Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has faced few challenges to its core missions of projecting power ashore, forward presence, and sea control. A relatively benign threat environment and the legacy of the 1980s build-up allowed the Navy to effectively conduct a range of additional missions from traditional maritime interception and counter-piracy to supporting theater security cooperation efforts and providing humanitarian relief. Unfortunately, its ability to continue conducting these missions is being tested by two trends: the spiraling cost of new platforms and the return of credible threats.
This situation is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s, when there was much debate over the viability of the Navy’s increasingly expensive weapon systems in the face of a growing Soviet combined-arms capability. That discussion ended without resolution when the Soviet Union collapsed. The retirement of increasing numbers of Cold War-era ships, especially the Perry-class frigates, has sparked a similar debate. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert noted in 2012, “Most of our ships and aircraft remain fully loaded ‘luxury sedans’” and that changing circumstances should prompt the Navy to “look at platforms more as trucks.”1 However, as adaptable as trucks are, their primary mission remains carrying cargo.
There is another vehicle that is better suited as a template to cover the full range of Navy missions: the minivan. Economy and adaptability made minivans ubiquitous in America’s suburbs. A new ship constructed with the same philosophy could fill the gap between the “luxury sedans” and “sports cars” currently in the Navy’s shipbuilding program.
‘Luxury Sedans’ and ‘Sports Cars’
The platform that best fits the definition of a “luxury sedan” is the Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer. One of the most capable warships ever built, Burkes are highly effective across the entire array of missions. Unfortunately, like luxury sedans, this performance and capability comes at a premium cost. Flight IIA Burkes will cost approximately $1.8 billion to build, and the Flight III ships, with advanced air and missile-defense radar, will likely cost substantially more.2 Also reminiscent of luxury vehicles, there are physical limitations on further evolutions in the platform due to its size. The Burke-class is already the “densest” U.S. surface combatant, which makes it more difficult and expensive to modify for new missions.3 While this does not limit the flexibility of the class today, it does suggest that its capability for further modification without requiring radical and costly redesign is limited.
These issues prompted the development of a new, smaller platform intended to be easily adaptable for different missions—as well as more affordable. This platform was the littoral combat ship (LCS). If the Arleigh Burke is a luxury sedan, the LCS is a sports car. Designed as a replacement for the Navy’s frigate, patrol boat, and minesweeping force, the LCS was intended to operate in shallow coastal waters with a reduced crew and replaceable mission modules to keep costs down. As originally conceived, it would have been the Navy’s commuter car, able to be purchased in large numbers at a lower price and with attendant limitations on functionality. But an emphasis on high speed and delays with its mission modules caused it to evolve from commuter to sports car—with the latter’s qualities such as higher costs and limited utility.
The unit cost for the basic LCS ultimately increased by nearly 80 percent. Furthermore, the mission modules had performance issues, and the core crew size “provides little flexibility to support more than one operation at a time.”4 The LCS could only carry one mission module at a time, which meant it could only deal with the mission it was configured for when it left port. If an LCS needed to address a different threat, it had to transit to a port, have its modules swapped out, and then return to the operating area. This was assuming that the proper modules and personnel were already present in the theater. That reduced the ship’s actual flexibility and increased the risk to ships facing a true combined-arms threat.
The Return of a Combined-Arms Threat
For the past 20 years, the Navy has operated in a benign threat environment. Unfortunately, this “happy time” is ending, and it must now plan for a greater threat in two key theaters: the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific. In the Gulf, there is a great deal of concern for the potential danger of small boat swarm attacks, but that is only one component of Iran’s growing naval capability. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Tehran has acquired an extensive inventory of coastal-defense cruise missiles, submarines, antiship missile- and torpedo-armed patrol boats, and mines to complement its small-boat fleet. Judging by this procurement and observed training, Iran is developing a combined-arms capability intended to impose politically unacceptable costs on the U.S. Navy in the event of a conflict.5
In the Pacific the question is not about politically acceptable costs, but mission accomplishment despite growing China’s military power. Two decades ago, the Chinese military had little reach beyond its local waters. Since then it has evolved into a modern force with significant capability as far out as the Philippine Sea. Much as the Backfire bomber was the poster child for a growing Soviet threat, the mobile DF-21D antiship-ballistic missile symbolizes the evolution of China’s military, now equipped with the full range of modern systems. The DF-21D is just one element of a balanced force of new aircraft and surface ships armed with long-range antiship missiles, several new submarine classes with significant improvements in sustainability and quieting, and new frigates and destroyers with capable area air-defense systems.6
But it’s more than just the proliferation of advanced weapon systems. The real challenge is that potential opponents are developing the tactical concepts and training to employ them effectively. Both Iran and China have developed and begun to exercise operational concepts for the use of these systems in a combined way based on their circumstances, geography, and study of lessons learned from military campaigns over the past 30 years, including the 1980s Gulf Tanker War, and U.S. operations against Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan from 1991 to the present. It is this trend that presents the greatest challenge to the Navy. Iran and China are developing the ability to pose multidimensional threats to Navy ships. Fiscal realities will prevent us from acquiring enough “luxury sedans” that are able to deal with such a threat, and our “sports cars” may be hard pressed to survive it.
