Saturday, January 3, 2009

An Expensive, Thin Skinned, Barely Armed "Frigate"

The supplying of convoys, therefore, was ceaseless, for the depredations of the marauders were unending. "I am pulled to pieces by the demands of merchants for convoys," Nelson said; and he recognized that it must be so, for he entirely disapproved of even a fast-sailing vessel attempting to make a passage unprotected. "I wrote to the Admiralty for more cruisers until I was tired," he told Ball, "and they left off answering those parts of my letters. The late Admiralty thought I kept too many to the eastward of Sicily; the Smyrna folks complain of me, so do the Adriatic, so they do between Cape de Gatte and Gibraltar. If I had the vessels, I do assure you not one of them should go prize-hunting: that I never have done, I am a poorer man than the day I was ordered to the Mediterranean command, by upwards of £1,000; but money I despise except as it is useful, and I expect my prize money is embarked in the Toulon fleet." "I am distressed for frigates," was his continual cry. "From Cape St. Vincent to the head of the Adriatic I have only eight; which, with the service of watching Toulon, and the necessary frigates with the fleet, are absolutely not one half enough." For military duties, "frigates are the eyes of a fleet. I want ten more than I have in order to watch that the French should not escape me, and ten sloops besides, to do all duties."

The Life of Nelson, Volume 2 of 2, page 110, Mahan, A. T. (Alfred Thayer)
If we held a 'hernia' style physical inspection, the two gentleman who wrote The Navy's 'Tipping Point' for January 2009 Proceedings would be found to have brass balls for trying to peddle this nonsense. There is a theory in communications that if you say something enough, no matter how dishonest or inaccurate it is, it will become believable. I am beginning to think this communications strategy is being applied to the LCS. That's OK with me, two can play this game.

I couldn't believe what I was reading when this article in Proceedings busted out early abuse of a Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson quote for "More Frigates!" then proceeded to tell this reader the Littoral Combat Ship represents exactly the right frigate for the 21st century. I don't know what pissed me off more, implication Proceedings readers are ignorant enough to believe the LCS is even remotely similar to a frigate, or the expectations that someone in industry can write a Proceedings article and change a definition for a term like "frigate" to match their shipbuilding program, and not expect to take criticism for it.

This article really pinched a nerve with me, and this article is excellent only in that it gives me something to focus my energy towards as we enter the new year. Behold, this is how to sound smart, as long as the readers are either dumb or ignorant.
The legendary Royal Navy hero Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is quoted as having said, "If I died right now, the surgeon would see carved on my heart, 'More Frigates!'" Lord Nelson was right then, and he would be right today. The strategic environment in which we live is unmatched in its complexity. As spelled out in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the "strategic imperatives" facing our Navy are daunting.

They range from deterring major power war, winning our nation's wars, prevention and containment of local disruptions to fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and countering modern-day piracy. Moreover, the strategy calls specifically for "regionally concentrated, credible combat power" in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf and "globally distributed, mission-tailored maritime forces," especially in the waters off the Africa and Latin America coasts.

All this means that we need a larger Navy than the one we have today, and we need highly flexible, adaptable ships that are affordable in numbers and equipped to be manned by smaller, more efficient crews. The demands on our Navy call to mind Lord Nelson's plea: More Frigates! And that's just what the LCS is—a frigate for the 21st century. The LCS shares several characteristics in common with previous frigates, but more important, several of its characteristics, addressed here one by one, are quite advanced over its predecessors.
First, it is time to get some terminology right. A frigate in the days of Nelson was a warship, typically somewhere between 32-46 guns but best identified for having a single gun deck. Frigates were known for their speed, and were big enough to operate either as screens for larger ships or independently without other ships. Frigates were used for many things, but in the Age of Sail the single most important function of a frigate was that it was a ship designed to fight at sea, specifically frigates were characterized as warships armed well enough to over match anything they could not outrun. Every other function of a frigate was secondary to its role as a fighting ship, but because frigates had so many functions as a well armed and fast combat vessel a word was commonly used to describe a frigate and the roles it performed; that word was cruisers.

I do not know where the necessity to sell the Littoral Combat Ship as a frigate comes from, whether this is part of some larger capability requirements determined in a study somewhere, or simply a model for the sales campaign at Lockheed Martin, but if the US Navy need is central to more frigates, then that need will go unmet. The Littoral Combat Ship has nothing in common with a frigate, it is not fast enough to outrun enemy missiles and isn't armed well enough to face off against most gunboats, corvettes, or other frigates; modern, missile, or otherwise. The LCS is not a warship, it is an unrated ship by any definition in Nelsons era, or this era.

Words like warship and frigate matter, when the LCS is sold as a frigate or as a warship, it carries with the name an expectation the ship is best used as a warship or frigate. The LCS is neither best used or even well used as either. A modern warship that does not carry a single kill weapon of any kind is not a warship, and if the ship is intended to be used in theaters of war then it does so only as a support ship when it brings no offensive tactical capabilities during wartime. The function of the LCS is support, the tactical principles are exclusive to roles of scouting and C2, by every tactical metric as constructed and in CONOP when explained, the LCS is a support ship, not a warship. The intent to explain, describe, or sell the LCS as a warship is dangerous, dishonest, and deceitful.

If the communications strategy is to sell the LCS as a frigate or warship simply to fill a check box for requirements of surface combatants, then one of two things is wrong. The requirement itself might be flawed, meaning the definition of surface combatants isn't flexibile enough to handle the complex network requirements for needed capabilities on the battlefield. Considering how the US Navy describes the most heavily armed warships in the world, our AEGIS cruisers and destroyers, as cruisers and destroyers when by every reasonable metric they are modern battleships I find it completely believable that the Navy definition of surface combatants, thus requirement for them, could be flawed. Another possibility is that people actually believe the LCS is a frigate, meaning the definition of frigate has become horribily abused and history no longer carries value in the Navy, which could be the case as Rumsfeld demonstrated many times he had new definitions of old terms in regards to both land and sea power.

