Monday, December 30, 2013

Virginia SSN Review

The Virginia class SSN has been around for some time now and it’s worth a quick review.  The program was begun in the 1990’s as a replacement for the Los Angeles class and as a cheaper alternative to the Seawolf class.  Construction began in the late 1990’s with around 16 subs completed so far.  Construction is proceeding at a rate of two per year.

The SSN force peaked at 98 SSNs in 1987 and has been declining since.  The current force goal is 48 SSNs, however, the Navy’s various 30 year plan projections show a dip to 42-43 in the late 2020’s and a sustained shortfall below the 48 goal from 2022 – 2034.

Here’s a quick dimensional comparison of the classes.  Note the trend towards bigger boats just as we’ve observed with the SSBN(X) Ohio replacement sub which is bigger than the Ohio despite having several fewer missile tubes.  I’ve never seen a documented reason why the Virginia needs to be bigger than the preceeding classes.

Los Angeles  362’ x 33’                   4 tubes / 26 torpedoes
Seawolf          353’ x 40’                   8 tubes / 50 torpedoes
Virginia           377’ x 34’                   4 tubes / 27 torpedoes

The Virginia construction program was beset by cost overruns early on.  To be fair, that’s a characteristic of almost every Navy construction program.  The Virginia’s were envisioned to be low cost alternatives to the Seawolf but it hasn’t turned out that way with the subs running around $2.5B in today’s dollars.  Proceedings offers an article with the early cost history and states that the total obligation authority increased from $60B in the mid-1990’s to $90B+ in the mid 2000’s (4).  Here’s a partial cost history and planned budget amounts (1).

1998 – 2011  14        $2.6B (average cost for the period)
2012                 2        $2.6B
2013                 2        $2.5B
2014                 2        $2.7B
2015                 2        $2.7B
2016                 2        $2.8B
2017                 2        $2.9B
2018                 2        $3.0B
2019                 2        ?  VPM will be incorporated from this point on

CRS reports (3) that construction in FY14-FY18 will be performed under a Multi-Year Procurement (MYP) arrangement which is estimated by the Navy to produce 14% savings.  However, looking at the planned construction costs versus previous years, there is no evidence of cost savings.  Serial construction cost savings and MYP should be combined in FY14-FY18 for significant savings but the projected costs are not only not reduced, they’re anticipated to rise by $300M.

The Virginia Payload Module (VPM) is planned to be incorporated starting in 2019.  The module consists of 4 tubes x 7 Tomahawk missiles = 28 missiles per sub.  The VPM is the Navy’s response to losing the SSGNs which carry over 150 Tomahawks each.  According to the Navy, it will require 15-20 Virginias to replace the Tomahawk capability of the 4 current SSGNs (yeah, the arithmetic suggests around 16 but Navy articles suggest around 20 – not sure what the exact thinking is).  According to the CRS report (3), VPM will increase the Virginia construction cost by 15%-20% ($375M - $500M).

While the Virginia class is generally considered to be a success, there are some issues, to be sure.  From the DOT&E report (2), we note comments about the Navy’s reluctance to conduct realistic testing.

“Because Navy security rules prevent collection of useful operational test data from Virginia when conducting exercises with foreign ASW capable platforms, the Navy finished IOT&E and recent FOT&E without testing the Virginia class submarine against one of its primary threats, the foreign diesel electric submarine (SSK).”

No surprise there.  We’ve noted in previous posts that realistic testing, in general,  is a Navy shortcoming.

The overall assessment comes across as neutral or a slight improvement over the 688 class.

“Although Virginia was not effective for some of the missions tested, it remains an effective replacement for the Los Angeles class submarine, providing similar mission performance and improved covertness.”

The report notes specific problems with the Wide Aperture Arrays.

“After completion of operational testing, the Navy issued software changes intended to address the severe performance problems observed with the Wide Aperture Array.”

“… the Navy should re-evaluate operational effectiveness on a submarine with a repaired Wide Aperture Array.”

DOT&E notes that problems are propagating into the fleet due to the Navy’s insistence on meeting schedules over identifying and fixing problems.

