Tag Archives: Royal Navy

Call for Articles: Future of Naval Aviation Week, Sep 14-18

Week Dates: 14-18 Sept 15
Articles Due: 9 Sept 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

Back in January, CAPT Jerry Hendrix (USN, Ret) and CDR Bryan McGrath (USN, Ret) had a stirring debate on the future of Aircraft Carriers. However, the debate quickly shifted from the carrier itself to the nature of the airwing it carried. Indeed, the carrier is nothing more than a host for the platforms provided by naval aviation – and only one of many ships that can carry aviation assets.

That discussion, driving into the world of the carrier air wing, was the inspiration for this week of discussion on naval aviation in general. From the maritime patrol aircraft deployed from the reclaimed Chinese reefs in the South China Sea, to US Army Apaches operating from amphibious assault ships, to 3-D printed drones flown off a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel, to manned and unmanned ideas for the carrier air wing as carriers proliferate around the Pacific  -we want your ideas and observations on where global naval aviation will and can go next.

How will the littoral navies of the world change with new, lower-cost unmanned aviation assets? Are carriers armed with legions of long-range unmanned drones the future for global powers – will these technologies exponentially increase the importance of smaller carriers – or is unmanned technology a limited path that may be resisted (rightfully?) by pilots and their communities? Will surface fleets embrace the potential from easily produced drone swarms deployed from ships of the line… should they? What is the future of land-based naval aviation? What innovations will be ignored, what will be embraced, and what will the air assets of future fleets around the world look like? What will the institutions, the leadership, and C2 structures that support all these assets of their varied nations look like? The topic is purposefully broad to bring forward a myriad of topics and inspire future topic weeks on more specific subjects.

Contributions should be between 500 and 1500 words in length and submitted no later than 9 September 2015. Publication reviews will also be accepted. This project will be co-edited by LT Wick Hobson (USN) and, as always, Sally DeBoer from our editorial pool.

Matthew Hipple, President of CIMSEC, is a US Navy Surface Wafare Officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He hosts the Sea Control podcast and regularly jumps the fence to write for USNI and War on the Rocks.

Clausewitz and Corbett are Now Too Much

clausewitz-1
Carl von Clausewitz

The 20th century American strategist Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie said, “I believe deeply that strategy is everyone’s business.”1 The expansion of internet-based strategic commentary, and the greater distribution of traditional sources of strategic discussion like the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and The Naval War College Review have certainly played a role in achieving Admiral Wylie’s desire. The works of strategic theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, and Wylie himself are discussed on a daily basis in multiple global mediums. Many would-be strategic thinkers are happy to drop comments from all four of these experts within their writings in support of the policy they advocate. These “hipster” strategists and their overly-familiar homilies to the teachings of “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” (as if these long-dead strategists were their drinking companions) often obscure the backgrounds, geopolitical world views, and national goals of these noted military theorists. The world is rapidly leaving behind the period of the U.S. “unipolar moment” (1991-2008). It is now entering a new multipolar period of great power and non-state actor activity reminiscent of the period that ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers. While the works of all four have a role to play in determining the next U.S. military strategy, the writings of Mahan and Wylie have much more currency than those of Clausewitz and Corbett.  Their focus on operational vice strategic issues is a handicap in a new age when preliminary strategic decision rather than operational art is the key. While it is evident that both Clausewitz and Corbett were masters of the strategic geography and warfare methods in their own times, their applicability in the second decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. For these reasons, the U.S. should ignore the strategic “hipsters” and their plethora of Corbett and Clausewitz quotations and instead embrace the sound combination of strategic, operational, and tactical thinking found in the works of Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie.

