DD-21's Fatal Flaw

By Commander Michael J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Naval Reserve

Experience in modern naval warfare, however, contradicts these presumptions. No warship is immune from damage, and once damaged, a ship can continue to fight only when manned with large, well-trained repair parties working to contain the progressive fires and flooding that follow. Even minor damage, left unchecked, eventually can kill a ship.

Unbelievable Technology

The DD-21 concept promises affordable, technologically advanced fighting ships capable of carrying out forward presence, peacekeeping operations, and engaging enemy forces through offensive operations. Sometimes called the land-attack destroyer, DD-21 will be multipurpose, with many needed operational characteristics and capabilities. Unfortunately, its most distinct characteristic may be its vulnerability, despite (or perhaps because of) reliance on technologies that result in reduced manning.

There is no such thing as a puncture-proof defense. DD-21 will be hit. All forms of warfare show the constant seesaw of evolution, where a new technology or tactic overcomes some other previously thought unbeatable. The machine gun ended the usefulness of cavalry. Quieter submarines even now are sending the passive towed array to the recycling bin. It follows that whatever technology DD21 employs for self-defense eventually will be overcome. Some future enemy is going to bust DD-21 in the chops.

When the hits come, ships of up to 10,000 tons will be picked up and shaken like toys.... Bulkheads and structures will be torn and twisted like cardboard. Equipment and such heavy furnishings as file cabinets, desks, safes, and chairs will be torn from their mountings and hurled about like missiles, causing further injuries and destruction and blocking hatches and passageways. Deck gratings in engineering spaces will act as giant knives, shearing pipelines and wiring and releasing live steam, oil, and electricity.

Reliance on automated systems needs to be looked at with a critical eye. DD-21 expects to save money by relying on commercial standards, but imagine the effect of the kind of shock damage described above on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology—most of which is constructed for no threat worse than a clumsy loading-dock worker. Automated systems are notoriously sensitive to shock damage, and it is not unreasonable to expect that a computer-run damage-control system might fail at the worst possible time—right after a hit.

Even if the ship were to make use of highly survivable automated systems that can do things like apply firefighting agents before a fire can grow out of control, it will not be enough. DD-21 will not be able to rig casualty power cables automatically, patch split pipes, shore sagging bulkheads, or plug a punctured hull. Any ship, no matter how technologically advanced, is still just a machine; people are the flesh-and-blood creatures who sail her, make her fight, and repair her damage.

Ignoring the Manning Gap

Today's Navy recognizes and takes into account that an optimal peacetime manning model will be suboptimal in wartime, and shipboard manning documents provide for plussing up a ship's complement for war. Experience supports this approach. Typical wartime complements on U.S. cruisers in World War II were 20-40% larger than peacetime manning levels. These ships were comparable in size and displacement to proposed design concepts for DD-21, but they were not automated and had large crews to start with. DD-21 ignores this historical manning gap.

The Mission Needs Statement gives DD-21 a maximum crew size of 95, including the helicopter detachment. If the manning debate had started from the number required to carry out wartime missions under battle conditions, that final figure would be larger, sufficient to support an effective damage-control organization.

The Navy's current damage-control organization has four strengths:

  • It allows the several repair party teams available to fight multiple damage in different parts of the ship simultaneously, in a centrally controlled and prioritized manner.
  • It is physically strong; organized groups of trained people and equipment are dispersed throughout the ship. An unlucky hit in one spot will not mean loss of all damage-- control capability.
  • It is organizationally strong, allowing for progressive assumption of command and control by the subordinate levels should central direction be lost. Ultimately, it allows for independent operation of a repair party if it is cut off from communication.
  • It is adaptable. One great thing about people is that they think. Machines are faster and greatly aid what we do, but only people can "reprogram" themselves to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances and the unique, unforeseen situations that always emerge in the chaos of battle.

On the other hand, humans are vulnerable soft targets, and having too few of them around is a risk. If the ship survives initial damage without sinking, it is the battle against progressive flooding and fires that will decide her fate. With only 95 crew members, each sailor on board DD-21 is critical, and losses because of exhaustion, psychological shock, wounds, or death are unsustainable.

