Tag Archives: Littoral/littoral warfare

What’s the Buzz? Ship-Based Unmanned Aviation and its Influence on Littoral Navies during Combat Operations

By Ben Ho Wan Beng


“Unmanned aviation” has been a buzzword in the airpower community during recent years with the growing prevalence of unmanned systems to complement and in some cases replace peopled ones in key roles like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Insofar as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly used for strike, their dominant mission is still ISR because of the fledging state of pilotless technology. This is especially the case for sea-based drones, which are generally less capable than their brethren ashore. That said, several littoral navies have jumped on the shipborne UAV bandwagon owing to its relative utility and cost-effectiveness.[1] And with access to such platforms, how would these entities be affected during combat?

For littoral nations without an aerial maritime ISR capability in the form of maritime patrol aircraft (or only having a limited MPA capability), the sea-based drone can make up for this lacuna and improve battlespace/domain awareness. On the other hand, for littoral nations with a decent maritime ISR capability, the shipborne UAV can still play a valuable, albeit, complementary role. The naval drone also offers the prospect of coastal forces amassing more lethality as it refines the target-acquisition process, enabling its mother ship to attack the adversary more accurately.

The Littoral Combat Environment

Littoral operations are likely to be highly complex affairs. As esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till said: “The littoral is a congested place, full of neutral and allied shipping, oil-rigs, buoys, coastline clutter, islands, reefs and shallows, and complicated underwater profiles.”[2] One key reason behind the labyrinthine nature of littoral warfare is that it involves clutter not only at sea, but also on land and in the air. Especially troublesome is the presence of numerous ships in the littorals. To illustrate, almost 78,000 ships transited the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, in 2013.[3]

Such a complex operating milieu would place a premium on the importance of battlespace awareness, which could make or break a campaign. As fabled ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu asserted: “With advance information, costly mistakes can be avoided, destruction averted, and the way to lasting victory made clear.” This statement was made over 2,000 years ago and is still as relevant today, especially when considered against the intricacies of littoral combat that hinder sensor usage. Indeed, shipborne radar performance during littoral operations can be significantly degraded by land clutter. For instance, the 1982 Falklands conflict manifested the problems sea-based sensors had in detecting and identifying low-flying aircraft with land clutter in the background.[4] Campaigning in congested coastal waters would also necessitate the detection and identification of hostile units in the midst of numerous other sea craft, which is by no means an easy task. All in all, the clutter common to littoral operations presents a confusing tactical picture to naval commanders, and the side with a better view of the situation ­– read greater battlespace awareness – would have a distinct edge over its adversary. Sea-based UAVs can provide multispectral disambiguation of threat contacts from commercial shipping by virtue of onboard sensor suites, yielding enhanced situational awareness to the warfare commander.

Improved Battlespace Awareness         

Traditional manned maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) would be the platform of choice to perform maritime ISR that helps in raising battlespace awareness in a littoral campaign. However, not all coastal states own such assets, which can be relatively expensive[5], or have enough of them to maintain persistent ISR over the battlespace, a condition critical to the outcome of a littoral operation. This is where the sea-based drone would come in handy. Unmanned aviation has a distinct advantage over its manned equivalent, as UAVs can stay airborne much longer than piloted aircraft. To illustrate, the ScanEagle naval drone, which is in service with littoral navies such as Singapore and Tunisia and commonly used for ISR, can remain on station for some 28 hours.[6] In stark contrast, the corresponding figure for the P-3 Orion MPA is 14 hours.[7] The sensor capabilities of some of the naval drones currently in service make them credible aerial maritime ISR platforms. Indeed, they are equipped with sophisticated technologies such as electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems.

To be sure, the shipborne UAV is incomparable to the MPA vis-à-vis most performance attributes, and the two platforms definitely cannot be used interchangeably. The utility of the naval drone lies in the fact that it can complement the MPA by taking over some of the latter’s routine, less demanding surveillance duties. This would then free up the MPA to concentrate on other, more combat-intensive missions during a littoral campaign, such as attacking enemy ships. And for a littoral nation without MPAs, the shipborne UAV would be especially valuable as it can perform aerial ISR duties for a prolonged period.

The naval drone can contribute to information dominance in another way. In combat involving two littoral navies, the side with organic airpower tends to have better domain awareness over the other, ceteris paribus. However rudimentary it may be, the shipborne drone constitutes a form of organic sea-based airpower that extends the “eyes” of its mother platform. The curvature of the Earth limits the range of surface radars, but having an “eye in the sky” circumvents this and improves coverage significantly. Being able to “see” from altitude allows one to attain the naval equivalent of “high ground,” that key advantage so prized by land-based  forces. Indeed, the ScanEagle can operate at an altitude of almost 5,000 meters.[8] In the same vein, the Picador unmanned helicopter has a not inconsiderable service ceiling of over 3,600m.[9] In essence, the UAV allows its mother ship to detect threats that the latter would generally be unable to using its own sensors.

