpler designs cheaply and quickly. American C4I is something the PLAN cannot copy, so they are attempting to use numbers, much like the Soviet Navy planned for during the Cold War. The difference was that the Soviets’ sea denial assets had to travel much further, into the mid-Atlantic, to accomplish their mission.

    During the Cold War, the Soviets’ strategic weakness in sea denial was in detection and tracking. RORSats and Reconnaissance-configured bombers like the Bear-D and Badger were the key to locating a task force. Prevent that, and the saturation missile swarm cannot be coordinated. I see a similar weakness for the PLAN.

    Like you, I see the Burke as more of a high-end ship. Something like a 2013 version of the Perry needs to replace our frigates. Low-cost, mass-produced in numbers. If given VLS, decent sonar, and a hangar, it could carry a mix of missiles and do ASW or ASuW and switch between the roles easily. Along with some sort of limited AAW for self-defense. That would be a great complement to the capable DDG/CG force we have.

    The under-appreciated Perry always had such ability with the Mk 13 launcher, able to launch both Standard and Harpoon. I could see a Perry with the Mk 13 carrying mostly Harpoons in its magazine in the South China Sea, and let any Burkes nearby provide the area AAW. And having a good helo like the SH-60 for over the horizon targeting would be a great multiplier for ASuW, along with its own Penguin missiles.

    1. Yes, the numbers argument in this post applies only to ships with a significant offensive punch (land and/or sea). Small ASW or patrol vessels don't enter into this discussion.

      Of course, this entire discussion ignores the value of numbers during peacetime for show-the-flag, patrol, and all the other non-combat tasks the Navy performs (things the LCS might be useful for, if one ignores the cost). Peacetime numbers discussions are different from the combat numbers discussion.

      You're a mind reader! I've long thought we gave up the Mk13 launcher too quickly. In particular, as you point out, it's potential as a Harpoon launcher with a 40 round magazine (if I remember correctly) seems to have been ignored. One or two of those on a smaller vessel would provide exactly the type of heavily armed ship alluded to in Hughes' simulations.

      Great comment!

    2. I think the Perry is about as small a ship as the Mk 13 launcher can be fitted on.

      What would make a Perry very effective in ASuW is its onboard radar/electronics and the two helicopters for OTH targeting. That would make max use of the Harpoon's range. Chinese missile boats would have to depend on land-based air to make up for that. The Perry's dual hangar might also be used for VTUAVs like the MQ-8.

      The stated reason for removing the Mk 13 was that the Standard SM-1R missile was no longer in production. The USN wanted to set aside all remaining missiles for allies who use the Perry.

      This always seemed more like an excuse. The Mk 13 could have been kept as a Harpoon launcher. But that would ruin the LCS narrative about being necessary in defeating boat swarms.

  4. Going off on a tangent here.

    One notable aspect of American naval weapons is the attempt to standardize and make them multi-functional. The Mk 13 on the Perry is one example, the Mk 10 and Mk 26 of the same period is another; able to launch both Standard and ASROC, with flexible magazine sizes. And of course, the Mk 41 VLS.

    The missiles themselves reflect this mindset. Harpoon and Tomahawk are available in air, ship, sub, and ground launched variants. They were both designed to fit within existing 21" torpedo tubes. This allowed the very quick fielding of effective anti-ship and land attack missiles throughout the fleet in the 1980's; vastly increasing the striking power of ships that previously had very little, or none.

    Other countries have unique launchers for each missile. Britain has Sea Wolf, a very good SAM, but it had a unique sextuple box launcher, and later a unique VLS. The Russian SS-N-19 Shipwreck missile is very powerful and fast, but required the platforms (Kirov, Kuznetsov, & Oscar) to be built around the missile.

    The European Aster SAM also has a separate Sylver VLS, and is not compatible with current ASuW missiles. The Scalp/Storm Shadow is being developed to change that, and reflects Europe's attempt to emulate the Mk 41.

    In 1991 the USS Fife (a Spruance) fired 61 Tomahawks on the first day of Desert Storm, without reloading. Little noted at the time, it was an unprecedented display of precision firepower from a ship still listed as a DD!

    Now every USN CG and DDG can do that, and Ohio SSBNs have been repurposed as SSGNs with over 100 Tomahawks.

    It's amazing if you think about it, because ships like the Fife or Ohio were never conceived as cruise missile platforms, nor were cruisers like the Lake Erie expected to shoot down a satellite.