Friday, August 29, 2014

American Hulls Matter

Our Navy is shrinking, and hoping that focusing on quality will allow an emergency expansion for quantity more easily than reversing our priorities. I still think that Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers can provide the peacetime numbers we still need.

It makes sense that we'd prefer fewer good ships and subs. I freely admit that it is easier to build a lot of cheap ships to get the numbers we need in war rather than build the really good ships we'd also need. So in one sense I have no problem with this approach:

Described by the CNO as “building appropriate capability, then delivering it at a capacity we could afford”, there is “betting on the come” quality to this approach, one in which the Navy sacrifices numbers (ships, submarines, aircraft) in order to ensure those platforms that remain are technologically advanced and field the latest weapons and sensors. Presumably, when the economy improves and fiscal order is restored to Washington, the resulting architecture would “fill out” with numbers (returning again to the emphasis on an industrial base that could support such increase). All things being equal, this approach privileges war-fighting over war deterrence, which the Navy has for decades asserted is the by-product of numerous ships forward deployed in peacetime. In fact, peacetime presence (and its deterrence/assurance qualities) has served as a significant force sizing rationale for the Navy.

I had to look up "betting on the come." Pardon me if I use other descriptions.

As long as we keep these fewer, but more complex, ships maintained well with high quality crews, this is the best option.

But we can't forget that it isn't optimal. Quantity has a quality all its own, and numbers of hulls are needed for peacetime presence that keeps our hand on the pulse of the world and reminds friends and foes that we care about what is going on where we sail.

Yet even our "low-end" Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has proven to be too little bang for too much buck for providing those numbers.

Right now, because we can't provide our own numbers, we count on a virtual navy of allies to provide those numbers:

China’s naval buildup is eliciting countervailing forces, including Japan’s naval expansion, which [Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan] Greenert says includes ships as capable as ours. Japan’s constitution restricts the nation’s Self-Defense Forces to just that — defensive activities — but the constitution can be construed permissively to allow, for example, defenses against ballistic missiles and the protection of allies. This is one reason Greenert says it is reasonable to speak of a 1,000-ship naval force encompassing the assets of nations — such as India, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines — that have no agenda beyond maintaining the maritime order on which world commerce depends.

That's great that we have friends and allies. But they aren't American hulls and we can't rely on "sailing from behind" other navies' ships. When we need a ship at Point X, can we really count on even a good ally to put the type of ship we need there when we need it and do what we need it to do?

Which is why I'd rather have a thousand-ship American Navy:

We need another option to provide low-cost hulls capable of a broad range of missions in war and peace. The Danish flexible support ship RDN Absalon, built in a civilian shipyard, is designed to use “modularity and scalability” to carry out a variety of combat and support missions at low cost. Using self-contained modules that “contain entire warfighting systems,” Absalon can be quickly reconfigured. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winters was impressed by the ship, stating:

There are definitely lessons here that we can use in the U.S.

Modularity and scalability applied to civilian hulls could provide affordable Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers.

The system modules for Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers would have to be self-contained because they would not be installed on a ship designed to incorporate the modules, as the LCS is envisioned. This limits capabilities to what the modules contain, but auxiliary cruisers have never been intended to replace warships. Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers would be plugged into our naval network to fight within a task force or for missions not needing the capabilities of a conventional warship.

I will always regret that the LCS was not designed to use modules designed to fit in shipping containers.

Perhaps if we use Modularized Auxiliary Cruisers, the existence of the system modules for use on container ships taken into Navy service (or Army or Marine vessels, for that matter) will be an incentive to design a cheap, easily built warship hull meant to handle these containerized modules to add needed capabilities.

Then expanding the Navy in an emergency would be more easily done.

If we're to rely on a virtual thousand-ship Navy for our peacetime presence needs, we should at least make sure it is a virtual thousand-ship American Navy.