“DOT&E assesses that the late fix of the array’s deficiencies is a result of the Navy’s schedule-driven development processes, which fields new increments without completing adequate developmental testing.”

Further testing is recommended.

“Repeat the FOT&E event to determine Virginia’s susceptibility to low-frequency active sonar and Virginia’s ability to conduct ASUW in a low-frequency active environment. This testing should include a Los Angeles class submarine operating in the same environment to enable comparison with the Virginia class.”

In summary, the Virginia program has exhibited poor cost performance although not too bad by Navy standards (of course, that’s a pretty low bar!).  With respect to performance, the Virginia appears adequate and probably represents a modest improvement over the Los Angeles class.  To be fair, actual performance data is nearly non-existent in the public domain.  My vague impression is that the Virginia is to the Los Angeles what the JSF is to the Super Hornet – a modest improvement at a hefty price.  Nevertheless, the Virginia is needed and reasonably meets the need at an acceptable, if disappointing, cost.

(1) Dept of Navy FY14 Budget Estimates, Shibuilding and Conversion, Apr 2013

(2) DOT&E FY2012 Annual Report

(3) Congressional Research Service, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack
Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress”, Ronald O'Rourke, 2-Apr-12

(4) U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “The Sweet Smell of Acquisition Success”, RAdm. John Butler (USN, Ret.), June 2011

Saturday, December 28, 2013

USS Galactica

Previous posts have addressed the declining fleet size, increasing complexity of individual ships, the movement away from single purpose ships, and escalating shipbuilding costs.  Setting aside the wisdom of these trends, the trend, itself, is clear.  We’re moving towards a much smaller Navy consisting of far fewer ships that are much larger and hugely multi-mission.  We’re moving towards the Battlestar Galactica. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the reference, the Battlestar Galactica was a naval spaceship in a science fiction television series.  The ship was a combination of aircraft carrier, battleship, and amphibious assault ship.  It was insanely huge, massively armored against even nuclear weapons, and, in a possible nod to realism, existed in very few numbers. 

The Navy is heading in that direction.  We’re building fewer ships with each succeeding class generally being physically larger than the preceeding one and we’re pushing hard to make each ship unlimitedly multi-functional.

Battlestar Galactica

 Consider aircraft carriers.  They’re getting bigger (although the airwings are shrinking!) and acquiring new capabilities.  The Ford’s radar system is a dual band (X-band SPY-3 and S-band volume search) system despite the need to only control ESSM missiles.  The Ford appears to have power and provision built in for laser and/or rail gun systems.  Carriers have operated with Army aviation groups and proposals have been made to base up to Company size Marine units aboard.  The carrier of the not too distant future may well have a significant gun/laser capability, aviation, and Marine assault capability – not too far from the Galactica!

Consider the new America class LHA.  They appear to be an attempt to combine a medium capacity aircraft carrier with an amphibious assault.

How about the Zumwalt?  It’s a very large ship that currently combines naval gun support, deep strike (Tomahawk), and ASW and was intended for littoral warfare.  Given its size, it’s not hard to imagine adding Marine assault capability, mine warfare, and enhanced aviation in the form of larger hangars and flight deck.

Contrast our current and near future ships with WWII ships.  They were generally fairly single function and much smaller.  OK, that’s readily apparent but does that mean that the current trend towards the Galactica is a problem?  Not necessarily.  Muti-function ships are intuitively appealing for a variety of obvious reasons.  The main drawbacks are the death spiral that they define (bigger means more expensive so we can’t afford as many so we make them bigger which means even more expensive which means still fewer ...), the accumulation of risk in a single platform, the reduced numbers of ships at a time when the Navy is being asked to be in more places at once, and the risk aversion that naturally accompanies hugely expensive ships (are we really going to risk a $4B Zumwalt in an ASW duel with an SSK?).

So, while there is nothing inherently wrong with a large, multi-function ship considered in isolation, the movement of the entire fleet towards the Galactica model is a trend that needs to be reconsidered.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Navy's Christmas Wish List

I know most of you are probably just about done with your Christmas shopping, you’re checking your household budget, and you’re realizing that you still have a few billion dollars left unspent.  Well, here’s the Navy’s Christmas wish list if you want to get the Navy a last minute gift.

