After three generations of converting surplus/obsolete SSBN hull forms to commando carriers, it’s time to start planning for a Columbia Class commando-carrying variant. Despite a lot of classification, open records suggest undersea commando carriers have accumulated a record of success that stretches back to World War II. And with the Marine Corps already organizing their basic amphibious warfare elements to fit into the operational parameters of SSBN-sized commando-carrying sub, it is probably something the Navy should start openly discussing with Congress and the Industrial Base.

I can hear the “tut-tutting” now. Too expensive, you say? Well, if we start looking at different fleet mixes (something that we’re not doing a great job of), where the amphibious-oriented surface fleet becomes a mix of low-cost LAWs and ESBs and some other things, a brace of modified troop-carrying Columbia class subs doesn’t look like that much of a stretch. Look, I love amphibious vessels, but a 2-billion dollar a hull LPD/LSD is…a lot. And popping in a few extra Columbia class variants on the latter part of the production run for the Columbia class’ existing 12 hull SSBN program of record might do good service right now in driving down the per-hull cost of the big sub.

Ahh, but the critics will then say that legacy amphibious vessels are too useful. Sure! They are useful–heck, they’re so valuable we’re simply lighting them on fire and burning them to the waterline while pierside, yes! But, all quips aside, are we using them as effectively as we can be? Are they a good ROI? The amphibious fleet has not been out there making headlines lately, and, for that matter, for the vast majority of amphibious lift missions, we don’t need a 2 billion-dollar LPD or a 3-6 billion dollar LHA/LHD to carry them out. An ESB ain’t necessarily the totally right answer either, but, hell, it’s a start.

This is going to cause a lot of heartache, but General Berger is right. The era of fielding amphibious fleet of only expensive glass-cannon amphibious vessels is coming to a close–it’s time to accept that lower-cost ships can do amphibious lift just fine, and recognize that some sort of undersea approach may well be the future of amphibious assault in contested areas. It might well be time to “get real” about reorienting the existing amphibious fleet industrial base towards small sea-control aircraft carriers, ramp down the rate of LPD/LSD production, and then get about fielding a bunch of low-cost amphibious vessels.

Anyway, I digress. I think a Columbia Class troop-carrying sub variant is idea worth mulling, and I’ve written up a more involved piece over at Forbes.com (here) detailing the proposal. Enjoy!

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In CRS: Discussing Large Surface Combatants

by Craig Hooper on July 16, 2021

With the release of the Pentagon’s 30-year naval force structure estimates, the indefatiguable Ronald O’Rourke, over at the Congressional Research Service, updated his analysis of the Navy’s surface combatant programs, using, in part, my concerned post over at Forbes.com (here). In the Forbes piece, I detailed how the Pentagon could be setting up to ramp-down surface combatant production as well conduct a a rapid cull of older surface combatants–basically trimming all the old Aegis cruisers and Flight I, IA and Flight II Arleigh Burke destroyers, and head towards a base Fleet of about 100 crewed surface combatants of various sizes.

My sense is that rapid divestment of these bought-and-paid-for platforms is a mistake, and that low-cost FRAM-like solutions are available to keep many of these platforms sufficiently combat-relevant for the years ahead. But the Navy, never one to support refits over shiny new platforms, may well be making the cuts inevitable by running the cruisers and early-flight Burkes into the ground. The Navy has resisted cruiser and early Burke refits for years now, complaining that, after years of crappy maintenance, that comprehensive refits cost too much and aren’t worth the money.

I’d believe it if the Navy hasn’t accumulated a long record of this sort “self-sabotage-for-a-new-boat” behavior. IF the Navy commits to a viable path forward in modernizing the Flight IIA DDGs, eking maybe 80% of the Flight III’s performance out of the older ships, then I’d be more sanguine about the cuts, but the moment the next general arrangement for the next large surface combatant appears in a Pentagon PowerPoint, I’ll bet that the Flight IIAs are going to face a similar ignominious fate. I also suspect that the tech-addled unmanned advocates in the Pentagon are going to leverage the Navy’s behavior to “lock in” their changes, tying the Navy to a costly strategy that has yet to demonstrate sufficient “bang-for-the-buck”.

In short, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, it is great to be out there, helping Ron O’Rourke inform Congress! Here’s the bit I wrote that Ron included in his June 28 report, “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress“:

A June 23, 2021, press article that presents one observer’s perspective regarding the figures in Table 1 states that the June 17, 2021, long-range Navy shipbuilding document…

“…telegraphs enormous cuts to America’s large surface combatant fleet of cruisers and destroyers. The mild verbiage from the report, saying “that growing the small surface combatant force enables reductions in the quantity of large surface combatants while yielding a more distributed and lethal force,” masks a likely brutal downsizing. 

The cuts will be deep and potentially rapid. Today, 92 large combatants are in the fleet, but the Navy’s longer-term plans suggest the legacy large surface combatant fleet of Ticonderoga Class (CG 47) cruisers, Zumwalt Class (DDG 1000) destroyers and Arleigh Burke Class (DDG 51) destroyers will shrink to a fleet of 63 to 65 large surface vessels over the next 30 years. Amphibious assault vessels (LHA/LHDs and LPDs) and command, support and fast transport ships will be cut as well, and the future small surface combatant fleet of littoral combat ships and frigates is only projected to grow to between 40 and 45 ships from a current fleet of 35. 