The works of Carl von Clausewitz and Sir Julian Corbett are directly influenced by their backgrounds, associations, and by the geopolitical situations of their respective nations during their lives. Clausewitz wrote On War at a time when his nation was recovering from the wreckage of Napoleonic Europe, and just beginning to compete with the Austrian Empire for domination of the Confederation of German States that emerged from the final breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the re-emergence of the nation state in the late Middles Ages, state structures have been primarily geared for the making of war for offensive and defensive purposes. Well known Ohio State University military historian Geoffrey Parker noted that in the period from 1641-1815, “hardly a decade can be found in which at least one battle did not take place.”2 The rise of the bureaucratic European state from the Renaissance forward was primarily directed toward a nation’s army, which Clausewitz described as “the center of gravity” for leaders from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great.3 It is perhaps no wonder then that a staff officer from a land-locked garrison state organized primarily for life and death military contests against similar European monarchical elements would determine that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”4 While this key phrase has been mistranslated and Clausewitz clearly desired to subordinate the military to civilian authority, his ideas on conflict are firmly rooted in the Prussian military experience.5 The geography of the book is limited to operational and tactical discussion. Geographic locations, whether the Rhine River, the fortress of Olmutz, or the forests of Russia and Poland are treated as obstacles to an army’s tactical or operational movement rather than as strategic strong points to be taken or lost. The continued existence of the armed forces of the nation as an employable tool of the monarch, rather than the possession of any one or more key geographic locations is what matters. On War was written in German and intended for the use of other Prussian Staff Officers with world views analogous to that of Clausewitz. It is very much a product of an army-centric central European world view. Prussia had a known reputation as a warlike state. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Prussia was hatched from a cannonball” and the French aristocrat and later revolutionary the Count of Mirabeau said, “War was Prussia’s national industry.”

Corbett
Sir Julian Corbett

The writings of Sir Julian Corbett are equally reflective of the general mindset of the British Empire at the high noon of its existence in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Royal Navy (RN) had not faced a peer competitor in pitched battle at sea since Trafalgar in 1805. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 brought with it the” two power standard” measure of British naval superiority where the RN would maintain a number of battleships equal or superior to the next two ranking naval powers. France and Russia struggled to match the British in quality and quantity of warship construction, but largely failed in their endeavors to create equivalent fleets. The chief threats to imperial security were not from enemy battle fleets or direct attacks on the British Isles, but rather assaults on the vital imperial lines of communication and supply. The French in fact largely eschewed battleship construction for a time and instead concentrated in the construction of large commerce-raiding cruisers. The RN saw these ships as a direct threat to the security of the Empire. Protection of the lines of communication between London and Cairo, Delhi, and on to Singapore and Sidney was vital to commercial activity and provided the British the ability to rapidly reinforce beleaguered dominions threatened by external invasion. The problem of reinforcing India against a Russian invasion through Afghanistan in particular was a source of great concern to British statesmen and military leaders from the period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 onward to the early 20th century.

It is perhaps no wonder that the writings of Corbett, and the opinions of his most significant interlocutor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, focus on protecting these imperial lines of communication rather than in the engagement of enemy battle fleets in decisive combat. Corbett defined “command of the sea” as means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory.”6 Corbett seldom references geography except as loci of communications. These “naval positions” he defines as “firstly, naval bases and, secondly, the terminals of the greater lines of communication or trade-routes and the focal areas where they tend to converge, as at Finisterre, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Singapore, and many others.”7 Corbett’s rather loose reference to specific locations is explained by the fact that the principle audience of his book, British naval officers who sat in his War College courses, had no need of a strategic geography course. As Clausewitz’s lectures were written to inform Prussian military officers, so Corbett’s concepts of operational warfare were designed to be employed by the Royal Navy in defense of the far flung British Empire. The RN had spent the last 300 years striving to control key geographic positions around the world in order to isolate opponents and protect its own lines of communications. Admiral Fisher in 1904 said “five keys (Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, the entrance to the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, and Dover at the entrance to the English Channel) lock up the world!”8 The radical new component of naval force structure Fisher proposed to defend these routes was the heavily armed, high speed battle cruiser.9 Corbett for his part emphasized the importance of “cruisers” and specifically labeled them as central to control of the routes communication.10 British statesmen of the period were equally well versed in the Empire’s strategic geography. It was the civilian First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, who conceived of the masterful geographic re-balancing of the Royal Navy in reply to big geopolitical changes at the dawn of the 20th century.11 Even the average British citizen of the late 19th and early 20th century understood that the maintenance of the nation’s sea power was of vital importance to its national interest. One popular English music hall song of the period exclaimed, “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” Working among such knowledgeable geopoliticians as Selborne and Fisher, Corbett could comfortably maintain focus on the operational aspects of “imperial” warfare.

