Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Day the LCS Was Promoted to Warship

Another important planning factor of course does remain capability, especially the capability to account for the trends that we see. Surely, credible combat power is required but we must provide the right types of capabilities to the commander in chief. We continue to see growing demands from our combatant commanders for more ballistic missile defense, more submarines and clearly more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. And what we have seen is that the high-end capabilities have a better chance of going low and the low-end capabilities have a better chance of going high.

Multipurpose ships come into play when you have capacity issues. They can win the battle but they can also perform many other functions. For example, consider the Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer. It was the platform from which the rescue of Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama took place. It was also a source of Tomahawk strikes into CENTCOM. It was also the ship that was selected to carry the first humanitarian supplies into Georgia after the conflict there because it could go in unattended. It's also the ship that's performing ballistic missile defense and long-range search and track in the Western Pacific. And it also is a ship that is currently operating on the East Coast of Africa in an Africa Partnership Station role. It does not mean that everything has to all be at the high end, but balance is the key.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead delivers remarks at the Current Strategy Forum, Naval War College (DOC), Newport, R.I. - 16 June 2009
I've been thinking of these words from the CNO ever sense the announcement the Navy will be assuming the Ballistic Missile Defense role for Europe. The assignment to the Navy of this BMD role has serious consequences, and it does not appear the Navy was given much time to prepare for taking on this new role. I can't imagine the CNO has been out making these comments with knowledge that such an important assignment, like BMD of Europe, was on his horizon.

The analogy the CNO uses suggests that no mission profile is too low of a standard for a Burke, and it is easier to go down the mission chain with a more powerful ship than to go up the mission chain with a less powerful ship. At first glance this makes sense, but there is a reason it is not the direction suggested by CS-21. The problem with this argument has always been, if the Navy doesn't allocate the minimal resources necessary to conduct the low-end capability mission set, the Navy will lose presence for those low-end capability missions when the number of high-end capability missions are increased. That is precisely what is happening to the US Navy today, and the result will be that any available asset that provides the low-end capabilities will be asked to take up the slack for missions that require higher-end mission capability sets - exactly what the CNO claimed he was strategically planning to avoid.

The Navy does not have any ship without AEGIS able to deliver firepower above that of a 57mm gun. Consider the fleet constitution strategy of the 2030 US Navy. The lowest high-end warship will have ballistic missile defense (DDG-51), and the highest low-end vessel is the hull used as the future minesweeper (LCS). The US has no warship between those two completely polar opposite warfighter capabilities, and at the same time, every other warship in the entire world (including every single modern corvette operated by a small nation) has warfighter capabilities that fall somewhere between DDG-51 and LCS. In other words, in order to match the warfighting capabilities of any nation in the world, including the little corvette Navies of the world, the US Navy must task a warship with ballistic missile defense capability; as nothing short of that is competitive. Apparently this extreme high-end capability and extreme low-end capability is what the Secretary of Defense believes describes "balance" when it comes to the US Navy.

If the US Navy intends to operate 10 Carrier Strike Groups and the Marine Corps intends to operate 9 Amphibious Ready Groups, how many large surface combatant escorts will be needed?

Carrier Strike Groups today usually deploy with 1 cruiser, 3 destroyers, and 1 FFG-7 frigate. That suggests the Navy will need 10 cruisers and 30 destroyers for each Carrier Strike Group, and a pair of Littoral Combat Ships will replace the FFG-7 (total 20).

Amphibious Ready Groups have typically utilized 1 cruiser, 2 destroyers, and 1 FFG-7 frigate as escort. That suggests the Navy will need 9 cruisers and 20 destroyers for each Amphibious Ready Group, and a pair of Littoral Combat Ships will replace the FFG-7 (total 18).

That comes to 19 cruisers, 50 destroyers, and 38 Littoral Combat Ships as a minimal requirement for strike group escorts.

Now the Navy has a BMD requirement in 5th fleet, 7th fleet, and now 6th fleet. If you presume it takes a minimum of 8 ships, rotations of 2 ships at a time, for each fleet that suggests the Navy needs 24 additional destroyers for the BMD role. That would suggest the total number of large surface combatants could be as high as 19 cruisers, 50 destroyers, and 24 ballistic missile destroyers for a total of 93 major surface combatants. As of today, through FY11 - the last official Navy 5-year plan suggested 19 cruisers, 65 DDG-51s and 3 DDG-1000s for a total of 87 cruisers and destroyers, suggesting the Navy needs at least 6 more major surface combatants for these roles (likely to be built between FY12 - FY15.

Even with 93 major surface combatants, that still soaks up the AEGIS ships for high end escort and BMD tasking, raising the question what about the presence roles and escort roles? Did the Navy just lose AEGIS in the Surface Action Group to BMD, or is BMD the new Surface Action Group?

Clearly the days of using Arleigh Burke destroyers for humanitarian operations in Georgia, Global Fleet Stations off Africa, and anti-piracy operations off Africa will be regulated to low-end assets, which in the US Navy means the Littoral Combat Ship. The question though is what comes of convoy escort in war, say the Persian Gulf or Pacific Ocean, or even presence operations in places like the South America, Africa, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and anywhere else a Navy ship is required where major strike groups may not be operating?

Will the LCS be asked to take up the role of presence operations off the coast of Lebanon? Under oath, Admirals have consistently testified that the ASCM threat by Hezbollah was threatening enough to cancel the very capable DDG-1000; are we supposed to believe the barely armed LCS can do that role instead? How many missions will the LCS be asked to take over now that tasking for AEGIS ships has been tasked up the mission chain to the high-capability requirements? How many low-end capability missions will be lost because there are no ships dedicated for those roles, and how many higher-capability missions will the LCS now have to fill with the AEGIS missions now expanding towards BMD?

Congress is unlikely to ask the question "How many low-end ships does the Navy need to meet the presence requirements for the maritime strategy?" Congress is much more likely to ask "how many high-end capability ships does the Navy require to meet the emerging BMD requirement?" In other words, the Navy has lost its ability to get more ships at the low end because they never advocated for any ships down there, so those missions will suffer. In its place the Navy will likely buy a handful of high-end destroyers to take on the new mission set for European BMD, and the LCS will be tasked up to higher-end mission sets to fill in the gaps where needed.

The LCS acquisition decision was rushed to hit the news cycle right before the major BMD announcement. It wasn't a coincidence, it was to insure Congressional support so difficult questions regarding Navy fleet constitutional strategy wouldn't be asked. Basically, the LCS has been locked in for 5 years, and the Navy will go into next decade with a fleet designed to do every high end mission with AEGIS, and make do with the short legs of the LCS doing the less sexy, every day grunt work for the fleet. Too bad those missions are almost never ASW, MIW, or ASuW against small boats and are often manpower intensive operations; or said another way; require virtually everything the LCS doesn't have.

Poor planning for low end presence requirements and the focus on large surface combatants has allowed the BMD decision to promote the Littoral Combat Ship to the role of a warship. Too bad LCS neither has the weapons of a warship or the survivability of a warship, meaning the Navy appears to have changed the LCS from a mothership for unmanned systems technology into the expendable low-end frigate every LCS critic has been warning about for years.

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