Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Battle Force Missiles: The Measure of a Fleet

By Keith “Powder” Patton, CDR, USN

Calculating the power of a fleet is a daunting and imprecise task. In the Washington Naval Treaty, tonnage and gun caliber were used as metrics to set the ratio of capital ships between leading world navies. Capital ships were seen as the supreme arbiters of a naval conflict. The London Naval Treaty established similar rules for tonnage and gun caliber for smaller combatants. The United States Navy counts battle force ships, which includes combat logistics forces, toward its end strength. The battle force ship metric is simple hull count, with T-AKE, PC, LCS, DDG and CVN classes all being counted as equals, despite vastly different mission, size, manning, and capabilities. By a simple measure of hull count from 2018-2019 Jane’s Fighting Ships, the USN has 10 percent fewer warships than Russia, and is half the size of China’s fleet.

2019 Fleet total hull count by country.

However, when tonnage is used as the metric, the picture changes dramatically:

2019 Fleet total tonnage by country.

This change is unsurprising. The nature of the fleets are significantly different. The USN tends to operate much larger ships optimized for long range power projection. China and Russia have many missile-armed patrol boats and corvettes compared to the relatively few U.S. Cyclone class PC and corvette-like LCSs.

However, does the metric of tonnage truly measure the power of a fleet? The interwar period treaties considered both tonnage and caliber of guns. These two metrics were related, in that larger guns required a larger vessel to carry them. In general, there also was a direct correlation between the caliber of the gun and its destructive power.  Tonnage also affected how much armor could be carried to protect against gun hits. Another metric used to compare warship power was broadside throw weight. This was the total mass of shells a ship could deliver in a broadside against an adversary. A heavier broadside could be expected to triumph against less armed opponents. However, in the modern era, guns have been eclipsed by missiles as the primary weapon of naval combat. While battleships carried far more powerful weapons and were relatively immune to the deck guns of small combatants, the same is not true of missiles today.  Very similar if not identical anti-ship missiles are carried by small patrol combatants and mounted on the largest combatants, sometimes in identical quantities (eight being a popular number). While the defensive and damage control capabilities of larger vessels may be greater, it still seems likely that a few missile hits will knock most ships out of action, if not sink them. If missiles are the true measure of a fleet’s combat power, then neither tonnage nor hull count is an appropriate metric, because neither is directly related to a ship’s missile capabilities.

For the sake of this analysis, we will borrow Robert O. Work’s concept of battle force missiles (BFM) from his “To Take and Keep the Lead” monograph. BFMs are missiles that “contribute to battle force missions such as area and local air defense, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare. Terminal defense SAMs, which protect only the host ship, are not considered a battle force missile.” Thus, weapons like RAM, ESSM, SA-N-9, Mistral, and HHQ-10 point defense SAMs would not count toward the tally of BFM. ASROC, Harpoon, Tomahawk, Standard Missiles and non-U.S. equivalents do count. Generally speaking, BFMs cannot be reloaded at sea, unlike shorter-range defensive missiles. They are too large and unwieldy. As such, they also serve as a cap on the offensive or defensive power a ship can provide. When BFMs are exhausted, the ship must return to a secure friendly port to rearm.

The ship numbers and missile capacity considered below were taken from Jane’s Fighting Ships 2018-2019 as a standard reference. In some cases, there are issues with overlap. For example, some U.S. Mk 41 VLS cells can carry a BFM, or quad-packed ESSM, which would not count. Russian vessels are able to fire SS-N-16 Starfish anti-submarine missiles from their torpedo tubes. While SS-N-16 (like ASROC) would count as a BFM, Jane’s did not have a magazine capacity of how many were carried by Russian warships. So, this BFM-launched via surface ship torpedo tube was ignored. Submarine heavy weight torpedoes were counted. While they may not be missiles, they are a primary anti-surface warfare weapon and, in some subs, are interchangeable with BFMs for strike or anti-ship missions. Finally, there was not complete data for all classes (e.g. number of torpedoes carried), so data was extrapolated from similar designs. The results of this BFM count are in the chart below.

2019 Battle force missile total by country.

This accounting of fleet firepower shows the USN has more than twice the BFM of the Chinese PLAN. The gap is even larger if the contribution of carrier-born aircraft is considered. The U.S. has an almost twenty-fold advantage in fixed-wing aircraft operating from ships. Carrier-born aircraft, especially from CATOBAR carriers, can carry multiple BFM and can reload aboard the carrier. In addition, the carrier can have its magazines reloaded at sea, something other ships cannot do with their BFMs. However, it is worth noting that China’s BFM count gained over 1000 missiles since 2017, and the U.S. number has been relatively static.

Using BFM as a fleet metric also allows for different ship sizes. A U.S. Flight IIA Burke class DDG with 96 VLS tubes provides the same BFM capacity as 12 patrol boats with 8 missiles each. Who would win in such an engagement would probably hinge on who had better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support to target the other first. However, twelve patrol boats also have the advantage of being able to be in multiple places at once and needing at least 12 hits to defeat far more than the Burke could likely endure.  Continuing with Robert Work’s characterization, we can classify ships by their BFM count. Currently, warships have classifications of cruiser, destroyer, frigate, corvette or similar based more on politics than clear distinctions. What Work recommended was similar to the old system of classifying ships by guns. In this case, missiles instead of guns. First-rate warships (>100 BFM), second-rate (90-100 BFM), third-rate (60-89), and on down to unrated warships with negligible missile capability. For this analysis, the author augmented Work’s lower ratings with fourth-rate (40-59 BFM), fifth-rate (20-39 BFM), sixth-rate (6-19 BFM), and unrated as < 6 BFM. This reclassification produces the following fresh perspective:

2019 Warships by rating.

There is a clear USN preference for heavily armed surface combatants compared to potential adversaries. The one Russian Kirov is rated as a first-rate warship, but is barely a blip compared to the U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Chinese Type 055 arriving into service will provide China with first-rate warships as well, but still a fraction of the number the USN has. The two U.S. Zumwalt DDGs in 2019 are third-rate ships-of-the-line, but have scores of better armed compatriots compared to the Chinese third-rate vessels. None have a fifth rate combatant (6-20 BFM) unless it is a submarine.

The chart above could spark concern at the rough parity in attack submarines between the U.S., Russia, and China. However, when broken down by type of submarine, the picture changes. The USN relies exclusively on nuclear-powered submarines to provide longer range, greater speed, and more submerged endurance compared to diesel or air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines. This is because the U.S. plans an “away game” with submarines deployed far from U.S. shores, while Russia and China expect to be using their larger conventional submarine fleets close to home.