As previously noted, a single mission-module LCS can only effectively deal with a single type of threat, and if damaged at all, its survivability is questionable.7 The LCS, which is built to a Level I+ survivability standard, should be able to absorb a hit and depart the combat zone for repair. However, the experiences of larger ships built to more rigorous specifications and with more personnel available for damage control suggest that this is optimistic. In the 1982 Falklands War, 8 of 11 warships were mission kills after taking a significant hit. Five of those vessels later sank.
The U.S. Navy’s most recent encounters were similar. The USS Stark (FFG-31) and USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-88), both Perry-class frigates built to Level II standards, and the USS Cole (DDG-67), an Arleigh Burke destroyer built to Level III standards, were immediate mission and mobility kills when they were damaged, and only heroic efforts by their larger crews permitted them to stay afloat. It is unlikely that an LCS-sized platform, with its smaller crew and lower construction standard, would perform better than these ships.
A ‘Minivan’ at Sea?
The range of missions, the continued increase in platform costs, and the return of capable threats have left the Navy in a quandary. Our current shipbuilding plan may not be able to provide all of the capabilities required at a price, in both cost and risk, that the country is willing to pay. The decision to halt the original LCS program at 32 hulls reflects the Navy’s acknowledgement that the LCS as originally conceived no longer matches today’s fiscal and threat environment. However, it is difficult to see how the proposed replacement—using the same hulls, with elements of antisurface and antisubmarine modules, and increased armor in critical areas—will address the range of warfighting requirements. This situation is not unlike that of a growing family having to balance increasing requirements against capabilities and price. In suburban America, the solution to this quandary is the minivan. It’s economical, and its size enables it to carry more people or cargo than sedans. It is also reconfigurable, able to rapidly shift from one mission to another with minimal work. What the Navy needs is a maritime equivalent that can be built today. The recently commissioned mobile landing platform (MLP), the USNS Montford Point (T-MLP-1), may provide the template for such a ship.
An evolution of the 80,000-ton, double-hulled Alaska-class commercial tanker, the Montford Point is the first MLP. Designed from the outset to be rapidly reconfigurable for a range of missions, she epitomizes the idea of payload over platform and leverages an existing design that could be rapidly built with a modular capability to accept new missions. Her development was practically a poster child for the creation of a new ship class. By modifying an existing design, using proven technology, and balancing “needs” against “wants,” the ship went from concept to commissioning in five years. In sharp contrast to many other DOD programs, the unit cost was significantly reduced from the originally projected $1 billion-plus, which allowed three ships to be procured for the original projected cost of one.8
A variant of the Montford Point could provide the Navy with its own “minivan”—a cost-efficient, flexible platform capable of supporting all of the Navy’s missions. Starting from a larger base platform, it could carry multiple mission modules providing capabilities across the entire scope of Navy missions. Aside from using LCS mission modules, this new ship could employ the vertical launching systems (VLSs) already in use across the Fleet or the payload modules under development for the Virginia-class submarines (VPMs). The mission modules would provide anti-small-boat, antisubmarine, and mine-hunting capabilities, while Tomahawks and the future long-range antiship missile fired from the VPMs or VLS tubes would provide the power projection and long-range antisurface capability lacking in the LCS. VLS cells and the Cooperative Engagement Capability could also allow augmentation of the air- and ballistic-missile-defense capabilities of Aegis ships rather than simple dependence.
Using a tanker hull envisioned from the beginning as a modular platform for multiple payload modules would provide an opportunity for flexibility and long-term growth lacking in the corvette-sized LCS and the densely packed Arleigh Burkes. The basic platform’s size would also permit it to handle a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters, as well as provide room for significant amounts of humanitarian aid. In this respect they could be more akin to aircraft carriers, which, by virtue of their size and ease of adaptability, have often assumed roles as Special Forces staging bases and humanitarian-relief ships in response to changing requirements. This ship’s size and multi-mission capability would also give it a significant “show-the-flag” presence capability. As Retired Captain Robert C. Rubel wrote in the Naval War College Review, aircraft carriers “are large and imposing . . . they provide excellent ‘visuals.’”9 These visuals can be essential for deterrence or strategic messaging. A well-armed warship the size of a tanker would likely be more effective in the strategic-messaging role than the corvette-sized LCS.
Flexible, Capable, and Survivable
A key element of the suburban minivan’s appeal is its cost-efficiency—not just in its purchase price, but in its long-term operating costs. One key to this for the Navy is personnel costs. The basic LCS crew consists of around 80 personnel (40 make up the core crew, 25 are part of the aviation detachment, and the mission module requires 15) while a Burke has a typical crew of 280 personnel. As an MLP, the Montford Point’s crew size is approximately 35 personnel. A new ship could have the same core crew of 40 to 50 personnel as the LCS, with mission-module and aviation personnel as required. The size of this new ship would provide room for core crew expansion if needed as well as the ability to provide berthing for additional mission-module personnel. In this way, the Navy would be able to keep overall manning down, but retain the flexibility to rapidly generate capability by flying the experts to the ship.