A typical destroyer has three repair parties: forward, aft, and propulsion. Manning levels vary, but about 25-30 sailors for each has been typical. Manning three such parties on DD-21, plus the damage-control central team that directs them, would leave almost no one to man other vital stations. A warship must be able to continue its mission while controlling battle damage, or any hit becomes an immediate mission kill. DD-21 has no manning redundancy to both fight the battle and fight battle damage.

The three-repair-party organization is manpower intensive, but so is damage control. In addition, the organization is a battle-proven concept that evolved, not in the comfortable offices of a peacetime Navy, but on the bloody and burning decks of ships fighting for survival. It should not be discarded casually.

The Influence of History

The alternative to a strong shipboard damage-control organization is grim. The loss of a few DD-21s will not be insignificant. With the tiny Navy projected for the 21st century, each ship is a mission-critical unit. Continued ship losses will be unsustainable, and the outcome of the land campaign will be jeopardized. The fleet cannot just play maneuver warfare and up and leave the battle area. The Marine Corps still gets worked up about that time in 1942 when the Navy took off and abandoned them on Guadalcanal.

The planned wartime mission of the land-attack DD-21 will tether the ship to our ground forces, to support their land operations. Operationally, this means that even with a long-range super gun DD-21 will have to tough it out in close proximity to the action. As the artillery for ground forces, the ship will make a lucrative target for an enemy commander. Similarly, all meaningful logistical support to the ground forces must run from the sea, up through the littoral, and then over the beach. If we are to project power from the sea to the land successfully, these operational lines of communication must be protected. Once you are locked into supporting a land operation, maneuver warfare from the sea goes out the window.

The theory of centers of gravity helps illustrate the point. Sea power is a U.S. center of gravity—it allows us the freedom of action to conduct sustained offensive land operations far from our shores. The last time our Navy played this role, at least when there was an enemy around who could hurt us back, was at Okinawa in 1945. The Japanese worked out a simple change to the tactical employment of an existing weapon, the airplane, and sent waves of kamikazes, not against the invading ground forces, but against the assembled ships supporting the invasion. It was an astute judgment of where the center of gravity lay. Navy leaders recognized the vulnerability and adapted our tactics and operations, but not before the Japanese had inflicted great losses: 34 U.S. Navy vessels and craft sunk, 368 damaged, more than 4,900 sailors killed or missing in action, and another 4,800 wounded.2 The number of ships damaged and sunk exceeds by 60 the number that the U.S. Navy now has in commission. If DD-21 is to be of any use at all, it must be prepared to go in harm's way, yet it will be too precious and too vulnerable to be casually endangered.

The United States is betting on a strategy that uses high technology as a force multiplier. That is, we will achieve the effect of mass not by numbers, but by technologically superior command and control and advanced weaponry. A technologically advanced Navy needs smart, well-educated, and well-trained people. Getting them costs a lot of money. Money is tight. It may seem to be an upside-down way to design and build a fighting ship, but it is a political, bureaucratic, and resource-driven reality that is embedded in the DD-21 concept—cut the need for people. What DD-21 needs is just-in-time manning. That kind of manning is why we have a Naval Reserve.

Saving DD-21

As executive officer of the John A. Moore (FFG-19), I was involved in a test that has implications for DD-21. A Naval Reserve ship with an active-duty manning level about 75% that of a regular guided-missile frigate, the John A. Moore had a schedule change that compressed the workup cycle for an overseas deployment, precluding conducting most of the repair party training and battle drills while the ship's reservists were available. Rather than training three undermanned repair parties and then trying to integrate reserve personnel for the final inspection, we consolidated the active-duty personnel into two repair parties. The reserve personnel were consolidated into one repair party (the forward repair locker) and received tailored training during their monthly drill weekends. A small cadre of active-duty personnel was maintained at the forward repair locker to set the required material condition and to locate and report damage for day-to-day emergencies in the absence of the reservists. The ship completed all the same pre-deployment training, evaluations, and certifications as do regular-Navy ships, and did so with high grades. The absence of one repair party during the engineering certification was not considered a to be problem—or even an issue—by the Propulsion Examining Board. Later integration of the reserve repair party into the damage-control organization for the battle problems conducted during the final evaluation period was practically seamless, with the Afloat Training Group noting that it was impossible to tell the reservists from the active-duty sailors.

