Tag Archives: MLP

Quantity over Quality

This article is part of our “Sacred Cows Week.”

As articles and blog posts often point out, US naval forces have been largely unchallenged at sea since World War II. Today we face the largest danger since 1945, in the form of severe budgetary cutbacks and fiscal austerity that affect our manning and readiness. After nonnegotiable items like paychecks and food supplies, there is little leftover for R&D, systems upgrades, or the planned expansion to 300 vessels in the next decade.

We face a paradox: while the Navy’s budget is downsizing, its mission requirements are expanding. With the rebalance to the Pacific, there is a lot of ocean that the Navy has to cover—64 million square miles in fact. Our forces are occupied daily from maintaining ballistic missile defense off the coast of North Korea to aiding efforts in Japan after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima to monitoring territorial disputes in the East China Sea to conducting counter-piracy operations among the Indonesian archipelagos. In the words of Admiral Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, “Presence is our mandate. We have to be where it matters. We need to be there when it matters. And we need to be ready when it matters.” How can we be there, from the Strait of Malacca to the Second Thomas Shoal, when we’re $14 billion dollars short?

It requires the reversal of an adage, a sacred value we pride ourselves on and indeed have executed expertly: “Quality over Quantity!” If we are to achieve Forward Presence and Power Projection, we must instead turn to the new values of “Quantity and Distribution.” We are accustomed to having the highest quality maritime assets on the seas. But in the current times, and for the foreseeable future, the US Navy cannot finance these types of assets in the quantity necessary to maintain a presence across the world’s oceans.

Instead we need smaller and simpler vessels that are relatively inexpensive to produce and maintain. What they sacrifice in capability, such ships gain in speed and affordability—speed to respond quickly, affordability to be mass-distributed. Such a fleet would promote regional stability and establish a forward US Navy presence everywhere they are deployed. If a situation requires bigger guns, the Navy’s more capable (and accordingly more expensive) assets can be dispatched as backup. Smaller ships also offer the advantage of reducing vulnerability. Expensive gray-hulls are single high value targets compared to a dispersed group of low-cost vessels.

130214-N-IC228-003What platform would fill this role exactly? Perhaps a new program is needed, or perhaps an existing program can be adapted such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) or the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV). One thing is for sure, it won’t be the DDG1000 or the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. The Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) and its variant, the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), are promising programs. John Glenn, the second in this line produced by General Dynamics, was just floated in San Diego this past September. Essentially a modified oil tanker, these 840-foot vessels offer a plethora of storage space, a large open deck, and ballast tanks capable of flooding parts of the deck to take on hovercraft. MLPs may not be the quality of technological superiority that we are used to; but at a mere $500 million a copy, they bring capability for a price at which we can afford the quantity.

As the US continues to shift from large-scale conventional wars to geographically diverse low-intensity conflicts, the Navy’s forces must be tailored with the current financial hardships in mind. With changing times come changing values, and it is finally time to shelf the demand for quality and instead favor quantity.




The Greenert Gambit: Playing Moneyball with the Pivot to the Pacific

CNO’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Strategy Reflects Lessons of his Favorite Book

Sometimes you need a Brad Pitt, sometimes you need a Jonah Hill.
Sometimes you need a Brad Pitt, sometimes you need a Jonah Hill.

Armchair Admirals and defense analysts alike lit up the blogosphere when President Obama first announced the strategic “Pivot” from Mid-East counterinsurgency operations to the Pacific, with visions of Surface Action Groups, Carrier Battle Groups, and Amphibious Task Forces the like of which haven’t been seen since former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s 600 Ship Navy.  Alas, the CNO’s vision of that Pivot leaves many feeling like the victims of a Jedi Mind Trick: “This isn’t the Fleet you’re looking for.” 

Afloat Forward Staging Bases (AFSBs), Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs), Mobile Logistics Platforms (MLPs), and Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) will never be mistaken for surface combatants; however, they represent the product of a refined understanding of what wars we are likely to fight in the future, and a sabermetric analysis of what it takes to win the peace in the Pacific—presence, lift, and command and control (C2).  While facing significant fiscal constraint, by focusing acquisitions on affordable platforms capable of persistent presence in uncontested waters and afloat forward basing of expeditionary / special operations forces, Admiral Greenert is on the cusp of successfully employing strategic Moneyball in his 30-year shipbuilding plan.

According to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the purpose of the Pivot is:

“…strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.” 

Key to achieving these strategic aims is regional stability—a stability that can only be maintained with the confidence of regional power brokers that the status quo is acceptable and not threatened.  The U.S. supports freedom of navigation and defense of its allies against rogue actors such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) through deployment of conventional naval forces such as Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD)-cruisers and destroyers.  However, these ships do not provide an optimal platform for two of our largest mission sets in strengthening alliances and partnerships: Theater Security Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response (HA/DR).  Relatively low-cost, an ability to embark disparate and substantive payloads, and a capability to access littoral waters make JHSV, MLP, and LCS the optimal platforms for these missions.

