In a 19 January 1877 letter to The Times of London, the former Chief Naval Constructor (and then member of the British Parliament), Sir Edward Reed attempted to explain some of the reasons for the rapidly rising cost of British capital ships. The battleship HMS Devastation had been completed in 1871 at a cost of 361,438 pounds, but the cost of HMS Inflexible, launched in 1876 and nearing completion at the time of Reed’s letter was to cost 812,000 pounds. Parliament was naturally concerned about these apparent, skyrocketing costs. Reed, whose former position as Chief Naval Constructor, as position roughly analogous to that of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition,) explained the cost increase as this:
“Every war vessel is now a steamer, and some of our most powerful and valuable ships have not a sail upon them, but, on the contrary, are huge engines of war put into activity of every part by steam and steam alone. The main propelling engines are worked by steam. A separate steam engine starts and stops them. Steam ventilates the monster, steam weighs the anchors, steam steers her and steam pumps her out if she leaks. Steam loads the gun, steam trains it. Steam depresses or elevates it…The ship is a steam being.”
Reed went on to explain that the use of steam in so many areas of modern ship operation as a replacement for the wind and muscle power utilized in age of fighting sail warships, along with advanced products of the industrial revolution such as rifled, breech-loading cannons and compound steel armor had combined to significantly increase the cost of the modern battleship. A similar, 1877 report by the U.S. Navy’s Chief Engineer echoes Reed in that it stated, “year by year the thickness of armor and the weight of naval artillery go on increasing together. Mechanical appliances have more and more replaced manual labor, and at the same time the forms of the ships have been adapted to the work they have to do and the conditions under which they must act.” The Royal Navy was able to slow and eventually reverse the growth in its overall budget estimates in the first decade of the 20th century, but only through the radical actions of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher. The cantankerous and combative senior uniformed leader of the RN opted for quality over quantity and produced fewer, but larger and more powerful warships as the means to reduce the budget and increase combat capability. As a result, the RN’s budget from 1905-1911 remained less than that of 1904.
Still, the rising costs of the British naval armaments race with Germany exceeded Fisher’s capacity for cost savings and British Naval estimates again increased in 1911. The Royal Navy did not regain control over the escalating costs of its capital ships until the interwar period of the 1920’s and early 1930’s when a combination of naval arms limitation treaties and appalling economic conditions forced such conditions.
A similar process may be underway in the increased costs of U.S. surface warships over the last four decades at a rate greater than inflation. A 2006 RAND Corporation studysuggests that key indicators for modern warship cost center on a vessel’s ratio of electrical power generating capacity to its light ship (with no fuel ammunition, stores or other consumables aboard) weight. It appears that just as the industrial revolution’s steam and steel products drove up warship costs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s rapidly advancing electrical and electronic equipment now account for significant increases in 21st century warship costs. The rapid advance of electronic equipment and its operating software, as well as new technologies like rail guns and directed energy weapons suggests that ship cost increases will continue for the foreseeable future as they did during the Industrial Revolution. Given this data, today’s warships might echo Reed’s comment and can be construed as “electronic beings” with electrical and electronic systems and associated software just as integral to the rising costs of 21st century warship as steam and steel products were to its 19th century counterpart.
The RAND study’s potential solutions for reducing these costs include keeping ship designs less complex, more stable over time, and a consideration to physically separate expensive capabilities in the form of modular components to the main hull. The study also emphasized the unstable nature of U.S. naval shipbuilding, starting: “Many shipyards have a monopsony relationship with the government—that is, the government is their main, if not only, customer. At the same time, fluctuating ship orders from the Navy, with initially forecast orders typically exceeding what is ultimately purchased, discourage shipyards from making investments that could ultimately reduce the cost of ships.” RAND noted that unless these costs are brought under control that the U.S. would be hard-pressed to field even 260 ships by 2035.
The RAND study was released in 2006 and now the U.S. struggles to maintain its current fleet of 287 ships. It is vital for the U.S. to reduce these costs moving forward into the middle 21st century. A 2015 RAND report on surface ship maintenance suggests that the current readiness crisis is just the beginning of potential troubles, as deferred maintenance and mid-life upgrades in existing warships will grow over the next twenty five years. Unlike Admiral Fisher, the U.S. cannot now afford to reduce its overall number of ships, and solutions to qualitatively increase fleet firepower such as rail guns and directed energy weapons require significantly more, expensive development.
