Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Comment on the Belmont Club:
"Great Prophet"

The key concepts in the description are "distributed" and "expendable." The LCS is designed to be part of a flotilla that serves to replace, at an overall higher cost, a single higher value unit. The classic steam powered naval unit that performed all the functions desired here, projection endurance and the ability to respond to multiple threats, was the independent cruiser. That was shortened to the designation Cruiser. In the Age of Sail the frigate served the same function. Smaller units such as brigantines or corvettes lacked the endurance or firepower for independent operations in distant waters.

One problem faced when comparing naval units over time is that the traditional terms are often reused to describe units with a different function. For example in the US Navy the term Cruiser came to be used for any ship whose primary function was providing (AAW) anti-air warfare defense to a (CVBG) carrier battle group. The cruiser being designated a major combatant is commanded by a (O-6) Captain. In 1975 the US Navy created a large number of cruisers out of thin air by redesignating air defense destroyers. This undoubtedly terrified the Soviets. At the same time all single screw destroyers were redesignated as frigates.

The largest high value units, the ship of the line or battleship or aircraft carrier, are designed to operate in formation and not as independent units. The problem with the high value unit is its value. The battleship or carrier is "to big to fail" so the cruiser was designed to be a cheaper and expendable alternative. Now the cruiser is seen as to valuable to risk and the LCS is proposed as a collection of lower value units to perform the same function.

The question is what if anything are you willing to risk in combat? For the modern navy the model has been the carrier that was of such value that most of the rest of the naval assets are devoted to providing it a layered defense. The only units that could be risked in offensive operations were individual aircraft, usually crewed by junior officers. As we became increasingly unwilling to risk casualties an effort was made to shift to stand off weapons, either airborne or ship launched missiles. When the Navy gave up the A-6 squadrons it lost it's manned long range land attack capability. The F/A-18 is at best a stop gap until a new attack platform comes on line. The carrier battle group became essentially a vast expensive entity dedicated to protecting itself.

The problem is replicated for the surface navy where the cruiser is seen as to large to expensive to important with a full Captain in command and with to large a crew to risk in offensive operations. The LCS program is an effort to create the swarm of smaller units on the surface that can perform the roles that aircraft do for the CVBG. In a true cruiser, not the dedicated AAW units tied to the CVBG, a single ship would have the endurance to travel thousands of miles, the capacity to store supplies and loiter off a hostile shore, the sensors to detect all threats on above or below the surface, weapons to engage such threats, additional sensors to collect useful intelligence, communications to keep the fleet informed of any threat, a local Commanding Officer capable of exercising independent judgment in responding to an emerging situation, a crew sufficiently large and skilled and equipped with the tools needed to repair damage, and some means of projecting power onto the shore. If the LCS becomes a modularized set of ships each of whom perform part of the role of the (CG) cruiser then the overall cost is increased and the vulnerability of each smaller LCS unit will be greater than that of the more capable CG. As aircraft are dependent on their base the smaller units of the LCS flotilla will be tied to some resupply and maintenance base.

Breaking the large CG into a set of smaller ships can work if it is part of an overall naval expansion program and it is accompanied by a willingness to actually risk the assets created. To truly work the Navy would have to at least triple its overall size, creating more repair ships and supply ships supporting a swarm of small expendable craft under the command of junior officers. Unfortunately the continuing decline in the overall size of the Navy means that will not happen. Every junior officer in the surface navy dreams of taking a PT boat "In Harm's Way." We have the men but do we have he willingness to use them?

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