The cuts are widespread, but one place the axe falls hardest is upon the Navy’s large surface combatant fleet. First, the Department of Defense will force the Navy to eliminate the entire 22-hull Ticonderoga Class cruiser fleet. But even that drastic cut is not enough for the Navy to get to the Department of Defense’s current projection of 63 to 65 ships. With 88 Arleigh Burkes in service, under construction or already authorized, Arleigh Burke destroyer procurement will likely cease and 27 older Flight I, Flight IA and Flight II Burkes will be ushered out of the fleet. 

The only question is just how fast the cuts to the large surface combatants will happen. 

If left to normal attrition, most of the 27 older Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, deprived of a few hundred million dollar service-life extension six years ago, will simply age out over the next 30 years. Commissioned between 1991 and 1999, early-Flight Burkes were built with a service life expectation of about 35 years and, since the Navy has been unable to find money to systematically modernize and extend the life of the aging ships, most of the older Arleigh Burke destroyers are set to start decommissioning sometime after 2026. 

That would be relatively normal practice. But, in a rush to claw back additional money, lock in savings, and make the proposed cuts permanent, aged Ticonderoga cruisers and older Burkes may well be pulled from service quite quickly—far faster than anyone outside of the Pentagon expects. 

What should scare surface warriors is that the administration’s proposed 30-year goal of 63 to 65 large combatants can be achieved without procuring a single new hull. And while one of America’s two remaining large surface combatant yards may help build Constellation Class (FFG-62) guided missile frigates in the coming years, the Navy’s surface combatant industrial base will fall under serious strain without some modest level of large surface combatant procurement. 

The end of the Burke production line is in sight. The newer, Flight IIA Burkes were built to have a 40-year service life, and, even with no additional vessel procurements beyond the authorized-but-unnamed “DDG139, the Navy would only need to give six Burkes, DDGs 79 through 84, a 10-year service life extension to meet the current fleet-size goal.

Those handful of refits would let the Navy show up in in 2051 with about 60 Arleigh Burkes and three DDG 1000s in service, clocking in right at the low end of the Navy’s 30-year estimate….

A large surface combatant procurement pause may be inevitable”

My sense is that the drawdown of America’s large surface combatant inventory is going to happen–and far faster than most people outside DOD think.

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In Forbes: A Small Rant On The Littoral Combat Ship

June 29, 2021

It is really annoying to publish a story where Navy PR sources tell me that on-land testing of the Freedom Class gear is still underway, only to see another part of the Navy, barely twenty-four hours after I posted this, trot out Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, the commander of naval surface forces, to tell a […]

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In Forbes and In Press: Talking To POGO About Shipyards

June 14, 2021

POGO is doing some interesting work on keeping shipyards accountable. The indefatigable Jason Paladino has a pretty good explainer up, talking about the Shipyard Act–identifying concerning issues like the “no-strings-attached” aspects of the $25 billion shipyard supplement, the apparent “quid-pro-quo” on the lobbying/campaign donation side of the shipyard business, as well as questioning the private […]

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In Forbes: First Freedom Class Fix In “Early” FY 2022?

June 7, 2021

Here’s the link. So the Freedom Class’ combining gear fiasco–which smart people saw coming waaaay back when LCS-1’s combining gear was first delayed–is moving ahead, with the Navy expecting Lockheed Martin to deliver a tested fix by “early” FY 2022. Good luck. As a pessimist, I suspect this announcement was too aggressive, when the Navy […]

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In Marine News Magazine: Column the Maritime Commerce Cutter RFP

June 7, 2021

Link is here and here. My first column with the Marine News constellation of trade magazines! The Maritime Commerce Cutter fleet is due for an upgrade–and the entire class will be the Coast Guard’s primary inland representative as America’s waterways undergo both an economic renaissance and enormous technical change. These boats are unglamorous, and, while […]

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In Forbes: Time To Bring USCG Funding To The Floor

May 27, 2021

Here’s the link. Yesterday, Roger Wicker introduced a big Coast Guard funding bill. That’s great news, but the legislation itself is largely a bundle of other much-needed Coast Guard funding proposals that, after getting introduced years ago, never saw the light of day. It’ll join a raft of other USCG funding proposals that are working […]

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In Forbes: Urging Better Funding for U.S. Deep Sea Fishing Enforcement

May 24, 2021

Here’s the link. The emergence of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing as an “issue” in the Trump Administration is a tale that needs telling. It was, on the part of many folks, an act of bureaucratic legerdemain–The issue couldn’t get too big too fast, or it would have been targeted and killed as a risk […]

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Can’t Have Too Little Coast Guard

May 23, 2021

President Biden spoke to Coast Guard Academy graduates last week, charting out an organizational future that everybody kind of already knows–that the Coast Guard is bound for bigger things. That’s all great news, but there seems to be no money coming behind it. And that’s a problem. The Coast Guard faces cost challenges everywhere. It’s […]

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DDG-51 Cut: Not The End, But Maybe The Beginning Of The End?

May 22, 2021

I discussed the “surprising” DDG-51 cut in the Portland Times Herald last week, and, while I get the frustration about how the Congress and the Navy seem to treat “multi-year” and “block” buys as more piggy-banks than real obligations, I think you’re stupid if you don’t believe the DDG-51 is going to end sometime in […]

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