Monday, December 9, 2013

Corvettes Still Do Not Belong in Surface Force Structure

Sa' ar 5 Corvettes
Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers

     CDR Phillip Pournelle’s 4 November response to my 30 September 2013 information article is thought provoking and a very useful addition to the ongoing discussion of future naval force structure. His academic and operational background brings an interesting dimension to the argument. I do however stand by my initial essay and would offer a response to some of CDR Pournelle’s “Balanced Fleet” criticisms. He is correct in his statement that antiship cruise missile (ASCM) and automation technologies improved in favor of small combatants over the course of the Cold War, but defensive systems have equally matured over the same period and allow larger ships a greater margin of safety. The data CDR Pournelle offers, notably the Schulte study is biased against defending units and is nearly 20 years old. U.S. Navy warships do not usually fight as single units except in “bolt from the blue” situations, but CDR Pournelle limits his analysis to just that scenario and does not postulate for a more robust force of surface ships such as seen off the coast in Syria is recent months. CDR Pournelle deploys CAPT Wayne Hughes’ New Navy Fighting Machine study from 2009 as another crucial reference to his argument, but it relies on a complex “family of ships” concept that has not often historically survived operational or professional scrutiny. Politics, geography and logistical concerns will work against the use of forward deployed, isolated squadrons of small combatants. Finally, the addition of over 50 corvettes to the surface naval force structure should only be considered after a serious review of what future naval strategy the U.S. will employ.  The United States has too often substituted a combination of budget proposals and technological capabilities for real strategy, both during the Cold War and especially in the last 20 years. Current financial limitations demand that any significant change in U.S. naval force structure be rigorously evaluated before acceptance. A complex family of surface warfare corvettes would not be a prudent addition the surface fleet force structure, especially at the expense of larger, more capable combatants.

                                                   Evolution of Defense Systems
Talos Missile Test 1961
     Cruise missile technology has come a long way since the Soviet Union fielded the arguably first identifiable anti ship cruise missile (ASCM), the P-15 Permit (NATO classification: SS-N-2 Styx) missile in 1960. Current designs feature subsonic and supersonic weapons with a multiplicity of warheads, guidance systems and countermeasures capabilities. Hypersonic cruise missiles are under development. While no one would deny that the problems associated with effective ASCM defense are multiplying and that these systems represent a serious risk to surface ships, defense systems have also grown in capability. The introduction of the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) in the early 1960s allowed for correlation of both on board and external sensors in order to produce a shared tactical picture among warship groups. The first group of operational U.S. surface to air missiles, collectively known as the “T-birds” comprised the Terrier, Tarter, and the telephone pole-sized Talos missile. They were not notably accurate and their fire control systems, which worked well enough on land at test facilities like Dam Neck, VA, frequently malfunctioned in the damp, electrically erratic, rolling environment of seagoing operations. Smaller solid state components enhanced equipment reliability and improved weapon launchers like the Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) allowed for more rapid rates of fire. Each new advance in cruise missile technology and attacker ability to saturate defenses has spawned better protective systems such as the U.S. SPY-1 radar and associated AEGIS integrated weapon system. Potential future shipboard defense systems include directed energy weapons and more advanced decoy systems. While this sort of competition is costly, it has allowed defensive systems to meet many of the challenges posed by their offensive counterparts. The documents cited by CDR Pournelle largely ignore these advancements  in favor of very general equations based on the size of offensive missile salvo. These equations do not effectively account for either a single unit or collective group’s defensive ability in that a Perry class frigate and an Arleigh Burke class DDG are judged not on their (very unequal) defensive abilities against ASCM’s but rather on their ability to launch a first strike ASCM attack.  The first point of failure in this train of analysis however is in the dogged adherence to the dated and incomplete Schulte study by small combatant enthusiasts.