In his recent book, Invisible Armies, Max Boot notes that the most prolific type of war throughout history is the insurgency.  Indeed, the last true state vs state war took place over the course of a few weeks in 2008 between Georgia and the Russian Federation, while formal insurgencies continue on every continent save Antarctica and Australia.  Since 1945 and the information/media revolutions, insurgent victory rates have increased from 29% to 40% (with caveats).  As the ability to access and broadcast information increases and fractures to different mediums, Boot hypothesizes that insurgent success rates will continue to grow; with it, insurgencies will proliferate.  The United States has spent the past decade refining our doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) to successfully implement counterinsurgency.  Having sacrificed this capability and capacity many times in the past to refocus on building large, conventional forces to engage in rare conventional combat, the Department of Defense has the chance to make a historic deviation and retain some of that urgently needed competence.  Bottom line: insurgencies aren’t going away anytime soon, and neither should naval ability to support counterinsurgency operations.

There exists a myth of “credible presence” in some corners of naval strategy.  This myth devalues the “sabermetrics” of presence, lift, and C2 for more traditional metrics of large-caliber guns, vertical launch cells, and radar dB.  Purveyors of the myth believe that absent a Mahanian armada capable of intimidating the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) to never leave their inshore territorial waters, our presence operations aren’t ultimately successful.  The myth operates under the false portrayal of the People’s Republic of China as a monolith, the same fallacy with regards some of our recent adversaries—Ba’athists, Islamists, and Communists.  The PRC and the U.S. conduct over $500 billion in trade annually, much of that through PLA and PLA(N) companies that would stand to lose their financial backing should a shooting war break out between the U.S. and PRC—an undesirable outcome despite the testy rhetoric of select PLA generals and colonels.  The question is not how to win a war with the PRC—I am confident that we can do that, albeit painfully.  The question that should drive our acquisitions in the Pivot is “how do we win the peace?”

The capability and capacity of JHSVs, MLPs, and LCSs to successfully conduct afloat forward staging and presence operations has been demonstrated by their respective ship class predecessors both operationally (Philippines, Africa Partnership StationSouthern Partnership Station, Somalia) and in exercises (Bold Alligator, Cobra Cold).  By focusing acquisitions on these platforms, we stand a greater chance of building on both our presence and afloat forward-staging capability/capacity.  While the Air-Sea Battle and its high-end carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious task forces is an essential strategy to deter armed aggression by China, the CNO is playing Moneyball to win the peace at a bargain price.
Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the OPNAV Staff and a graduate student of the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed by this author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Expeditionary Warfare Division, the Naval War College, or the United States Navy

Interview with the Seasteading Institute

The idea of creating a base, or even a fully fledged nation, in the middle of the ocean where none previously existed is not new. Through the undersea bases and floating man-made islands of science fiction humans have long pondered how to colonize the vastness of the ocean for both warfare and peace. As far back as the 19th century, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo took to sea in the Nautilus to escape the governments ashore. Such thinking has on one hand guided the Navy’s development of aircraft carriers and the U.S. Marine’s Mobile Landing Platforms – and on the other hand given us cruise ships and man-made islands in Dubai.  

But no one has yet created a new nation from scratch. The so-called Principality of Sealand, founded on an abandoned sea fort 6 miles off the coast of England (then beyond the standard 3 miles of territorial water) in 1966 comes close, but has not been internationally recognized, is not self-sustaining, and was created without much forethought or room for growth (although you can purchase yourself a title of nobilty from the website).

While not short of enthusiasim or imaginination, the non-profit Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008, has set about to make the dream of colonization of the seas, or seasteading, a reality through practical steps and grounded analysis. By taking a long-term approach and funding detailed studies of international law and engineering the institute hopes forethought will help the endeavors that do materialize avoid the pitfalls of a type that bedevil Dubai’s islands, which carry on a running battle against the sea’s attempts to angrily reclaim its territory. As a first step in their journey the Seasteading Institute announced this weekend that they had received a donated 275-foot boat, appraised at $10 million and capable of carrying 900 passengers, which they hope to use as a platform for testing seasteading business concepts (more on the boat in a later post).  

Last week I had the chance to interview Randy Hencken, Seasteading Institute’s Executive Director:

What is the mission of the Seasteading Institute?

We’re interested in providing people with new opportunities. We think seasteading can give people the chance to create new business opportunities, new societies, and new governments in international waters. This is a long-term dream that we realize is not going to happen overnight. We are going to start small and have to provide financial opportunities that will pull people out there; they’re not going to be pushed.


According to your website, one of the aims of seasteading is to “Improve Governments” – how would it do so?

We have no stance on what governments ought to look like – but we recognize that established governments have a difficult time changing. They’re rooted in a particular way of doing things and bureaucracy. We want to provide the opportunity for all kinds of innovative ideas that can’t be tested as easily in established governments.  


Do you envision seasteads as clean breaks from existing governments, extensions akin to new territory, or a  mix of both?

