Category Archives: Force Structure

20 Years of Naval Trends Guarantee a FY23 Shipbuilding Plan Failure

By Matthew Hipple

“About 300 ships, achieved in FY2018, will provide a force capable of… assuring access in any theater of operations, even in the face of new anti-access/area-denial strategies and technologies.” —Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels, June 2014

In 2014, before the scale of Chinese naval development was widely appreciated, the Navy reported to Congress a Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 near-term requirement of 300 ships for “conducting a large-scale naval campaign in one region while denying the objectives of an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” In the time since, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) added more than 120 battleforce ships and countless maritime militia – while the U.S. Navy still remains short of the lapsed 300-ship goal, and 57 ships short of its current 355 ship requirement. In the past 20 years the Navy’s ideal battleforce goals have all exceeded 306, but the fleet has not broken 300 ships since 2003 (Figure 1).

Though glaring, the fleet’s numerical crisis is merely a symptom of the Navy’s 20-year institutional inability to overcome the pressures driving down fleet numbers and ship production. The nature of the financial, material, programmatic, institutional, historical, and political pressures suppressing fleet growth are up for debate – but the extrapolated results of these downward pressures are not, as seen in the Navy’s failure to meet the various Shipbuilding Plans. However, those missed shipbuilding plans also represent the Navy’s resistance to the significant pressures that would degrade or trade away the fleet.

Since 2016, even enshrining the 355-ship fleet in law only produced a net battleforce increase of 19 ships over seven years, a rate by which the Navy would gradually reach 355 ships by 2041. Unfortunately, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan eliminates what upward pressure contributes to a modest improvement in fleet size trajectory. The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan proposes a 10-year drop in fleet numbers that deviates in spirit from every shipbuilding plan since 2012. During this dangerous decade, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan returns the fleet to a size that precipitated the period of panic that inspired Congress to enshrine the 355-ship goal into law (Figure 2). The FY23 Long Range Shipbuilding Plan will miss the defunct, minimum goal of 300 ships by another decade, and is less likely to meet the Navy’s legal and operational 355-ship requirement

The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s change in course is doubly precarious as its dangerous decade fleet reduction also embraces the downward pressures the shipbuilding plans struggled to resist. This resistance is comparable to the navigational concept of “crabbing” – where a ship is driven at odd angles up a channel to resist currents driving it into danger. The Navy, with the wheel hard over to increase the size of the fleet, had only achieved marginal success. Driving with that downward current into a fleet reduction would be disastrous, and likely drive fleet numbers lower than anticipated.

In an attempt to assess the downward current and potential results of the reduction, we must assess the difference between the Navy’s ordered and true course for fleet size. As with a large ship, the Navy can take time to respond to rudder orders – so we extrapolate the impact of shipbuilding plans by looking to their effects five years in the future. The average gap between ordered and achieved battlefleet size over the last five years was roughly 10 ships. Integrating the precipitous drop from 2022 to 2023 and loosely projecting that magnitude of 50 ships over five years shows a battleforce of 275 ships or smaller (Figure 3).

During a decade that many U.S. Department of Defense leaders have characterized as particularly dangerous for deterrence of China, the conventional PLAN may outnumber the total USN by 50 percent. The United States nor its Navy would fight China alone – but the rapidly worsening margins remain a concern. The majority of U.S. allies in the region fall well within the PLA/N/AF’s collective weapons engagement zone, the PLAN retains significant mining stockpiles alongside fielding a vast maritime militia, and the PLAN benefits its regional focus with even greater numerical superiority compared to U.S. warships immediately present in WESTPAC. That the Navy has struggled to improve fleet growth in the face of such grave circumstances bode poorly for a post-FY23-reduction recovery.

Further, buried within the FY23 capacity gap is a lethality gap. To avoid the appearance of unfairness in comparison, we look at the FY17 Shipbuilding Plan which represents a conservative mid-point between the Obama and Trump administrations’ more robust FY15 and FY19 shipbuilding plans (Figure 4). Before the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s proposed courses of action begin to significantly deviate in 2032, battleforce shortages are primarily restored by support and logistics ships, with a smaller number of attack submarines. The strategic decision to shift resources to the long-neglected logistical tail is sound. Nonetheless, failing to fix cruiser modernization or increase production leaves this better-supported fleet gapped by a number of surface combatants that is roughly the equivalent of the forward deployed 7th Fleet at a time when the PLAN will exceed a battleforce of 420 ships.

Though the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan anticipates recovery in the early 2030’s, the signal to industry is an average ships-per-year rate lower than the FY19 Shipbuilding Plan and only marginally higher than the past decade of plans (Figure 5). Given the immediate downward trajectory planned by the Navy and the Navy’s track record of falling short of its plans, shipbuilders may be reticent to make the major capital and labor investments necessary to sustain the current industrial base, much less expand and modernize it.