2019 Number of submarines by type per country.

When the metric of BFMs (including torpedoes) is applied, the U.S. is also shown to have a significant lead in subsurface firepower. While the U.S. has fewer SSGNs than Russia, they carry far more missiles per submarine. The three Seawolf SSNs also have an extra-large torpedo load, as do Los Angeles and Virginia class SSNs fitted with vertical launch tubes, to give them more weapons than other subs their size. This allows them to stay in the fight longer before returning to reload. Newer Virginia class submarines will have the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) installed, further increasing their firepower.

2019 Number of submarine weapons by country.

Of course, any single metric will fail to capture the power of a fleet. Informed opinions will differ on the correct offensive and defensive load mix for a warship, or the qualities of a Harpoon ASCM compared to a P-270 Moskit, 3M-54 Club, or YJ-18. Some of these issues are discussed by Alan Cummings in his 2016 Naval War College Review article on Chinese ASCMs in competitive control. In that article, he shows that for anti-ship firepower, U.S. surface vessels are severely over-matched. However, after 2016, VLS options for surface strike (SM-6 and Maritime Strike Tomahawk) have become feasible. Since the mixture of weapons in a VLS tube battery is variable, the number of cells may now provide a better metric than calculations assuming weapons loads. In addition, one must consider crew quality, training, and readiness as components of fleet power. National character and experience as a sea power also come into play. However, all of these qualities are hard to ascribe metrics to, and arms control treaties and analysts focus on measurable and verifiable metrics.


In the end, a fleet must be measured against what it is expected to do. For power projection abroad, a large number of BFMs (or carriers supporting strikes) would be more capable of performing the mission. Close to home, vessels can more easily return to friendly ports to rearm BFMs, so the total at sea may be less important. Even at equal numbers of BFMs, a fleet concentrating them on a smaller number of high-capacity platforms would be less able to control sea-space than a fleet that spread the same number of missiles over a half-dozen combatants. The more distributed fleet would also be more tolerant of losses. Currently, the USN has its power concentrated in high-end warships, be they carriers, large surface combatants, or nuclear submarines. However, this also makes the USN susceptible to major losses, especially if defenses don’t work as well as expected.

The U.S. has a significant lead in BFMs, but also has global commitments which may drastically reduce how many BFMs can be committed to a particular theater. In the western Pacific, the PLAN is rapidly narrowing this lead. As the United States builds towards a 355-ship Navy, it will need to carefully consider the missions required and, in wartime, the firepower required, to accomplish them.

Commander Keith “Powder” Patton is the Deputy Chair, Strategic and Operational Research Dept (SORD) at the Naval War College. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the official views of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image:  September 3, 2005. US Navy (USN) Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke Class (flight I); Guided Missile Destroyer, USS FITZGERALD (DDG 62) inspect the MK 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) for water to prevent electrical failure. (Photo by: PHAN Adam York, USN)

A Bomber for the Navy

This article originally featured on Over The Horizon and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Will Spears and Ross Hobbs

Abstract: Rather than sending the B-1 Lancer into early retirement, the Department of Defense could transfer it to the Navy for duty as a land-based ship-killer. Considering its speed, range, payload, and flexibility to employ the new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the B-1 is an ideal candidate for rebirth as a Sea Control Bomber.  

For better than a decade, the United States’ defense establishment has agonized over China’s aggressive military modernization. A growing arsenal of land-based anti-ship missiles abets an increasingly capable and assertive Chinese navy, threatening to quietly transform the East and South China Seas into de-facto Chinese territory if not forcefully challenged. The military aspects of this competition demand an ability to fight in the contested environment, prompting the development of concepts like the former Air-Sea Battle and its successor, JAM-GC, as well as a steady drumbeat of calls from senior leaders for disruptive thinking and creative solutions.

It was in this spirit of disruptive thinking that, at a CNAS-hosted panel discussion titled “A New American Way of War,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work casually offered up a fascinating bit of heresy:

“If the Air Force is getting rid of the B-1 bomber, I’d say ‘You are out of maritime strike.’ We’re going to give the B-1 to the Navy, we’re going to load up with 3,000 LRASMs, and we’re going to base them in Guam and all over the place, and in the first 72 hours [of a conflict] they are going to go out and hunt down and kill every ship in sight.”

Amateurs gush disruptive ideas all the time, but when an industry heavyweight like Robert Work speaks out, it’s prudent to explore his opinions. Work’s conjecture was nested in a broader discussion, beginning around the 53-minute mark, lamenting the self-imposed limitations of “jointness” in driving procurement decisions. Rather than treating land-based strike as a proprietary mission of the Air Force, Work suggests that the Navy revive its concept of the Patrol Bombing (VPB) Squadron, which employed land-based aircraft to sink enemy ships in WWII. A force of LRASM-equipped naval patrol bombers, Work contends, could destroy an adversary’s fleet from the air without tangling with its anti-ship missile systems.

“In other words,” Work continued, “give the whole Chinese anti-access / area denial network no targets to shoot at.”

Secretary Work is not the only defense expert to propose that the Navy get into the bomber business. Analyst Robert Haddick devoted several pages of his influential book Fire on the Water to the idea. Unlike Work, Haddick proposed that the Navy acquire its own fleet of the next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber (or what has become the B-21), in a joint arrangement with the Air Force. To pay for it, Haddick suggested that the Navy scale back on purchases of the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, and DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which he argued would be of limited usefulness in a missile-contested environment. Haddick wrote:

“With these stealthy bombers instead, the Navy would have maritime airpower that would actually be useful against China’s navy under way in the heavily defended Near Seas and against the PLA’s naval bases and ‘anti-navy’ forces—missions too dangerous for the Navy’s aircraft carriers and destroyers.”

Work and Haddick both recognized that a Navy-operated bomber runs against contemporary notions of “jointness,” notions which Work characterized as a “monolithic cudgel.” They both emphasized the importance of mission effectiveness, or “what can get the job done,” over parochial service interests or respect for swim lanes. For Haddick, specifically, it’s all about who is responsible to achieve control of a contested sea—a perennial Navy mission. If the Navy will be held accountable to control the sea, Haddick argued, then it should have the tools necessary to do it. That, to Haddick, means bombers. He continued:

“Under the theories of Air-Sea Battle and joint operational access, it shouldn’t matter which service, or combination of services, actually does the work. But in practice, the Navy will have the most intense interest both in maritime challenges, such as land-based “anti-navy” forces, and in development of the capabilities and doctrine necessary to cope with such challenges. Top-level policymakers interested in making sure the “anti-navy” problem is fixed will have a strong reason to assign the problem—and the resources—to the Navy.”