Critical analysis revealed several advantages, as well as some shortcomings. Two fully manned repair parties were able to carry out more simultaneous functions than three undermanned ones as a result of more efficient use of small teams to conduct specialized functions such as pipe patching or shoring. Similarly, three fully manned repair parties, each trained as a cohesive unit, could carry out many more functions simultaneously than three fully manned repair parties that trained together only on an irregular basis.

One significant shortcoming was a longer-than-class-- average time to set the highest material condition in the forward part of the ship. This was a problem only when the reserve repair party was not manned, however, and the graded time still was within allowable limits. Another difficulty was personnel "borrowing" damage-control equipment from the usually unmanned forward repair locker and then neglecting to return the gear to the correct locker. Both of these problems were considered either an acceptable risk or manageable by supervisory personnel.

Extrapolation of the experiment to DD-21 takes only a small leap of faith: that concentrating the even smaller peacetime damage-control organization into a single repair party will be efficient and constitute an acceptable risk. Automated damage-control systems will be adequate to deal with the hazards of a peacetime environment; the DD-21 could get by with one repair party and still be able to handle the random fire, flood, or on-deck helicopter crash. A single peacetime repair party essentially backs up the automated systems.

A full damage-control organization would stand up in wartime to deal with battle damage, mass casualties, and the disruption of automated systems. If DD-21's size and displacement were increased to take advantage of a larger ship's ability to absorb and survive greater battle damage, the space to support the additional people to man the two reserve repair parties would not be a problem.

Larger considerations involve the use of the Naval Reserve. Support and manning are not issues. This mission is well within the capabilities of individual reservists and is easily supportable by the Naval Reserve. If we use a notional figure of 50-60 reserve personnel to round out the repair party organization, even a force of 100 DD-21s and CG-21s would demand less than 7% of the projected pool of selected reservists. Demographics may require locating some DD-21 reserve repair party units in the heartland, away from coastal naval installations, but this is not any different from how the Selected Reserve does business today. The cost of organizing DD-21 repair parties along these lines is a net zero.

These Naval Reserve repair party units could be made up of a variety of seagoing rates, but their primary peacetime training focus would be damage control. They would have to prepare for every eventuality we train for now, plus a few others unique to a high-tech warship—rigging emergency fiber optic cables or connecting portable, battery-powered computers to fight the ship around damaged systems. Adequate training can be conducted to support all of these requirements.

It is hard to dedicate enough time on a ship for active-duty sailors to gain real proficiency in damage control, and things will not be much better when DD-21 enters service. Throw in an annual personnel turnover rate of about 30% and it will be practically impossible to sustain an advanced level of training and team cohesion in a repair party. A reserve unit built around a single, specialized mission, on the other hand, has the time and stability to develop elite damage-control skills and a high level of cohesion. In addition, most Selected Reservists are fleet experienced and already have received advanced damaged-control training. Dedicated to a single mission, a reserve unit could achieve a sustained level of performance exceeding that of their active-duty counterparts.

There are, of course, political implications. Mobilization of the ship's reservists to deploy DD-21 to a war zone is a given. The John A. Moore was deploying to four months of counterdrug operations and could afford to sail with an essentially unmanned repair locker. Mobilization of reserve forces to support peacetime operations, however, is neither routine nor without domestic political costs. Freshly mobilized reservists would need to be flown to a forward-deployed DD-21 at some point during a transition-to-war scenario. Just when to do this is always a tough question. A pre-planned tripwire for mobilization of reserve forces itself can heighten a crisis, even inadvertently precipitate a war. There are no easy answers.

Technology can be dazzling and seductive, but it is no panacea. War remains an intensely human activity. DD-21 needs more sailors, and one way to get them just in time is by making intelligent use of the Naval Reserve.

Commander Fitzgerald is a Command Department instructor at the Surface Warfare Officers School and former executive officer of the John A. Moore (FFG-19).



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