Previously, the Navy’s shipbuilding plans made evolutionary progress (Figure 6). The Obama administration’s post-sequestration FY15 plan appropriately departed from the FY13/14 plans by increasing the fleet’s status-quo, pushing for a de-facto baseline of 310 ships. As the threat of the PLAN evolved and long-awaited silver-bullet technologies did not appear, the Trump administration’s FY19 plan replaced previous plans’ period of stability from 2031-40 with a fleet increase. In retrospect, both plans failed – but both plans applied necessary upward pressure and both ensured a minimum fleet size was retained. The FY23 plan will kill that pressure – and must be revised to improve on FY15 and FY19’s positive movement rather than embrace the false promises of divesting capacity today to gamble on solutions a decade or more away.

While the FY23 shipbuilding plan accepts a third gapped decade, the PLAN’s size, skill, and industrial base will continue to grow. With global commitments and the tyranny of distance, the United States faces a Port Arthur problem with being able to respond to the CCP’s maritime behemoth much like a split Russian fleet was defeated by Imperial Japan’s modernized and regionally-focused Navy. We must provide serious focus to the lagging Pacific Defense Initiative while the USN maximizes its efforts to retain working warships until replacements come online and the supporting maritime industries sufficiently expand. In developing replacements, the Navy must make clear commitments that signal to industry a sea change in ship demand that will justify the intensive investment needed for new and/or expanded shipyards, like the Lordstown-Lorain project – if not pursue new yards of the Navy’s own.

The time has passed for the resets and divestments of the past revisited by the FY23 shipbuilding plan. The currents ahead are strong, and the Navy must resist them rather than be driven up onto the shoals. Decline is a choice we must resist.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty naval officer and  former President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG-61) in a floating dry dock at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia (USA), on 25 May 2012. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Rightsizing the Fleet: Why The Navy’s New Shipbuilding Plan Is Not Enough

By Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA)

Introduction

The Navy recently released its long-awaited 30-year shipbuilding plan, which provided three alternatives for future fleet force structure. The first two alternatives assume “no real budget growth” and “do not procure all platforms at the desired rate.” Good on Navy leadership for acknowledging the elephant in the room — that their plans do not meet desired goals. However, option three, which one assumes is presented as an alternative that will procure platforms at the desired rate, is unrealistic in the Navy’s own words because “industry needs to demonstrate the ability to achieve [this plan].” All three alternatives reduce capability and capacity in the near to mid-term, and introduce unacceptable risk to our ability to counter a rising Chinese threat in the Western Pacific.

I have repeatedly criticized the Navy for not having a strategy and I look forward to hearing how producing three separate shipbuilding plans aligns with their “strategy.” It does not seem to align with former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s idea of the budget process: “first strategy, then requirements, then the POM [Program Objective Memoranda], then budget.” Also, within the shipbuilding plan, the blatant manipulation of how data is displayed masks the true extent of the crisis we are facing in capability and capacity in the coming decade. I will address that here.

Right-Sizing Force Structure for Deterrence

In the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress codified into law the previous year’s Navy force structure assessment that called for an increase in the size of the fleet from 308 to 355 ships. In the final months of the Trump administration, the Navy released another force structure assessment calling for between 382 and 446 manned ships and an additional 143 to 242 unmanned ships. That assessment, unlike previous years, was driven mostly by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and aligned with the Trump administration’s strategic policy of deterrence by denial as outlined in the 2018 National Security Strategy:

“We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them—not just punish them if they attack the United States. We must ensure the ability to deter potential enemies by denial, convincing them that they cannot accomplish objectives through the use of force or other forms of aggression.”

In a denial strategy, a nation seeks to prevent the belligerent from initiating aggression by introducing significant doubt in their mind about whether the ultimate military objective can be achieved. This doubt is based on the threat of overwhelming military force being brought to bear at a time early in the conflict that will make the goals of the aggressor unachievable. A denial strategy requires the will of the defending nation to back up its rhetoric with action when necessary. In advocating for a denial strategy, the Trump administration expressly rejected the alternative, deterrence by punishment. A punishment strategy seeks to deter an aggressor by the threat of pain if they take an aggressive action. But this strategy implies that a nation will not or cannot decisively foreclose objectives to the adversary, and instead hopes that an adversary’s pain threshold can be overwhelmed into submission (an ambiguous proposition). Put simply, denial attempts to prevent the aggressive action from succeeding through instilling doubts about feasibility, while punishment attempts to prevent the action, as the name implies, through the threat of punishment. (Bryan McGrath, managing director of the FerryBridge Group, has an excellent analysis of this in a recent posting.)

In contrast, the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategy moves away from both a denial and a punishment strategy, and instead focuses on “Integrated Deterrence” and “Campaigning.” Although these terms have somewhat unclear definitions, they most likely are an outgrowth of an idea telegraphed in a 2020 Foreign Affairs article by the current Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. In “Getting to Less,” Hicks writes:

“For too long, Washington has had an overly militarized approach to national security. A world in which the United States’ primacy is fading calls for a new approach, especially as authoritarian competitors pursue new strategies to hasten the decline of American power. The time is right, then, for a grand strategy that expands the range of foreign policy tools well beyond what defense spending buys.”

