May 11, 2018

So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Strategy Part 2

Bean: I figured I'd start my time today by picking up where we left off last time. Does anyone have any more questions?

Johnathan Wallis: If we are worried about future confrontation with China, we may want to look at how costly we could make hostilities against us. I'm thinking short of hot war, here, more in the range up to a naval embargo. With the future of U.S. influence uncertain, are we preparing to be potentially isolated from them?

Bean: That's a good point, and a risk we should definitely investigate. I don't think it's one we should build our fleet around, though we can probably get an effective defense at relatively little cost. Added to a future agenda.

Andrew Hunter: A brand new country with a new history is an excellent time to break with historical baggage, as you've alluded to already. How certain are you that the local optimum of possible ship classes is close to a global optimum? I'm not necessarily arguing for small boats or in fact any particular radical new class of classes (the type theorist in me says "kind".) But to what extent is it worth in our unique scenario pursuing unique ship styles--drone carriers, or small submarines, or Russian style hybrid helicopter carrier/cruisers, or armore surface combatants, or whatever? Both in general (should we try to do something unique, or stick entirely to known ship classes) and in particular (are there any specific experiments you'd like to try?)

Bean: There are good reasons for most of the typical classes of ships you see today. I plan to explore these in more detail in the future, but in broad terms, when you take the equipment necessary for a given mission and wrap it in enough support systems to be truly useful, you get a ship that looks a lot like the ones bought by major naval powers today. That said, there is potential leverage for us in incorporating more unmanned vehicles, so long as we keep in mind the massive communications challenges those pose. Again, something we'll have to discuss at greater length later on.

Andrew Hunter: to what extent do you care about building up local shipyard capacity, and especially design knowledge? Independence gives us a lot more flexibility and ties us much more loosely to any diplomatic connection, and avoids issues like being caught in the F-35 disaster. (As a general example: I am mostly expecting you to not propose fixed wing aviation, but supposing we did, it would suck if we couldn't fill out an air wing because of domestic problems in the US.) On the other hand, it's potentially hideously expensive, and requires quite a lot of work (and time) compared to buying old German corvettes or even licensing their design. China and India both imported many of their early ships; do you think it paid off for them? Am I wrong for thinking that a reasonably first-world country should pay the necessary price to have local design and build?

Bean: I'm not entirely sure on this one, to be quite honest. It's impossible for any nation to be entirely independent of foreign sources in defense procurement, even the US. But it's a lot easier for politicians to grandstand against delivery of a complete warship than against a few containers of electronics, and it's also somewhat easier to find alternative suppliers for those electronics. Our first generation of high-end ships will definitely have to come from overseas, because of time and expertise constraints. We'll need to create an in-house design capability, and at least low-end shipbuilding as well, OPVs and the like. Large ships will make sense to build overseas for the foreseeable future, although I'm not so sure about destroyer/frigate class vessels in the medium term. A few years ago, buying from the British would have been a good idea, but the major programs we're interested in are over or winding down, and probably can't take extra orders. But they're also desperate for money, so we might be able to get a good deal on the Type 26s. Dealing with the US is probably more trouble than it's worth. That still leaves options in Europe and the Far East, although if we do go for fixed-wing aviation, and I think that's an option we should explore, finding someone to build carriers will be tricky. Maybe we can pick up America and Tripoli cheap, although there would be fairly serious limitations if we tried to use them as carriers. We do have options other than the F-35, provided we use STOBAR instead of STOVL. With modern aircraft, that's a serious option.

Le Maistre Chat: I think you misunderstand me [with respect to ASW frigates off Somalia]. I never said anything about building ASW-specialized frigates to protect our shipping. That's a multi-role design, and if anything the first temptation would be to specialize against pirates and kamikaze speedboats! Those are bigger threats in what we call peacetime than hostile submarines.

Bean: Ah. I'm not entirely sure what a ship specialized to fight that would look like. An OPV with a good flight deck, I guess. In any case, it's not a real warship. But they'll be the ones patrolling our coast, not the ones sent to Somalia.

Le Maistre Chat: OK, so a carrier strike group can scare a small Third World country that the bloated US Navy isn't authorized to scare, letting us build independent diplomatic influence. Then we need to discuss the tax revenue vs. capability trade-offs for one of those ships and its support. Could we get a Wasp for $1.5 billion, or is the US military-industrial complex such a dumpster fire that that's not an option? How vulnerable, really, is a carrier strike group to kamikaze speedboats? The fact that USN wargame referees had to ban some of "Red's" tactics with these to make the exercises "balanced" for Blue is really disturbing.

