Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Littoral Strike Group: An Alternative to More Battleships

As I noted the other day on the USNI blog, Frank Hoffman's new CNAS report (PDF) is calling for a 1000 ton PC, while Dakota Wood's CSBA report (PDF) is calling for Marine attachments on the LCS. A new article in National Defense Magazine notes the Marines are now in serious discussions that there is "definitely some momentum building" for either a PC vessel or a 100 foot vessel for irregular warfare operations.

When I had a chance to sit down with Commandant Conway back in September, he emphasized several aspects of getting the Marines back to sea, but two comments he made stood out. First, the Marines are getting too heavy, and need to find a way to get lighter. That point was also made by Colonel David Coffman, Commanding officer, 13th MEU when I spoke with him last month.

Commandant Conway's second point was also interesting, he believes the Marines need to find ways to maintain organizational integrity when broken into smaller units at sea. That last part of the discussion was in response to a question about Marines returning to warships. I think you can link both issues, because the way I think the Navy and Marines can approach the organizational integrity issue while getting lighter is by building Navy platforms and LCS modules intended to support the existing organization of the Marine Corps, keep the vehicles close but separate, and start building with the squad and build up to the Company level.

The Navy has a long history of deploying squadrons of small ships in the littorals to deal with irregular warfare challenges, indeed the comments of this post and this post have plenty of links that recount the historical record. I think as we look at ideas being circulated, review our own Navy and Marine Corps history, and look at the current challenges one option for the way ahead with PC class vessels becomes apparent.

Right now our ESGs are designed to deploy a battalion of Marines. We are looking to build a Sea Base to support a brigade of Marines, and that requirement is actually being driven by a 2 brigade standard. As we look to smaller ships, perhaps we should approach it as part of the solution to deploying a Company of Marines, or perhaps a Platoon of Marines, or as Dakota Woods suggests, perhaps down to the squad level. A 100 foot armed vessel usually runs between 200-450 tons, while a 1000 ton PC usually represents something like a 250 foot vessel. I would suggest maybe we are looking for something between both of those metrics.

Building upon the historical view of deploying small combatant squadrons in the littoral, I think we should look at building squadrons that include 4 PC type vessels, each designed to deploy a squad of 12 Marines, but also designed to include a detachment of Coast Guard for law enforcement while operating the ship with a small Navy crew. I think we should also seek a few requirements for this PC including a $100 million price cap, minimum 10 days endurance, a 2000 nautical mile range at 15 knots, and I would include a small medical space on the PC and insure each PC has 2 corpsman. I don't care what the top speed is and I don't care what the weapon payload is, those can be an argument for someone else, because what I think is important is that we expect this PC to be the physical contact platform with other surface vessels and we let that reality drive requirements. In other words, the PC is sending the boarding party and will be the eyeball that determines friend and foe in confusing maritime environments. The PC becomes a manned engagement node in the deployable Maritime Domain Awareness network.

A 4 ship PC squadron where each PC supports a squad of Marines and a detachment of Coast Guard sailors opens up all kinds of littoral capabilities, but by itself falls just short of completing a Marine Corps Rifle Platoon while also introducing several C4ISR challenges. This is where the LCS becomes the C4ISR enabler, the support ship for the squadron, and where a Marine Corps module fills the gap and completes a Marine Rifle Platoon with everything but vehicles. Essentially, the LCS becomes the Sea Based HQ for the operations of all three services supporting the squadron requirements. With payloads of aviation unmanned vehicles for ISR, replacement RHIBs for the squadron, extra fuel and food for sustaining the squadron, not to mention other options that might include an air traffic controller and several other specialists that can be deployed with the platoon for ground operations. The LCS may even be required to act as a sea based temperary jailing facility during maritime security operations and Coast Guard interdiction operations. A full squadron would be 5 ships.

A Littoral Strike Group would include 4 squadrons, 4 LCS and 16 PCs, plus 1 HSV which carries the vehicles for the full Marine Corps Company that is built into the squadron. Pair this force with 1 LPD-17 with another rifle company of Marines plus detachments, 1 T-AKE mod mothership for the 4 Littoral Combat Ships, 1 T-AKE mod mothership for the 16 PCs, and 1 DDG-51 escort and you have a regional force that could be distributed along a very long coast line with Command nodes on the LPD-17 and all 4 LCS supporting the activities of 16 PCs. With the additional Marine Corps vehicles on the HSV, you could surge a LHA(R), some major surface combatants, and a submarine into this force and come very close to having a light and agile LSG MEU to compliment a traditional ESG MEU carrying the heavier, organic ship to shore deployable Marine Corps vehicles.

When I look at a force like this, I see 2 T-AKE motherships that focus on the Navy's squadron platforms and crews, I see a LPD-17 mothership model for supporting the Marine and Coast Guard detachment crews, I see a HSV for regional partnership with a Marine Corps company of vehicles to support that activity (and plenty of space for all kinds of NECC capabilities), and the LCS's themselves act as motherships for the unmanned systems to support operations on both sea and land. Depending upon the future development of the MIW and ASW modules, particularly if they end up using the same deployable underwater and surface vehicles, it may be possible to build rapid response capability with the tender to meet those challenges with this force.

Sound expensive? Not with the $100 million cost cap requirement. Do the math, a squadron of 16 PCs runs $1.6 billion, $600 million less than the $2.2 billion of a new Burke and if the ship is manned with between 14-18 sailors each, you end up with fewer total sailors in a squadron than a new DDG-51.

There are additional costs though. The LPD-17 and 2 T-AKE mods would cost about $1.8 billion and probably around 2 x $500 million respectively, which added together comes to $2.8 billion + the $1.6 billion, or roughly $4.4 billion total. Wait, that is how much the 2 DDG-51s per year the Navy will ask for starting in FY10!

Operational costs will be higher than 2 Burkes though, fuel consumption will be much higher, and there will be additional Navy (perhaps civilian on the T-AKE) crew costs associated with the LPD-17 and 2 T-AKEs, not to mention potential additional costs for both the Marines and Coast Guard for forward deployment operations. Unfortunately, this is the price of more, faster ships that puts additional manpower at the point of contact in forward deployed theaters, what I have mentioned many times that I believe will be a requirement for the Navy in following through in its effort to "preventing war" as outlined in the Maritime Strategy.

If we think of $100 million PCs in the context of aircraft like the MV-22, which at around the same investment also carries a squad of Marines into harms way, and apply that approach to the sea, the joint maritime services can create persistent sea surface networks better aligned for dealing in the irregular warfare space, the maritime security space, the self generated Maritime Domain Awareness space, and the regional partnership engagement space that better aligns the US Navy to the requirements of the ungoverned and contested spaces in the maritime environment today. This force isn't what we would want for major war, but it fills out peacetime requirements quite well and frees up major surface combatant forces for the responsibilities they are better suited to manage against major competitors.

To borrow another historical look at small combatants, given the cost and size of the force, it would not be inaccurate to call the development of 4 Littoral Strike Groups the 21st century Economy B force discussed only a decade ago, and all 4 LSGs that includes 76 new ships (4 LPD-17s, 8 T-AKEs, and 64 PCs) could be developed with the same SCN funds intended to fund just the 8 more Burkes the Navy intends to build over the next 5 years.

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