Even before details of the 2022 National Defense Strategy become public, stark differences between the deterrence approaches of the Trump and Biden administrations are reflected in the 2023 budget submission, and are especially clear in the proposed Navy budget. Favored by the Trump administration, a denial strategy is more expensive because it requires more ready, deployed forces, and it may also require the will to potentially use these forces in pre-aggression phases of conflict, where some in the administration and Congress may be unwilling to grant this authority. My impression is that the Biden administration favors a punishment strategy, which is cheaper because it requires fewer forward-deployed forces, thus less force structure, and is more politically palatable because popular support will be more forthcoming after adversaries initiate aggression.

Which strategy is correct? The answer is both, depending on the situation. The problem we face today however is the Biden administration appears to have chosen punishment primarily over denial as evidenced by the two defense budgets submitted from this administration and the recently released 30-year shipbuilding plan. In each, a “divest to invest” strategy has been the overwhelming theme. This divestment strategy gets rid of existing, older (maintenance intensive) platforms and funnels the savings into research and development of high-end platforms that will not be fielded in meaningful numbers for decades. In the ensuing years, the capability and capacity of the current force dwindles, substantially increasing risk in the interim. If the administration were pursuing a denial strategy in concert with punishment, force structure and capability in the near-term would be prioritized over potential future capabilities. This is evidenced across the services, but most explicitly by the Navy. Although obligated by law and its own force structure assessments to grow the fleet, the Navy will instead shrink from 298 ships today to 280 ships in the coming years.

To counter this narrative, the Chief of Naval Operations has shifted from talking about fleet size to talking about capability. “We need a ready, capable, lethal force more than we need a bigger force that’s less ready, less lethal, and less capable,” he recently said at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium. Specifically, he refers to budget priorities in the bins of readiness first, followed by capability and capacity. To meet the budget topline and maintain readiness while investing in the future, capacity must be reduced. The problem is that by reducing the fleet size we are reducing capability along with capacity. Last year, both the outgoing and incoming Indo-Pacific Commanders testified that China could be prepared to take Taiwan by force in the next six years (i.e., around 2027). Admiral Aquilino went on to say, “We’ve seen things that I don’t think we expected, and that’s why I continue to talk about a sense of urgency. We ought to be prepared today.” The planned reduction in fleet size is not just about loss of capacity, but more importantly, loss of capability in the timeframe Admiral Davidson assessed the threat to be greatest, now known colloquially as the “Davidson Window.”

If China attempts to take Taiwan by force, the defense of Taiwan will be markedly different from what we are observing today in Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO were able to increase and sustain shipments of arms and aid after the conflict started, enabling Ukraine to reverse Russian advances and impose significant costs, both denying the Russians their objectives and making them pay a heavy price. In a China-Taiwan scenario, no such resupply will be possible for an island nation so near to China. Additionally, if the U.S. chooses not to intervene in the direct defense of Taiwan, the human suffering will be considerably worse than in Ukraine, as no viable routes for humanitarian evacuation or aid would exist.

Since being elected in 2018, I have spent much of my time in Congress focusing on the real risk China poses to the U.S. and our allies. That is why I asked the Chief of Staff of the Army, General James McConville, during the Army budget hearing, what winning with China looks like. His response: “Winning with China is not fighting China.” That statement sounds very much like a strategy of deterrence by denial, but for a denial strategy to work, the U.S. must have the capability, the capacity, and the will. The current policy of “strategic ambiguity” opens the possibility that the U.S. will only engage in a punishment strategy if China attempts to take Taiwan by force. But, if China is unsure whether they will be successful because of early and forceful U.S. and allied involvement, then conflict will likely be avoided, or denied. Thus, a denial strategy is the only viable option for the defense of Taiwan.

Reinvigorating Capacity and Capability

In order to use a denial strategy in the case of Taiwan, the U.S. should explicitly express its will by changing the policy of strategic ambiguity to one of strategic clarity, making it clear we will come to the defense of Taiwan, and increase, or at least not shrink, the Navy’s capability and capacity in the near term. One example of this loss of capability is the reduction in the number of MK41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, one of the primary weapon systems aboard guided missile Cruisers (CG) and Destroyers (DDG). The MK 41 VLS can carry a variety of missiles for self-defense and offensive attack for surface, sub-surface, and land targets.

June 21, 2018 — The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) departs Kiel, Germany. The warship’s VLS cells are visible behind the 5-inch gun. US Navy photo.

Because of the failures in shipbuilding programs over the past two decades, the Navy has not built replacements for ships that will come to the end of their service lives in the upcoming decade. The result is a distinct fleet-wide drop in missile capacity. The construction of the new guided missile frigate with only 32 VLS cells, or submarines with the Virginia Payload Module, will do little to stem this steep reduction. However, in its 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy displayed the VLS data such that it appears there is no reduction in the near-term and that it will experience growth in the long-term as displayed in the graphic below (red area highlighted for emphasis and discussed below):

Source: Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year, 2023, April 2022. Click to expand.