Bean: "Kamikaze speedboats" would classically mean the threat of the kind used against Cole in 2000. That's not a trivial threat, but it's definitely manageable. The USN at least is very careful about that. There are machine guns and light cannons manned any time the ship is moving about in confined waters, and patrols are in place near any Navy anchorage.

But I think you're talking more about the "threat" that was "revealed" in Millennium Challenge 2002. Unfortunately, the media reporting on that is terrible even by the usual standards of the US media. I'm not totally certain what happened there, but in no case does it look like small boats were an actual threat. They're terrible weapons platforms. Small boats don't have space for the combat systems so necessary to modern naval warfare, and are terribly vulnerable to helicopters, because they can't carry even a mediocre air-defense system.

Le Maistre Chat: How many billions would we have to budget for an amphib that's a submarine and launches snorkeling Amphibious Assault Vehicles, only having to surface to launch F35s and helicopters or Ospreys?

Bean: Unfortunately, I can't answer your question due to a rash of brown pants in the Naval Accounting Department. Such a thing isn't really practical. Because a submarine has to have the density of water, it's not very good at carrying volume-intensive cargo like troops or airplanes.

aethelfrith: Do you intend to address naval capacity other than warships? You mentioned carriers, SSBNs, and surface combatants. Are we going to address naval aviation, marines, ISR assets, logistics vessels, or shore facilities?

Bean: Absolutely. I'm well aware of the importance of those things, but they're support functions, and will flow out of our warship decisions, more or less.

aethelfrith: In your description of strategic goals, I didn't see any mention of A2/AD. Now, I hate buzzwords at least as much as the next guy, but the concept is high enough profile I was a little surprised you didn't at least give a passing mention to why you don't think it important. Do you consider A2/AD a subset of sea control/power projection? Will you address it later?

Bean: I consider A2/AD to be a modern buzzword for Sea Denial. "There is nothing new under the sun." What the writer of Ecclesiastes didn't mention is that military thinkers compensate for this by inventing new buzzwords to make their ideas sound new.

Anyway, we'll have to pick this up next time.


  1. May 11, 2018Skivverus said...

    On the pirate subject, the main thing that comes to mind is detection, since the ocean is large relative to the sight radius of any given vessel. I suspect that ship size doesn't impact this enough relative to cost, so you'd get more bang for your buck from larger numbers of cheaper ships, so long as they could communicate with each other. This is also useful in more conventional military affairs, though, so expect diplomacy to be required in deploying these, especially beyond territorial waters.

    The vision I'm getting is of a swarm of little boats (or buoys) with camera (balloons|kites|drones), backed up by destroyers sufficient to take on a would-be pirate, backed up in turn by progressively more dangerous vessels in a power-law sort of distribution.

    Also a way to cut down on area coverage required would be sea lanes - main protection efforts focused on the lanes going between known-good ports so that interdiction can be caught early.

    For that matter, I'm sort of wondering about "distress sonar" as a way to cut down on antipiracy response time. Slower than light, but harder to jam.

  2. May 11, 2018bean said...

    If our only option was to do sea surveilance from the surface, I could see why lots of small boats would be the best option. But it would be nice if we could get more range out of our sensors by mounting them on something really high up. Like, say, a helicopter.

    Helicopters are perfect for this kind of work. They're 4-5x faster than any ship, particularly in bad weather, and they can take advantage of a greatly increased horizon. Pirates are unlikely to have any weapons that can threaten them, and there are limits on how cheap you can make your boats. I really wouldn't want to be in charge when one of my scout boats was taken by the pirates. Unmanned surface vehicles may change that some, but we aren't quite there yet.

    And I think you overestimate the pirate threat in general. It's not like somebody is going to slap some guns on a supertanker and go buccaneering. It's done by people in speedobats or fishing boats, armed with RPGs and machine guns. It's inherently an inshore threat, which means it's only a problem when oceanic trade is forced close to shore. The big area for piracy these days is the entrance to the Red Sea, followed by the Strait of Malacca.