All in all, shipborne drones enable littoral fleets to have a clearer tactical picture, translating into improved survivability by virtue of the greater cognizance of emerging threats that they offer to surface platforms. Having greater battlespace awareness also means that the naval force in question would be in a superior position to dish out punishment on its adversary.

Increased Lethality

Sea-based UAVs would enable a littoral navy to target the opposing side more accurately as they can carry out target acquisition, hence increasing their side’s lethality. In this sense, the drone is reprising the role carried out by floatplanes deployed on battleships and cruisers in World War Two. During that conflict, these catapult-launched aircraft acted as spotters by directing fire for their mother ships during surface engagements. In more recent times, during Operation Desert Storm, Pioneer UAVs from the American battleship Wisconsin guided gunfire for their mother ship. Several current UAVs can fulfill this role. For instance, the Eagle Eye can be used as a guidance system for naval gunfire; ditto the Picador with its target-acquisition capabilities. There is also talk of drones carrying out over-the-horizon targeting so as to facilitate anti-ship missile strikes from the mother platforms.[10]

Though land-based UAVs are increasingly taking up strike missions, the same cannot be said for their sea-based counterparts as very few of the latter are even in service today in the first place due to their complexity and cost. The Fire Scout is one such armed naval UAV. This United States Navy rotorcraft can be armed with guided rockets and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles; however, with a unit cost of US$15-24 million[11], it is not a low-end platform. All in all, unarmed shipborne drones are likely to be the order of the day for littoral navies, at least in the near term, and such platforms can only carry out what they have been doing all this while, tasks like ISR and target acquisition.


In summary, the sea-based drone can, to some extent, complement the maritime patrol aircraft in the aerial ISR portfolio at sea by helping to maintain battlespace awareness for the littoral navy during a conflict. The naval UAV’s target-acquisition capability also means that it can improve its owner’s striking power to some extent. These statements, however, must be qualified as current shipborne drones can only operate in low-threat environments – in contested airspace, their survivability and viability would be severely jeopardized, as they are simply unable to evade enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. In the final analysis, it can perhaps be maintained that the rise of sea-based UAVs constitutes incremental progress for littoral navies, as the platform does not offer game-changing capabilities to these entities.

Going forward, ISR is likely to remain the main mission for sea-based drones in the near future. Though the armed variant seems to offer a breakthrough in this state of affairs, it must be stressed that it is neither a simple nor cheap undertaking. If and when defense industrial players provide lower-cost solutions to this issue in the future, however, the striking power of coastal fleets would increase considerably and with that, the nature of littoral and naval warfare in general would profoundly change. Until then, the sea UAV-littoral navy nexus will be characterized by evolution, not revolution.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore; he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institute. The ideas expressed above are his alone. He would also like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Chang Jun Yan for his insightful comments on a draft of this article.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here


[1] For instance, the Scan Eagle drone has a unit cost of $100,000. See www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/us/simple-scaneagle-drones-a-boost-for-us-military.html?_r=0.

[2] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 268.

[3] Marcus Hand, “Malacca Straits transits hit all-time high in 2013, pass 2008 peak,” Seatrade Maritime News, February 10, 2014, accessed September 4, 2015, www.seatrade-maritime.com/news/asia/malacca-straits-transits-hit-all-time-high-in-2013-pass-2008-peak.html.

[4] Milan Vego, “On Littoral Warfare,” Naval War College Review 68, No. 2 (Spring 2015): 41.

[5] Some of the more common MPAs include the P-3 Orion, which is in service with nations like New Zealand and Thailand which has a unit cost of US$36 million, according to the U.S. Navy. See www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=1100&tid=1400&ct=1.

[6] “ScanEagle, United States of America,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/scaneagle-uav.

[7] “P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Canada,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/p3-orion.

[8] “ScanEagle, United States of America.”

[9] “Picador, Israel,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/picador-vtol-uav.

[10] Martin Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 274.

[11] United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Acquisitions: Assessment of Selected Weapons Program, March 2015, 117.

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

LCS Versus the Danish Strawman

nils juel 2Many critics have assailed the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) program for its high cost in comparison with foreign, supposedly better armed and equipped equivalents. The Danish Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon class frigates are often cited as examples of cheaper, more capable small combatants in comparison with LCS. These claims are not well researched and are based on isolated points of data rather than any systemic analysis. Other nations may be able to build relatively cheap warships, but hidden factors not discussed by critics, rather than U.S. shipbuilding and general acquisition deficiencies make this possible. The Danish Navy, in conjunction with corporate giant A.P. Moeller have produced an outstanding series of warships, but a direct comparison between them with the LCS is one of apples verses oranges. It’s time to stop using this inaccurate strawman argument against LCS.