Potential U.S. application of both Clausewitz and Corbett in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is a continuation of political action (mistranslated or not)” is, however, not a useful tool for nation not as centrally organized for war as was 19th century Prussia. Admiral Wylie said, “War for a non-aggressor nation is actually a nearly complete collapse of policy.”12 In the coming of war then, he says, “nearly all prewar policy is utterly invalid because the setting in which it was designed to function no longer corresponds with reality.”13 From Wylie it is fairly clear that the paranoid Prussian garrison state model has little relevance to a democratic government committed to the preservation of peace and active deterrence of war. Corbett’s operational concepts embodied in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy are more applicable to contemporary U.S. strategic issues. His notion of “Sea Control”, however, is more constrained by its focus on the maintenance of communication with other parts of the British Empire than contemporary U.S. requirements to police global common spaces. The most important of these imperial communication routes was that from Great Britain itself to India. British historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher wrote, “To all Victorian statesmen, India and the British Isles were the twin centres of their wealth and strength in the world as a whole”.14 They further noted that the principal reason for the establishment of British colonies in Africa was the preservation of the communication route to India from the British Isles.15 There is no U.S. equivalent of India as a focal point around which U.S. global communications must be constructed. U.S. strategic interests are global in nature, but more distributive than those of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. The wars of the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq also seem to have discouraged many U.S. defense and foreign policy elites from contemplating similar efforts to influence events ashore through the deployment of ground forces. Accordingly, the concept of Sea Control, as defined by Corbett may not be of the same importance for naval forces for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, both the writings of Clausewitz and Corbett both supported well-established strategies.

The United States, by contrast, has been in a kind of strategic drift since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It has been bereft until the past several years of a specific opponent or opponents around which to construct a replacement to the successive Cold War strategy of Containment. Defense reform efforts like the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 reduced the power of service chiefs who traditionally formulated strategy. In their place, a distributive combination of regional military commanders supported by joint and service elements from Washington D.C. created ad hoc operational solutions to regional issues. The first Gulf War of 1991, operations in the Balkans in the mid 1990’s and even the opening battles of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) represent this focus on regional operational issues that often neglected wider strategic concerns. It is perhaps not surprising that the rise of joint-enabled operational solutions to these problems of the last two decades coincided with a rise in the quotation of Clausewitz and Corbett as the touchstones for this effort. Military historian Williamson Murray labeled this result as “operational solutions to strategic problems” in his description of the military policy of the German Empire, but his further description of its use of an “infallible central planning role for a general staff” and embrace of “an unquestioned cult of the offensive” could also characterize U.S. action in the period from 1991-2008.16

wylie2
Rear Admiral Wylie

While it is not necessary to entirely remove Clausewitz and Corbett from the War College curriculum, it is perhaps time to limit their use in favor of those theorists who speak in terms of long range strategy, and those more relevant to the current U.S. experience. Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie represent such a combination of strategic thought supported by a more recent experience than either Clausewitz or Corbett. The works of Alfred Thayer Mahan cover a wide field of concepts and disciplines, but a large number combine the disciplines of history and geography as the principal components of strategic thought. Mahan described the importance of history in strategic thinking through a quote from the esteemed French naval strategist Captain Rene Daveluy as:

“History, being the record of experience, if exhaustively studied, brings out all of the variable factors which enter war; because history, however imperfect, forgets none of them. History is photographic, where as the rational processes, that is, when a man having established a basis of truth, builds up his system without checking it by history, the rational processes tend to be selective. History in short gives you all of the qualifying factors; whereas reason, in love with its own refinements, is liable to overlook that which should refine them.”17

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Alfred Thayer Mahan

Some of Mahan’s concepts are also rooted in the geostrategic situation that confronted the United States in his lifetime. His belief in the concentration of forces as vital to combat success was as much influenced by U.S. strategic geography and potential opponents as it was by the history of past British naval wars he imparted. In the years before the First World War the primary strategic threat to the U.S. homeland was expected to come in the form of a cross-Atlantic invasion by an aggressive European power such as the German Empire. Only through concentration of its battle fleet would the U.S. likely prevail against a cross Atlantic invasion force. Mahan’s greatest contribution according to Wylie was “his recognition of seapower as a basis of national power.”18
Admiral Wylie’s works represent a synthesis of work of Clausewitz, Corbett and Mahan, as well as that of 20th century air and guerilla warfare disciplines. Wylie’s work is remarkably enduring in that it acknowledges that “terrorism is not going to disappear tomorrow” in spite of the information revolution or other aspects of advanced technology.19 He respects and anticipates that advances in missile and guidance technology will make war at sea more challenging.20 Finally, Admiral Wylie’s thinking and associated analysis are firmly grounded in the American experience of war, an aspect of his work that Clausewitz and Corbett do not necessarily reflect. The Prussian officer and the British operational theorist still have a part to play in the War College classroom, but their role in the curriculum should be adjusted for current events.

