November 04, 2007

Gunboats, Escorts, and the future of the Navy and Coast Guard

The navies light forces mess is about to come to a head in the next few years.  At the same time shrinking defense budgets the pullback of European Navies from areas the once patrolled and the general rise in lawlessness and militant Islam have fueled a surprising resurgence of piracy.

Surprisingly,  this may be ameliorated a bit by using the Coast Guard.

First, bit of background...

In the 1960's and 1970s the USN faced a huge problem in that, aside from a handful of modern and often experimental ships, the bulk of its fleet had been hastily constructed during WW2 and was simply worn out. The first solution was the  Knox class. These vessels were comparatively cheap and specialized but they were fairly seaworthy for their size as they were intended to escort convoys to Europe and possibly Japan in the event of a war with the Soviets in some of the roughest seas on the planet.

The Knox Class, optimized, for Antisubmarine Warfare carried ASW missiles, torpedoes, and an innovative drone ASW helicopter (D.A.S.H.) that was able to carry an ASW torpedo and launch  it into the water....frequently with the drone still attached .

After being rebuilt to take a small manned helicopter in place of the Disastrous Airborne Submersible Hilarity and a few bow modifications, the Knox class was fairly successful, but had no meaningful AA armament. The Oliver Hazzard Perry Class  was the solution. Sort of an escort to the escorts. They had the advantage of 2 helicopters (and in most, bigger, more capable helicopters) to complement the little Seasprites on the Knox's but in place of the ASW missiles they had a medium range anti aircraft launcher to provide air cover. Their ASW sensors were initially equivalent to a contemporary Coast Guard cutter but they were later fitted with a towed array and their "obsolete" sonar gave good performance in shallow water. Intended as  prototypes for mobilization, a total of 51 were actually built due to a combination of the Reagan defense buildup and the fact that they were relatively cheap. After the Berlin Wall fell, The Knox class disappeared quite quickly in part because of their steam machinery plants plants but also because of the USNs dubious decision to dramatically draw down its ASW forces. (The USN also ceased supporting the USCGs antisubmarine training at this time....ending 70 straight years of the Coast Guards focus on that as their primary responsibility grr...). The 'Perry's were decent ships, but, being specialized for Armageddon in the the northern oceans they were not designed for the gunboat duties they did during the 90's. For instance they had only a 3" gun, very much an afterthought, located amidships instead of on the bow.

On the other hand, they had 2 helicopters, an AA missile system that is a very effective and accurate anti ship missile at close range and they are robust vessels. In the 80's one had survived 2 hits by an EXXOCET missiles and one had (barely) survived a sea mine. They also gave a good account of themselves during the first US naval engagements with Iran. Most important, they were already in stock (cheap) and there were 51 of them. Perhaps they couldn't do much...but they could be in 51 places at once! The Perry's, as much as the Arleigh Burkes were the backbone of the navy in showing the flag.

By the early 2000s their age was showing, their obsolete missile systems were not seen as worth upgrading and their armament began to be whittled away....humorously in some cases.

In the 90's the navy began looking at replacements but little was done aside from some sketch designs. Looking towards a future that involved peacekeeping and inshore missions some in the navy started with a clean sheet of paper and designed a sort of fast attack craft. The Streetfighter concept was intended to be a small catamaran fast attack craft armed with some automatic cannon, what became the Evolved SeaSparrow Missle a helicopter landing pad and a few land attack missiles. Such vessels could , if kept austere enough, be bought in huge numbers. Here is a PDF of a design study on the Sea Lance, the sort of thing they were looking at.

With 2 or more 30-35mm guns and the versatile ESSM missle these vessels were thought able to deal with short of war threats and, if massed, be able to function in high threat areas. The drawbacks were the short range of such a small hull the limited seakeeping, the inefficiency of most short hulls at high speed, and the limited space for electronics.

The, first two were certainly issues but could be mitigated, the electronics ate at the raison d'etre of the design which is that it be austere. 

Of course there was actual necessary  growth, but growth on a modern warship invites news systems, which requires more hull to be added to support the new systems, which creates tempting blank spaces in which to know...stuff. Note that all of this "stuff" is vastly more expensive than the hull that carries it.

The end result of this and other decisions that added things was the Litorral Combat Ship. No longer a 4-600 ton fast attack craft it had become a 2600-3000 ton corvette. Part of the reason for the growth was not just the adding of shiny expensive stuff, but the unexplained reaquirement for extremely high speed. (60 kts in Streetfighter, 45 kts or more in the LCS). The two finalist designs are interesting vessels, one, an an advanced design that looks like an enlarged speedboat the other a high speed trimaran.