                                                      The Shulte Thesis
Israeli Destroyer Eilat
     The Shulte thesis is frequently offered up as an exhibit for the vulnerability of surface ships to cruise missile attack. It is however nearly 20 years old, and has a number of examples that should be discarded due to their lack of relevance. Early ASCM victims such as the Israeli destroyer Eilat, and the Pakistani Navy ships sunk by Indian cruise missile attacks in 1971 were World War 2 vintage destroyers with little or no capability to shoot down a cruise missile. The same is true of the Argentine patrol craft sunk by British Royal navy helicopters at the outset of the 1982 Falklands conflict. The numerous examples from the Syrian/Israeli conflict might indicate that the SS-N-2 Styx missile was especially vulnerable to passive countermeasures; the Syrians did not appropriately maintain their cruise missiles inventory, Syrian naval personnel were poorly trained, or a combination of these factors. The most useful examples within the Shulte document are the actions taken by Royal Naval warships in defense against Argentine cruise missile attacks in the intermediate stages of the Falklands war. The British ships targeted by Argentine ASCM’s in that conflict however represent a much earlier generation of air defense capability. They lacked secondary “hard kill” anti-missile/air system such as close in weapons (CIWS) and were not support by effective airborne early warning (AEW) units that are integral to U.S. military operations.
     As to the problems of “hard kill” systems in engaging ASCM’s, the Schulte thesis concedes on page xi that,
                        “Softkill measures employed against anti-ship missiles were extremely successful,
seducing or decoying every missile they were used against. In every engagement where a defender was alert and deployed softkill measures, every missile salvo was entirely defeated. Hardkill measures were not as successful, with only one case confirmed. This is understandable since hardkill measures used to date have primarily consisted of manual firing systems. More data is needed to assess the combat capabilities of modern hardkill systems.”

I agree. Without that additional data the Schulte study should not be used in arguments against “hard-kill” AAW systems. In summary, the Schulte study may have been an effective reference for ASCM effectiveness in the early 1990s against isolated targets with limited capability, but its lack of data on the effectiveness of “hard kill” systems data makes it much less appropriate for current use. More modeling and simulation that takes into account all of the variables of both hard and soft kill defensive systems should be done to update analysis on ASCM effectiveness.

                                                 Deployment and Survivability
ex USS Buchanan SINKEX
     CDR Pournelle frequently states that a force of smaller combatants is more survivable than one made up of larger ships and that the size of individual surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers, frigates and littoral combatant ships) is irrelevant in their overall survivability. His “cost equivalent” example constitutes of four Ambassador III ( Soliman Ezzat in Egyptian service) class missile patrol craft versus one Arleigh Burke class destroyer. That comparison may be financially and mathematically useful, but it is not operationally accurate. The U.S. may deploy single surface combatants for peacetime missions, but not for operations potentially involving combat, especially against near peer competitors.  A more reliable formation is the recent U.S. naval force constituted off Syria in support of potential cruise missile strikes. That force comprised 5 Burke’s to include Barry, Gravely, Mahan, Ramage and Stout. Together that is a total of 462 vertical launch missile cells. If the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile (ESSM), of which 4 can be “quad packed” into an individual VLS cell is considered, the number of available weapons significantly increases. If a force of missile patrol craft were instead deployed to the troubled waters off Syria, it would need to have a full strength of 20 vessels to stay within CDR Pournelle’s mathematical equivalency. That would be nearly 1/3 of the 64 missile combatants proposed by their supporters. That force would still need escort by air defense warships in order to operate in littoral waters and be dependent on vulnerable data networks to supplement their own organic sensor.
          Recent live weapon sinking exercises (SINKEX) as part of operational exercises have demonstrated that modern warships are more resilient to attack than CDR Pournelle and his compatriots contend. The ex-USS Buchanan (DDG 14) survived 5 Hellfire missiles, 2 Harpoon missile strikes and a laser-guided bomb hit before sinking. While it is true that ships do not gain staying power, or damage resiliency, as a linear function of size, larger ships will most definitely take more damage than smaller ships, and with larger crews, can better combat casualties. I agree that the cost is also not linear and larger ships do cost a lot more than smaller ones.