By using a 0-12K scale, starting in 2025, expanding the time horizon, and separating surface and sub-surface VLS cells, it masks the true loss of VLS capability and capacity in the “Davidson Window.” I took the same data, combined surface ship and guided-missile submarines (SSGN), and narrowed the timeframe to 2021-2035, which is the critical window for potential Chinese action against Taiwan. The resulting visual is quite different than what the Navy produced.

Figure 2: Total VLS Cells for Surface Ships and Guided Missile Submarines from 2021- 2035. Click to expand.

The current budget proposal to decommission five cruisers, along with last year’s budget proposal to decommission seven cruisers, will result in a loss of 756 VLS cells by the end of 2023. In the 2021-2027 timeframe, the “Davidson Window,” the Navy will lose 1,668 VLS cells and 1,980 cells by 2035 even while building the Constellation-class frigates and additional DDGs. For comparison, all European NATO countries combined have 2,394 VLS cells. If Admirals Davidson and Aquilino are correct about the near-term risk, reducing capacity makes a denial strategy impossible and reducing capability makes a punishment strategy hardly credible.

Last year, Congress stepped in to provide an additional $29 billion over the requested defense budget and forced the Navy to retain several cruisers and build additional DDGs. Adding additional force structure and appropriations is important, but comes at additional cost for manning and maintenance in later years. To counter the downward trend in VLS cells, several options are feasible with a modest increase in the Navy budget or by reducing spending on unmanned surface vessels. The following suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive, but instead are the kind of solutions I would like to see presented to Congress alongside their budget. By their current plan to reduce capability and capacity in the next decade, the Navy is accepting undue risk if conflict with China does occur over Taiwan.

Several options are readily available to prevent the catastrophic loss of VLS cells. First, if the Navy decreases to 12 Cruisers in FY 23 but retains these 12 for a 42-year life, VLS inventory will be reduced only slightly in the Davidson Window, but still fall by 1,980 cells in 2035 as shown in Figure 3. Considering the billions of dollars already spent on upgrading and modernizing cruisers in the last decade, this would seem to just be good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Figure 3: VLS Capacity with Cruiser Life Extension. Click to expand.

A second option to significantly decrease risk in the near to mid-term is to convert 13 of the existing Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) ships to be VLS capable with a 64-cell capacity and build eight additional ships. Because the EPFs are crewed by Military Sealift Command (MSC) civilian mariners, they operate at a fraction of the cost of the nine Littoral Combat Ships that the Navy proposes to decommission this year. Additionally, the ships are available for deployment at a higher rate than other Navy ships and their funding profile can be scaled to match need. An additional eight VLS-capable EPFs could be built and operated for the cost of around one new DDG. Further, as examples of distributed and low-cost arsenal ships, these EPFs can be a reasonable incremental step toward providing an autonomous capability in the 2040s. This modest investment would increase the number of VLS cells above 2021 levels within the Davidson Window and maintain a reasonable capacity through 2035 as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4: VLS Capacity with CG Life Extension and EPF Conversion/Build. Click to expand.

There are legal implications to consider in using civilian mariners to operate offensive-capable ships, just as there are legal implications to using unmanned arsenal ships, however, with a dedicated military detachment and designation as a United States Ship (USS) versus United States Naval Ship (USNS), these obstacles can be overcome. Known hull cracking problems on the EPF must be addressed, but for the cost of building one Flight III DDG, the Navy can build eight additional EPFs, and because the ship is operated by MSC, can operate 14 EPFs for less than the cost to operate one DDG annually.

Conclusion

The Navy fiscal year 2023 budget calls for building eight ships, while decommissioning 24, reducing the fleet size to 280 ships within the Davidson Window. In addition to reducing capacity, the budget reduces capability and introduces unacceptable risk in the Indo-Pacific theater of operations to deny China a fait accompli over Taiwan. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Security Strategy correctly identified the faulty thinking now being repeated in the Biden administration’s two most recent defense budgets:

“We also incorrectly believed that technology could compensate for our reduced capacity—for the ability to field enough forces to prevail militarily, consolidate our gains, and achieve our desired political ends. We convinced ourselves that all wars would be fought and won quickly, from stand-off distances and with minimal casualties.”

I have proposed two modestly priced alternatives to provide additional VLS capacity in the near-term during the vulnerable “Davidson Window.” Each year the Navy continues down a path of divest-to-invest, resulting in unacceptable reductions in capacity and capability when we need them most—all in the hope of fielding new capabilities that will level the playing field with our adversaries in the far distant future.

One key element not fully explored in this article is the latent capability that VLS cells offer is dependent upon what payloads fill their magazines. The U.S. Navy is suffering a clear disadvantage in anti-ship weapons with respect to China, which is fielding supersonic anti-ship weapons across its surface forces, bombers, land-based forces, and undersea forces in high numbers. By comparison, almost all the anti-ship capability of the U.S. armed forces resides in a limited number of surface and air-launched Harpoon missiles, whose fundamental design is 45 years old. The surface fleet’s launch cells are mostly filled with defensive anti-air weapons, but newer weapons such as Naval Strike Missile, Long-Range Anti-Surface Missiles, Maritime Strike Tomahawks (MST), and SM-6 missiles, if procured in higher numbers in the near-term, could close the ASCM gap that currently exists between the PLA(N) and U.S. Navy. However, the budget submission of the Navy across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) does not buy these weapons in sufficient numbers to close the anti-surface weapon gap. The Air Force, for its joint contribution, appears uninterested in procuring enough LRASMs for the B-1 bomber fleet and is instead developing other capabilities such as QUICKSINK. The bottom line – even if the U.S. Navy has a strong advantage in VLS cells, it will hardly be able to punish or deny adversaries in a maritime conflict if those cells barely hold any anti-ship weapons.