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The direct comparison of the Danish frigates to LCS is highly misleading due to significant differences in Danish shipbuilding practice and financial accounting. The Danish “StanFlex” system of “plug and play” weapons, sensors and equipment (including cranes!) officially separates these components from the advertised cost of the ship. A 2006 RAND report on the rise in warship costs specifically identified such systems as the principal drivers of warship cost inflation. The Danish concept of separating these more costly systems from their hull gives the appearance of a much less expensive warship. The ships were often accepted by the Danish Navy in an incomplete condition. The Danish Nils Juel, for example, was delivered in 2014 with 76mm guns scavenged from decommissioned ships. Danish figures suggest that the Iver Huitfeldt program used $209 million in reused equipment from scrapped vessels. Reuse, however, could not meet all system requirements. The planned 127mm (5 inch) gun system was deemed too expensive at $50 million a copy. The ship’s close-in weapon system mount was actually a dummy, wooden weapon due to a lack of certification. While equipped with a MK 41 vertical launch missile system (VLS), the ship deployed to the fall 2014 U.S. Bold Alligator exercise without the system certified for use or weapons purchased for eventual outfitting. That same reporting indicated that the ship was delivered with its damage control system incomplete and lacking a secondary steering control center. Much of the ship is built to merchant ship standards which are not as robust as those traditionally provided to warships. In addition, the Danish ship was forced to take on nearly 20 extra crew members when the lean 100 person complement was found insufficient for operational needs.

The Absalon class is more akin to a heavily armed, limited load amphibious ship rather than a surface combatant. It combines a number of warfare and expeditionary capabilities on a single hull, but excels at none of them. It is also significantly slower (at 24 knots maximum speed) than most other surface combatants. Both Absalon and her sister Esbern Snare were also delivered without their full installation of weapons and sensors. In the case of Absalon, this process took over three years. The Danish Navy has been open in regards to these conditions. U.S. advocates of adopting the Absalon or Iver Huitfeldt classes almost always overlook them.

The LCS, by contrast is delivered with significant systems such as its 57mm gun and point defense missile system incorporated into the overall cost. Scavenging of weapons from previous U.S. ships is extremely difficult due to a constant process of upgrades over time. Weapon systems, like ships also have service lives and U.S. ships being decommissioned often have equally aged weapons and supporting electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems that make a re-installation not cost effective. Unlike the Absalon class which is not equipped to master any one warfare area in any of its configurations, the LCS can be exclusively equipped to master one such discipline. It is purposely designed to operate in tailored flotillas designed to mitigate the risks incurred by one ship like Absalon. Critics often fail to note that both Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon are nearly twice the size of LCS.  Neither has the speed requirements that drove initial LCS design considerations. The size difference alone may explain the Danish ships’ much longer endurance. These differences in Danish and U.S. practices make comparisons difficult at best.

Finally, the Danish Navy contracted the building of both the Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon classes to a single firm, the A.P. Moeller Corporation. This multinational giant derives the vast bulk of its earnings from the more stable commercial market and its warship business is not dependent on government orders, which causes instability and cost overruns in its production process. By contrast, U.S. LCS shipbuilders Lockheed Martin and Austal serve government interests much more than private ones and are more dependent on government contracts to maintain stability in their operations. The 2006 RAND report also identified this process of divided warship construction as another factor in the increased cost of surface combatants.

The LCS program has been beset with a number of technological and systemic problems since its inception that have slowed the program’s progress and likely contributed to some cost overruns. On the surface, the Iver Huitfeldt and Absalon class frigates would appear to be cost effective alternatives to the LCS. Deeper investigation, however, reveals how the Danes achieved these substantially lower figures by separating higher cost equipment from that of the platform, scavenging weapons from decommissioned ships, accepting incomplete warships for service, and purchasing these vessels from a single, robust commercial shipbuilder not dependent on or affected by unstable government ship acquisition processes. In summary, these classes meet Denmark’s needs, but are an unsuitable substitute for U.S. Navy small combatants. LCS critics, however, should not use the Danish ships as strawman LCS substitutes. It is a most unequal comparison.

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. 

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LCS Survivability Debate: What the Data Doesn’t Tell Us

“Facts are meaningless.  You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.”  