A B-1B releases a LRASM during early trials of the AGM-158C anti-ship missile. The B-1 is the first aircraft to become operational with the weapon. (Lockheed Martin)

Fire on the Water was published in 2014, and while it has become required reading in war colleges for its depiction of China’s military expansion, Haddick’s call for a naval variant of the Long-Range Strike Bomber never garnered much attention. Concern over the high-end fight has only grown, though, and Work’s recent conjecture is a case in point which reframes Haddick’s argument. A rigorous testing program has determined the B-1 could fly through 2040 without a major life extension, but the Air Force has decided to retire it early to make room for the B-21 Raider. What if, instead of going to the boneyard, the B-1 were reassigned to the Navy?

The B-1 as a Sea Control Bomber

The Rockwell B-1 has had an interesting ride as a program of record. Designed to replace the 1960s-era B-52 as the Air Force’s primary nuclear bomber, the first B-1A flew in 1974. It was canceled by the Carter administration before entering production but then revived as the B-1B Lancer under Reagan. The B-1B featured improved avionics and greater payload than its predecessor, as well as an 85 percent reduction in radar cross-section at a slight penalty to speed. 100 were built; 63 remain in service today. It was divested of the nuclear mission in 1994, its enormous bomb bays repurposed to a variety of conventional attack munitions.

A classic example of Cold War-era design for lethality, the B-1 offers a combination of speed, flexibility, payload, and range that remains unmatched in its class. Capable of traveling for hours at near supersonic speeds, it can surge across vast oceans faster and with less refueling support than any current US or allied nation aircraft. It is also more maneuverable than other bombers and far more flexible. B-1 crews train at both high and low altitudes to perform a variety of mission sets, including large-scale standoff weapon attacks, large-scale Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) attacks, Close Air Support (CAS), Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR), Non-traditional Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (NTISR), and Air Operations in Maritime Surface Warfare (AOMSW) which includes Counter Fast Attack Craft (FAC)/Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC), Aerial Mine Laying, and War at Sea against surface vessels.

The Navy’s primary use for the B-1 would be for the delivery of standoff weapons like LRASM or the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) against peer adversaries. These could destroy high-end warships and coastal cruise missile systems on short notice and from a comfortable distance, creating multiple avenues of approach for distributed naval forces. In scenarios short of war, they provide a powerful deterrent to maritime aggression, demonstrating both the capability and the resolve to project power into a contested environment. In asymmetric or low-intensity conflicts the B-1 would continue to deliver the same versatile combat power that it has for decades, only it would be administered by the Navy instead of the Air Force.

This versatility is probably the B-1’s most compelling feature. Of all bombers in service, the B-1 doesn’t just carry the largest payload (75,000 pounds; the B-52 and B-2 carry 70,000 and 40,000 pounds respectively), but its repertoire of supported weapons and combat systems is among the most elaborate fielded by any aircraft today. Included are the aforementioned long-range standoff weapons (LRASM and JASSM), as well as GPS- and laser-guided JDAMs (GBU-31, 38, 54), unguided bombs and sea mines (Mk-82, 84, 62, 65), and a multitude of sensors including the Sniper targeting pod and a Synthetic Aperture Radar. It also features a powerful defensive avionics suite, capable of providing electronic countermeasures against advanced threat systems.

Some examples of potential Navy combat loadouts and mission sets are below. B-1 squadrons normally train to a minimum of two aircraft for a given mission, so the ordnance brought to bear would probably reflect some multiple of the following:

  • Sea Denial: 24 LRASM
  • A2/AD Rollback: 8 LRASM & 16 JASSM
  • Strategic Attack: 24 JASSM
  • Aerial Mine Laying: 84 Mk-62 or 12 Mk-65
  • Counter FAC/FIAC: 10 CBU-105D/B and 6 GBU-54
  • CAS for SOF/USMC: 8x GBU-31, 6x GBU-38, 6x GBU-54

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers fly from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for a mission, with an escort of a pair of Japan Self-Defense Forces F-15 fighter jets and U.S. Marines’ F-35B fighter jets in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, in this photo released by Air Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan August 31, 2017. (Air Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT via REUTERS)

In addition to firepower, versatility is also a function of range. Without aerial refueling, the B-1 can fly for over 8 hours, or approximately 3,500 nautical miles. To put this in perspective, it can fly from Hawaii to Guam without refueling, or perhaps more pertinently, from Guam to the Taiwan Strait and back. With refueling, B-1 missions have exceeded 24 hours. A notional Concept of Operations could distribute the B-1 fleet between CONUS naval air stations and established overseas airbases like Andersen (Guam), Hickam (Hawaii) and Al Udeid (Qatar). Like they are today, these would remain on-call 24/7 for immediate response to emergent tasking with or without aerial refueling. Deployed in concert with missile-bearing attack submarines, and empowered by flexible refueling options like carrier-based unmanned tankers, a distributed force of Sea Control Bombers would present a complex and risk-prohibitive planning dilemma to any would-be maritime aggressor.

Many critics would argue that any new aircraft acquisitions should be unmanned. That may be true, provided that we ignore the unresolved issues with autonomous targeting in a communications-denied environment. At any rate, the B-1 is not a new acquisition; it is a thoroughly established system. In this sense it can serve as a proof-of-concept, buying time for an autonomous replacement to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC).


For navalists intrigued by the B-1’s superlative capabilities, excitement should be tempered with respect for its costs. Unsurprisingly, the B-1 is a labor-intensive beast, demanding 74 maintenance man-hours per flying hour (MMH/FH) with an estimated cost per flying hour of $70K (to be fair, the B-52 also costs about $70K per flying hour, while the B-2 costs between $110K and $150K). These are Air Force estimates and may not be perfectly fungible with the Navy’s models for aircraft ownership costs, but their implications are clear. Even if the B-1 fleet were reassigned to the Navy “free of charge,” there is little doubt that manning and maintaining it would be expensive.


Then there’s the matter of age. Due to factors like fatigue and diminishing manufacturing sources, aircraft tend to become more expensive to keep airworthy as they get older. While various modernization efforts have prevented the B-1 from falling into obsolescence, the airframe is clearly in the “aging” phase of its life cycle, as Congressional Budget Office analysts found that the B-1’s cost per flying hour grew by a real rate (i.e., independent of inflation) of 2.9% between 1999 and 2016.