A “Navy minivan” would not only be a more flexible and capable platform, it would likely be more effective and survivable than the LCS in high-intensity combat. Even a swarm of LCSs is not forecast to have the same open-ocean antisurface, antisubmarine, and antiair capability resident in a single 1980s-era Perry-class frigate. This is not surprising, as it is not what the LCS was designed for. However, having more than a third of the future surface fleet essentially optimized to deal with the Iranian small-boat threat is tremendously risky. If the fiscal situation limits the number of ships we can build, those ships must be able to take damage and return to the fight. The Persian Gulf Tanker War demonstrated a significantly better survivability rate of larger ships. Of 17 large (over 50,000 tons) tankers hit by Exocet missiles in 1984, none was sunk, 11 were significantly damaged, and 6 were only slightly damaged.10 Tanker vulnerability to small boats is also demonstrably lower. Of the two tankers attacked by suicide small boats, one suffered the loss of a single crewman and required a tow to port, and the second received only minor hull damage with no casualties and no loss to performance.
Experience in the Persian Gulf also shows larger ships’ reduced vulnerability to mine strikes. A single Iranian mine nearly sank the 4,000-ton Perry-class FFG Samuel B. Roberts in 1988, whereas the 20,000-ton Tripoli (LPH-10) was able to resume her mine-hunting mission a day after hitting an Iraqi mine in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. A more telling example was the M/V Bridgeton, which not only made port after striking an Iranian mine in 1987—she actually led her escorting U.S. Navy warships out of the minefield because she was judged to be best able to absorb another mine hit. Of note, these survival rates were on ships built to commercial standards with no accommodation for battle damage, and without crews trained for damage control. It is reasonable to suppose that ships of the same size but built to the same Level I+ standard as the LCS and with crews with damage-control training on board would perform even better.
A New Battlecruiser
At first glance this concept appears similar to the “arsenal ship” from the 1990s, but that is not the case. This new ship, perhaps resurrecting the designation of “battlecruiser,” would not simply be a collection of VLS cells in a large hull. Instead, it would be a flexible and reconfigurable ship able to support a wide range of missions simultaneously in a way that the arsenal ship concept or single-mission module LCS cannot. This is possible because of the work already done to create modular payloads and platforms for the LCS, MLP, and Virginia-class submarines. Of course, it is feasible that the development of such a ship would experience the delays and cost increases that have occurred in some recent shipbuilding programs.
While this cannot be ruled out, the successful development of the Montford Point demonstrates that astronomical cost growth in new ships is not inevitable. It can be avoided by focusing on “must haves” and maintaining realistic expectations for capability and performance. A true minivan-like approach to creating a future battlecruiser would utilize the existing systems already developed for the rest of the Fleet: rolling airframe missiles, Phalanx close-in weapon systems, 76-mm guns, one of the LCS-integrated combat systems and radars, gas-turbine propulsion for speed consistent with fast combat stores ships (25 knots), and VLS cells or VPMs. A key component of keeping costs down would be to combine “off-the-shelf” technologies with realistic requirements to produce a survivable, flexible, cost-effective platform able to successfully perform the entire range of Navy missions.
Few people dream of owning a minivan. Rarely associated with performance or handling, they are known for efficiency, adaptability, and practicality. There is nothing sexy about minivans, but they became the vehicle of choice for millions because they provide the best balance of capability, durability, and affordability. The Arleigh Burkes will remain the high-end, top-of-the-line multi-mission platforms, while the LCSs already programmed will be effective at lower-threat missions or operations in shallow littoral waters. A third type of vehicle is needed: one that is capable at a reasonable cost.
Today the Navy is buying luxury sedans and sports cars. If we want to be able to meet the emerging threats of tomorrow within our likely budgets, we will need to replace some of our sports cars with minivans.
2. U.S. Government Accounting Office, Arleigh-Burke Destroyers: Additional Analysis and Oversight Required to Support the Navy’s Future Surface Combatant Plans (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), 22.
3. Ibid., 37–38.
4. DOD, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Operation Testing and Evaluation, FY 2012 Report,” December 2012, www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2012/pdf/navy/2012lcs.pdf.
5. U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, Iran’s Naval Forces: From Guerrilla Warfare to a Modern Naval Strategy, Fall 2009, www.oni.navy.mil/Intelligence_Community/docs/iran_navy_forces.pdf, 10–19.
6. DOD, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013, 2013, www.defense.gov/pubs/2013_China_Report_FINAL.pdf.
7. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Operation Testing and Evaluation, FY 2012 Report,” December 2012, www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2012/pdf/navy/2012lcs.
8. Robin Laid, “80,000 Tons of Innovation: USNS Montford Point, the Navy’s New Mobile Landing Platform,” Breaking Defense, 8 March 2013, http://breakingdefense.com/2013/03/08/80-000-tons-of-innovation-usns-montford-point-the-navy-s-new-m.
9. CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, (Autumn 2011), www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/The-Future-of-Aircraft-Carriers.aspx, 17.
10. Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), 541.