The 355-ship Navy appears to be a pipe dream, as fleet size has not surpassed 300 ships since 2002 in the Bush administration. I propose a way to stop the Navy’s hemorrhaging at an acceptable cost. But what I would prefer most is for the Navy to develop appropriate triage measures itself instead of relying on the Congressional emergency room every year.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria represents Coastal Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base. Before running for Congress, Elaine served two decades in the U.S. Navy, retiring at the rank of Commander. A Surface Warfare Officer who operated nuclear reactors, she was one of the first women in the Navy’s nuclear power program and among the first women to serve the entirety of her career on combatant ships. Of all members in the House Democratic Caucus, she served the longest on active duty, commanding hundreds of sailors and deploying six times to conduct operations in the Middle East and Western Pacific. Congresswoman Luria is the Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee and serves on the Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Committees as well.

Featured Image: STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR (March 31, 2015) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) transits the Strait of Gibraltar as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Anna Van Nuys/Released)

Beware Buyer’s Remorse: Why the Coast Guard Needs to Steer Clear of the LCS

By Joseph O’Connell

With all the negative publicity surrounding the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) program, it would seem self-evident the Coast Guard has no interest in acquiring the LCS as a hand-me-down.1 However, with the recent publishing of “In Dire Need: Why the Coast Guard Needs the LCS,” a newly found interest in acquiring problematic navy platforms may be growing and deserves to be judged on its merits.2 The central thesis proposes the U.S. Coast Guard acquire decommissioned LCSs from the U.S. Navy, remove the installed combined diesel engine and gas turbine (CODAG) plant, and install a direct drive diesel. While the proposal is noticeably light on details of propulsion layout (it is unclear if the new layout would have one diesel per water jet or use a splitting/combining gear arrangement), it relies upon the Coast Guard’s historical precedents of accepting old navy ships and converting CODAG plants into direct diesel drives. The concept merits an analytic look to determine if the primary conclusion, that acquiring recently decommissioned LCS’s in lieu of commissioning new Off-shore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) has the potential to save scarce Coast Guard dollars, holds true. To do so, a rough exploration of what this program would achieve and at what cost must be compared to OPC designs and costs.

The LCS: Built for Speed

One of the driving requirements for the LCS acquisition was “sprint” speeds in excess of 40 knots.3 Such speeds effectively ruled out traditional propellers as prime movers with water jet systems taking their place.4 The Coast Guard does not and has not operated large vessels with water jet drives, and significant propulsion inefficiencies exist when operating these drives at lower speeds (Fig 1).5,6 Because of the governing physics behind water jets, they are rarely used in vessels that normally operate under 30 knots. While re-engining itself may be a cost effective way to gut the newly minted cutters of an expensive gear issue, it does not solve the propulsion issue of low speed water jet operation.

Figure 1: Achievable propulsive coefficient for propulsors applicable to high speed monohulls

For argument’s sake, we can assume that the Coast Guard would re-engine the LCS with a comparable engine to the  two 7,280 KW fairbanks diesels planned for the OPC, with a total combined brake horsepower (BHP) of 19,520. Using publicly available data points on the LCS speed power curve, and understanding its cubic nature,5 we see this would deliver an underwhelming 15 to 20 knots at flank speed. And while 15-20 knots may be acceptable for legacy Coast Guard operations, it does not match the OPC’s promised 22+ knots or the fuel efficiency and lower operating cost of the OPC’s designed loiter drive.7 Because of the water jet propulsion system, an additional operating cost for the Coast Guard LCS would be fuel and maintenance. Water jets are terribly inefficient at low-medium speeds and would consume 20-50% more fuel than the OPC at similar speeds.5,6

Additionally, as evidenced by the national security cutter speed operating profile, the Coast Guard rarely uses high end speeds, with the majority of UW time spent loitering after a bust—mostly position keeping with light load conditions on the plant.8 This has resulted in numerous main diesel engine (MDE) maintenance issues for the WMSL fleet,9 and presumably would be the case if the LCS was adopted as well. The OPC was designed with this operational speed profile in mind and has a planned low speed electric loiter drive. This drive will reduce light load conditions that degrade engine life and capability. Additionally, the low speed loiter drive lengthens the cutter’s endurance by limiting fuel consumption, frequently a reason for cutters to return to port for brief stops for fuel (BSFs). Given the slower speed and higher fuel consumption, the LCS would be thoroughly outcompeted by an OPC in the majority of Coast Guard mission sets. Without the loiter drive, the Coast Guard LCS would have high speed diesels powering 4 water jets, exposing both systems to increased degradation due to low operating speeds.