    Also a way to cut down on area coverage required would be sea lanes - main protection efforts focused on the lanes going between known-good ports so that interdiction can be caught early.

    Convoys work better for this. The problem is that the ocean is big, and it's more effective to concentrate your escorts around the actual targets instead of hunting across mostly empty water.

    For that matter, I’m sort of wondering about “distress sonar” as a way to cut down on antipiracy response time. Slower than light, but harder to jam.

    You overestimate the technical savvy of the average pirate. The basic idea isn't terrible, and it's actually been done before, using the deep sound channel for signalling in an emergency. But there's no particular reason we'd need to do that.

  3. May 11, 2018BlackBellamy said...

    An S1 drone is manufactured with an appropriate loadout (A2A, ASW, A2G, ECM/ECCM, etc). It flies out to meet a larger S4 drone which acts as repair and resupply. Specialized S2 drones with stealth and long range sensors provide information to S3 units, which coordinate missions for any available S1’s. All you need is four production lines, keep them running and eventually the entire globe is covered with your drones. Drones are small, cheap, easy to build, and best of all, unmanned. You lose one dozen or several, so what. If you have your fictional fresh start country, pour your entire armed forces budget into drone research. In 20 years the world is yours. Ships for war fighting exist because of historical momentum. So do manned airplanes. Your country has no immediate existential threats and is starting fresh. Forget the old paradigms. The future of combat is robots. You can see it already, but slowly, because innovation is hobbled by the need to keep existing platforms viable. Viva Robodronia!

  4. May 11, 2018bean said...

    Sure, just as soon as you can find me an AI that's capable of carrying out a complex ROE in a difficult situation, and that won't freak out when the enemy comes at it wearing silly hats and making beeping noises, or decide to get me into a war with the US. Or an unjammable communications link with enough bandwidth that I can fight the war with guys sitting at consoles. Unfortunately, neither is close enough for me to be confident that going all-robot is a good idea.

    I also think you overrate the impact of manning on most weapons systems. Drones are not inherently cheap (or long-endurance, either). Something like Predator is cheap and long-endurance because it's a light recon aircraft for use in mostly-uncontested airspace. If I want a plane to go into hostile air defense environments, then the pilot doesn't make it that much more expensive.

    And then there's the maintenance burden. We still aren't quite to the point where I'd be willing to trust automated repair equipment, either. And military stuff breaks a lot.

  5. May 11, 2018Skivverus said...

    Was sort of under the impression that there's a limit to how cheap you can make your helicopters (and landing pads), too; no objections to having them be the mainstay there, I'm more spitballing on possible even-cheaper detection options. "Balloon-with-camera" seems like it would be cheap enough to be relatively disposable - something you could drop off the back of a boat at somewhat regular intervals - and inoffensive enough not to make governmental militaries shoot them down on principle. Though depending on what you fill the balloon with they might shoot it down because it makes for pretty lights.

  6. May 11, 2018bean said...

    I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure that that kind of disposable sensor will make much sense. The problem is that you need a pretty good camera (it sort of defeats the purpose if you have to scramble the helo every time there’s a mysterious contact that turns out to be a fishing boat) with night capability and an appropriate datalink, you need the setup to monitor them and you need to disperse them, then keep reseeding to make sure there aren’t embarrassing gaps. Why not simply mount a similar camera and datalink on a small drone and fly that, instead? Even leaving aside the greater range, the drone’s speed lets it spend less time in each patch of sea because it’s a lot faster than the potential target. You only need to look often enough to make sure nobody slips through.

    But the main reason for a full-sized helo is that the savings from alternative surveillance methods can be surprisingly small. We need a full-sized helicopter around to deal with any pirates we find. So at this point, we’ve already paid for the bird, the crew, and all the logistics support to get it out there. We’re going to have to pay for some flight time running down contacts and the like. So we either pay for extra fuel and spare parts, and fly it for surveillance, or we pay for the extra drones/balloons up front, and for the people to work on them, and for all the operational costs. Given that we have to have the full-sized helo anyway, it’s not an obvious choice if we do it occasionally. If we need to do a lot of this kind of lightweight sea surveillance, then the math starts looking rather different.

    inoffensive enough not to make governmental militaries shoot them down on principle.

    Two problems with this. First, governments tend not to like this kind of thing on principle. You’re surveilling their waters and rubbing it in their face. Second, you’re also littering, and that’s going to make many people both in that country and in other countries irritated.