-Homer Simpson, from Lisa the Skeptic

100617-N-1200S-914Both Steven Wills in his USNI Blog opinion piece and Chuck Hill in his response trot out some interesting numbers in support of diametrically opposed positions on the survivability of LCS.  According to Wills, the US Navy lost ships under 3400 tons at a much higher rate than larger vessels in WWII.  Hill looks at the numbers and comes to the opposite conclusion.  The debate reminds me of the recent statistical dustup over the Patriots’ propensity to fumble that has accompanied Deflategate.  And the numbers are just about as meaningful.

Wills asserts that the US Navy lost 71 destroyers and 11 destroyer escorts in WWII.  Hill makes that number to be 58 destroyers and 9 destroyer escorts.  From what I can tell, they’re both wrong.  Using the summary report for ship losses to enemy action from 17 October 1941-7 December 1944, the US Navy lost 134 destroyers and 16 destroyer escorts through December 1944.  I could not easily find numbers from December 1944 through the war’s end, but the fact that these figures do not include losses from the Battle of Okinawa suggest that the actual number of destroyer losses for the whole war was closer to 150.  Over the period of the report, the US Navy also lost 51 cruisers (CA and CL), 22 battleships, and 39 aircraft carriers (combining CV, CVL, and CVE losses).   

After citing the number of losses, Hill uses the fate of vessels in commission at the start of the war to extrapolate survivability statistics for all vessels.  Statistically, this is highly suspect.  As Hill points out, the US fleet at the start of the war included just 233 major surface combatants.  But between 1941 and 1945, the US built over 1,300 more major surface combatants, including 349 DD’s and 498 DE’s.  Those ships in commission at the start of the war are a non-random sample, since they would tend to be older, slower, and less likely to incorporate new weapons, sensors, and other technologies that could affect survivability, unless backfitted during the war.  The US had no DE’s in commission at the start of the war, further skewing the sample.  

The numbers in the two reports point out some of the challenges with getting accurate data: since the US had no DE’s in commission at the start of the war, all 16 DE losses should come from those commissioned 1941-1945.  But only 9 are annotated as “sunk” in the shipbuilding report.  Similarly, 32 of the 349 DD’s commissioned during the war are listed as “sunk,” which when added to Hill’s figure of 29 destroyers in commission at the start of the war that were sunk comes nowhere close to the figure of 134 destroyers lost (nor even to Wills’ figure of 71, although it is over Hill’s figure of 58).  But it doesn’t matter.

falklands warThe most significant figure in the WWII ship loss data is zero.  That’s the number of ships lost to anti-ship cruise missiles.  While it’s tempting to try to draw equivalencies between threats in WWII and threats today, the simple fact is that war at sea looks different today than it did then.  The Falklands campaign, in which the Royal Navy lost two ships (a 5,000 ton destroyer and a 15,000 ton logistic ship) to Exocet missiles, and another five vessels (one LCU, two Type 21 frigates of 3,290 tons, a destroyer of 5,000 tons, and an auxiliary of 6,000 tons) to aerial bombs, may provide a more relevant frame of reference.  British ship losses in the Falkland campaign totaled two of 15 frigates and two of 12 destroyers or larger.  While these numbers are helpful, it’s worth remembering the facts behind the data: the RN were limited in their mobility by the need to protect the landing force; the Argentinians were operating at the outer limits of their range, limiting the duration of engagements.  And with such a small sample, it’s risky to draw too-strong conclusions.  

The most significant contributor to ship survivability is not getting hit.  Hill argues that LCS will not be a priority target due to its small size and relative unimportance.  Such an argument depends on the presence of perceived higher-value targets to draw fire.  But the whole nature of the A2/AD problem is that it creates too much risk to put high-value targets under the threat umbrella.  If LCS is the only surface platform we’ve got in the fight, it will be the platform that the adversary targets.  (Worse, if LCS is heavily dependent on the proximity of vulnerable combat logistics force ships to stay in the fight, an adversary may not need to target LCS at all, choosing instead to sink the oilers, rendering LCS immobile and irrelevant.)

The debate about LCS survivability is important, especially as we look to up-arm the ships and give them more offensive punch.  And, given the program’s history of overly-optimistic estimates of cost and capability, I understand why analysts would prefer to “go to the data,” rather than relying on assurances of improved survivability and defensive capability.  But unfortunately, we don’t have access to survivability data in an unclassified debate.  In the absence of the models and simulations that have been run on LCS versus modern threats, looking for examples from the past of different ship types versus different threats only clouds the picture.  In short, going back to World War II data to try to prove a point about the survivability of large ships versus small ships in modern combat is about as relevant as pointing out that USS Constitution, a ship of only 1,500 tons, was so survivable that she earned the name, “Old Ironsides.”  

Doyle Hodges is a retired Surface Warfare Officer currently pursuing PhD studies at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.