Shiphandlers Be Warned

Not only would these franken-cutters be fuel inefficient, slower, and expensive to maintain, they would also be significantly more difficult to maneuver. Without the traditional rudder control surface, the LCS utilizes moveable waterjets to achieve both propulsion and steering—a layout with which Coast Guard deck watch officers are unfamiliar. With a new lower speed prime mover supplying power to the waterjet, it is safe to assume that the water volume flow rate would drop, decreasing the effectiveness of the jets for maneuvering. This increases the potential for catastrophic collisions, unplanned maintenance periods, and high repairs costs that familiar and more trusted rudder systems mitigate.

A final, unaddressed concern is the aluminum hull of the Independence variant, originally adopted to lighten the vessel to make sprint speeds more achievable. Aluminum is unsavory for a potential naval combatant due to its low melting point. The USS Belknap fire demonstrates why shipbuilders generally prefer to avoid aluminum.10 Given the Coast Guard’s growing role in great power competition and the risks associated with blue water naval operations, an aluminum hulled vessel, powered by diesels driving a water jet, sounds about as unappetizing a cutter as could be built.

The True Cost of Re-Engining

The one remaining argument in favor of Coast Guard LCS adoption is its relative cost to the OPC. Current projections indicate an OPC will cost on average $411 million per hull.7 Taking a big picture analysis, including anticipated operating costs and operational effectiveness, we can make a clear assessment of scrapping the OPCs in favor of recycling the LCS. On the face, it seems that it would be more cost effective to re-engine an existing hull rather than build one from scratch. On average, to re-engine a cutter would require an extensive dry dock period—approximately 12+ months per hull.11 This estimate is based upon current re-engining times for the legacy Famous-class cutters that are undergoing an electrical grid upgrade, with new ship service diesel generator (SSDGs) installations taking roughly seven months. Given the bureaucratic processes of transferring control of a ship from the Navy to the Coast Guard, compounded with the engine and gear replacement availability, we can safely assume the first OPC, if not the first few, will have been delivered by the time an LCS would be operational. Given that there is no time delivery advantage for either platform, but significant speed, maneuverability, maintainability, age of hull at delivery and endurance advantages for the OPC the cost savings must be substantial to consider the LCS as meriting adoption.

While it is difficult to accurately forecast the cost of re-engining and gearing a 3,500 ton combatant, we can estimate a range that may be useful for comparison to new construction. Using a standard maintenance dry dock for the WMSL—a similarly sized vessel—as a baseline, we can put a lower threshold of $1 million per month, with roughly a 12 month availability estimated, and the engines themselves costing upwards of $1 million each.11Assuming the gear replacement equipment will run similarly expensive, we reach an optimistic $20 million, and a more conservative $40 million per hull. Regardless, either estimate is less than 10% of the cost of a new OPC, validating the original assumption that retooling an LCS to take the berth of an OPC would be more affordable. The second major driver of hull machinery and electrical (HM&E) cost is the age of the hull, as vessels age they become relatively more expensive to maintain, given that the first LCS was laid down in 2005, commissioned in 2008, the Coast Guard would be paying upwards of $40 million a hull for a 15+ year old ship that would be expensive to operate, difficult to maneuver, slower, and less reliable than the planned OPCs.

After a brief overview of the true costs for the Coast Guard to adopt the LCS, it becomes painfully clear that they would be woefully inadequate to replace the planned OPCs. While true that this path would be substantially less expensive in the immediate future, it would be a Faustian bargain, resulting in the Coast Guard operating expensive and ineffective cutters. Such cutters would only serve to weaken the Coast Guard medium endurance fleet. With the shifting geopolitics of today’s world, the U.S. Coast Guard cannot afford to trade well designed affordable cutters for recycled Navy hulls.

Lieutenant Joey O’Connell has served aboard two Coast Guard cutters as an engineer. He is currently a Medium Endurance Cutter (MEC) port engineer, planning and overseeing depot-level maintenance on the aging MEC fleet. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and two masters degrees—one in naval architecture and the other in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

References

[1] https://news.usni.org/2021/01/19/navy-calls-freedom-lcs-propulsion-problem-class-wide-defect-wont-take-new-ships-until-fixed

[2] https://cimsec.org/in-dire-need-why-the-coast-guard-needs-the-lcs/

[3] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/lcs-requirements.htm

[4] https://www.marineinsight.com/naval-architecture/understanding-water-jet-propulsion-working-principle-design-and-advantages/

[5] Applied Naval Architecture; R. B. Zubaly Publisher, Cornell Maritime Press, 1996 ; ISBN, 0870334751, 9780870334757.

[6] Marine Propellers and Propulsion. J. S. Carlton, Elsevier Press, 1994

[7] https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Surface-Programs/Offshore-Patrol-Cutter/

[8] https://ingalls.huntingtoningalls.com/our-products/nsc/

[9] https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-17-218

[10] https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/uss-belknap-collided-aircraft-carrier.html

[11] A Guide to Ship Repair Estimates in Man-hours (Second Edition), Butterworth-Heinemann, 2012, ISBN 9780080982625, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-098262-5.02001-1.