SSGNs – The Navy could really use several more SSGNs.  They’re loaded with deep strike Tomahawk missiles which will bring joy to good little Admirals.  Unfortunately, they’re very hard to find this season (you know, cause subs are stealthy and hard to detect – little humor, there, heh, heh).

Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) – If Santa’s weapon’s workshop could get this into Navy stockings for Christmas we’d have lots of happy ship’s captains.  Unfortunately, dreams of IRBMs are a long way off (you know, cause of their long range – heh, heh).

Long Range Air Superiority Fighter – The carrier mafia in the Navy would jingle their bells for a true long range air superiority fighter with all the stealth, range, and payload needed for those pesky A2/AD scenarios.  This might be the dominant gift under the tree (you know, cause of how air superiority aircraft dominate the skies – heh, heh – hey, I’m a naval analyst not a joke write for Leno so cut me some slack!)

UAV Carrier – The Navy says UAVs are the future of naval aviation so what naval strategist wouldn’t want a dedicated UAV carrier with lots of UAV goodies?  These come packaged pretty full, though, so wrap them tightly (you know, cause of how carriers are stuffed full of aircraft – heh, heh).

LST – What Marine commander doesn’t want a large capacity ship that can transport Marines and their heaviest equipment right onto the beach?  You might not be able to find these on the store shelves, though.  They’re just now reaching our shores in time for Christmas (you know, cause reaching the shore is what they do – heh, heh).

Longer Carrier Deployments

Here's a Christmas gift nobody wants ...  As reported by Navy Times website (1), just months after declaring that 8 month deployments would become the new standard, CNO Greenert now states that carriers will routinely deploy for 9 months for next couple of years. 

We recently discussed Deployment Lengths and noted the trend towards increased lengths.  This is yet more evidence of the increasing trend.  The stress on family life is only going to continue to get worse.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Decommissioning Update

You’ll recall that the Navy’s announced list of ships slated to be decommissioned in 2013 included four Aegis cruisers:  Cowpens, Vicksburg, Port Royal, Anzio.  At the time of the announcement we noted that it made no sense to early retire ships that constituted the backbone of the Navy and were not yet at the end of their expected service lives.  It was widely speculated that this might be a political game being played by the President, through the Navy, attempting to force Congress to come up with additional money to “save” the cruisers.

It now appears that that is exactly what happened.  Congress came up with the money in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 and none of the cruisers have been retired as of this date.  It remains to be seen what will happen in 2014.  Regardless, this type of gamesmanship is unworthy of the Navy and their participation in it is unseemly and disappointing.

The next issue, of course, is maintenance.  It appears that none of the four ships is receiving needed maintenance though hard information on that is difficult to come by.  It appears that the ships are being left in limbo and are being allowed to further deteriorate. 

This is just a deplorable situation all the way around.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Submerged UAV Launch

The Navy recently announced the launch of a small UAV from a submerged submarine under a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory development program.  The UAV, contained inside a Tomahawk launch canister, was launched from a torpedo tube and then subsequently vertically launched when the canister reached the surface.

The UAV was a small aircraft with a 6 hour endurance.  During the test, the UAV transmitted video images back to the submarine.  The size of the UAV is strictly limited by the size of the launch container so the UAV can’t grow.  The range and endurance will only ever be what it is now.

The announcement on the site (1) proudly proclaimed that the program took only 6 years from concept to demonstration.  As a minor side note, we’ve been vertically launching “things” from subs for years.  Taking six years to figure out how to launch a small UAV seems an excessively long time.

The larger issue is what is this program leading to?  Off the top of my head, I’m missing the usefulness of this.  A short endurance, short range UAV seems only marginally useful and risks announcing the presence of a sub in the area.  One possible use might be to provide video surveillance of a very small area of land although it would only be effective in a very permissive environment.