Today, it is commonplace for people associated with the US Navy to butcher the words frigate and cruisers. Today, the use of the word "frigate" has come to mean a role, while the word cruiser is used to describe the largest battleships in the US Navy. In the words of Admiral Robert J. Natter of R. J. Natter & Associates, LLC and Captain R. Robinson Harris, the director for Advanced Concepts for Lockheed Martin Integrated Defense Technologies, the term frigate is butchered with some new "21st century definition" specific to the purpose of this "21st century frigate" article. According to the authors, the defining characteristics of "21st century frigates" are size, accessibility with lower draft, and high speed. According to the authors, 21st century frigates must be able to support OA hardware and software, modern technology, and the "seminal characteristics" of modularity, interoperability with allies, and capacity to carry unmanned vehicles specific to the LCS "render it uniquely suited for the current strategic environment."

In other words, the Littoral Combat Ship is a frigate as long as we redefine the word frigate to represent exactly what the LCS beings to the strategic environment as outlined by Lockheed Martin. It is actually bigger than Lockheed Martin though, many in the Navy have the same vision. I think it is pretty incredible that according to these authors, a "21st century frigate" has nothing to do with metrics like warfighting capability during wartime or peacemaking capability during peacetime, capabilities I think might be important to a 21st century warship of any size. After all, no unmanned vehicle from the LCS is going to sink an enemy frigate (of any century) nor is a ship absent peacemakers, known in the US Navy as sailors, going to make a significant impact in peacetime operations including piracy. I guess it sure is a good thing the authors aren't designing the "21st century frigates" for the US Navy....

oh crap, nevermind!

The big problem with the LCS = frigate mentality is that apparently nobody making these stupid comparisons believes a "21st century frigate" should be able to fight at sea. As if Horatio Nelson or Thomas Cochrane or Stephen Decatur or John Paul Jones would be excited about a 'frigate' designed specifically to go fast specifically for the purpose of getting out of harms way. Think about it, even in the article the CONOP described for LCS SOF operations notes speed for the specific purpose of running in and out quickly so it avoids danger.

Just thinking out loud here, but shouldn't that raise a red flag? What are our strategic considerations behind closed doors when we invest serious funding for "21st century" tactical capabilities in our naval forces that are specific to the purpose of avoiding contact with the enemy. When that is accepted as a smart idea and then gets echoed around the room from various sides, I honestly wonder what the trickle down effect of that is behind those same closed doors.

This article by Admiral Natter and Captain Harris lays out almost everything that is wrong with the Littoral Combat Ship, staring at how it is described to operate and working down as it searches out problems to solve. As a warship, the LCS is at best a modern sloop-of-war but is sold as a frigate to justify its cost. The ship is outmatched by almost every vessel in its class, indeed it is harder to find modern foreign naval ships the LCS isn't over matched by in terms of firepower, which in my book hardly describes a suitable definition for a "21st Century Frigate." Most importantly though, the Littoral Combat Ship is not the whole solution to littoral warfare it is sold to be, and it will never be part of the solution when explained as a frigate in the way done in this Proceedings article. For all the talk of the complex strategic maritime environment requiring a network of flexible systems for sustained global presence, I continue to observe civilian industry and government people attempt to describe the Littoral Combat Ship as a single, simple solution to this problem. The solution is more complex.

The Littoral Combat Ship is a half a billion dollar, thin skinned, barely armed speedboat killer with minimal manpower when it is sold as a frigate. Whoever came up with the idea to sell the LCS as a frigate needs to be fired, because the LCS is the most expensive per ton, least capable frigate the US Navy (or any Navy) is building in the 21st century. The LCS has nothing in common with the defining characteristics of a frigate of any era.

But not being a frigate doesn't make the LCS flawed, it makes the sales strategy flawed. The LCS is a perfectly good mothership for unmanned vehicles, built like a mothership with large modular bays with the function to serve as a mothership for unmanned vehicles, and there is nothing wrong with the term mothership, well, except that the term mothership in the 21st century is most commonly used in the Navy blogosphere... meaning those who associate the term mothership with the LCS can be identified as someone who is reading Navy blogs somewhat regularly. Shake their hand, reading Navy blogs makes people smarter and better informed than their peers.

I find it interesting how many insist the LCS needs to be sold as a frigate, because it tends to suggest that a real requirement for frigates exists somewhere. I'm just guessing, but when I see very smart people claiming the LCS is a modern frigate when this is clearly the least intellectual argument in Navy circles today, I think the reason has something to do with the modern Navy's desire for more big modern cruisers.

I honestly don't know if the US Navy needs frigates, but I do know the LCS is not a frigate. I also believe the LCS can be very effective when the capabilities and characteristics of the LCS are used for what they are designed to do rather than for what the ship isn't designed to do. That means the LCS is used for supporting littoral activity with unmanned systems and leveraging the speed and space of the platform to support other warfighters and peacemakers at the point of contact with the enemy on the littoral battlefield. That means support against small boats. That means supporting against sea mines. That means supporting elements for fighting littoral submarines. That means supporting special operations. All in all, that means the LCS is used as a logistics and information enabler for some other naval vessel armed and survivable enough and intended to fight while operating in the littorals.

From where I'm sitting, I don't see a naval vessel built to fight in the littoral anywhere in the US Navy, which has me wondering, what the heck are we building the LCS for if we are running around claiming the Navy needs frigates?

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