There’s potential for a mix of both, especially in the early years of seasteading. To avoid legally being a pirate, seasteads will have to flag themselves with the flag of an existing nation and partner up. As seasteading matures and grows, we foresee seasteads eventually breaking off when they have enough of their own economic power and population to no longer need to be binded to existing governments, when they’re at a point where they can be recognized by others as a micro-nation.


Have you talked with any states about flagging options?

There’s a study on our website that gives an outline of aspects of different flags. The choice for an individual seastead would be based on what business you’re running, but generally you want it to be one that has good diplomatic and legal systems. If you do get into a conflict, you want it to be one you can trust has a good legal backbone and that you can trust will respect you.


Do you have any thoughts on where seasteads may be initially located?  

On our website we have also put up a location study online. Weather is a major variable, as are sea conditions, proximity to economic opportunity, and a location near a major metropolis. It’s not until sometime in the future that you’ll see seasteads further out into the ocean.


Seasteading Institute – Flagging from The Seasteading Institute on Vimeo.

What sort of opportunities besides flagging are there for partnering with existing governments?

For example if a government were to offer a special economic zone close to or within their territorial waters. There’s no official cooperation at this time between seasteaders and any governments, but in the past we have spoken with higher-ups in governments and been treated with respect, not faced by people resistant to the idea.  


Is there a worry that if seasteads do ultimately prove successful some governments may try to annex the territories, or force an evacuation if their citizens are threatened?

Of course there’s that concern, which is why we really want all seasteads to be diplomatic. We don’t want them to scare the horses. They have to choose practices that aren’t going to be perceived as threatening to their neighbors.


Has there been any thought given on the need to defend seasteads against a potential hostile government?

There’s a report that an intern did on security on the seasteads. We advocate the use of non-lethal force and would like to promote peace. Not putting a seastead in heavily pirated waters would be a good place to start. Maybe 40-50 years from now they could have a very sizable Navy, but the reality is no seastead is going to have one that would contend with the U.S. For the foreseable future is makes more sense to act cooperatively and diplomatically with existing governements.

Our goal early on is to communicate to legislators and bureaucrats in the government what we are, who we are, and what we’re promoting so they’re prepared for us. We plan to keep our eyes on laws to try to influence them so they’re friendly to us. Additionally, in these pioneering years it’s important to not do something that provokes a hysterical reaction, and instead to get people excited about the opportunities we hope seasteading will provide.

We believe seasteading can benefit anyone eventually. The best ideas will be transferred to existing nations, and we may see some problems in the U.S. government recede when ideas first tested in a micro-nation are implemented.


What models or historical examples do you draw lessons and parallels from?

Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai – these are very successful major metropolises that have broken off from a major nation and been able to provide new opportunities.  


What sort restrictions does international law place on seasteads within territorial waters and a country’s Exclusive Economic zone [EEZ]?

Some of that is still pretty grey. I don’t want to overstate something and am not a legal expert. Right now a vessel is a vessel in the eyes of some courts. We recommend a seastead locate at least outside of territorial waters [12nm], or 24nm to reside out of a nation’s contingency zone depending on what they’re engaged in.

Personally, what excites me the most is aquaculture. I think seasteading has the opportunity to feed the world’s population, take carbon out of atmosphere, reduce ocean acidification, and provide economic opportunity to farmers and ranchers in the U.S. by raising bivalve, fish, etc. Currently this can’t be done within 200nm of a country’s coast – it would have to be done further out or with permission of the government. The U.S. is almost the most conservative nation when it comes to what it will or won’t allow in its EEZ. It’s easier in Asia to do ocean farming. We’d like to do some trial projects, but I don’t know of any permits for ocean aquaculture at this point.


One the Seasteading Institute’s areas of strategic is “Conducting engineering research for long-term engineering challenges.” What are you looking into?

What can we do to make a city that will stand up to the difficulties of the sea? How do we make people comfortable living there and confident the city won’t sink or rust away? What’s the best way to design and deploy floating breakwaters? How can they get their energy in a responsible way? Wave power, solar polar, thermal conversion. Making materials longer-lasting than steel or maybe even concrete.


And “Pursuing political and institutional diplomacy to make way for the era of seasteading?”

We’re trying to network with those in both industry and politics, so that they might be both interested and prepared. There are lots of opportunity for industry. If we can excite them about seasteading, they’ll get behind us and also exercise their influence to encourage governments to embrace the concept and what seasteading can do for both governments and their people.


What are some of the biggest accomplishments of the past 5 years, and what should we look for in the next 5 years?

We’re proud of how seasteading’s base has grown. We’ve helped make seasteading a word recognized in pop culture, we’ve helped conduct research in legal and engineering fields. And, as you’ll notice in our newsletter on Sunday – we’ve just been given a ship that we’ll be able to use as a seasteading platform to advance tech for long-term ocean inhabitation.

As for the next five years, we’re looking for partners. We see ourselves as a think tank, helping others figure out ways to grow. We believe the for-profit sector ought to take the lead in investing in the business opportunities – we don’t have enough money to do so ourselves. We think we’ll eventually see viable seastead platforms in the next 5-10 years.


For more about the Seasteading Institute check out the FAQ or the listed media coverage on the site: