Links to a defense news article on the latest series of force changes that details some of the specifics of all three proposals. As we examine the details more closely, they tell an interesting story regarding what the Navy leadership is thinking. We will observe the details one at a time.
Major combat operations. A force of 263 ships, smaller than the 313-ship fleet that Roughead has said he wants, tailored for battle against a peer competitor. This fleet would be composed of 12 aircraft carriers, 13 big-deck amphibious helicopter carriers, 26 amphibious ships, 81 cruisers and destroyers, 54 corvettes, 21 auxiliaries and 56 submarines including attack, ballistic and cruise missiles boats.
If you compare this to the 313-ship plan, it is basically the same fleet with 1 more aircraft carrier, with 54 LCS instead of 55, and with 5 amphibious ships beyond the current 10 LPD-17s and 12 LSDs programmed (we assume 4 HSVs and one new LHA/LHD). The big loss here is the 7 DDG-1000s, 10 submarines, and 9 auxiliaries. When you think about it, with so little deviation from the current 313-ship plan, it basically describes the current 313-ship plan as a plan to build a fleet for Major Combat Operations.
Shaping force. A fleet of 534 ships, mostly corvettes and patrol boats better suited to littoral, maritime security and partnership operations. This force would be composed of six aircraft carriers, 24 big-deck amphibious helicopter carriers, 48 amphibious ships, 48 cruisers and destroyers, 161 corvettes, 200 patrol craft, 30 riverine squadrons, 15 auxiliaries, and 32 submarines of all classes.
The first thing that sticks out about this plan is it represents what it would take to insert an entire Marine Division in forcible entry operations, even though it is supposed to be about MSO and Partnership. Despite the obvious flaws of only 32 submarines, which if you do the math after say 12 SSBNs is only 20 SSNs, is that with so few submarines and aircraft carriers it eliminates deterrence against China. My favorite comment about this plan so far is that "it looks like something Thomas Jefferson would advocate for to stop the British in 1810." In other words, the idea that the US Navy can emphasize partnership operations is not realistic, but as we have indicated in the past, the Navy does need a subsection of the fleet dedicated to partnership operations. This clearly would represent overkill to those ends.
Balanced force. A fleet of 474 ships able to conduct operations from high-end battle to low-end counterterrorism and maritime security. This force would be composed of nine aircraft carriers, 23 big-deck amphibious helicopter carriers, 46 amphibious ships, 57 cruisers and destroyers, 132 corvettes, 160 patrol craft, 20 riverine squadrons, 15 auxiliaries and 32 submarines of all classes.
This plan is interesting. Several have indicated that of the three, this is the one they liked the most. The first thing we like about this plan is the willingness to reduce the CVN fleet to 9. We actually like the number 10 better, but that the Navy is signaling 9 is OK is not a small thing. Another thing that stands out to us is this plan leaves 19 Cruisers and 38 Destroyers. That is a future reduction of 24 AEGIS warships. At the expense of submarines and logistics, the Navy changes the current force by adding 11 LHA/LHDs and 24 Amphibious Ships to create a "balanced force" even before producing 132 corvettes and 160 patrol craft.
While all of these plans are well and good, we wonder how serious the Navy truly is in making a force structure adjustment. If you think about it, the "Major Combat Operations" plan is simply the 313-ship plan with acceptance of a few cuts along the way, mostly to submarines and logistics. In fact, the focus of cuts to submarines and logistics, and the desire for more Amphibious Ships, specifically LHAs and LHDs raises a lot of questions regarding future existing plans, in particular the Sea Base. It leaves us curious, are these major increases in amphibious numbers in the "Shaping Force" and "Balanced Force" really nothing but MPF(F) squadrons and JHSVs?
With the emphasis on Amphibious Warfare, which can be fairly questioned considering the major competitors at this time are China, Iran, and North Korea (3 places unlikely to to be invaded by Marines), we note the desire for more amphibious ship capabilities. This tends to imply the regional deployments over the last 20 or so months by the Saipan, Ashland, Carter Hall, Whidbey Island, Peral Harbor, Fort McHenry, Peleliu, and Wasp have all been very successful. By that we note an apparent desire for more of these capabilities.