Given their experimental nature) the navy couldn't decide between the two finalist designs and so sensibly ordered two of each for a a comparison. They are named Independence and Freedom which is interesting.The class is to be named for small towns. Historically, the ships the USN has named after small towns small towns have been gunboats. This is apparently the job they are intended to do, close inshore actions against piracy and terrorists as well as show the flag. They are big enough to self deploy and each has a large "multi mission deck" below their impressive helicopter facilities. The ships are designed with the use of remotely piloted vehicles airborne as well as on and beneath the waves and they have sophisticated electronics and extremely advanced propulsion systems to drive them at their outlandish design speeds.

The Navy put all sorts of "stuff" on them, but that stuff did not actually consist of a heavy armament. Both ships will have SEA RAM point defense missiles, a Swedish designed 57mm gun and provision for several packs of the Army's planned NetFires NLOS-LS artillery missiles. There are several "mission modules" that can be carried for mine-sweeping and  other duties, but the antisubmarine module has been canceled. This is a very light armament for a ship intended to go into harms way. The cancellation of the ASW module is particularly distressing. This is a niche that has been atrophying in the USN foe a while as many potentially hostile countries beef up their sub forces. Nevertheless, given their peacetime patrol duties, their fixed armament (comparable to a US Coast Guard cutter) should be sufficient for dealing with pirates.


In spite of their light armament hey are also exceedingly expensive. And they are running over even those exorbitant costs. They are so expensive, that, via Murdoc the mighty, comes word that the navy has canceled the fourth of the Littoral Combat Ships due to severe cost overruns. From the Navy press release.

Navy Terminates Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 4) Contract


Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead announced today that the Department of the Navy is terminating construction of the fourth littoral combat ship (LCS 4) for convenience under the termination clause of the contract because the Navy and General Dynamics could not reach agreement on the terms of a modified contract.
The Navy had not yet authorized construction on LCS 4, following a series of cost overruns on LCS 2. The Navy intended to begin construction of LCS 4 if the Navy and General Dynamics could agree on the terms for a fixed-price incentive agreement. The Navy worked closely with General Dynamics to try to restructure the agreement for LCS 4 to more equitably balance cost and risk, but could not come to terms and conditions that were acceptable to both parties.
The Navy remains committed to the LCS program. â€œLCS continues to be a critical warfighting requirement for our Navy to maintain dominance in the littorals and strategic choke points around the world,” said Winter. â€œWhile this is a difficult decision, we recognize that active oversight and strict cost controls in the early years are necessary to ensuring we can deliver these ships to the fleet over the long term.”
“I am absolutely committed to the Littoral Combat Ship,” said Roughead. â€œWe need this ship. It is very important that our acquisition efforts produce the right littoral combat ship capability to the fleet at the right cost.”


The third was canceled some time ago. We are well short of the 30-60 that the NAVY needs.

Well, they need A ship, I'm not convinced they actually need this ship.

Even if this ship is "all that and a bowl of grits" it does no good if it cannot be purchased in adequate numbers....Numbers, you see, are what the navy is short of.

Taking carriers off the table for a moment, the USN's surface warships are vastly superior or at least equal to just about any nation and we have a fair amount of them. They are however, extremely expensive. They have to be. In order to actually fight on the front lines in a major war with a major power, requires sophisticated air defenses, electronic warfare capabilities, command, control, communications, and a ship large enough to carry all of these systems and point them in the roughest seas. It also requires the weapons to make them worthwhile. If you cut the electronics, you can't see to shoot, either because your radar is inadequate or your enemy has jammed you because your ECM is poor. If you cut the expensive weapons, the ship is pointless, if you cut he steel to make the vessel smaller you save very little money (steel is cheap)and your radars, ECM and communications interfere with each other because they are so close together...and then you sink in a hurricane.

A front line naval warship NEEDS to be fairly large. A good example is the Spanish/Australian F-100 class frigates. They have an austere version of our AEGIS system, comparable electronics and are ~3000 tons smaller than our new destroyers and in exchange carry half the aircraft and 1 third the missiles.

Missiles are volume intensive. The F-100 class vessels are fine ships but shrinking the ship by 1/3 reduces the battery by 2/3rds in this case.

