Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The DDG-1000 vs the SSGN

With all the focus in the Navy on irregular warfare, it is quite evident that in fact the money in shipbuilding is being spent on a different priority. It is completely understandable the focus of the Navy is on the irregular warfare challenges, the reality is these are the most likely challenges the Navy will face over the next many years. In calls for dealing with the irregular warfare challenges at sea, many are rightfully calling for low cost solutions to deal with such problems. This was how the Littoral Combat Ship program got started, the low cost irregular warfare at sea solution, however cost creep has turned this cheap alternative into an expensive option, and as such the program is now in trouble.

What is rarely discussed these days though is where the bulk of the shipbuilding money is budgeted. Naval budgets are typically heavily tilted toward dealing with the least likely threats, because the least likely scenarios are also the most expensive to deal with. The following curve highlights the relationship between likeliness of occurrence and the degree of maritime access.

As the curve shows, unimpeded access is the most likely occurrence in situations to be met by the US Navy at sea, and as the degree of access moves to guarded access, defended access, contested access, and eventually denied access the likelihood of such a scenario reduces. Likewise the Navy budget is configured in kind. In areas where there is unimpeded access or guarded access, the relatively small budget expenditures reflect this. Threats most likely to be seen at that end of the curve include small boat challenges and mines, both of which get limited attention in terms of scale of budget resources, most of which is dedicated to the Littoral Combat Ship at a cost now around 20 billion dollars total for 55 future LCS platforms.

As you move down the curve to the defended access or contested access, threats rise to include anti-ship missiles, maritime strike aircraft, and submarines. These traditional maritime threats require a much higher level of budget resources to meet, with such platforms including the Virginia class, the Burke Class, the Ticonderoga class cruisers, Expeditionary capabilities, and nuclear aircraft carriers. The US Navy rightly budgets the vast majority of its resources in dealing with the threats found within this level of the curve. By approaching this level in the spirit of superiority, the US Navy puts itself in overmatch situations if the situation being met is anywhere to the left of the curve, specifically to the challenges most likely to be faced.

At the far right end of the curve, in the denied access spectrum, challenges include all the above plus the use of nuclear weapons, of which the Navy specifically builds SSBNs to deal with such scenarios. As the curve implies, this is the least likely scenario.

However, improvements to A2AD networks in the maritime domain is changing the access curve. Massive numbers of shore based missile systems for offensive and defensive purposes interconnected in command and control networks adds to existing missile systems, aircraft, surface combatants, and submarines in creating large areas of sea where access is not only highly contested, but large swaths of sea are denied to naval forces. This introduces access denial scenarios without nuclear weapons, rather conventional warfare challenges that require certain capabilities to penetrate and roll back the denial capabilities of an advesary. This capability comes at considerable cost to the attacker.

Naval assets require certain characteristics in order to be effective against A2AD networks in denied access scenarios. Low observability, or stealth tops the list, but additionally capability to strike targets both on land or sea, defend itself against air attacks, and the capability to maneuver within the threat areas to either avoid detection or deliver a strike package rank high on the requirements. At this time, the only platform able to sustain operation at sea in this type of denied access environment is the submarine. Accordingly, US Navy submarines have become very expensive due to the challenges of meeting these requirements.

The Navy is trying to change this. The DDG-1000 represents a questionable departure in the traditional capabilities of surface combatants. Built to a very low observable standard, carrying with it extensive strike capabilities against both ships and land targets, and defensive systems against missiles and aircraft the Navy is banking on the assumption that the DDG-1000 will somehow meet the criteria in being able to freely operate in denied access environments. The intention of the DDG-1000 to have the characteristics of a submarine is being matched with the expectation it will be able to operate as one. There is of coarse one major problem to this theory, someone can physically see a DDG-1000 with their eyes, while one can't actually see a submarine with their eyes.

It is suggested that submarines don't have the full capabilities of the DDG-1000, therefore the need for a surface ship exists to carry forward enough firepower to breakdown the A2AD network. The counter argument is of coarse, an existing platform.. namely the Ohio class SSGN.

The only justification for the enormous cost of the DDG-1000 is for it to retain the capability to operate in contested or denied access scenarios able to directly challenge the A2AD networks that will directly challenge the operation of the US Navy in those seas. The cost is great, the CBO estimates the 3rd DDG-1000 through the 7th DDG-1000 will cost the Navy around 17.5 billion for just those 5 ships. That is almost the entire cost of the remaining 53 Littoral Combat Ships yet to be built, including the cost overruns.

It is further questionable when it is seen that for the same cost, the Navy could get a brand new SSGN class to replace the Ohio class SSGNs that are conversions from the Ohio SSBNs. A new SSGN class is going to be very expensive, assuming one is ever built (currently no replacement is planned) just like the future SSBN(X), however cost savings can occur on the SSBN(X) project if the Navy was to build a new SSGN class submarine.

In comparison, it is hard to suggest the cost of the DDG-1000 is justified, and it is an equally difficult argument to suggest a 14,000 ton surface vessel is going to be able to operate freely in contested or denied access scenarios in the future. 14,000 tons does not simply disappear, the ship can be seen. In other words the DDG-1000 is an enormously expensive warship with expectations to operate in the most dangerous conditions without escort. These expectations are too high, this isn't possible, but without those expectations the Navy can't justify the incredible cost of the DDG-1000.

The SSGN can however meet all of those expectations. It is not simply low observable, it is highly stealthy and unable to be detected through physical means. It can deliver a wider range of payload options than the DDG-1000 in contested seas, and future projects include being able to defend itself against aircraft that might be used to detect the SSGN.

Does the DDG-1000 offer greater capability against guarded or defended access scenarios than the SSGN? Almost certainly not, the Ohio class SSGNs have secondary capabilities as underwater special operations bases, where the DDG-1000 is not built as a platform for large scale special forces operations. It is only in the unimpeded access irregular warfare challenges at sea where the DDG-1000 has a significant advantage over the SSGN, and this is the role the Navy is looking to spend the least amount of money to deal with. With a price tag of 3.5 billion per platform, the Navy could purchase 8 Littoral Combat ships including the cost overrun price tag to deal with these irregular challenges.

At the end of the day, the only unique capability that constitutes a fleet requirement on the DDG-1000 is its gun system for NSFS, a gun system that doesn't need to be on a 3.5 billion dollar platform to be effective. It raises the question, beyond the first 2 DDG-1000s, 2 prototypes I believe are very important in managing the transition phase of the US Navy to the next generation of surface combatants, why would the Navy build the 5 additional DDG-1000s when under any measurement, the money is better spent on other platforms in dealing with the challenges that are not only most likely, but unquestionably contains the characteristics most needed in the US Navy in 21st century.

For contested access and access denial scenarios in the 21st century, when you compare the DDG-1000 and SSGN in defeating A2AD networks and addressing the traditional challenges facing the US Navy in the future, the SSGN is the best bang for the buck.

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