Some of the B-1’s ownership costs will be reduced through modernizations as moving parts are eliminated and high-failure electronics are replaced with solid-state circuitry. Some of these modernization efforts are in progress today; others were shelved with the decision to retire the B-1 but could be revived. Additional savings could be gleaned by accepting sacrifices in performance, as might be prudent upon reassignment of the B-1 to a different mission. For instance, if the Sea Control mission set does not require supersonic speeds, the B-1 could be outfitted with engines that are less powerful but more reliable and fuel-efficient. Any such modifications would demand an initial injection of funding, though, as would the necessary modernizations to keep the airframe flying through 2040 or beyond.


When viewing B-1’s costs against the anticipated price of the B-21 Raider program, it’s little surprise that the Air Force is ready to retire it. It is hardly efficient to support four different classes of bomber simultaneously. Their decision raises the question, though: If the B-1 is too expensive for the Air Force, whose primary mission is long-range strike, then how could it be affordable to the Navy, whose primary mission is not long-range strike? If the B-1 were reassigned to the Navy without additional funding to man and maintain it, then it could easily turn into a financial albatross, diverting resources from core Navy priorities (e.g., warships) to essentially duplicate the capabilities of a sister service.

The heresy of a Navy-operated, land-based long-range bomber crosses service lines. For the Air Force, it would represent an intrusion upon what has long been its operational territory as well as the original rationale for its existence as an independent armed service. From a more practical standpoint, rather than turn over a fully furnished weapons system to another service, Air Force leadership would almost certainly prefer to gut the B-1 and its associated logistics tail, keeping the useful parts inside the Air Force.

For the Navy, practical concerns could be difficult to distinguish from emotional resistance, because taking on the B-1 would probably demand sacrifices in some programs more traditionally recognizable as “Navy.” In theory, being land-based should have no bearing on the B-1’s legitimacy as a naval instrument, because the Navy has long relied upon land-based aircraft. Platforms like the P-8 Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton are critical elements of today’s balanced fleet. In reality, though, a heavy bomber like the B-1 would upset the balance, instantly becoming one of the Navy’s most exquisite and potent offensive weapons. It would give credence to the charge, which the Navy denies carefully, that major surface combatants and aircraft carriers are too vulnerable to fight under threat of weapons like the DF-21D.

At issue is the Navy’s sense of identity, and whether it is derived from what a navy is (ships and aircraft… but principally ships) or what a navy does (control the maritime domain). Indeed, many of the Navy’s traditional missions would receive no value from the B-1. It cannot pull into a new ally’s port for a courtesy visit, nor can it board and search a vessel suspected of trafficking weapons. It cannot destroy a midcourse ballistic missile, nor can it hunt and kill enemy submarines. What the B-1 can do is sink ships, a lot of them, and quickly. It can do this on short notice across vast distances, and it can do it without engaging “A2/AD” missile systems. That the Navy could use a weapon like that is beyond dispute; whether it should, depends on what the Navy would give up and the relative importance of the Sea Control mission. It is worthy of analysis.

Ultimately, it may not be about what either service wants, but what Congress wants. The B-1 fleet is a major investment of national treasure, and Congress could decide that it should be kept airworthy through the entirety of its service life as a matter of good stewardship. Some representatives, ostensibly concerned about peer adversaries and a relative decline in US military power, may prefer to keep the B-1 flying in whatever capacity could be justified. Under this scenario, it would certainly be simpler and cheaper to keep it under the Air Force, unless Congress was persuaded that the Navy would make better use of it.

B-1B Lancer flying over the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Closing Thoughts

The B-21 is expected to reach IOC in the mid- to late- 2020s, with the phase-out of B-1 beginning in 2030. Air Force Global Strike Command has already begun to shift focus away from the B-1, having announced intentions to extend the B-52 through 2050. Once the B-21 starts flying, support for B-1 will almost certainly stop. Considering these timelines, if B-1 were to be reassigned to the Navy, the ideal time for transition would be sometime between 2028 and 2030.

The B-21, similar to the B-2 in its design concept and stealth features, is not capable of replacing the B-1’s speed, flexibility, or payload. The early retirement of the B-1 will represent a decline in flexible US striking power across all Unified Combatant Commands at a time when it is needed most. Ideas for keeping that power at the ready, however unorthodox, should be explored thoroughly. This article’s purpose has not been to advocate for the B-1’s reassignment to the Navy, but to advocate for its consideration by a third party independent of service biases. Without thorough and professional analysis, there are too many variables at play to comment on whether this idea would be good or bad for the Navy, the Air Force, or the nation. This much is certain though: The B-1’s continued service would be bad for the PLA Navy.

LCDR Will Spears is a US Navy submariner and a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College. He has served aboard multiple attack submarines in the Western Pacific area of responsibility. 

Maj Ross “RAW” Hobbs is a B-1 Weapons Officer Instructor Pilot and a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at Air Command and Staff College.  He has over 2,000 hours of flying in the B-1 and other platforms with multiple deployments, including the Western Pacific area of responsibility.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Air Force or any organization of the US government.

Featured Image: A U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer Bomber flies by the aircraft carrier USS NIMITZ (CVN 68). Nimitz is deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch, 12/25/1997 (PH2 Christopher G. Ware)

The Navy’s Newest Nemesis: Hypersonic Weapons

By Jon Isaac


In January 2019, Chinese Communist Party leaders announced that the newest iteration of their DF-17 missile system was being designed to overwhelm and sink U.S. aircraft carriers and surface combatants stationed in the West Pacific. According to official statements from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), a targeted salvo of eight hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) set aloft by DF-17s would swamp a surface vessel’s close-in point defenses and annihilate it through incredible transfers of kinetic energy. This type of inflammatory language is not new and Chinese officials have been known to exaggerate the capabilities of their military. However, discussion of the DF-17 and similar weapon systems as conventional, theater-level assets, rather than the strategic nuclear capabilities generally associated with hypersonic missiles, poses a set of very serious and immediate threats to decision-makers in Washington.

Rather than continue the popular trend of treating hypersonic weapons primarily as delivery mechanisms for nuclear warheads aimed at strategic targets, China has been quick to utilize the technology to augment its theater-level Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. Such developments suggest that the most critical threat posed by hypersonic weapons is not strategic, but tactical, operational, and conventional. A focus on hypersonic weapons as operational threats is not a novel concept, though it merits further review as near-peer adversaries continue to develop hypersonic capabilities. Michael Griffin, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, argued recently that the “tactical capability that these sorts of weapons bring to theater conflicts or regional conflicts” is at the core of the hypersonic threat.