It’s an interesting demonstration of capability but I’m going to have to think about the tactical usefulness of this. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

US Cruiser Threatened

As reported by Stars and Stripes (1), among other sources, the Aegis cruiser USS Cowpens was ordered to stop by Chinese forces while the ship was operating in the South China Sea, in the vicinity of the new Chinese carrier.  Cowpens was forced to maneuver to avoid collisions when it refused to stop.

As suggested in a recent post, the possibility of a repeat of an EP-3 forcedown type incident is a distinct possibility bordering on certainty.  The Chinese are acting well beyond international law and are spoiling for a fight to establish their international dominance.  I hope we are conducting our activities with a great deal of ready force to back up our ships and planes that are being placed in harm's way.


Saturday, December 14, 2013


The LCS was originally tasked with three missions:  mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-surface warfare.  We’re going to take a closer look at the ASW mission.

To review, in the ASW role the LCS was originally intended to be a stand-off vessel that would launch a variety of remote, unmanned vehicles and deploy a sensor net.  As such, the ship did not need its own sonar systems or anti-submarine weapons.  Unfortunately, the Navy scrapped the ASW module when it was found to offer no improvement over existing capabilities (Navy-speak for less capable than existing systems, but I digress).  The current module consists of a ship mounted Variable Depth Sonar (VDS), towed array, torpedo decoy (presumably Nixie or something similar), and a helo.

Thus, the LCS is now an up close and personal participant in the ASW mission.  However, the fact that the ship was not designed for active involvement in the ASW process leads to several issues.

Helo Coverage – As we’ve demonstrated, helos are maintenance intensive and a single helo (LCS-1) or two helos (LCS-2) can only provide very spotty coverage.  In addition, the MH-60 series helos can only carry two torpedoes which severely limits the number of shots and rearming is not a quick process.

Towed Array – The planned towed array is a major issue.  First, a towed array can’t be deployed in shallow water which was the LCS’ entire rationale for existence!  Second, the towed array presents a major problem as it impacts the ships speed and performance.  Some say that the LCS was intended to use its speed to “dance” around subs and torpedoes (though that’s most likely an after-the-fact rationalization rather than a designed intent).  Accepting that premise for the sake of discussion, one can see that a towed array severely limits the ship’s speed.  With an array deployed, the ship can’t use its speed and becomes an easy target.  On the other hand, if the array isn’t deployed the ship can’t detect submarines and becomes an easy target.  Bit of a Catch-22, there, huh?

Sonar – The ship’s size and shape seem to preclude addition of a typical hull-mounted sonar, especially for the LCS-2 version.  I’ve read reports that suggest that the water jets and ship’s internal machinery noises preclude hull mounted sonar due to severe self-noise masking.  I consider that unconfirmed though plausible.

Acoustics – While some reports claim the LCS water jets are quieter than conventional propulsion systems, the majority of documents seem to indicate that the water jets are enormously loud acoustic beacons.  Anyone who’s seen film of the jets in operation would find it hard to believe that the system is quiet enough for ASW work.  Further, the ship was not built with acoustic quieting integrated into the design.  Unlike the Spruance class which was built from the keel up as an ASW platform, the LCS lacks sound isolating machinery mounts, internal acoustic insulation, a Prairie/Masker type quieting system, and the other acoustic features built into the Spruances.  So, in addition to the water jet issue, the ship’s internal noise is not quieted.  The ship is an acoustic beacon for enemy submarines.  It’s hard to be the hunter when you’re louder than the prey!

ASW Weapons – Like the dog that chases the car (what’s he going to do with it if he ever catches it?!) the LCS has no ASW weapons if it ever finds a sub.  Yes, the helo might be available but that’s not a likely scenario and the helo is limited to two shots.  The LCS, itself, has no ability to defend itself or initiate an attack and certainly no capability to react to a surprise, close range encounter.

VDS – The Variable Depth Sonar (VDS) is potentially a useful sensor although, because of the need for complete automation due to the insufficient crew size, the VDS model being acquired requires 20+ minutes to deploy or retrieve.  While ASW is a slow game, this still limits the ship’s movement and response time especially if a torpedo is inbound!