  7. May 11, 2018RedRover said...

    We do have options other than the F-35, provided we use STOBAR instead of STOVL. With modern aircraft, that’s a serious option.

    I realize that in general buying our of date equipment is a fools errand, but wouldn't a second gen -18 provide a lot of the capability that a -35 has, with less development risk? Obviously then you need CATOBAR, which would push towards a bigger carrier, but I think you could get away with a smaller one. The RN operated F-4s off the Ark Royal at about 50k tons fill load/40k empty. While some of that is made possible by not having modern sensors and amenities, it's also a seventy year old design, so hopefully it would be something of a wash.

    To be sure, it wouldn't be able to go head to head with the US, but that isn't our goal. (You also don't get the amphibious capability of America, but in the other hand you have a real CATOBAR carrier.)

  8. May 11, 2018bean said...

    You don't actually need a catapult to operate modern fighters, provided you don't want too much load on them. The Soviets and Indians use a ski-jump for MiG-29s and various Su-27 derivatives, and I think the Indians looked at Super Hornets for the role, too. That lets you shrink the ship even more, though you still need arresting gear. On the gripping hand, there's Charles de Gaul. She's smaller than ideal for CATOBAR, but she does work. Make a dinosaur-burner of similar size, and you'd be set.

    That said, I'm really not sure what to recommend for carriers/fighters. Part of me says to buy Super Hornets for both naval and land-based air, and probably go with STOBAR, maybe transitioning to CATOBAR later. Another part is questioning if it wouldn't be better to try to build a lower-cost Harrier replacement instead. There might well be a niche there for something in the F-16/F-18 performance category with STOVL capability that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. And it gives us a nice domestic aerospace industry of our own.

    America and Tripoli don't really fit with how the USN/USMC plan to do amphibious warfare, so there are rumors they'll be up for disposal. Don't know if it's true, but if so, it might be a good deal.

  9. May 11, 2018RedRover said...

    Also, if you ever do another one of these, it would be interesting to take the other side, and be a modern day Yugoslavia, or perhaps Iran/Pakistan/India. Frenemies at best with the US, and not interested in power projection so much as becoming an unpleasant hedgehog. The goal wouldn't be to defeat the USN, so much as to pierce the apparent impunity of the carriers and require a total commitment by the USN.

  10. May 11, 2018RedRover said...

    But CATOBAR gives you more of the nice parts of carriers add far as an E-2, maybe a KC-2 type thing, or are those superfluous to the needs of our fictional country? I think the Brits are planning a helicopter mounted radar for the QE, but that seems am inferior solution, no?

  11. May 11, 2018bean said...

    To some extent, that was covered under "Why the carriers are not doomed", but I'll think about it at some point down the road.

    And yes, CATOBAR is pretty much strictly better than STOBAR. The big advantage is that it's cheaper, and can fit on a smaller ship. If I can pry a big enough chunk out of the treasury, then I'll go for CATOBAR, probably running Super Bugs, although Rafael is an alternative. If not, it's a choice between STOBAR and STOVL. The advantage of going to STOBAR first is that the planes can then be repurposed for CATOBAR.

  12. May 14, 2018Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    I'm thinking that if we build carriers, it should be bigger rather than smaller -- we want room for expansion and replacement of the air wing, and more size gives us more options there. Who knows what's coming down the pike, and hulls are likely to have a long service lifespan.

  13. May 14, 2018bean said...

    My concern is the budget. While I'd love to have a couple carriers of Ford size and capability, they're really expensive. Also, I'm not entirely certain how much cooperation we'll get from the existing carrier powers, and I'd really rather not spend our entire carrier budget for the next 30 years on ships that turn out to have major flaws due to our lack of experience.

  14. May 14, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Re: becoming an unpleasant hedgehog, John Schilling made an interesting case for the North Korea approach starting in and continuing through the next few open threads. (Advocating the approach wasn't exactly his goal, but I came away convinced NK is a hell of an unpleasant hedgehog)

  15. May 14, 2018bean said...

    While North Korea's foreign policy is quite effective for North Korea, I don't really want to be North Korea. Our best bet is to integrate into the west as seamlessly as possible, which is going to involve doing a lot more than just making ourselves as unpleasant as possible to invade.

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