Most service branches seem to have adopted a view similar to Griffin’s, with the Army, Air Force, and Navy all independently developing hypersonic platforms intended for a myriad of tactical and operational purposes. For the Navy, however, hypersonics could represent a tectonic shift in weapons technology on par with the decline of battleships and the rise of the aircraft carrier during the Second World War. Indeed, Russia and China’s development and deployment of hypersonic weapons could challenge the decades-long assumption that U.S. naval assets can operate with complete freedom of movement and comparatively little legitimate threat to their survivability. While anti-ship cruise missiles or attack aircraft can be countered through point defense batteries, electronic countermeasures, or even directed energy systems, conventionally armed hypersonic weapons could likely render existing defenses ineffective. As such, with the focus on conventional hypersonics on the rise, the operational impacts of hypersonic weapons systems on the US Navy merit analysis and could prompt a series of doctrinal shifts which could then enhance surface survivability in the hypersonic era. Before engaging in any such analysis, however, one must first grapple with the concept of hypersonics as a whole.

What is a Hypersonic Weapon?

Hypersonic missiles and glide projectiles are those which travel at least Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. In round numbers, this equates to a speed of about a mile a second. For comparison, even the quickest modern fighters generally top out around Mach 2, with only specialized aircraft capable of reaching Mach 3. Once an airframe reaches Mach 4, 5, and beyond, specialized technologies like supersonic combustion ramjets, or SCRAMJETs, must be used to carve through the air. Unlike traditional jet engines, SCRAMJETs use no moving parts or machinery to direct and combust air, thereby making them incredibly efficient at plowing an airframe through the sky at incredibly high speeds.

Though manned hypersonic flight has occurred in the past, most notably with USAF Major Robert White’s 1961 flight in the NASA X-15, today the technology is most promising when used to propel unmanned vehicles and missiles. Presently, most high-profile hypersonic weapons utilize either SCRAMJET propulsion, as is the case with hypersonic cruise missiles, or are unpowered glide vehicles which are propelled to extreme altitudes by ballistic missile systems, only to turn back towards the surface and glide at extreme speeds towards their targets on a non-ballistic trajectory. This distinction is important, as both hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are being touted as globally destabilizing weapons systems.

Put simply, hypersonic missiles are dangerously fast. So fast, in fact, that they are relatively impervious to currently fielded missile defense technology. Theater level missile defense systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and the Patriot point-defense missile systems are designed to counter ballistic weapons which fly on relatively predictable speeds and flight trajectories. Conversely, hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles can move erratically and at such incredible speeds so as to render existing defenses mostly irrelevant.

The value of such capability has not gone unnoticed by adversaries. Russia, for example, successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle known as Avangard just this past December. The weapon, they claim, is capable of reaching terminal glide speeds of almost 27 times the speed of sound. The validity of that speed claim has been disputed by a number of experts and defense media outlets, but one thing is known for sure – the weapon exists and the weapon works. Meanwhile, China spent most of 2018 conducting more hypersonic weapons tests than the United States has conducted in the past decade. America’s adversaries have funneled enough resources and manpower into developing hypersonic weapons to raise some eyebrows in Washington, not the least of which include the United States Navy. 

What Does This Mean for the Navy?

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has been able to operate with relative impunity throughout the world’s oceans. At the center of American postwar maritime dominance is the aircraft carrier. While hulking battleships of old held the status of capital ships in U.S. fleets, aircraft carriers rose to prominence as the crown jewel of American power projection. As a result, aircraft carrier battle groups have stood at the cornerstone of American power projection strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and have been able to impose their will (and firepower) upon almost any target on the globe. Much in line with the Mahanian fleet doctrines which helped to drive America to victory in the Pacific, modern surface warfare strategies have seen the Navy organize its fleets and surface action groups around a prime directive, protect the aircraft carrier. To date, this strategy has proven successful (albeit with no serious tests in actual combat), with submarine screens, active electronic warfare measures, air defense umbrellas, and AEGIS-equipped surface assets acting as an impenetrable wall behind which America’s flattops are safe from any potential foe.

What happens, then, when new technologies render virtually all existing missile defense and point defense assets ineffective? What happens when the very foundation of modern American maritime dominance, the aircraft carrier battle group, is held at risk by missiles and high-trajectory, high-speed kinetic glide vehicles which are, as admitted by the Pentagon, extremely challenging to existing missile defenses?

This is the fundamental problem with which the Navy must now address. It must be noted, however, that this type of threat against the carrier battle group is not entirely new to the surface warfare community. For example, China’s decades-long development efforts and eventual deployment of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) as core to its A2/AD network brought into question the viability of the carrier battle group and questioned whether the hulking warships had a future in a modern battlespace. For the past decade, analysts debated the ramifications of Chinese anti-ship missile capabilities, with increased debate on the topic springing about within the Obama-era Air-Sea Battle concept. A primary feature of the Chinese threat is the reality that increased ASCM and ASBM capabilities may force American carrier battlegroups further out to sea to avoid closing range between themselves and anti-ship missile batteries on shore. In response, analysts have prescribed everything from increased escort vessels to the newly-awarded MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) as ways to increase carrier survivability. These prescriptions have offered a diverse set of solutions, with the former hoping to deny ASCM/ASMB strikes through conventional air defense and the latter ensuring carrier battle group effectiveness by increasing the reach of conventional strike fighters. In short, threats to the carrier battle group are not new. What makes hypersonics different?

Unlike conventional ASCMs, ASBMs, and other A2/AD threats, there is currently no technological counter to the hypersonic threat. Existing joint efforts between the service branches and DARPA, like the recently announced Glide Breaker program, have endeavored to come up with a viable defense to stop hypersonic weapons from bypassing existing missile defense networks. Unfortunately, no immediately viable kinetic counter-hypersonic technologies have been identified or developed. To make matters worse, top defense officials in the Pentagon’s technology development offices have diagnosed that even existing radar systems would be unable to adequately track and identify a hypersonic threat, to say nothing of prosecuting or defeating such a threat.

The news is not all bad, however. For example, space based sensor arrays have been touted by DOD officials as viable means for “warning, launch detection, surveillance, acquisition, [and] tracking” of hypersonic threats. Similarly, despite the technological challenges, offices like the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency and DARPA have charged ahead at examining high-saturation kinetic projectiles and even directed energy weapons as potential means for destroying hypersonics on a strategic level. While these efforts are all well and good, however, their technological immaturity and prohibitive cost betray the lack of capability to protect American naval assets from hypersonics in the next few years.

