Second Prize—Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
"A country can, or will, pay only so much for its war fleet…Will you have a few very big ships, or more numerous medium ships? Where will you strike your mean between numbers and individual size? You cannot have both unless your purse is unlimited." –Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1899
Mahan's question of naval force structure is the same essential query posed exactly 100 years later by Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski and Captain Wayne Hughes in their article "Rebalancing the Fleet," which still stands as the prime intellectual argument for the streetfighter/littoral combat ship (LCS) program. It is also the current question concerning naval transformation. But given that resources and budgets always are limited, is construction of a new type of small, potentially specialized but networked combatant the answer to naval transformation? Or is transformation to be found through modifications to the large-hull, multipurpose combatants that constituted the striking power of the post-Cold War Navy?
A recent flurry of articles has sought to refute the requirement for a small combatant, arguing that current small ship designs lack "the speed, endurance, and payload a forward-deployed Navy needs," and that the proposed LCS will "add nothing to the littorals, are too vulnerable, and will not free the larger multimission ships for other tasks." While they raise valid concerns, these counterarguments focus primarily on tactical-level issues such as seakeeping, range, and firepower. More important are the logic and risks inherent in using smaller combatants to achieve the strategic-level objectives of protecting U.S. global security interests and prudently husbanding defense resources. From this perspective, a full evaluation of the LCS concept requires an assessment of whether it would integrate currently non-existing capabilities into the future fleet and enhance U.S. global power projection capabilities at an acceptable level of risk.
Realities of the Future Security Environment
The U.S. fleet has been modified to carry out the littoral-warfare focus of ". . . From the Sea," and is being further groomed to implement the directives of the Chief of Naval Operations' "Sea Power 21." Yet, in design and balance it remains essentially a navy designed to defeat the Soviet Navy in a global conflict. The capabilities of new technology systems—such as the combat-proven land-attack Tomahawk, ever-expanding data exchange and battle-management systems, and potential theater ballistic missile defenses—go beyond our anticipated Cold War reach, but fleet structure remains very similar (with the exception of a much reduced auxiliary, repair, and logistics force). In addition, primary platforms were not optimized for close littoral operations.
This presents a disconnect with the reality of the immediate and near-future security environment—there is no current naval opponent, and the rise of an opposing sea-control navy is unlikely at least to 2025. U.S. open-ocean warfighting dominance is expected to dissuade potential rivals, for whom the construction of large, modern seagoing fleets appears a losing proposition. Thus, the expected combat zone for naval operations will continue to be the near-shore littorals. Historical wisdom suggests that large combatants have distinct operational disadvantages in the near-shore littorals under intense combat conditions. As naval historian Milan Vego concludes, "A blue-water navy operating in the narrow sea (littorals) should not use surface combatants larger than 2,000 tons," and a "balanced navy for a narrow sea" would be composed of large numbers of smaller, less capable, but less costly ships and submarines, supported by aircraft.
Opponents of that suggestion argue that littoral targets can be struck effectively from ever-increasing ranges—making blue-water combatants "littoral capable" while operating in the open ocean, and obviating the need for a "narrow sea" fleet. But this approach bumps into a second reality: the belief among current defense decision makers that smaller, lighter, stealthier, and presumably more lethal platforms are the hallmark of defense transformation. Such transformation is seen as a necessity for a future security environment in which probable opponents will operate more like al Qaeda than like the Soviet Navy.
The Argument for the Littoral Combat Ship
The argument for building a fleet that includes smaller combatants such as LCS is based on five interrelated assumptions concerning future naval operations:
- The U.S. fleet is built primarily for war fighting, secondarily for presence. Defense reviews conducted in the 1990s concluded that naval force structure exceeded warfighting requirements but was needed to provide rotational forward presence. Under the Clinton administration, forward presence was a critical element of the strategy of engagement designed to shape the security environment. The Bush administration inherited the force structure determined by the previous reviews, but it did not adopt engagement as its primary defense focus, and it does not necessarily share the view that presence should be the measure by which naval force structure should be sized or organized. A return to the shaped-for-warfighting criterion opens the door to a restructuring of the fleet to include smaller vessels designed for specialized combat operations that would not be expected to maintain a rigorous forward presence deployment cycle.
- The primary naval combat environment will be a densely antiaccess littoral. Although the U.S. Navy is familiar with countering both antiaccess and asymmetric warfare—strategies employed by the Soviet Navy—many defense analysts argue that the revolution in military affairs is providing advanced capabilities to potential opponents such that the littoral regions will become killing zones of sophisticated mines, air independent diesel submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and high-speed suicide attack craft, all directed by information technology. If the antiaccess littoral will be as densely dangerous as they suggest, the U.S. Navy would have two options: attack from stand-off range or build vessels optimized for the environment. Such vessels would emphasize speed and stealth—characteristics that call for smaller-than-destroyer-sized hulls. Casualties in such "street fighting" would be expected, which suggests a force of relatively inexpensive ships (also submarines and aircraft) in great numbers.