So a small combatant is going to cost more per ton than a large one and generally, given similar design criteria, have less firepower per ton.

Bigger ships are more economical in firepower...but are the systems to deliver that firepower is expensive and can be built in only limited numbers. They are also too expensive to be sent gallivanting off to chase down pirates.

The Navy needs augmentation by LOW end vessels in peacetime. Vessels that would die if thrown on the front lines of a major war but would likely be counted by congresscritters as frigates or the navies detriment.

Despite its great size and huge budget the USN is facing real challenges. Even the most advanced ship can only be in one place at once, and he navy additionally needs to put considerable energy into ASW. For all its expense, the LCS would almost be worth it if it was an effective sub chaser, alas that module was canceled.

The Coast Guard has its own set of problems.It is approaching the end of the useful lives from all of its major ships except the Healy. It has had procurement issues comparable to the LCS debacle and its budget doesn't even show up on a pie graph of the US budget.

So is there a way that the Coast Guard can actually take a load off the Navy without terribly disrupting our operations? 

The duty that is most often brought up is ASW, which the Coast Guard optimized itself for between WW1 and two becoming extremely proficient at it. However, 60 years of institutional experience was disbanded when the CG was forced to stop practicing ASW in the early 90's.

Unlike bolt on things like SeaRAM& ESSM# which are almost (not quite) black box containers, ASW is extremely skill sensitive, expensive and VERY training intensive. Sonarmen are almost as much artists as technicians. This would require a large training infrastructure that does not contribute to lifesaving, law enforcement or any of the other myriad peacetime duties the USCG does.*

No I think the best niche for the Coast Guard would involve another discontinued Coast Guard duty.

Ocean Station: Beginning in earnest with the international ice patrol the Coast Guard began putting ships on weather stations to bounce around, look for icebergs and get horribly seasick. The rationale for this of course was maritime safety. In the early days of WW2 the US began placing cutters on specific ocean stations outside of the ice patrol as weather ships. They radioed barometric and other meteorological data to the National Weather Service. They also served as rescue vessels on station and emergency beacons for aircraft. After the war they continued this function until 1980 but the existence of weather satellites and the lack of any at sea rescue by an ocean station cutter in some years led to the program being terminated. The USCG was responsible for having a cutter on each of 7 stations 24/7. Ships could only leave if involved in a rescue or if weather was so bad that bulkheads were failing.

Into the '70s the despite the gunrunning of the 60s, the drug wars of the 70s  providing ships to serve in Viet Nam and the USCG's myriad other duties from searc and rescue to customs, the Coast Guard was able to keep 7 of its cutters on station 365 days a year.

We can do it again. Just have those ocean stations be in places like the Mallaca straits, the horn of Africa, Nigeria, the north coast of South America  and, the Persian Gulf.


Something as expensive as the LCS is silly. A 45 knot warship with a full ECM suite is not needed for this. Indeed the USCG requires rather heavier scantlings and shell plating to survive in the worst sea states. It should also be lightly ice strengthened (getting ice trapped and piling up between the outrigger nacells of the trimeran design would be....bad   ).

What is needed is an updated version of the 378 foot cutters seen above. Swap the gass turbines for diesels trading speed for fuel economy. 24-27 knots is really enough if the ship has a helicopter and  pursuit boats. This sounds very close to the actual characteristics of the new Offshore Patrol Cutters currently being designed of which 25-33 are planned.  Send along 2 or so patrol boats to be refueled by the larger cutter and you can get into the nooks and crannies to get those hard to reach pirates! Piracy suppression involves boardings, inspections, and law enforcement work as such plays to the CG's skill set.

The CG cutters with each with an automatic cannon and machine guns and small arms are capable of dealing with pirates and blockade enforcement and as a bonus are well positioned to assist in suppression of the slave trade which has reared its ugly head again in many of those same parts of the world. The only thing more powerful than a 57mm gun would be to get the Navy to "loan" a Sea RAM, (or if we're feeling really decadent, an ESSM pack). This is simply to deal with any pot shots someone might fire at the cutters, (a silkworm would ruin the coasties lunch.)

Morbidly, but honestly, in the event of a hit by hostile forces, someone using a torpedo or clandestine explosive device in a surprise attack, it is better to loose 24 crew on a patrol boat or 70 on a OPV that  than the nearly 400 on an Aegis destroyer that costs 30 times as much (and would be no better able to defend herself against that sort of attack).