A notable naval history conference held at the Naval War College in September 1992 declared “Mahan is not Enough” and rightly suggested that the works of Corbett, and British Admiral turned historian Sir Herbert Richmond had been unfairly ignored in the study of 20th century naval history and strategy. The message was also a warning that the United States did not focus enough on operational art in the achievement of its military and national objectives. The brief period of the American “hyper power moment”, however, ended in the period 2008-2010. The rise of new competitors, the return of old challengers, and increasing disorder throughout the globe calls for an emphasis on historical strategic thinkers like Mahan and Wylie rather than operational artists like Clausewitz and Corbett. The strategic hipsters would do well to remember that “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” could not have developed in the absence of underlying strategy that supported their operational theories. Rather than be concerned about numbers of strategists trained, the War Colleges would do better to improve the strategic curriculum in order to train a new generation of Mahans and Wylies to confront the nation’s present strategic challenges.

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”.

1.  J.C. Wylie, Maritime Strategy, A General Theory of Power Control, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1989, p. 1.
2.  Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 1.
3.  Parker, p. 168.
4.  Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 87.
5.  Wylie, p. 67.
6.  Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Project Gutenberg E-Book, released 16 February 2005, p. 94.
7.  Corbett, p. 106.
8.  Peter Kemp, ed, The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, Volume 1, London, NRS, 1960, p. 161.
9.  Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 199, p. 93.
10.  Corbett, pp 114, 115.
11.  Aaron l. Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 135.
12.  Wylie, pp. 67-68.
13.  Wylie, p 68.
14.  Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, The Official Mind of Imperialism, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1978, p. 17.
15.  Robinson and Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, p. 464.
16.  Williamson Murray, McGregor Knox, and Alan Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War, 1996, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 80.
17.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy, Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practices of Military Operations on Land, London, Sampson, Low, Marston, and Co., 1911, p. 16.
18.  Wylie, p. 34.
19.  Wylie, p. 106.
10.  Wylie, p. 102.

Fit to be a Frigate?

LCS 3One of the most persistent complaints about the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) is that it is not fit to replace the retiring Perry class frigates. LCS has been characterized as under-armed in comparison with the Perry class, and not capable of assuming the roles and missions of a frigate. In light of these criticisms it’s useful to examine what constitutes a frigate in the second decade of the 21st century. What sort of frigate does the U.S. Navy need to meet present requirements? Finally, does the LCS, in both its current form, and as envisioned in the frigate upgrade meet those requirements, particularly in armament? The answers may surprise LCS critics who continue to call for a Cold War frigate as the solution for 21st century naval missions.

The definition of the frigate as a naval combatant has been in constant flux since the end of the Second World War. It appeared in the Second World War as a British Royal Navy (RN) classification for an independent antisubmarine warfare vessel. By 1945, the term “frigate” generally meant a ship of 1300-2000 tons; less than 350 feet in length; a speed of less than 25 knots, and an armament focused on antisubmarine weapons.

The U.S. Navy substantively changed the frigate designation after World War 2 with its first generation of purpose-built aircraft carrier escorts. The demise of the Axis surface fleets, the well-established threat from air attack, and the rise of a Soviet Navy based on submarines called for a new, affordable combatant that could meet these challenges. A ship roughly 6000 tons in displacement, a speed comparable to fleet carriers, and capable of mounting significant antiair (AAW) and antisubmarine (ASW) weapons was seen as an ideal cross between the expensive, man-power intensive cruiser and the cheaper, but less capable destroyer class. The new ship was designated first as a “hunter killer” (CL) and later as a “frigate” (DL) with missile armed versions classified as DLG’s. Destroyers, such as the Forrest Sherman class and their missile-armed immediate successors, the Charles Adams class remained general purpose combatants optimized for a variety of roles, but generally less capable than frigates. Smaller combatants optimized for antisubmarine warfare remained labeled as destroyer escorts (DE’s).

This condition persisted until the mid 1970’s. U.S. frigates had approached the size and capabilities of World War 2 cruisers in the California and Virginia class DLGN (nuclear-powered) frigates of 10000 tons and nearly 600 feet in length. The traditional antisubmarine warfare escort had also grown in size and capability. Many of these ships, such as the FF 1052 Knox class were significantly larger than the 1940’s-era ships they were replacing. These changes compelled the U.S. to re-designate a number of its warships in 1975 to better reflect the changes in the frigate classification since 1945, as well as to combat a persistent myth that the U.S. had less cruiser-designated ships than the Soviet Union. The frigates were divided into guided missile cruisers and destroyers based on size and capability. U.S. destroyer escorts were renamed as frigates.

The patrol frigate, later the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class was the zenith of American Cold War escort design. The Soviet Union was expected to deploy a significant force of subsurface, surface, and aviation platforms to destroy the expected Reforger re-supply convoys crossing the Atlantic to support embattled North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Western Europe. Unlike previous escort classes, the FFG-7 was designed as a multimission combatant in order to better meet the expanding Soviet threat. It too, like the LCS,  ballooned in cost. According to a January 3, 1979 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, the cost per ship increased from 64.8 million dollars a ship in 1973, to 194 million a copy by 1979.

This general classification system of U.S. surface combatants persisted through the end of the Cold War and the first decade of the 2000’s. After 1991, however, the international definition of the frigate category again began to change. Falling defense budgets across the Western world in the wake of the Cold War’s end compelled many nations to put more capabilities into fewer hulls, often designated as frigates, as a cost savings measure. These ships now occupy a place in many European navies analogous to that of the U.S. Arleigh Burke class DDG as the primary surface warships of those nations’ navies. Japan and South Korea have made similar changes, but have retained the destroyer classification for these larger vessels. Russia maintained the Cold War classification structure throughout most of the last 20 years, but its recent frigates are smaller than their late Cold War cousins. The Chinese Navy has followed the Russian Cold War model and gradually increased the size of its frigates as general patrol and escort ships. Although there remain several descriptions of the frigate type warship, the post-Cold War ship now associated the frigate classification has generally grown into a large and capable surface combatant for many nations.

Does the U.S. Navy need a frigate as defined by these new standards? At the end of their service lives, the Perry class had lost much of their (AAW) and (ASUW) sensors and weapons. Their MK 92 fire control system, MK 13 single arm missile launchers, and medium range Standard Missile (SM-1 MR) systems were largely out of date against the growing antiship cruise missile threat by the turn of the century. They had become the early 21st century equivalent of the late 19th century colonial cruiser, whose chief purpose was to show the flag and conduct low-intensity combat operations.

The U.S. high capability combatant class is well filled by the CG 47, DDG 51 and DDG 1000 class ships. Such a mass of AAW capable ships was not in service when the Perry’s were conceived. While the U.S. Navy requires a replacement for the Perry’s “show the flag” role, there appears to be no requirement for another medium capability convoy escort in the tradition of past U.S. frigate designs. The cruise missile threat is considerable for even high capability warships such as the DDG 51. A supporting frigate similar in size and capability to current European designs could be built, but would provide little in the way of additional capability beyond present ships. It would also not be a cost effective product for low end presence missions. Unlike during the Cold War, no potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations. The absence of this threat for now obviates the need for 21st century version of the FFG-7. If that threat develops, advances in missile and torpedo technology will require high capacity escorts like the DDG 51 rather than a new FFG-7.

The frigate needed for the present Navy is not another Cold War antisubmarine combatant, or an expensive, but less capable version of the DDG 51. It should instead be a general-purpose warship capable of multiple tasks. It must conduct low threat missions such as counter-piracy and presence operations in order to free the DDG force for offensive and defensive missions in high intensity combat. It should be able to perform escort missions for amphibious and logistics force ships for limited periods in appropriate threat environments. The addition of a surface to surface missile armament should allow the frigate to conduct limited ASUW under the Navy’s emerging concept of distributive lethality. LCS’ endurance is 70% of the FFG-7, but it’s still sufficient for extended operations in comparison with smaller corvettes or missile patrol craft. The LCS baseline platform with 57mm gun, Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), electronic warfare gear, boats, and large flight deck and hangar is an excellent replacement for the FFG-7 in low threat, presence missions. The ship can accomplish escort and additional warfare missions with the weapons and sensors provided in its warfare modules and frigate upgrade. The ship’s modular design readily accepts additional weapons and associated equipment. The frigate upgrade to the basic LCS hull has been derided as insufficient, but only if a 21st century FFG 7 is the desired product. The modifications envisioned for the LCS-based frigate meet current requirements and definitions for the 21st century frigate the Navy requires.

No would deny the LCS program has suffered significant problems over the course of its history. It introduced multiple new technologies in one platform in order to replace three classes of ship. Problems associated with this effort remain and will likely persist for some time. In spite of these issues, the LCS and its frigate variant represent the best choice for replacing the retiring Perry class frigates in their current role as presence, patrol, and low intensity combat platforms, as well as emerging surface warfare missions. The Navy does not need a 21st century Perry class frigate.

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”.

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.