Saturday, May 28, 2005

Navy Grade Inflation

A couple weeks ago, I started to look into our surface fleet. It is common to note that our fleet is about the same size as it was before Pearl Harbor, that is, right before we got whacked. The clear inference is that we need many more ships.

First of all, I want a fleet second to none. The fact is, we have that easily. So any discussion of our fleet must start with the fact that we could beat any conceivable combination of enemies at sea.

Second, prior to Pearl Harbor, our fleet had a half dozen carriers and a dozen battleships plus some cruisers and lots of destroyers in the surface fleet. We had few ships above 10,000 tons (the heavy cruisers and up) while the rest were 5,000-ton light cruisers and destroyers of less than 3,000 tons. One thing you have to remember is that the 55 "destroyers" of the Arleigh Burke class and the 3 Spruance class that we still have weigh in at 8-9,000 tons. These ships are only slightly smaller than our 24 Ticonderoga class cruisers that tilt the scales at 9,600 tons. [These numbers are slightly different from the Strategypage numbers below.]

Our destroyers are really major capital ships and quite capable. It is a mistake to think that the terms are comparable from pre-WW II days. I thought that with all these capital ships masquerading as minor ships based on terminolgy, the Navy was prepared to build a lot of smaller ships and build up numbers fairly easily, relying on the cushion of our current heavy fleet.

But we may be going back to the World War II mix of major and minor ships just to maintain numbers. Strategypage beat me to the punch before I could look into this:

The U.S. Navy’s next class of destroyers is threatening to price itself out of the market. The navy needs those new destroyers, called the DD(X) class. The U.S. Navy is under time pressure to start building new surface warships to replace its Cold War era fleet (25 Ticonderoga class cruisers, 43 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, 5 Spruance destroyers and 30 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates). These 73 Ticonderoga, Burke and Spruance class ships are all basically built on the same hull, and have a displacement similar to that of World War II cruisers (between 9-10,000 tons). The frigates displace 4,000 tons, a little heavier than World War II destroyers. The 73 larger ships are to be replaced by a still larger (14,000 ton) “DD(X)”, while the frigates would be replaced (sort of) by 3,000 ton LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). But the costs of these two ships are radically different. The DD(X), with it’s many new hull, electronic and weapons systems, look like they will cost $2.5 billion each (with the first few costing $5 billion each, and the rest less, depending on how many are built.) The DD(X) is costing some three times as much as the ships they are replacing. That is somewhat offset by a savings of half a billion dollars per ship (over the life of the ship) because of much smaller crews. Thus the next generation fleet will probably end up with same number of surface warships (103), but only 40 or so will be the larger DD(X), with the rest being LCS. This takes the cycle of warship design full circle to where it was a century ago, where you had two or three smaller, and more expendable, destroyers, for each of the larger “cruiser” type ships.

We do need smaller ships. Operating in the littorals is just too dangerous for large warships when enemies can be low tech and lethal. The LCS will be like the smaller ships of the past that can fight effectively yet are not a big political loss if hit. The major ships, new 14,000-ton "destoyers"!, will be better in blue waters.

I just don't know why our Navy insists on calling ships below their weight class. Yeah, I know, carriers are four or five times heavier than their 1940 ancestors so grade inflation is pushing everything up, but are we really going to ever build 30-50,000 ton "cruisers" or 70,000 ton "battlecruisers"?

Just call DD(X) a "cruiser" and the LCS a "frigate" and save us all the confusing comparisons. Then we'll have room for a "destroyer" between the 14,000 ton DD(X) and 3,000 ton LCS.