- Network-centricity will allow for a synergistic effect from groups of smaller ships, and new technologies are emerging to increase the effectiveness of smaller hulls. Proponents of the network-centric approach maintain that network-centricity will not merely make current platforms more capable, but also allow for differently configured and smaller platforms to be linked together to create a synergistic effect that substitutes for or surpasses the capabilities of large platforms. In this environment, largeness—with its attendant higher costs in resources and manpower-is a potential liability, particularly when trying to adapt stealth technology to ships. At the same time, anticipated advances in other technologies may increase ship speed—although recent Proceedings articles are accurate that such advances have not yet occurred. But if transformation is a process to be led, a robust LCS program could drive the development of network-centric and propulsion technologies at a much faster speed.
- Numbers matter. LCS proponents point out that warfighting casualties are to be expected, and the way to overcome dense antiaccess defenses is to ensure that platform losses will not break the synergy of the network and can be quickly replaced. A rebalanced fleet with larger numbers of LCS-type platforms could afford losses within the littoral, even as carrier battle groups strike from stand-off ranges. In this new logic, numbers matter much more for war fighting than they do for presence. And the numbers required are made more affordable by the fact that they are smaller, presumably less-costly platforms.
- Forward deployments need not be conducted in the same way as during the Cold War. A primary objection to the LCS concept is that smaller vessels do not have the sea legs to maintain the six-month rotational deployment cycle, but proponents question why it is necessary to maintain a rotational presence policy that was optimized for large ships. Why not use other forms of deployment, including more forward basing, the use of mother ships to sustain smaller platforms, etc.? Why does the entirety of a rebalanced fleet need to be capable of routine, long-term deployments, when new technologies may allow for the ability to surge smaller fleet units at high speed?
The Argument against the Littoral Combat Ship
The counterarguments are similarly fixed on five interrelated assumptions:
- Presence remains the most likely mission for the majority of the fleet. Historically, the U.S. Navy has spent more time keeping the peace than fighting wars, and forward combat-credible warships provide for timely crisis response. While current defense decision makers are more skeptical of the value of engagement and shaping, they are aware of the value of having powerful naval forces on scene—witness the use of carrier aviation over Afghanistan. Small platforms, even with new technologies, are difficult to sustain on forward deployment and would require a substantial increase in forward logistics capabilities, which is expensive. This calls for large ships with large payloads.
- Warships need not penetrate a densely antiaccess littoral to carry out their missions, and littoral regions will not be as densely defended as anticipated. Large naval platforms with large weapon payloads can perform stand-off attacks. With advances in precision weapons, this means there is little need to penetrate the relatively narrow littoral defense zone. Striking fixed land targets is easier than war at sea, and there is no indication that small platforms are better for striking moving targets than today's fleet (given advances in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). At the same time, there is no certainty that potential opponents will spend their resources on developing dense antiaccess defense in the littoral; some authorities suggest that potential opponents are not buying the right systems to make antiaccess strategies effective.
- Larger hulls provide for greater firepower and survivability. Large hulls can carry more defensive weaponry and can take more hits and therefore are more survivable than smaller ships, even at fewer numbers. They also can carry more striking capability. Any emerging technology that can net smaller ships together synergistically can net larger ships as well. At the same time, the sought-for technological advances in speed and stealth—which might make smaller platforms more effective—have not yet occurred and are speculative.
- Flexibility is as important as numbers. Smaller platforms with smaller payloads are, of necessity, likely to be specialized. This means no flexibility to change capabilities when anticipated missions change. Current multipurpose ships are very flexible and can handle a greater variety of missions, shifting between them in short order. Although numbers are desirable, multipurpose platforms can perform missions requiring any number of smaller ships.
- Current deployment cycles and configurations—with modifications such as the expeditionary strike group—remain the most efficient method of projecting global naval power. The current method of forward deployment ensures timely crisis response by multimission platforms whose locations and missions can be adjusted rapidly. While other deployment methods may prove similarly effective, they entail great disruptions in the training and maintenance cycles. Current technologies are not sufficient to allow for reliance on a surge Navy. Deployment configurations can and are being adjusted for the littoral environment, but this can be done most cost-effectively by different mixes of current capabilities (such as the developing expeditionary strike group).
