The sea is a tough place, and, given that stormy seas often damage ships and endanger sailors, the Navy has habitually worked to keep vessels out of harm’s way since 1944. But over the past thirty years the Navy has become so risk-averse that the U.S. surface Navy vacated several “strategic-but-stormy” seas.
That retreat—and the general loss of sustained heavy-weather experience by the cost-conscious post-Cold War U.S. Navy—has had real consequences. As the memory of sustained, stormy weather operations faded under the weight of a tough anti-terror operational tempo, the number of U.S. sailors and other naval tastemakers who understood that battle in high seas demanded ships with particular sea-keeping features dwindled away.
So the question remains: Do tastemakers like Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, who, in a February 27th letter to the House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, argued for “more smaller surface combatants; greater reliance on lightly and optionally-manned ships,” really understand that they may be arguing for a fleet that will be more effective fighting from a pier than out in the contested seas the future Navy is meant to secure?
Sea States Mattered:
Up until a little more than 18 months ago, almost an entire generation of U.S. sailors lacked experience sailing in the rough seas north of the Arctic Circle. In late 2018, Carrier Strike Group Eight was the first U.S. aircraft carrier battle group to operate in the Norwegian Sea in 27 years. The experience—along with several others—showed that the Navy had lost a lot of old operational secrets and practices needed to project power in stormy weather.
The same can be said for design. Back in the Cold War, naval designers grew surface combatants to, in part, better prosecute combat in the high seas. The enormous displacement of an old Cold War mainstay, the Spruance class destroyer, was controversial. At over 8,000 tons, the Spruance was twice that of America’s previous front-line destroyer, the Charles F. Adams class.
But back in the early 1980’s, when the U.S. Navy was a bit more concerned about the impact of storms and high seas upon the operational capability of U.S. Navy ships, studies cautioned that even the Spruance Class destroyers were only fully operable 80 percent of the time at Sea State 5 and barely operable 20 percent of the time at Sea State 6.
Cold War naval designers had “super-sized” the destroyer, to, in part, fight better in high sea states. But while America’s giant nuclear carriers were barely affected by heavy seas, their escorts—even the big new Spruance class destroyers—still struggled to remain effective.
Smaller ships have plenty of opportunities to struggle in high seas; in the open ocean of the Northern Hemisphere, Navy studies from 1982 estimated that the probability of seas of Sea State 6 or higher was almost 27 percent. The probability of Sea State 5 or higher was almost 50 percent. This was reflected in choices the Navy made as the Cold War wound down. The Navy shed frigates and other small ships at an enormous rate while retaining the Arleigh Burke class, a destroyer even larger than the Spruance class.
Sea States Still Matter:
Thanks to the end of the Cold War and comprehensive meteorological guidance, Navy ships could—and did—set their courses for the best weather possible. With no threat, such risk avoidance made sense. And as China and Russia emerge, the Navy can no longer plan on operating in calm seas. The Navy must go to where the war is—and today, as storms are becoming stronger and more frequent, the chances of a fight in higher, rougher seas will only increase.
Meanwhile, Pentagon technologists like Secretary of Defense Mark Esper—an Army veteran, who, as Secretary of the Army, urged the a-strategic dismantling of the Army’s sea transport wing—is extolling the virtues of the low-cost, small ship Navy. Does the Secretary of Defense—or the Deputy Secretary of Defense, David L. Norquist, who has been charged to lead “a comprehensive review and analysis of the Navy’s proposed “future fleet” force structure,” actually understand the tradeoff between vessel size and high-seas effectiveness?
Certainly, frigates and small ships are useful—the Navy certainly needs a far wider variety of vessels. Fundamental systems engineering questions risk being overlooked in the rush to propose exciting and fundable small-ship concepts. Right now, Washington think tanks are proposing fun-sounding baubles like 2,000 ton “minimally manned” vessels to serve as floating arsenals for carrier strike groups without really digging into the nitty-gritty operational feasibility of such new schemes.
The question is simple. If an 8,000 ton destroyer is unable to fully operate in Sea State 5 or higher, how well will a far more sophisticated and delicate 2,000 ton “optionally-manned” missile boat be ready to fight? How will these small vessels keep up with the carrier strike groups they are charged to defend? Have the sensitive technologies necessary for these small ships to fight actually been optimized and tested in real-world small-ship sea conditions?
There’s a reason why U.S. Navy surface combatants have gotten big—it’s because they need to do a lot of complex warfighting-oriented things. They must keep up with the carriers they defend and they need to be operational at high seas. Small ships can do lots of similar things too, but they cannot do as well at keeping up with an aircraft carrier in high seas and will have a hard time being operational in even ubiquitous mid-sized seas.
Small vessels are fine—but they are no panacea. When the seas are big, the lighter, smaller and cheaper fleets favored by budget-minded technocrats risk becoming ineffective. For challenged navies, high seas are an immutable fact of life. But, for the past thirty years, the U.S. Navy has avoided them, and forgotten a lot. And now that a former Army paratrooper and a Certified Government Financial Manager are poised to fundamentally reshape the U.S. Navy, the Navy itself is poorly positioned to even try to express the deep operational risks posed by dramatic changes in naval composition.
In this headlong rush to leverage new technologies and hot new concepts, the fancy powerpoint slides that point the Pentagon towards a cheap, pint-sized and optionally-manned fleet still has a long way to go before being converted into operational reality. In particular, the Navy needs to explain these operational challenges to David Norquist. If they don’t, David Norquist will do what his brother could not. While Grover Norquist has failed in his quest to reduce the U.S. Government to the size where he “can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”, Grover’s highly-regarded brother—if allowed to make decisions based largely on accounting principles and exciting powerpoint concepts—may be set to do just that very thing to the U.S. Navy.