In summary, ASW requires a platform built from the keel up with integrated acoustic quieting features, on-board weapons and sensors, and torpedo countermeasures, none of which the LCS has because it was never intended to be intimately involved in the ASW fight.  This also illustrates the flaw in the modular philosophy but that’s an issue that we’ve already covered in a previous post.  Trying to force the LCS into a role it isn’t optimized for is going to result in an ineffective platform that makes a better target than attacker.

Employment of LCS squadrons and the use of good operational tactics can mitigate some of the problems but the flip side of that is that clustered numbers of LCS’s will simply provide a loud, target rich environment for enemy subs.

To be fair, I’ve advocated a low end, less than optimal ASW platform that can be built in numbers, however, the key feature of that type of vessel is cheapness and the LCS doesn’t even come close to meeting that requirement.

All of this leads to the question of whether the LCS could be successfully adapted to ASW?  The answer is that it’s possible but it would require extensive redesign of the basic seaframe.  The ship needs all the quieting measures I’ve described, probably quieter conventional engines, a rapidly deployable VDS (adapt an over-the-side helo dipping sonar?), a short length multi-function towed array, hull mounted sonar, torpedo decoys, anti-submarine torpedoes, and a Russian style (RBU series) short range depth bomb as well as an integrated ASW combat control software suite.  If all this was done the LCS would no longer be an LCS, meaning that it would no longer be a modular platform.  Instead, it would be a dedicated shallow water ASW vessel.  Ironically, in that form it would offer a credible purpose and functionality to justify its existence as opposed to the useless vessel it now is.

By the way, does a vessel with two helos, a towed array, hull mounted sonar, anti-submarine torpedos, Prairie/Masker quieting, and torpedo decoys sound familiar?  It should - it's called a Perry.  If only we had had dozens of those that could have been updated a bit ... 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


“When unmanned systems are able to operate from U.S. carriers, the capabilities of the Navy will grow proportionally.”

This quote from Lt.Col. Freeman (1) sums up the attitude of many.  UAVs will be the next great weapon and the Navy will gain immense capabilities with their advent.  Is this true?  Are UAVs that powerful and capable?

The Navy is heavily invested in unmanned aerial vehicles operating from carriers as a routine part of the air wing.  Whether it’s UCAS, UCLASS, or whatever flavor of UAV, the Navy views UXXX as the future of naval aviation.  I’d like to examine this movement a bit closer.  Does it make sense?  Can UXXXs replace manned aircraft?  Are they economical?  Can they operate in combat?  And so on …

The Navy has indicated several possible roles for carrier based UXXXs:

  • Deep penetration and strike
  • Fighter combat
  • Land and surface strike
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)
  • Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS)
  • Communications, network, and positional relay nodes

There are a few notable omissions from the list.  As far as I’m aware, the Navy hasn’t seriously suggested UXXXs for:

  • ASW
  • Tanker
  • ECM

The Navy has also suggested several characteristics that supposedly make UXXXs better suited for naval aviation then manned aircraft:

Stealth – The Navy has suggested that UXXXs are stealthy, however, current and projected models aren’t particularly stealthy.  The small size of some of the common UAVs in operation today may have lead to a claim of stealthiness but the larger UXXXs have only moderate stealth characteristics, at best.

Endurance – Taking the pilot out of the equation means that the UXXX endurance is limited only by fuel and mechanical reliability.  Endurance is potentially a strong point, without doubt.

Performance – Maneuverability of manned aircraft is limited by pilot G-force tolerance.  Again, taking the pilot out the equation means that maneuverability is limited only by the physical strength of the aircraft’s structure and electronics.  Maneuverability can, theoretically, be increased significantly.

Risk Tolerance – Clearly, without the threat of lost aircrew, risk tolerance increases.  Missions may be attempted that otherwise would be rejected.

On the other hand, the Navy has glossed over some drawbacks to unmanned aircraft.  They include:

Payload – UXXX payloads are not generally greater than conventional aircraft.  While greater payloads could be accommodated, they would have to come at the expense of fuel (hence endurance) or stealth (meaning external carriage).  For the foreseeable future, payloads will likely be the same or even a bit less than manned aircraft.