What can the U.S. do to slow the growth of its own “electronic being” fleet? It should develop a Maritime strategy that is a worthy successor of its 1980’s-era predecessor. That strategy product was put “on the shelf” by then CNO nominee Admiral Frank Kelso in June 1990. It was replaced by the “From theSea/Forward from the Sea” concept that assumed an extended period of operational maneuver from the sea against rogue and in support of failed states around the greater Eurasian littoral. That time where great power competition was a relic of the past is gone and has been replaced by a hybrid period of both great power competition and growing non-state actors. Concepts like “Defeat one / Deny or Deter another” are not strategy and represent operational art raised to strategic levels. A Maritime Strategy with operational characteristics that can be activated from phase zero start to a phase 4 conclusion needs to be in place. It will help shape global naval force deployment, and fund the units needed to carry out the strategy and its operational elements. Great Britain’s Royal Navy had a clear strategy from the age of “fighting sail” through the end of the Second World War. It was the shield of imperial trade and commerce and the sword that attacked those of its enemies and enabled the operational maneuver of British ground combat forces from the sea. The U.S. Navy does not have a similar clear purpose that can be easily articulated to Congress, U.S. allies, and potential opponents. Instead, the U.S. speaks of strategy in terms status quo, the 30 year shipbuilding plan and other force structure management processes. The Navy needs a product and not a process to shape the size, design and operation of its 21st century force and perhaps prevent the technological creep that has contributed to the price increases on Navy ships as documented in the RAND report.
The littoral combat ship (LCS) class tried to affect some of the changes suggested by the RAND. LCS was supposed to be less complicated than other combatants through the separation of its major capabilities in surface, subsurface and mine warfare into modular components bought and developed separately for the class. “Teething” issues in the first four experimental LCS units and the shipyards that produce them caused significant program delays, including an outright pause from 2007-2009 and the cancellation of the original LCS 3 and 4. The shipyards producing LCS have matured as have the designs and LCS has made significant progress in terms of capability and production cost maintainability since being placed under program executive officer (PEO) management in 2011. Despite those successes, troubles with the first four LCS units, uncertainty over operational costs, and a deep-seated Congressional and naval culture that believes that a frigate must be a “light destroyer” to be successfulhave combined to make LCS the defense press’ poster program for poor acquisition management.
Despite widespread dislike, the LCS program still offers to solve some of the problems that dogged both the British Navy of the 19th century and the U.S. Navy in the present. Admiral Fisher combined the functions of the battleship and the armored cruiser into the hybrid battlecruiserthat had the speed and range to overhaul and destroy surface raiders, and the firepower and advanced fire control needed to engage any opponent at long range. LCS still offers the ability to combine multiple small ship functions of patrol, mine warfare and the traditional combatant surface and subsurface warfare missions as interchangeable capabilities on one hull. LCS also supports unmanned vehicles and other off-board systems much better than the conventional frigates proposed to replace it. One LCS frame, like that of the World War 2 Sherman medium tank, that supported multiple variants is a better choice than building new, separate, separate mine warfare, patrol, and small surface combatant units, which will need to happen if the “frigate” category is taken by a high end design.
The RAND study touted the benefits of stability in design as a cost saving measures. One of the reasons for the selection of an LCS hull as the basis for the new frigate class is an attempt to improve stability through the use of the same basic hull, much as the DD 963 hull was used as the basis for the CG 47 class. If seen through to the construction phase, this choice would support the shipyards that produce both LCS and the projected frigate. The U.S. elements of the firms that produce the LCS have a “monopsony relationship” with the U.S. government as described in the RAND report and have little civilian business as compared with more traditional shipbuilders who also construct warships. The maintenance of stability in construction might allow these companies to avoid the layoffs that happen when the U.S. cannot make up its mind about which design to accept. This is not “corporate welfare,” but a vital issue in the maintenance of an effective industrial base to support the Navy in both peace and war.
The electronics revolution that has driven up the cost of U.S. warships over the last half century bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the Industrial Revolution, whose steam and steel products so substantially increased the cost of British Navy units in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 2006 RAND study on warship costs suggested ways the U.S. might slow that growth. LCS was one possible solution, but problems with early units, and opposition from Cold War cultures of ship size, lifespan, manning, sustainability, and intra-service parochial interests have combined to make LCS less of a success. While visions of larger, very capable fleets for the future may dazzle they eyes of some, the realities of rising fleet maintenance costs, the budget deficit, and internecine political warfare on Capitol Hill effectively combine to strangle such visions in their think tank cradles. The Navy will likely have to make due with a smaller force for the time being, and effective strategy, not massive firepower, could determine victory in the event of significant naval conflict. Like the Royal Navy of the mid and late 19th century, the U.S. must mitigate the accelerating costs of technological revolution and develop cost effective, operational solutions in support of defined Maritime strategy. Some of the concepts pioneered in the LCS program can aid in that endeavor and should be given a chance to succeed. Given current challenges, LCS and its frigate variant are likely to be the only small surface combatants the U.S. Navy will receive for the foreseeable future.