Clearly, then, to address the hypersonic threat in the immediate short-term, the Navy cannot rely on technological development and the traditional edge offered by American technological dominance. Instead of looking to laboratories and development houses for hardware tools to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons, the Navy must look to its own assets and shift traditional surface warfare doctrines to ensure survivability. Three doctrinal shifts stand out as potential options for responding to the theater-based use of conventional hypersonics, each with varying levels of plausibility and effectiveness.

Potential Fleet Options

First, a decreased reliance on the concentrated “porcupine” structure of a carrier battle group in favor of distributed use of destroyers, cruisers, smaller LHD flattops, and even LPD transport docks could provide adversaries with such a widely spread set of targets so as to make concentrated hypersonic attack, like the “eight salvo” mission as described by Chinese authorities, unfeasible. By disaggregating targets around carrier battle groups, the Navy could deny its adversaries the ability to reach the concentration levels of hypersonic firepower needed to effectively eliminate the target. This shift is not without its faults. The notion of networked and distributed surface operations is not a new one and blunders in attempting to implement this type of fleet structure in the past have been the bane of the surface Navy. Moreover, the act of distributing and decreasing the density of American warships in a surface action group or carrier battle group could limit the power projection capabilities of such a force, thereby hindering one of the Navy’s core missions.

A second option posits that further utilization of unmanned undersea assets and existing nuclear-powered submarines may prove to be an effective way to address some of the shortcomings brought about by a more vulnerable carrier battle group. For example, increased development and deployment of guided missile submarines, be they conventional boats like the Navy’s modified Ohio-class SSGNs or emerging unmanned options like Boeing’s Orca/Echo Voyager XLUUV platform, would provide the Navy with several far-forward domain capabilities. Such assets would allow the Navy to field missile strike and reconnaissance assets closer to adversary coastlines without bringing surface assets into the effective reach of hypersonic weapons. While submarines will never be able to field their own independent combat air wing or project visible American power in the same way a carrier can, they could engage in some of the maritime patrol and missile strike projection operations previously led by carrier battle groups. Again, this is not an impervious solution since many of the key operations shouldered by aircraft carriers are unique to their incredible deterrence and firepower projection capabilities.

Finally, DARPA and the Department of the Navy have highlighted increased conventional missile deterrence and conventional disruption operations as potential routes for driving adversaries to “think twice” in the use of their hypersonic missiles in the first place. As argued by Robert Farley, a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, there are an incredibly complex series of decisions and steps which must go off without a hitch for an adversary to successfully conduct a strike against a carrier battle group. “Disrupting any single one,” Farley writes, “can slow or entirely avoid the attack.” As such, the Navy could structure its fleet doctrines and operational focuses to counter the myriad of technologies which support a hypersonic strike, rather than attempt to counter the hypersonic weapon itself. For example, targeted jamming of missile guidance nodes around the region or destruction of the aircraft and satellites which are required to guide such a weapon to its target. This notion spreads beyond merely Navy-commanded operations, with cyber-attacks on networked hypersonic systems standing as a possible counter to their launch and targeting.

Like with previous suggestions, this “full spectrum” approach to preventing hypersonic targeting or strike of a traditional surface group is not without its flaws. For example, preemptively engaging in any such attacks or jamming operations could escalate a tactical or immediate political situation. Though it could decrease the likelihood of a successful hypersonic strike, thereby freeing up American carrier battle groups to do what they do best, it could just as easily prove pyrrhic should the situation escalate out of control.

Still, there is no single doctrinal answer to the hypersonic threat. Instead, the Navy must be willing to evolve from the sacred and historically effective Mahanian capital-ship doctrine which it has adhered to in the past and adopt surface organization tactics which decrease the likelihood of a hypersonic attack in the first place and minimize the potential effectiveness of such an attack should it take place.


For the past few months, press sources have been flooding the internet with stories about impervious hypersonic weapons which could deliver nuclear warheads onto targets in the American homeland quickly and with no warning. While the hypersonic nuclear threat is a valid one, focusing on it betrays the real threat posed by conventional hypersonic systems which are not subject to the deterrent effects of the American nuclear triad. Conventional operational use of hypersonic weapons could render existing naval surface asset structures ineffective. Rather than rely on the historically dominant American tech sector, however, the Navy must address the short-term threats posed by hypersonics through evolution of warfighting doctrine, tactics, and fleet organization. Just as aviation development brought a close to the age of the battleship, hypersonic weapons could bring to end the age of the traditional carrier battle group.

Jon Isaac is a pseudonym for a developing security analyst.

Featured Image: Ground crew members make the final checks to the X-51A Waverider scramjet, which is affixed to an Edwards B-52H Stratofortress before being flown over the Pacific Ocean and launched June 13, 2011. (Photo by Bob Ferguson/Boeing)

Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy

By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN

The president recently reiterated his call, echoed by many in the Department of Defense, for a larger Navy to meet the world’s threats. That call, however, is meeting the harsh reality of spiraling ship costs over the last 20 years. Indeed, over a decade ago then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark told Congress, “[w]hen adjusted for inflation, for example, the real cost increase in every class of ship and aircraft that we have bought since I was an Ensign…has been truly incredible.”1

While much of the news surrounding ships and their growing price tags focuses on aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, there is another class of ship that likewise threatens to break the Navy’s bank – amphibious ships. Despite a historical track record of damage-free employment and a reputation for straightforward “truck-like” delivery of Marines and their gear, the Navy continues to saddle these ships with greater defensive requirements and a level of sophistication out of touch with the mission they are meant to support. Using history and a clear assessment of expeditionary warfare as guides, the Navy needs to reexamine just how much it wants to put into these platforms and consider a return to a more stripped-down, cost-effective platform that can be built in greater numbers for the same price.

The Demand for Amphibs

Marines provide combatant commanders with a variety of options to fulfill the president’s National Security Strategy around the world, ranging from theater security cooperation to forcible entry. The Navy is obligated by public law to embark Marines for “service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”2 The current requirement for amphibious ships stands at 38, enough to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades for an amphibious assault. The Navy has not met this requirement since 2003.3 The current fleet inventory of 33 ships implicitly accepts the risk that the Marine Corps may not be able to simultaneously meet its presence and force generation requirements.The projected cost of the LX(R) replacement, set at $1.643 billion per ship, means that the Navy will likely continue accepting this risk, despite the CNO stating that the industrial base could produce at least five more ships in the next six years.5

Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.6 The CNO, Admiral John Richardson, articulated in The Future Navy that the Navy knows it needs the “inherent flexibility of a larger amphibious fleet.”7 Throughout Expeditionary Force 21, the Marine Corps acknowledges that the operational environment has changed significantly since the last amphibious ships were built. Amphibious landings, once conducted within sight of the beach, have been pushed further out because of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The Marine Corps now sets the benchmark distance at 65 nautical miles from shore. Survivability seems to be the primary concern, but is the fundamental assumption that an amphibious ship must be built to naval vessel construction standards actually valid?