Communications – The Achilles Heel of unmanned vehicles is communications.  The “pilot” must be in continuous and very near real time communication with the aircraft.  This will be problematic in an ECM environment and over the vast distances envisioned in many of the operating scenarios.  Communication lags of seconds or even fractional seconds hugely increase the likelihood of crashes when operating at low altitudes and/or high speeds.

Situational Awareness – Anyone who has “flown” a simulator knows that the situational awareness is far, far less than that enjoyed by an actual pilot.  While this may not be an issue for guiding an aircraft from one point to another, it presents a near impossible problem to overcome in combat where situational awareness is everything.

Cost – UXXX will be the same size and complexity as a corresponding manned aircraft and, hence, will cost the same.  Having a pilot in the cockpit doesn’t really add any significant additional cost to the airframe.  In fact, on an overall basis, given the cost of the equipment for the remote “pilot”, the cost may be greater for unmanned aircraft.

In addition to the missions and characteristics we just discussed, there are also a couple of issues that need careful consideration.

Risk versus Cost Effectiveness – Yes, we may be willing to take on more dangerous missions, however, greater risk also means greater attrition.  Given that the UXXX will be as expensive, if not more so, than a corresponding manned aircraft, risky missions that become one-way missions will become very expensive missions.  Are we prepared to “throw away” $100M+ unmanned aircraft?  Perhaps, if the reward justifies the risk.  The point is that reduced risk does not mean disregard for loss.  Many people seem to have the idea that we can throw UAVs at high risk missions with absolutely no thought.  While we may not be risking pilots we will be risking huge amounts of money and valuable assets.  We will not be able to replace $100M+ unmanned aircraft any easier and quicker than we could F-35s.  Ironically, the cost of highly capable UXXX aircraft is going to negate the UXXX’s risk reduction, the main beneficial characteristic, to a significant degree.

Higher Loss Rate – Whatever mission the UXXX flies, the loss rate will be higher than for manned aircraft.  UXXX will be subject to the same attrition due to enemy forces as manned aircraft.  Additionally, the UXXX will suffer losses from “glitches” in communication and control.  Indeed, we see this now with UAVs wandering off and crashing with some degree of regularity if not frequency. 

What is the takeaway from all this?  Well, UXXX aircraft definitely have some usefulness but are not the magic answer to all aviation needs.  It’s disturbing that the UXXX discussion seems to have leapfrogged over the question of usefulness and straight into what type of UXXX.  The Navy is champing at the bit to get UXXX onto carriers without having fully explored the missions, tactics, costs, and rationale.  This is eerily similar to the LCS development where the “need” for littoral combat was repeated so often that the discussion eventually just shifted to what type of vessel without the underlying rationale having been answered and we see how that worked out.  I believe there is a valid rationale for UXXX but it’s not the magic answer that Lt.Col. Freeman and so many others seem to believe.

(1) USNI Proceedings, “Assured Access, Anytime, Anywhere”, LtCol Freeman, Nov 2013, p.39

Monday, December 9, 2013

Deja Vu?

Tensions are rising in the East China Sea with China having laid claim to an air defense zone covering much of the area.

The Navy is deploying several P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Japan.

Hmmm ... 

Do you recall the April 2001 incident in which the Chinese forced down an American EP-3 aircraft?  To refresh your memory, the EP-3 was operating around 70 miles from Hainan when it was intercepted by Chinese J-8 fighters.  One of the fighters collided with the EP-3, damaging it to the point where it had to make an emergency landing on Hainan.  The EP-3 and its crew were held until the US issued a vague statement of apology at which point the crew was released.  The Chinese kept the EP-3 aircraft as a souvenir, stripping it of parts and disassembling it.  The remains of the aircraft were returned a few months later after the Chinese had gotten everything they wanted from it.