Aside from these grim mathematics,this serves 2 purposes.

It frees up the navy to deal with deterring major threats, avoiding the need to buy lots of ships that are decidedly second line in a general war.

It keeps the CG's "sword sharp" without the tremendous drain of expense that restarting the ASW program would.

These cutters could serve as auxiliaries in wartime as "lillypads" for navy helicopters, towed array platforms, salvage, rescue, and light escort ships. However, on the USCG list they would not be counted against the USN hull totals. Thus they are an extra low end capability. Rather than a subtraction of capability.  

This is IMHO the best non-domestic niche for the CG, few big, friendly white hulls on ocean station in various pirate hotspots and fitted for pollution control and disaster relief.

This would  not detract a lot from its other duties much more than the old ocean station program did. Indeed it reinforces the Law enforcement and marine safety skills and leverages the services generally good rapport with civilians, both US and otherwise. This sort of duty might erode the USN's training regimen to a large extent.

Coasties have a reputation as good ambassadors for America. Their white hulled ships with extensive medical facilities, penchant for saving the innocent and very light armament make them welcome in third world ports.

The Coast Guard already works to coordinate well with other Coast Guards so this would additionally aid in the low end of the often mooted "1000 ship navy"

I do think that the Coast Guard should start procuring an off the shelf cutter design now, either an updated Hamilton or a foreign design, built domestically, just to avoid the troubles that are plaguing the new High Endurance cutters. A good overview of current OPV designs from around the world can be found here.

I also think the remainder of  the troubled Bertholf class should be reordered as medium sized lightly armed icebreakers, to assert our sovereignty over our northern border, but that issue is a post for another time.

Update: Welcome  Murdoc Online Readers!

Update2: Corrected some spelling errors, fixed a link.

Update3: Good discussions of the LCS topic at the World Affairs Board here and here.

*(Now a  fitting "for but not with" ASW equipment like towed array sonars and torpedo magazines for reequipping Navy helicopters might be a good option, with Specialist CG or USN reserves manning the ASW systems on the vessel in a hot war. This was the idea behind the Bear (Famous) class, though I'm not sure the Variable Depth Sonar arrays for them were ever procured. )

Note  that a similarly uninformed rant on Patrol Boats  is now here  ,as the old blog  is hemmoraging posts.

The painting is by John Wisinski and records an engagement between CGC Sherman and a North Vietnamese gunboat during the Vietnam War (from the CG historians site).

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 05:46 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 An excellent summation, Sir!  Bravo Zulu!

I suspect that the real problem is threefold:

1.  A military that measures its programs in terms of the number of officers who are promoted/rewarded upon its completion;

2.  A Congress that measures programs in terms of where things will be built and how much money will flow to the builders (particularly those in the constituencies of influential members);

3.  A public that's largely uninformed about the realities of warfare and basically doesn't give a damn as long as they get their bread and circuses.

The lessons learned by the Royal Navy at the beginning of World War 2 (and in various and sundry wars before and since then) are as relevant as ever.  When the proverbial brown substance hits the rotary air impeller, you either have enough assets to cope with the challenge - or you become food for the sharks.  The millions of tons of shipping lost between 1939 and 1943 bear mute and agonizing testimony to this.

There's another aspect, and that is the increasing emphasis on modular weapons systems and less manpower-intensive ship design.  This works just fine in peacetime, when there are few damage control problems and a malfunctioning weapons system is something that can be safely returned to harbor for servicing by manufacturers' technicians.  In a shooting war, you have to have weapons systems that work, in fair weather or foul.  If they're dependent on the manufacturers to service them in port, rather than user-serviceable at sea, you've just landed yourself in a world of hurt.  Ditto for low-manpower crews.  Combat damage can be contained and repaired at sea, if it's not too bad . . . and if you have enough bodies to do the work.  Failing the latter, you'd better hope the liferafts haven't been demolished by the same missile that's sending your floating home to Davy Jones' locker.

(Oh - and it helps if your ship is built of alloys and metals that don't lend themselves to combustion in the fires caused by an enemy hit.  See the Falklands War for elucidation!)

Old lessons . . . but as relevant today as ever.

Posted by: Peter G at Mon Nov 5 12:05:18 2007 (TmSAf)

2 Brickmuppet Very well written, I couldn't agree more. unfortunately you are up against the same egg heads the want the DDX

Posted by: Rob at Mon Nov 5 14:26:05 2007 (S5rOq)

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