Featured Image:  The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) underway conducting sea trials off the coast of Southern California in February 2013.  (Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans/Released)

In Dire Need: Why The Coast Guard Needs the LCS

By James Martin and Jasper Campbell

In the spring of 2021, defense-minded internet message boards and social media were ablaze at headlines that the U.S. Navy would be decommissioning the first hulls of the decade-old Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).1 A chorus of “good riddance” posts and thought pieces followed. Though the Navy maintains it intends to keep using both Independence and Freedom variants of the LCS, it is no secret that the program has been beleaguered with class-wide mechanical issues.2 As many in naval thought circles lament and debate what the Navy will do in the way of near shore combatants in contested waters, a unique opportunity has emerged for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is currently in the throes of one of the largest asset recapitalizations in its history. 9 of 11 National Security Cutters (NSCs) and 40 of 64 planned Fast Response Cutters (FRCs) are in service, and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) are planned.3 The service also plans to acquire 6 icebreakers and a fleet of waterways commerce cutters.3 Based on a legacy fleet size circa 2007, this profound growth represents a 20% increase in cutters.4 But is this sufficient, given the global demand signal for the unique combination of soft power, capabilities, authorities, and agreements the Coast Guard brings to the national security table?5 This demand is compounding yearly, with the service continuing their obligations in the Polar Regions and the Middle East, alongside new commitments in the Indo-Pacific, Oceania, and Mediterranean.6

The Coast Guard’s acquisition boom will simply replace its legacy stable of assets; if the service expects to operate successfully as a global representative of U.S. interests, it will need every additional hull it can get. While the fraught LCS program leads many to ponder its future in the Navy, the Coast Guard could inherit a boon in the now 31-hull LCS program and close this gap.

Not as Ridiculous as it Seems!

On its face, the Coast Guard accepting a problematic class of ships from the Navy is foolhardy and irresponsible. After all, why does the Coast Guard need an LCS fleet when the OPC, slated to replace the current medium endurance cutter fleet, is scheduled to come online in 2022? When one peels back the layers, the OPC becomes less of an immediate salve. The first OPC Argus is still very much under construction at the small Florida-based Easter Shipbuilding.7 24 more ships are planned at $441 million a piece, but the contract will likely be rebid at other shipyards with the possibility for growth on the initial cost per vessel.7

With this in mind, it would be rash to assume at the very outset of a 25-hull acquisition program that the next sixteen years of shipbuilding will be executed without a hitch and on schedule. This does not account for further casualties befalling the ancient Reliance and Famous-class cutters, which are nearing 70 and 30 years of age, respectively.8 One need only look back to the NSC acquisition program’s not insignificant cost overruns, delays, and rework to get a feel for how the OPC acquisition program may progress. The risk grows quickly when one considers it would not take much of a production delay or too many debilitating casualties to place the aging medium endurance cutter fleet at a significant deficit.

While the Freedom-class variant of the LCS has faced myriad mechanical issues, one need only look to the history of the nearly 70-year-old Reliance-class cutters for a blueprint of how the Coast Guard could turn the LCS program around to the benefit of the service. In its original conception, the 210-foot Reliance-class was designed with a Combined Diesel and Gas (CODAG) propulsion system.9 Just four years into the program, the Coast Guard scrapped this more complicated system in favor of a simpler, “bullet-proof” diesel power plant.9 Though the cutters have since undergone mid-service life overhauls, similar diesel power plants still drive the cutters today, powering the full spectrum of Coast Guard missions.

Conveniently, the long suffering LCS employs a similar CODAG system.9 It is not far-fetched to conceive that the Coast Guard would be able to reconfigure the complicated and electrically dependent LCS propulsion system for a fraction of the OPC’s cost. When one considers that the Coast Guard’s annual budget hovers around $12 billion and factors in the simultaneous recapitalization of several ship classes at once, taking on the LCS program would save the service precious resources for other priorities. By reconfiguring the ships, the Coast Guard would likely eliminate several of the outstanding complaints of the LCS, including maintenance costs and woefully short endurance.

The simpler power plant configuration would eliminate byzantine electrical problems and reduce maintenance to the size and scope of modern Coast Guard platforms, such as the NSC. Second, by jettisoning the fuel hungry CODAG plant, the LCS would have significantly more endurance to carry out the spectrum of Coast Guard missions. Originally conceived to operate at sprint speeds in world’s maritime flash points, the LCS would still be able to achieve respectable speeds without requiring weekly stops for fuel or the support of an oiler to be successful at its assigned mission.10 Critics would do well to note that the OPC was designed with no turbines and a max speed of 20 knots, because the Coast Guard determined these speeds would not be needed for the OPCs mission set.11 Essentially, an LCS power plant reconfiguration would result in no significant loss of capability relative to intended future medium endurance cutter performance.