The emphasis of amphibious ships, absent any credible need for forcible entry operations, tends to imply a desire for specific metrics that are currently specific to amphibious ships, which is why we immediately jumped yesterday to discuss the concept of a mothership. One of the common themes, and the source for such a call must be forward commanders for it to make its way into each proposal, is for increased aviation capability for aviation capabilities other than fixed wing, as reflected by each plan increasing the number of LHAs and LHDs.
If this is indeed the case, it bring us back to the entire set of arguments between the big carrier vs small carrier crowds who had a major debate over CVN-21. We sided with the Navy that big deck carriers offer more to the Navy than small deck carriers, but in doing so we would side with critics who should now call upon the Navy to prove it.
The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is returning home from its deployment, and should make it home on or around December 23rd. The Enterprise is completing the second of 2 major deployments back to back, the first being from May 2006 until November 2006, then again from July 2007 to December 2007. That is basically 14 months of deployment over a 20 month period, and between November 2006 and July 2007 the Enterprise conducted several training cruises off the east coast. The Enterprise will enter the yard next year and basically be out of action for all of 2008, and won't make another deployment until mid to late 2009.
When she returns, the Enterprise will have about 5 years of life left in her at the current rate of deployment, which clearly (and particularly when you factor in she was in the Pacific for exercises in 2006) these deployments beat on an old ship like the Enterprise.
The Navy is sending the signal that a reduction of aircraft carriers below the current 11 threshold is possible, but if doing so the desire to increase Marine Aviation capabilities is necessary. When you also account for the confusion and frustration regarding the aviation aspect of the Sea Base concept, we would encourage the Navy to evaluate how to proceed with the USS Enterprise with its upcoming yard work.
Instead of returning her to sea as the 11th CVN, we encourage the Navy to spend some money and convert her into as much of the aviation solution as possible for the Sea Base concept, specifically converting her to support as many of the 192 required CH-46 equivalents required for the ACE element of a MEB. By removing the two catapults on the angled deck, but retaining the two up front, the Navy would then be in a better position to evaluate virtually every scenario discussed regarding Sea Basing, forward deployed aviation capabilities, and establish a true set of requirements for aviation at sea in the 21st century beyond the big deck fixed wing carriers.
The Enterprise life can be extended by removing it from the forward deployment cycle and utilizing the ship as a technology demonstrator for Sea Basing, including important discussed but often discarded possibilities like support for lighter than air aviation, BUT also supporting C-130 operations at sea and the evaluation of requirements to deploy air assault elements of the 101st Airborne.
This is a proposal for evolution, as opposed to revolution in the fleet force structure changes, and evaluation of requirements and metrics required to meet emerging expectations. The Navy has already expressed desire to meet the new Maritime Strategy with an improved force structure better suited to the requirements of the 21st century, Joint requirements btw which not only includes the Coast Guard and Marines, but Army and Air Force as well. This reduction of a single aircraft carrier not only illustrates the flexibility of the large deck aircraft carrier, but reinforces the Navy's desire to all services to be a Joint Force for supporting the national interest. During a period where funding is a competitive sport in Congress, demonstrating joint force multiplying capabilities and sacrificing major platforms like an aircraft carrier for the purpose of testing and evaluation of concepts to be funded reinforces the Navies case for more funding, an aspect of this proposal not to be undersold when the time comes.
If we have learned anything from the new proposals, it would appear the Navy is in search for a new set of metrics in a future fleet. While aviation is still desired, the type of aviation is different than in the past. We are not seeing an emphasis of long range missile ships, rather a desire for well decks. We are not seeing a desire for more AEGIS, rather more smaller, faster vessels. Although with all proposals demonstrating a remarkable lack of logistics and submarines, maybe its fair to question the Navy proposals completely and disregard them all, accepting the possibility we really haven't learned anything at all regarding the thinking in the Navy.