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Another Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

By Ian Sundstrom

As part of a broader project of land reclamation, beginning in November China started efforts to develop Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. As of late November the reef had been built up to 3,000 meters long and between two and three hundred wide. This makes it large enough, in the assessment of analysts with IHS Jane’s and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to argue that China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands might be under development. China already has a growing airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels a several hundred miles north, and this would not be the first airstrip in the Spratly Islands; Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia all have airstrips of their own. If a runway is truly planned for Fiery Cross Reef, what does this mean for the region’s security environment?

Given the distances involved, and the PLA’s relatively limited aerial refueling capabilities, Chinese forces stationed on or operating near the Spratly Islands cannot currently count on sustained air coverage from mainland China. The USCC report notes that an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef would allow the PLA to project air power much further out to sea than current possible. Initially, an airstrip would allow for aerial replenishment of the small garrison on Fiery Cross Reef. The airstrip could also almost immediately be used for emergency landings or refueling, both of PLA aircraft and any civilian aircraft in distress.  The PLAN or PLAAF could also deploy ISR assets, most probably unmanned, increasing PLA situational awareness for minimal footprint. This idea is supported by a statement made by Jin Zhirui, an instructor at the Air Force Command School.

1569998_-_mainThe airstrip would additionally enable parts or stores to be flown to the reef and then dispatched to local PLAN vessels via helicopter. This is, for example, an advantage that the island of Bahrain provides for US Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and Diego Garcia provides in the Indian Ocean. In fact, Andrew Erickson speculates development may lead to an island twice the size of Diego Garcia. This would partly address the PLAN’s deficiency in replenishment ships and allow quick turnaround for critical repair parts to maintain vessels at sea even in the face of inevitable equipment breakdown. These uses for an airstrip are relatively benign compared with how the airstrip could develop.

If the reef is expanded sufficiently it could serve as a platform for permanent basing of PLA combat aircraft which would alter the military balance of the region.  China would be able to sustainably project air power further into the South China Sea than currently possible. The reef – or to use the potentially loaded term island, as it would realistically be – would also serve as an unsinkable adjunct to the Liaoning (CV-16). David Shlapak argues that Liaoning will significantly improve Chinese combat capabilities in the South China Sea; an island airstrip would do the same and would not have to return to the mainland for maintenance. The island could also support larger aircraft with heavier payloads than the PLAN’s carrier. Candidates for basing on Fiery Cross Reef include the J-10 air superiority fighter with a roughly 600nm operational radius, J-11 air superiority fighter with a 700nm radius, or the JH-7 attack aircraft with a 900nm range. All are capable of carrying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles with varying degrees of capability. A 3,000 meter runway could also support aerial refueling aircraft or the H-6 bomber, further increasing the PLA’s options for aerial patrols and strikes. 

Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.
Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.

The satellite imagery of the reclamation work originally published by IHS Jane’s also shows work progressing on a port facility. The progress to date on the port does not give a concrete indication of its final size or depth, but even a rudimentary logistics base would give the PLAN greater sustainability for operations in the area. While the airstrip would allow parts and stores delivery to PLAN vessels, pier facilities would allow more intensive repairs to be conducted in theatre, further extending the staying time of ships in the area. The port could also facilitate the permanent or rotational stationing of China Coast Guard vessels or small combatants like the Houbei-class fast attack craft, giving Beijing a more durable maritime presence.

If development of the reef plays out as current evidence indicates, it would alter the military situation by allowing Chinese aircraft and ships to more sustainably project power further from mainland China. This affects regional navies’ contingency plans for conflict in the South China Sea. They have to anticipate that Chinese maritime operations will have near-continuous air coverage throughout the area. The construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef also impacts US Navy planning for any possible conflict with China as it extends China’s A2/AD umbrella several hundred miles. Deploying air and surface search radars to the reef alongside air superiority and maritime strike aircraft would add another layer of defense capability that the US Navy or Air Force would have to account for. It is too early to say how the developments on Fiery Cross Reef will unfold, but the development of an airstrip and port facility on Fiery Cross Reef would yield significant operational benefits for Chineseforces in the South China Sea and complicate matters for Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia in their disputes with China over ownership of the Spratly Islands.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

The LCS and SSC Survivability Dilemma

HMAS Torrens
HMS Torrens (small frigate) sunk by submarine torpedo in 1999

Chief Pentagon Weapon Tester Dr. Michael Gilmore remains fundamentally dissatisfied with the survivability of the Navy’s littoral combatant ship (LCS) and its upgraded follow-on, the small surface combatant (SSC). In an emailed statement described in a January 8th Bloomberg article, Dr. Gilmore stated, “Notwithstanding reductions to its susceptibility” compared with the design of the first 32 ships, “the minor modifications to the LCS will not yield a ship that is significantly more survivable.” It remains to be seen, however, how the Navy can improve the other legs of the “survivability triangle” on a hull of 3000 tons displacement and less than 425 feet in length. Small ships have been historically unsurvivable. Modern small warships are not in any way the equivalent of the World War 2 predecessors. Every warship is a compromise in armament, endurance, speed, and survivability. This is especially true of the LCS, as its modular operational profile demands absolute adherence to weight limitations.

Small warships are historically unsurvivable in combat. They have a shorter floodable length, reduced reserve buoyancy and more likely to be affected by fire and smoke damage than larger combatants. In both World Wars, losses in ships below 3000 tons in displacement far exceeded those of larger vessels. In World War 2, for example, the U.S. lost a total of 71 destroyers and 11 destroyer escorts; all under 3400 tons displacement and less than 400 feet in length. By comparison, only 23 larger ships were lost. Part of that figure is undoubtedly due to their operational employment, but in simple terms of engineering and physics, larger ships are inherently more survivable than their smaller counterparts.

There are stories of small combatants, such as the famous Fletcher class destroyer, surviving severe damage and yet remaining capable of inflicting damage on opponents. This history perhaps influences the opinions of those who believe small warships can somehow be made more survivable than the LCS or the SSC. Today’s weapon systems such as the 57mm gun on the LCS and SSC are much more fragile than the 5’38 caliber guns found on most U.S. Navy small combatants in the Second World War. Gun mounts became lighter and unarmored in the Cold War as the expansion of radars and mast-mounted communications equipment, among many improvements, forced warship designers to adopt lighter equipment to maintain ship stability. Current gun mounts are no longer manned to allow for a backup capability in the event of damage to centralized fire control capabilities. Many commercial off the shelf (COTS) components currently in use aboard Navy warships are much more fragile and more difficult to repair under battle conditions.

The crew size of a modern small combatant is also significantly smaller than its Second World War cousins. An LCS has a base crew of 90, with the capability to accommodate more personnel for mission modules. SSC would presumably have a similar complement. The Fletcher class destroyer had a crew of 273 and later wartime destroyers had over 300 men assigned. Crew sizes in present warships are likely to decrease in the wake of greater automation and a desire to reduce personnel costs. These additional crewmen allowed for manual weapons operation and damage control vital to the survivability of the ship. In short, comparisons with past small combatants are not an effective means to measure the survivability of the LCS or SSC.

The present Navy concept of warship survivability is described in OPNAV Instruction 9070.1A as a combination of susceptibility, vulnerability and recoverability. Dr. Gilmore noted that the SSC represents an improvement of LCS in susceptibility to attack. By Navy definition, this means “A measure of the capability of the ship, mission critical systems, and crew to avoid and or defeat an attack and is a function of operational tactics, signature reduction, countermeasures, and self-defense system effectiveness.” The SSC has an increased fit of installed weapon systems that allow the ship to defeat attack. Improvements to the other legs of the survivability triangle are more difficult. The Navy defines vulnerability as “A measure of the capability of the ship, mission critical systems, and crew to withstand the initial damage effects”, while still carrying out its mission. As previously described, that’s a tall order for a ship already disadvantaged by its physically small size.

Improving recoverability is equally difficult. The Navy defines it as “A measure of the capability of the ship and crew, after initial damage effects, whatever the cause, to take emergency action to contain and control damage, prevent loss of a damaged ship, minimize personnel casualties, and restore and sustain primary mission capabilities.” SSC is supposed to have additional armor protection, but given the weight restrictions of the LCS class, it is doubtful this will be anything beyond splinter protection. The small crew size will also limit the sort of manual-intensive damage control the U.S. Navy practiced in World War 2 and the Cold War. Installed, automated damage control systems offer some relief, but if damaged or destroyed in the first attack, they will likely be ineffective. Given all of these factors and their effect on a small ship with a small crew and little spare weight for improvement; it seems impossible that the Navy will ever reach Dr. Gilmore’s survivability demands for either the LCS or the SSC.

Every warship is a compromise of capabilities and limitations on a hull of a given size. The Navy has determined that the LCS and eventually the SSC will fulfill very specific missions on the hull size it selected during initial LCS design. Dr. Gilmore’s survivability demands on the present LCS hull are respectfully unrealistic. A larger vessel such as the Spanish Navy’s Alvaro de Bazan class frigate or its Norwegian or Australian cousins may be able to support increased survivability, but such a vessel would be inherently more expensive. A traditional frigate is also not what the Navy desired when it sought a replacement for the aging mine countermeasures and patrol ships, as well as the retiring Perry class whose dated missile capabilities were removed starting in 2003. LCS and SSC are simply not as survivable, as the Navy currently defines this term, as larger combatants due to physical constraints, smaller crew size, and fewer installed active and passive defense systems. It is unreasonable to demand that they meet a higher standard on the current hull.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

Re-Post: Surface Warfare: Taking the Offensive

Guest article by VADM Thomas S. Rowden, USN from June, 2014. Re-Posted during the SNA National Symposium this week.

I am indebted to the leadership of CIMSEC for providing a platform for me and senior members of my team at OPNAV N96 to lay out for readers key parts of our vision for the future direction of Surface Warfare. Captain Jim Kilby started it off with “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense”, and Captain Charlie Williams followed up with “Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) – The Heart of Surface Warfare” and “Increasing Lethality in Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW)”.   Both of these officers were recently selected for flag rank, and the Surface Force could not be more fortunate. Their years of fleet experience in these mission areas uniquely qualify them to lead our force in the future. Together with our continuing mastery of land attack and maritime security operations, the three operational thrusts they describe a Surface Force that is moving from a primarily defensive posture to one on the offense. This is an exciting development, and I want to spend a few paragraphs reinforcing their messages.

The single most important warfighting advantage that the U.S. Navy brings to the joint force is the ability to project significant amounts of combat power from the sea, thousands of miles from our own shores on relatively short notice and with few geo-political restraints. No one else can do this, and for the better part of two decades, our ability to do so was unchallenged. Without this challenge, our mastery of the fundamentals of sea control—searching for and killing submarines, over the horizon engagement of enemy fleets, and long range air and missile defense—diminished, even as the world figured out that the best way to neutralize this power projection advantage was to deny us the very seas in which we operate.

Surface Warfare must “go on the offensive” in order to enable future power projection operations. I call this “offensive sea control” and it takes into consideration that in future conflict, we may have to fight to get forward, fight through our own lines, and then fight to stay forward. Pieces of ocean will come to be seen as strategic, like islands and ports, and we will offensively “seize” these maritime operating areas to enable further offensive operations. Put another way, no one viewed the amphibious landings in the Pacific in WWII as “defensive”; there was broad understanding that their seizure was offensive and tied to further offensive objectives. It is now so with the manner in which we will exercise sea control.

What does this mean to fleet Sailors? It means that we have to hit the books, dust off old TACMEMOS and begin to think deeply again what it means to own the inner screen against submarines, to hunt down and destroy adversary surface vessels over the horizon, and to tightly control the outer air battle. We need to study the threats and devise new tactics designed to counter them. We need to master the technology that is coming to the fleet—Navy Integrated Fire Control (Counter Air), or NIFC-CA; the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR); the SQQ-89 A(V)15 ASW Combat System; the LCS ASW Mission Module; the introduction of the Griffin missile in the PC class; new classes of Standard Missiles; Rail Gun; Directed Energy. We will need to use these systems and then do what Sailors always do—figure out ways to employ them that the designers never considered.

Going on the offensive is a mind-set, a way of thinking about naval warfare. It means thinking a good bit more about how to destroy that than how to defend this. Don’t get me wrong—we will still need to be able to defend high value units, amphibious forces, convoys, and logistics—but we will increasingly defend them by reaching out and destroying threats before those threats are able to target what we are defending.

We are moving to a concept of dispersed lethality in the Surface Force, one that presents an adversary with a considerably more complex operational problem. It will not be sufficient to simply try to neutralize our power projection forces. While these will be vigorously defended, other elements of the surface force will act as hunter/killer groups taking the fight to the enemy through the networked power of surface forces exercising high levels of Operational Security (OPSEC) and wielding both lethal over-the-horizon weapons to destroy adversary capabilities and sophisticated electronic warfare suites to confound adversary targeting. Especially in the Pacific, vast expanses of ocean will separate the carrier air wing from dispersed surface operations, so the paradigm of the past few decades that suggested the carrier would provide strike assets to supplement the Surface Force is no longer valid. We will leverage air wing capability, but we will not be dependent upon it.

Working in tandem with shore-based maritime patrol aircraft and our organic helicopters, we will seek out and destroy adversary submarines before they threaten high value units or fielded forces. Bringing together the networked power of surface IAMD forces and the mighty E-2D, we will dominate the outer air battle, eliminating threats to the force at range. The Surface Force will seize strategic “maritime terrain” to enable synchronized follow-on operations.

Those who may ask how the current fiscal environment impacts this vision, my answer is that it does so substantially. We will be forced to favor capability over capacity. We will favor forward deployed readiness over surge readiness. We will continue to invest in forward-looking capabilities through a strong science and technology/research and development budget, while ensuring we accelerate those promising technologies closest to fielding and most effective in advancing our offensive agenda.

We will posture more of the force forward, and more of it in the Pacific. While the total size of the fleet will likely decline if current conditions continue, more of it will be where it needs to be, it will be more effectively networked over a larger more dispersed area, and it will be equipped with the weapons and sensors necessary to enable this offensive shift.

I am bullish on Surface Warfare, and you ought to be too. I look forward to continuing this dialogue on the Renaissance in Surface Warfare, and I am proud to be part of the greatest Surface Force in the greatest Navy the world has ever known!

 

Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden’s current assignment is Commander, Naval Surface Forces. A native of Washington, D.C., and a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, VADM Rowden has served in a diverse range of sea and shore assignments.

Sea Control 65: Distributed Lethality Re-Run

seacontrol2With the Surface Navy Association national symposium featuring the topic of “distributed lethality” this week – we are re-running our interview with the boss of the Surface Fleet, VADM Rowden. At the time commander of OPNAV N96 (CNO’s Director for Surface Warfare), future Commander, Surface Forces, and author of the CIMSEC Article Surface Warfare: Taking the Offensive discusses his concepts for Sea Control, the development of LCS, perspectives on DDG 1000, and his plans as incoming Commander, Surface Forces.

DOWNLOAD: Offensive Sea Control Re-Run

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