We’re sending our latest, brand new aircraft to patrol the East China Sea.  Does anyone see a possibility of a repeat performance?  I’m sure the Chinese would love to capture a P-8 and further humiliate the US while emphasizing that they mean business about their air defense zone.  This seems like an incredibly obvious opportunity for China.  Unlike the first incident, I hope the US military has learned to provide fighter protection for unarmed surveillance aircraft that it sends into the region.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eye In The Sky

There is a prevalent belief that satellites are magic eyes-in-the-sky that see everything at all times and can track the movements of every individual enemy soldier, ship, and plane.  In fact, this is one of the common arguments against the aircraft carrier – that it will be continuously tracked by enemy satellites and thus be totally vulnerable to attack by all manner of missiles from hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Is this really the case?  Have satellites rendered surface navies obsolete?

I have no particular specialized knowledge about satellites and their capabilities but I’m going to attempt to apply some common sense logic and see how capable satellites really are.

For starters, history, in the form of military exercises, has repeatedly shown that naval surface forces are very difficult to find using satellites.  That’s one fact that I do know.

Next, let’s look at this from a numbers perspective.  At any given moment, how many ships are in the South/East China Seas, for example?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Asking a satellite (meaning the guy who sits and analyzes the images from a satellite) to distinguish civilian from military and friend from foe for hundreds or thousands of possibilities is an enormous task.  If the satellite “zooms” in to make ID easy, the corresponding area covered decreases.  Now, how many satellites are available for general tracking?  I have no idea but my guess would be on the order of a dozen, maybe less.  Covering the area of the South/East China Seas and the number of possible contacts is a daunting task.

I think what satellites are really good at is taking images of the same object or small piece of land repeatedly and looking for changes (silo added, submarine/ship moved from alongside a pier, etc.). 

In a war, I would think the available satellite tracking would be focused on high priority land based targets (missile silos, HQs, bases, etc.) rather than trying to dynamically track ships at sea.

I know someone is going to pound out a comment that a satellite can image a playing card in someone’s hand from up in space.  That’s probably true – if the location of the person is precisely known.  I’m not sure how that translates to spotting ships but the argument is used, nevertheless.  Consider though, the area being scanned if that level of zoom is used – a square meter, maybe?  Scanning the ocean a square meter at a time to look for ships would take forever.  Zooming out and scanning hundreds of square miles at a time will speed up the process but the contacts become mere pinpoints that are not readily identifiable.

Finally, in a high intensity war the satellites of both sides will be priority targets from day one and functioning satellites may become a rarity very quickly.

Now, let’s change tacks and consider what happens when a satellite does find and identify an enemy ship.  I have no idea how foreign countries operate their satellites but I would guess that, like any large organization, the findings go through multiple levels of bureaucracy (or command and control, if you prefer) where the findings are sorted and, eventually, disseminated to the units that can benefit from the information.  That process takes significant amounts of time.  By the time the data makes its way to a unit that could initiate an attack, the target has moved a significant distance.  Many people seem to have the idea that satellites are directly hooked into individual ships and planes thereby providing real time targeting data.  I’m pretty certain this isn’t the case.

In summary, satellites are a valuable and useful surveillance tool but hardly the all-seeing eye in the sky that many make them out to be.  The best use seems to be as monitors of fixed points, looking for changes from day to day.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Cart Before The Horse

Consider these observations …

  • The Navy is beginning to find and define missions that the LCS can perform well and that will play to the ship’s strengths.

  • Suggestions are being floated to build armored vehicles and weapons that will fit in the MV-22 in order to better support air assaults.

  • AirSea Battle is being adapted to make better use of our existing assets.

  • Our new acquisition programs are producing weapons and systems that are shaping our strategy, doctrine, and tactics for decades to come.

  • The Marine Corps is in the process of being resized and reshaped to fit budget constraints.

  • Our nuclear deterrence doctrine has been modified to reflect the decrease in the number of SSBNs we’ll have after the replacement SSBN program is complete.

  • Torpedo capability may be removed from the design of the SSBN(X) to accommodate budget constraints.

  • The Marines are conducting studies to determine what size, shape, speed amphibious combat vehicle they need to fit within the budget.

  • JSF was designed to fit the maximum amount of technology in the airframe while still being affordable (yes, cost has become an issue but the intent is unchanged).

I could go on with an endless list but this will suffice.

These examples all seem to demonstrate an adaptive Navy/Marine force that is recognizing budget limitations and still looking for ways to make the most of what they have.  As you know, I’m highly critical of Navy leadership but these examples do show innovation and adaptability, right? 

In addition, these examples all have one thing in common – they’re all backwards!  Huh?!  Backwards?  What does that mean?  It means that the action cited is divorced from, and preceeding, what should be the rationale for the action.  The rationale should come first and the action should then logically follow.  These examples have it backward.  Let’s look a bit closer at some of them and you’ll see what I mean.

The Navy is beginning to find and define missions that the LCS can perform well and that will play to the ship’s strengths.  That’s backward.  The missions should have been the first thing and the LCS should have followed.  Put another way, the LCS should fit the missions, not the missions being forced to fit the LCS.

Suggestions are being floated to build armored vehicles and weapons that will fit in the MV-22 in order to better support air assaults.  That’s backward.  The vehicles and weapons that the Marines need to carry out their missions should be defined first and the transport should be built to fit and accommodate those items.  Instead, we built the transport first and now we’re looking at building new vehicles and weapons that will fit the transport.

AirSea Battle is being adapted to make better use of our existing assets.  That’s backward.  Strategy comes first (yes, I know ASB isn’t really a strategy but it’s what passes for one, for the time being) and procurement follows in support of the strategy.  Instead, we’re procuring with little rationale and changing the strategy to fit what we buy.

Hopefully, you get the idea and I don’t need to go through the entire list.

The theme, here, is the backwards nature of the Navy (and military, in general, to be fair).  The Navy has a consistent pattern of acting without a rational basis and then trying fit a rationale to the action, after the fact.  Ultimately, it all stems from the lack of strategy.  We have no global strategy.  We have no regional strategies (how do we want to deal with China?  Iran?  Africa?  Etc.?).  How can we be procuring weapons and systems if we don’t know what we need them to do?

Here’s an example of the problem.  In a war with China, two possible alternative strategies might be to, one, wage a roll-back campaign and eventual attack on mainland China (with or without ground troops) to secure victory or, two, to implement a long distance, stand-off strategy of blockade, eventually “starving” China of raw materials and trade to secure victory.  Either strategy could be successful but they are radically different and would require radically different force structures.  What kinds of weapons and systems should we be procuring?  Without an established strategy to guide our procurement we’re buying whatever we can get with whatever performance characteristics, regardless of whether they’ll be useful somewhere down the line. 

How will the LCS contribute to a war with China?  It’s going to be a third of our battle fleet so it had better contribute!  Do we need more carriers or less?  Do we need massive amphibious lift capability or far less than we have now?  The answer to these and a thousand similar questions is, “Who knows?”.  Without a strategy we have no idea what we need.

Look at our discussions on the hundreds of posts.  Much of it revolves around the perceived qualities and usefulness of various platforms.  It’s kind of pointless to argue about such things when we have no reference (strategy) to compare the item against.  Remember the recent post in which we documented CNO’s comment to the effect that he can’t wait to see what industry comes up with next?  That’s the ultimate in backwards!  The Navy needs to tell industry what’s needed not wait to see what industry gives them. 

We’ve got to break this cycle of procuring first and then trying to figure out what to do with it.  The sequence is strategy (rationale) first, then procurement.  C’mon Navy, get with the program.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Freedom To The Rescue! - Part 2

From the 25-Nov-2013 website news we get this update on Freedom's heroic disaster relief efforts in the Philippines.  On 24-Nov, USS Freedom (LCS 1) delivered the 10 pallets of disaster relief supplies that we discussed previously, here.  The supplies were delivered by helo from Freedom’s position 16 miles off the coast of Tacloban, Philippines.  I guess the shallow draft wasn’t needed!  Freedom then continued on its return trip to San Diego.  I guess the lily pad flight deck and helo weren’t needed.

Here’s a photo of 2 of the 10 pallets aboard Freedom.

Does anyone seriously still think this was anything but a PR stunt?