Battle Damage and Amphibious Operations

In 1921, Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis published Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange and the foundation of modern amphibious doctrine.8 The United States conducted dozens of amphibious assaults in World War II and several more during Korea and Vietnam. The vast majority of the amphibious ships were passenger ships retrofitted as troop transports, not organic warships. At no time did amphibious assault forces conduct a landing unescorted. Indeed, a survey of the available battle damage records for World War II and the Korean War indicates that large amphibious ships did not receive battle damage and none were lost. The escorts and landing craft bore the brunt of the enemy attempts to repulse the attack, despite the larger ships offloading within sight of the beach. In 1982, the British conducted the last major amphibious assault to recapture the Falkland Islands. Despite an acute ASCM threat from Argentinian air power, no amphibious ships were lost. The British lost the Atlantic Conveyor, a relatively small merchant ship taken up from trade, and a handful of escorts. History shows the United States will almost always provide an extensive escort to conduct forcible entry operations.  

The threat of ASCMs to ships in the littoral regions has grown significantly in the last half century. The proliferation of highly capable missiles, such as the Exocet and the C-802, places U.S. Navy deployed forces at risk daily. USS Mason (DDG-87) was forced to defend itself in October 2016 when Houthi rebels in Yemen launched two missiles at the destroyer, who was escorting USS Ponce (LPD-15) at the time. This attack came soon after the successful attack on the United Arab Emirates-operated HSV Swift by Houthi rebels with a C-802 the week prior.9 ASCMs have proven successful at causing significant damage or sinking warships in the past, as the attacks on HMS Sheffield (D80) in 1982 and USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987 so aptly demonstrate. But these were small combatants, each around 4,500 tons, and Atlantic Conveyor was not much bigger at 14,900 tons.

These data points seem conclusive, but the 1980s provided an exceptional data set of ASCM attacks on much larger ships. During the Iran-Iraq War, the attacks from both sides expanded to merchant shipping and, eventually, U.S. forces began escorting them as part of Operation EARNEST WILL. The Iraqis began attacking shipping in 1984 and Iran responded in kind in 1986, resulting in the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers under U.S. flag and direct U.S. escort and convoy operations.10 Iran and Iraq cumulatively launched 487 attacks against merchant shipping, mostly with Exocets (62.5 percent). Only a handful missed, resulting in 19 sunk. Of these 19, seven were under 1200 deadweight tons (dwt), seven were between 1,200-30,000 dwt, three were between 60,000-90,000 dwt, one unknown, and one tipped the scales at 224,850 dwt.11 Overall, the percentage of merchant ships sunk in all air attacks, not just ASCM attacks, peaked at 10.34 percent in 1984, remained below 4 percent until 1987, and fell to 1 percent in 1988.12  Navias and Hooten report that only 115 of the ships attacked, or 27.9 percent, were considered constructive total losses, half of which were tankers. They conclude:

“The Tanker War certainly demonstrated that the robust construction of merchantman made them far less vulnerable to modern weapons systems than might have been expected. The most vulnerable vessels were the bulk carriers, with their vast holds, and the traditional freighter whose high freeboard and central superstructure attracted missile seekers like a moth to flame.”13

Retired Captain Wayne Hughes, a professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the landmark work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, looked at all ASCM attacks and concluded that it took more than one ASCM hit to place a ship out of action, and nearly two hits to sink it. The vast majority of the attacks were against smaller ships. Escort ships reduced the probability of hit by more than 60 percent.14 Thus, larger ships are far more survivable due to sheer size, especially when escorted. This all begs the question: why are we paying for warship standards and systems when the ships, especially larger ones, are likely to survive alone and would be escorted in higher-threat environments? Do other navies do the same?

Foreign Amphibious Ships

Spanish shipbuilder Navantia shocked the modern Navy when it announced that it was teaming up with Bath Iron Works to design the U.S. Navy’s next generation frigate.15 Many commentators balked at the hint of outsourcing an American warship design to a foreign company. However, as Navantia was quick to point out, the Navy has a history of doing that—Bath Iron Works and Navantia cooperated in designing the Oliver Hazard Perry (U.S.) and Santa Maria (SP) class of frigates in the 1980s.16 Other nations likely design their warships to similar standards as the U.S. Navy does, meaning the comparisons should be valid.

The comparison considers the amphibious assault ships (LHA/LHD classes), amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and dock landing ships (LSDs), which are all common across several of the world’s navies. The chart below provides relevant statistics about these ships for analysis.

Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA/LHD)17
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots Air Spots
Australia Canberra 27,100 358 1046-1400 $1.04B 4 LCVP 9-18
France Mistral 21,300 140 450-900 $644M 2 LCAC 16-35
South Korea Dokdo 18,800 330 720 $355M 2 LCAC 10
Spain Juan Carlos 26,000 261 913 $644M 4 LCVP 25
USA America 45,693 1060 1687 $3.54B 2 LCAC 31
USA Wasp 40,500 1208 1894 $2.3B 3 LCAC 20

At first glance, the comparison seems invalid since the U.S. ships are nearly twice the size of the next foreign ship, the Canberra class. However, the Canberra is a scant 100 feet shorter than the U.S. ships, meaning the density of the equipment onboard the US LHA/LHDs is far greater than the Australian class. RAND identified the root cause of this disparity as the U.S. propensity for more technologically complex ships. These ships will perform the exact same missions, but the Canberra-class is a third the cost. The Spanish Juan Carlos class has the same specifications as the Australian Canberra-class, but with fewer crew and embarked troops. The Mistral and Dokdo, a full 200 feet shorter than the equivalent U.S. classes, are still about half the tonnage of the U.S. ships. RAND identified light ship weight (LSW)18 and power density as most closely correlated with ship cost. In this case, LSW and power density for the U.S. ships is significantly higher in our analysis, and the RAND researchers calculate this at an 80-90 percent increase across the ship classes they evaluated.19 The U.S. ships simply have more stuff than their foreign counterparts. We continue the analysis with LPDs and LSDs.

