This post originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute blog here.
When it comes to shipbuilding, we in the surface force are really bad customers. We are like the guy at the Starbucks counter that hems and haws over all the seasonal varieties until the barista finally says “would you like the same grande-triple-soy-nonfat-mocha-latte-no-whip that you’ve ordered the past 1,347 times?” “Oooh, yeah that sounds good, I’ll have that!”
It’s not that we don’t like other delicious beverages (i.e. ships), we just have no idea how to tell the barista (i.e. industry) what we’re looking for so she can make it. Over three decades we have consistently struggled to articulate an operational concept—to tell a story—that describes an employment model for surface combatants not based in Cold War tactics. All we really know is the high-end multimission surface combatant designed to defend an aircraft carrier—the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (the Ticonderoga-class cruiser before her sprouted from the same Cold War Aegis roots). Last year, we acknowledged the Arleigh Burke’s frame is maxed out, but from an operational employment perspective, we keep trying to fit every new ship into the Burke mold.
Littoral combat ship? Look, I’m not going to pile on. I’ll just say that the root of the problem with LCS was our inability to describe what we wanted to do with the ship because we couldn’t figure out how the modular concept fit into our carrier strike group-centric paradigm. Well, at least they can replace the minesweeper fleet, right? More than a decade after commissioning the lead ship, we’re still waiting to receive fully operational mission packages. Still, this is not a knock on the LCS program itself. There is ton of value that can still be gleaned from these ships, and many missions they could do, none of which involve defending an aircraft carrier. The LCS saga is like vaguely describing a new kind of coffee that always tastes like whatever you’re in the mood for, then watching the Starbucks baristas struggle for the next 20 years trying to figure out how to make it.
At least there’s the Zumwalt-class destroyer, right? <massages temples and counts to ten> Ok, I’m not maligning the program for scoping down the buy to three hulls. Budgetary constraints are real. There’s a lot to be learned from the technology on these ships that we can apply to future designs. But, again, here we are struggling to figure out how to use these technological marvels. I applaud the Navy for experimenting with surface development squadrons to refine Zumwalt’s mission, but next time let’s do that before we spend $23 billion.
And that brings me to my favorite ship of the moment, the next generation frigate, or FFG(X). We reduced the cost to $800 million per ship. Yaaaayyy! I’m going on the record: in the end this will be a billion dollar warship (and I’m not talking about lead ship cost, I mean average unit cost). While we cut costs in design, we added requirements. Here we go again! What was meant to be a cutting-edge ship-killer is now beginning to look like a mini-Arleigh Burke. We’re doubling vertical launching system (VLS) cells to 32, none of which can be used to fire the Navy’s chosen next-generation antiship missile, the Naval Strike Missile (NSM). More torpedo tubes, more electronic warfare, electric drive, lasers, cooperative engagement capability (CEC), and naval integrated fire control-counter air (NIFC-CA). These all are grand, but are they adding to the ship’s mission to destroy enemy ships? Or are they added on by Navy leaders for fear that the ship might one day encounter a situation for which it is ill-suited? Surely, we can build a ship that is ready to take on any mission, anywhere, anytime, independently, right? Ah, yes, the Arleigh Burke. Meanwhile, the FFG(X) will get eight tubes for NSM. Our competitors have speedboats with as much antiship capability. And lots more of them.
What about the amphibious navy, you say? Oh, you mean the one that all my mentors told me to avoid like the plague if I wanted to be competitive for promotion and command at sea? I’ve got no bone to pick with the San Antonio-class LPD, and I’m heartened to see experimentation with littoral combat groups, but we’ve been talking about influence squadrons for years now. Besides, the more we ask for, the more the LPDs start to smell like Arleigh Burkes!
Ladies and gentlemen, we know what we want. We have intelligently designed concepts—Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO)—that effectively balance the constraints of today while meeting the potential demands of the future. Command of the sea will belong to the best designed fleets, not the best designed ships. Key to these concepts will be “low-end” (in other words, less than $1 billion) ships that are VERY good at conducting a couple missions, not billion-dollar ships that are pretty good at conducting every mission. The missile truck is a good start. We just need to tell the shipbuilders!
Industry is, of course, incentivized to “super-size” our order. It’s much more profitable to sell us high-end, exquisite solutions because they know there’s a good chance we’ll downscope the overall buy. Shipbuilders carry massive overhead to survive the arduous DoD acquisition system. It’s in their interest to sell us the “death star.” Or, at Starbucks, the trenta-double-shot-unicorn Frappuccino. Let’s order what we really want. We’re SWOs. Give us a damn cup of sweet black gold!