#13 - US Navy Misses the Mark with New Frigate - Preparation for War
卫舰 - Wei4 Jian4 - Frigate
The rate of increase in cost for constructing US naval vessels has outstripped inflation, college tuition, and healthcare. These problems were previously identified by Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vernon Clark and RAND in 2005/06 and still exist today. Ultimately “[...] the Navy’s desire for larger and more-complex ships has been a significant cause of ship cost escalation in recent decades.”
No exception is the Navy’s new frigate program, the Constellation class. At a purchase price of roughly $1b per hull, the new frigate comes out of the gate too expensive and will continue to get pricier as time goes on. The current design comes mighty close to violating current CNO Admiral Gilday’s 2019 sentiment that “[the Navy] can’t continue to wrap $2 billion ships around 96 missile tubes [...] to fight [...] against a potential adversary that is producing [...] platforms at a very high rate of speed.” That potential adversary is the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which already currently fields the world’s largest naval force. So is wrapping a $1b ship around less than half the missiles (32 missile tubes) really fixing the problem? The answer is no.
Additionally, each Constellation will break the scales at over 7000 tons. The Navy’s current destroyers (the next higher class of warships) weigh only 8000 to 9000 tons depending on modifications. It makes one wonder if the Constellation “frigate” is actually a replacement for the current Arleigh Burke destroyers. The Navy is working on a new destroyer with electronic warfare and laser weapons capability, “which will place enormous and complicated demands on the [new destroyer’s] power system.” The Navy needs to move away from enormous and complicated to embrace small and simple.
For some sense of scale, the entire US Marine Corps budget is roughly $50b and the procurement cost for 20 frigates is $23.2b. In terms of red perspective, Beijing currently already fields 30 modern PLAN frigates, with a future frigate program in the works to increase the number of vessels. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is also equipped with thousands of land-based missiles, many of them anti-ship.
The US Navy is facing a crisis of high volume enemy missile fire. WWI presented a similar dilemma to ground forces. The accuracy and volume of artillery fire increased significantly during the Great War. Military commanders only adapted after sustaining massive and demographic-altering losses. The solutions to powerful enemy fires are time-tested: dispersal of individuals and units, hardening of positions and equipment, combined arms surge attacks, intelligence support, built-in capacity to sustain casualties, decentralized leadership, and counter-battery fires.
While there are many solutions, the current naval philosophy relies heavily on dispersal or “distributed maritime operations.” Are they dispersed enough? Concentrating naval capability into fewer and larger vessels makes each vessel far easier to target and destroy with missiles. Day-in and day-out, the Navy operates its fewer and larger vessels by consolidating them into clusters with complementary capabilities (air strike, amphibious, or surface action). While it is acknowledged that commanders are moving away from this concept, the process of change is far too slow.
More Dispersal, Less Cost
As the Constellation class becomes heavier and more expensive over time, the Navy needs a branch plan to maintain CNO Gilday’s original vision. First, naval acquisition should initiate a corvette (or light frigate FFL) program aiming for a vessel in the 500 ton range at roughly $100m per hull. With the exception of the corvette’s radar system, advanced or next-generation equipment should be eschewed in favor of time-tested designs. The vessel will need at least 6 full-sized missile tubes to hold enemy platforms at risk. For the same cost, fielding 10 platforms with 60 missiles will be more effective than fielding 1 platform with 32 missiles.
Second, to achieve distributed maritime operations on a budget, the Navy needs more than just a new corvette. A joint modular battle network concept is required. All naval vessels should be outfitted with a control module able to C2 independent surface and subsurface maritime pods. Each pod should be mobile and contain sensors, missile tubes, decoys, or sea mines. Every sensor and missile pod should have an integrated communications relay to allow all vessels and pods to exchange information and commands.
Acquisition and the National Shipbuilding Plan
To deliver the dispersed naval force and ensure victory, the US needs a strategy to develop an economically viable state-led shipbuilding program. One of the reasons why China is the world’s largest shipbuilder is because of Beijing’s civil-military fusion policy. The central government in Beijing directs the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC is a “central SOE”, as discussed in our previous post) which holds 20% of global commercial market share in vessel construction and runs over 140 scientific research institutes. CSSC also owns numerous subsidiaries which construct the PLAN’s military vessels, just one example being DSIC (Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company). Civil-military fusion extends down to the subsidiary level, as DSIC constructs civilian chemical tankers, container ships, off-shore drilling platforms, and roll-on roll-off ferries (in reality RO-ROs are dual use vessels). Yet DSIC also constructed China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, the Shandong.
The corvette program and distributed battle network pods would also significantly bolster US ship-building capacity. Multiple small shipyards would be able to construct a simpler and smaller corvette type vessel or maritime pod, broadening the shipyard industrial base. The behemoth complexity of large modern surface combatants too often leads to shipyard and industry over-consolidation as well as unrealistic construction times. International allies should be invited to participate in the corvette and maritime pod program (similar to the F-35) which opens up the possibility of multiple allied ports constructing the corvette and/or pods, easing US logistics and repair issues when operating overseas.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
With a new US shipbuilding program delivering a larger fleet of more platforms all able to control a distributed network of capabilities, US and allied forces will be far more lethal, flexible, and harder to find. This increase in capability is ultimately designed to make Chairman Xi Jinping question the PLA’s ability to achieve wartime objectives (especially maritime objectives relating to Taiwan). By throwing into question the success of an attack against Taiwan, Washington can deter Beijing from starting a war in the first place.
The US shipbuilding program shouldn’t be modeled on CSSC, but Washington needs to get its strategy together. Strategy is the process of defining national goals and then resourcing those goals with national means. There is strong bipartisan support for the goal of maritime freedom of navigation. To achieve that goal, the US requires a powerful fleet. While resourcing the fleet is understandably expensive and complex, the current system is stuck delivering fewer and fewer exorbitantly expensive platforms. The system is broken. Congress and the President must work together to change how the US Navy is resourced, expand our shipyard infrastructure, streamline military acquisitions, and invigorate the civilian and military shipbuilding industries.