Taken in sum, these considerations illuminate that the prospect of the Coast Guard inheriting the 31-hull LCS program is not as fanciful as it might seem at first blush.

We Have Done it Before

Repurposing a highly capable Navy platform for the Coast Guard mission set is not a new idea. In March of 2000, a Coast Guard crew painted the trademark racing stripe on a 179-foot Navy Cyclone-class patrol ship, originally the USS Cyclone, and renamed it the USCGC Cyclone (WPC 1). Cyclone served as a Coast Guard cutter for four years, during which its capabilities in performing Coast Guard missions were thoroughly tested. Clearly, the assessment was a positive one, as four more Navy Cyclone-class platforms were commissioned as Coast Guard cutters in 2004, enjoying up to seven years of service. While not particularly enduring by Coast Guard standards, the Cyclone-class’ tenure with the Coast Guard is generally perceived positively; the platform’s speed and maneuverability are frequently cited as advantages.12

Beyond immediate use, it is clear that the Cyclone’s stint with the Coast Guard served a broader impact. Compared side by side, the Cyclone and later commissioned Sentinel-class (FRCs) possess a remarkable number of shared characteristics — similar tonnage, dimensions, crew compliment, and endurance — all indications that operators saw value in the platform (short of the precision-guided munitions and grenade launchers). It is likely a number of characteristics and associated requirements, gleaned from Coast Guardsmen’s experience on the Cyclone-class eventually made their way into the FRC’s final specifications. Beyond just decreasing the gap between demands on the service and available assets to satisfy it, the LCS would prove an extremely fruitful testbed for informing future acquisitions.

Pathway to Success

While fiscal practicality is a fine reason for the Coast Guard to consider taking on the fraught LCS program, there are positive practical considerations for implementing the transition as well. Despite headlines lamenting its shortcomings, the LCS has enjoyed success in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility conducting one of the mainstays of the Coast Guard mission-set: Counter Narcotics enforcement.13 Additionally, provided the aforementioned mechanical issues could be addressed, a 31-strong LCS fleet would be available for relatively immediate transition, allowing the Coast Guard to scale operations more rapidly than if constrained by the OPC’s projected acquisition cycle.

As the Coast Guard has proved its utility in the global arena, its mission set has grown to be viewed as a potent combination of diplomatic soft power and military hard power. Combined with hyper-competent mariners and unique law enforcement capabilities, the Coast Guard has never been in greater demand. It is ideally suited to perform the largely constabulary and diplomatic missions required in the Polar regions, Middle East, Indo-Pacific, Central and South America, Africa’s Western and Eastern coasts, and Mediterranean. This paradigm shift will unburden the U.S. Navy to focus on the high-end warfighting.

With the specter of strategic competition looming over the world’s maritime flashpoints, a Coast Guard manned and reconfigured LCS fleet may be the proverbial “easy button” to meeting the unprecedented demands on the service without waiting 10-15 years for the realization of a fully-fledged OPC program. In a dynamic global environment where the Coast Guard has ever new commitments on the horizon, taking a chance on an asset like the LCS represents a prudent exercise in strategic risk management. After all, beggars can’t be choosers, and in today’s security environment, neither can the Coast Guard.

Lieutenant James Martin is a Coast Guard Cutterman who has served aboard three Coast Guard cutters, including as commanding officer of the USCGC Ibis (WPB-87338). He holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in naval architecture and marine engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Lieutenant Jasper Campbell served on active duty for six years in the afloat and C5I communities. He is currently on a sabbatical, launching a technology startup, and hopes to return to sea in 2023 upon resuming active duty. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

References

1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2021/01/20/biden-faces-new-shipbuilding-crisis-must-move-fast-and-kill-freedom-class-lcs/
2. Russell, J. A. (2020). Twenty-First Century Innovation Pathways for the U.S. Navy in the Age of Competition. Naval War College Review, Summer 2020(73), number 3.
3. https://news.usni.org/2021/04/02/report-to-congress-on-coast-guard-cutter-procurement-10
4. https://chuckhillscgblog.net/2020/08/16/manning-requirements-new-fleet-vs-old/
5. https://cimsec.org/sea-control-219-uscg-commandant-admiral-karl-schultz/
6. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/40360/u-s-coast-guard-cutter-enters-the-tense-black-sea-highlighting-the-services-overseas-presence
7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2021/03/29/us-coast-guard-seeks-builders-for-big-new-cutters/
8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2020/09/03/new-missions-push-old-coast-guard-assets-to-the-brink/
9. https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2021/03/04/navy-sends-1st-littoral-combat-ship-on-a-cruise-with-everything-to-lose/
10. https://www.defensenews.com/breaking-news/2021/01/19/the-us-navy-halts-deliveries-of-freedom-class-littoral-combat-ship/
11. https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Surface-Programs/Offshore-Patrol-Cutter/
12. www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=2600&ct=4
13. https://www.southcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/2444687/uss-gabrielle-giffords-interdicts-over-100-million-in-drugs/

Featured Image: December 2019 – The littoral combat ship USS St. Louis (LCS 19) during acceptance trials. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)