Amphibious Transport Dock and Dock Landing Ships (LPD and LSD)
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots
China Yuzhao LPD 25,000 120 500-800 $630M (est) 4 LCAC
Singapore Endurance LSD 8,500 65 350-500 Unk. 2 LCVP
Britain Bay LSD 16,160 228 355-700 $205M 2 LCVP
Indonesia Makassar LSD 8,400 126 218-518 $58M 2 LCVP
Italy San Giorgio LSD 8,000 180 350 $303M 3 LCVP
USA San Antonio LPD 25,300 360 700 $1.72B 2 LCAC
USA Whidbey Island LSD 16,100 330 504 $653M 6 LCAC
USA Harpers Ferry LSD 15,939 410 500 $524M 2 LCAC

The conclusions are similar. The Chinese Yuzhao-class, a newer class of amphibious ship that looks similar to the San Antonio-class, is more than 60 percent cheaper and likely has comparable capabilities. Interestingly, several navies have built much smaller amphibious ships of nearly half the tonnage of their American counterparts, yet carry nearly the same number of troops. Those ships are about two-thirds the length and 10-20 feet narrower, meaning the LSW ratio is lower on those ships than the U.S. LSDs. Yet the U.S. Navy consistently pays significantly more for its amphibious ships than foreign navies. RAND found that labor rates and other economic factors did not significantly drive ship costs, meaning their conclusion of LSW, power density, and requirements is likely true. What to do?

Crew Size

The analysis thus far yields several interesting areas that the Navy can exploit for future cost savings without a major loss of capabilities. Crew size, arguably, would have the most outsized impact not only on sticker price but, more importantly, total ownership cost for new classes of ships. The charts above show that U.S. ships routinely have 2-3 times the number of sailors onboard. Indeed, of the 1000-plus sailors onboard a U.S. LHD, a scant 75-100 of them are on watch at any given time. Leaning the crews, already in the test phase with both the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the Zumwalt-class DDGs, provides substantial savings across the life of the ship, especially when taking advantage of automation and other features prevalent in the modern shipbuilding industry for damage control, cargo handling, and other tasks. Retired Captain George Galdorisi proved this point recently, citing the Government Accountability Office, which noted, “The cost of a ship’s crew is the single largest cost incurred over the ship’s lifecycle.” The report, he continues, “suggested the Navy has not moved out quickly enough to reduce manpower on all types of ships.”20

Alternative Options

Beyond looking to foreign navies for inspiration for more affordable ships, the Navy can also look internally to re-purpose some platforms already in the inventory and a civilian equivalent, which now fit within the Marine Corps’ Operating Concept of offloading the ground element further out to sea. The chart below provides the relevant information.

Other Viable Ships
Ship Type Tonnage Berths Cost (FY17) Cargo Capacity Vehicle Capacity
Large, Medium-Speed, Roll On/Off (LMSR) 62,069 0 $452M 380,000 sq ft 1000
Roll On/Off & Passenger Ship
(ex: M/V Ulysses)
50,938 228 $188M Unk 1500
Roll On/Off & Container Ship
(ex: M/V Kanaloa)
44,200 0 $256M 3,500 TEU 800

Expeditionary Transfer Docks provide the necessary deck space to offload an LMSR at sea, meaning that any other large cargo or passenger ship, such as the two merchant ships listed, would also, if designed to support, be able to offload Marines and their equipment, or the unmanned systems of the first wave, to connectors like LCACs. Their sheer size makes them significantly more survivable against ASCM threats than their smaller LPD and LSD cousins, especially when escorted. The costs would increase slightly as the necessary basic military requirements get added on, such as limited defensive capabilities, communications equipment, and redundant damage control systems, but the LSW ratio proves that the cost would remain significantly lower than the price points of our current amphibious ships.

The newer Expeditionary Staging Bases, designed to provide command and control capabilities, remove the need for large command suites on amphibious transports.21 Larger, cheaper amphibious transports provide the additional benefit of allowing the Marine Corps to reconsider the seaborne structure of the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which it wants to do, enabling it to leverage smaller platforms like the LCS or Joint High Speed Vessel to further disaggregate the force or employ smaller unmanned systems.22


The ships we procure today will likely see major advances in hypersonic missile technology, persistent and ubiquitous sensing, and artificial intelligence during their long service lives. The Marine Corps is already acknowledging the need to push well deck operations further off shore because of longer-range threats. The Navy to date has not recognized that the past and future employment constructs and incidents do not seem to justify the cost of the amphibious ships we are procuring. Larger, cheaper platforms provide inherent survivability through physical size and allow the Navy to procure more ships, simultaneously fulfilling the CNO’s and the Marine Corps’ desire for a larger amphibious force to help reach a 355-ship navy. It is past time for the Navy to seriously reconsider some of its most fundamental attributes and assumptions of warship acquisition. We cannot afford to continue otherwise.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington, DC. He writes frequently on topics across the maritime domain. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.


1. “Statement of Admiral Vernon Clark, U. S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, Posture Statement, 10 March 2005,” Defense Subcommittee on Defense of the House Appropriations Committee, p. 22.

2. 10 United States Code §5063,

3. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Amphibious Warfare Ships for Deploying Marines Overseas,” Congressional Budget Office, November 2011,

“US Ship Force Levels: 1886-Present,” Navy History and Heritage Command, November 17, 2017,

4. “Expeditionary Force 21,” United States Marine Corps, March 2014, p. 18.

5. “Future Navy,” United States Navy, p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. “The Future Navy,” p. 7.

Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2017, p. 5.

8. B. A. Friedman, “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” 21st Century Ellis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 86-139.

9. Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend from Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack,” USNI News, October 11, 2016,

10. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

11. [1] M/V Song Bong, a North Korean tanker of 224,850 dwt, was sunk while loading at Kharg.

12. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

13. Ibid, p. 187.

14. Wayne Hughes, “The Record of Missile Attacks on Ships” (Presentation, Naval Postgraduate School, May 1, 2007).

15. “GDBIW joins forces with Navantia for US Navy FFG(X) frigate bid,”, November 23, 2017,

16. Ibid.

17. All information in the charts is derived from open sources.

18. The weight of the ship without fuel, stores, or personnel onboard.

19. Arena et al, p. xv

20. George Galdorisi, “The Navy Cannot Afford Large Crews,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 145, Issue 1.

21. “Expeditionary Transfer Dock/Expeditionary Mobile Base,” United States Navy Fact File, 26 January 2018,

22. “Expeditionary Force 21,” p. 43.

Featured Image: English: SAN DIEGO (Jan. 20, 2009) The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Green Bay (LPD 20) moors at a pier in Long Beach Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo by Gregg Smith/Released)