                                               The New Navy Fighting Machine

SC 21 Family of Ships
     Captain Hughes and his Naval Postgraduate School colleagues’ New Navy Fighting Machine is another reference deployed by CDR Pournelle in defense of his opinion.  The large system of different specialized ships recommended by the New Navy Fighting Machine authors is unlikely to survive professional, operational, and public review.  As seen frequently in naval history and as recently as the demise of the Surface Combatant 21st Century (SC-21) “Family of Ships” in the last decade, such broad concepts seldom emerge intact from the Planning Programming and Budgetary system. At best, parts of the system will survive, as the littoral combatant ship (LCS) and 3 DDG-1000’s remain from the SC-21. The “high/low” mix of warships proposed by then Chief of Naval Operations ADM Elmo Zumwalt in the 1970s was equally dissected by critics and while the patrol frigate concept survived as the Oliver Hazard Perry class (FFG 07), the small carrier “sea control ship” and the high-end “nuclear strike cruiser” did not. Pieces of a future “New Navy Fighting Machine” that survive review would not be as effective as the whole system, and like the LCS might engender serious criticism of their employment, especially when outside of the ship’s original operational concept.

                               Hidden Costs and Limitations in Deployed Small Combatants
     A large number of small combatants would need to be assigned to the Western Pacific in order to counter Chinese aggression as their advocates describe. To get the full benefit of the “New Navy Fighting Machine”, upwards of 64 such craft would need to be deployed to advanced operating bases. The nations bordering the South China Sea today may not be in favor in China’s bullying tactics and attempts to seize parts of oil and natural gas rich archipelagos, but they may be equally hesitant to host a large U.S. naval force structure. There have been calls for over a decade for the U.S. to reduce its military footprint in Japan. Singapore hosts U.S. ships in small numbers and U.S. bases in the Philippines once hosted dozens of ships, but would such large forces now be welcome? The U.S. does not have official ties with the Taiwanese government, so officially basing units there in a peacetime status would require naval planners to overcome a diplomatic obstacle course in order to base the small combatant force structure as advertised. 
USNS Pecos refuels a small combatant
       Basing such craft in Guam or other locations would require additional infrastructure and security costs not identified by small combatant advocates. Such bases are also vulnerable to air attack and blockade, especially if the environment is too dangerous, as small combatant advocates contend, for an aircraft carrier strike group to provide the dedicated aviation support vital to the success of small combatant operations. The relatively short operational ranges of these craft will demand a very innovative and dynamic distributed logistics structure that would likely include vulnerable forward-deployed tenders and replenishment ships. To date, no such clear logistics plan has been offered.

                                                    Strategy Before Force Structure
     Most importantly, the U.S. Navy must determine what naval strategy it will employ, both in the Pacific and throughout the world, before another keel is laid or operational concept is employed. To paraphrase a recent Microsoft advertising campaign, the U.S. must ask, “Where does it want its naval forces to go today, tomorrow, and 20 to 30 years hence”. If the answer to that question is into the littoral spaces of the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf to conduct extensive operations, then the small combatant battle force as proposed by CDR Pournelle and others might be the correct answer. On the other hand, if the U.S. decides, as seapower theorist Seth Cropsey states in his recent book Mayday, “to not signal an important retreat from the powerful trans-oceanic presence, deterrence, and war fighting missions that U.S. seapower has performed since World War 2”, it should not conduct a radical “strategic re-casting of American seapower away from the form in which it currently exists.” A force structure that embraces a complex system of over 50 short-range mission-specific corvettes at even a small expense away from the current globally deployable surface fleet to of high (CG/DDG) and low end (LCS) surface combatants would constitute such an alteration. Flotillas of small combatants have often been employed in nations’ home waters for defensive purpose. Their deployment however as an offensive force without direct support from more capable surface and aviation units is a new and potentially dangerous operational concept without historical precedent. The weapons the of the current generation of small combatants are more formidable than in even the recent past, but their low endurance, dependence on forward bases or tenders, and general lack of air defense capability leaves them vulnerable to enemy counterattack once they have expended their first strike. In any case, more realistic experimentation and strategic analysis is in order before the U.S. Navy commits to another complicated family of ships for its future architecture.

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