Assessing the Risk of Change
As both sides rely on logical assumptions whose veracity can be ascertained only in light of future events, the most effective way to assess them is to identify the risks that the choice for or against proceeding with the littoral combat ship entails. For the purpose of assessing a transformational program, risk can be broken down into five categories:
- Technical risk. This entails the probability of failure for the program, as well as the probability that such failure would jeopardize the viability of the Navy's future fleet structure. Technical risk, while considerable, seems much lower for LCS than for many of the programs the Navy has pursued successfully in the recent past, such as nuclear power, ballistic missile submarines, and Tomahawk. A failure to network the small ships would mean failure for the program—however, because the Navy has adopted a network-centric approach for all platforms, both large and small, this risk is not unique to LCS. If the program failed on technical grounds, but the Navy did not need to penetrate dense antiaccess defenses in the future environment, failure would not appear to be a threat to the viability of ongoing stand-off capability programs. If technical failure occurred, but the Navy was required to fight within the littoral, the Navy's ability to do so would be compromised—but not to any greater extent than today, with our reliance on large, blue-water platforms. Technical risk seems acceptable under either logic.
- Economic risk. Would the failure of LCS be a high risk for the overall Navy budget? If LCS indeed represents a much lower cost than today's large multimission platforms, the answer would appear to be no. The proponents of LCS advocate rebalancing the fleet—not the elimination of multimission platforms—so the economic risk accepted would depend on the size of the program. Proponents of transformation have suggested that a 10% adjustment in force structure represents successful transformation. Even if 10% of the Navy's future program were devoted to LCS, it would not necessarily affect the 90% earmarked for other elements of the force structure. Economic risk seems to be in acceptable range.
- Political risk. This rests on the slippery-slope theory that a Congress determined to cut the defense budget would target high-end platforms under the logic that low-capability platforms would suffice. Given the premises of LCS, this would be a potential risk for the Navy in a hostile budget environment. However, the current budget environment—although constrained—does not appear particularly hostile, neither are there many (if any) congressional advocates for a smaller Navy. Rebalancing the fleet to include LCS may represent a high-low mix of a sort, but the political risk of an eventual slide to a low-low mix appears much more remote today than in the past.12
- Social risk. A potential social risk would be the creation of "separate navies," with rivalry between personnel serving primarily on large, multipurpose platforms and the LCS force. Critics of LCS have suggested that no sailor would want to serve in combat on such an "expendable" platform; however, history proves otherwise. In World War II, for example, volunteers for such potentially "expendable" platforms as carrier aircraft and the submarine force were plentiful. Unfortunately, the peacetime Navy already is divided into platform unions. LCS seems no additional risk in this regard.
- Warfighting risk. Obviously, this is the most critical consideration. It also is the toughest to quantify. Expecting LCS to penetrate a dense antiaccess littoral is risky, but so is expecting a large multimission combatant to do so. From that perspective, LCS is all about the mitigation of risk—better to lose a smaller combatant and crew than a larger combatant that represents a greater proportion of fleet capabilities. Failure to deliver on the promise of penetrating and controlling the littorals puts the fleet—assuming LCS represents but 10% of the overall fleet—back into the position of relying on stand-off attacks, a situation that would exist anyway in the absence of an LCS program. If the future littoral environment is a lot less dangerous, then risk is largely confined to the opportunity cost of funding additional large, multimission platforms. Again, assuming that LCS represents but a portion of the fleet, this risk can be controlled by the balance accepted in the "rebalancing" process.
Some have expressed concern that a force of LCSs would be obsolete if a blue-water rival were to emerge. This indeed would be the ultimate warfighting risk. But the time required to build a blue-water threat and the current state of the world's navies appear to give a 25-year period in which such a development is unlikely. The U.S. Navy has proved adept at using such interwar periods to its advantage, and hopefully would do so in the future.
Logic and Risk of LCS
Developing a viable LCS program will not be easy. As critics have pointed out, it violates previous requirements as to multiple-mission capabilities, payload size, and seakeeping and deployability. Stealth and speed technologies lag behind the imaginations of some proponents. But from a risk perspective, LCS does not appear to be inordinately perilous. In contrast to past programs, its risks are fairly well mitigated under either logic chain.
The choice, therefore, boils down to which logic chain most closely represents the anticipated future security environment. Until recently, it appeared that the Navy's leadership and a number of the secretary of Defense's closest advisors accepted different sets of assumptions. This has been adjusted with the Chief of Naval Operations' support for an LCS program. But questions will remain as long as a mean needs to be struck between numbers and platform size (and capabilities). The best way for the Navy's leaders to resolve the debate is to make their logic chain in assessing the future security environment explicit, and to identify the risks they are willing to accept.