In a recent post I reviewed some of the possible future modifications to the ADF’s force structure. Today I want to look at the particular case of future surface combatants. As I’ve said before, the best predictor of the future force structure is the current one, and that’s probably most true of Navy—arguably the service most influenced by tradition. The smart money should be on ‘more of the same’. But I’m not as convinced of the future prospects for large warships as James Goldrick argued here last week.
Large ships are, well, large. And they’re slow and confined to manoeuvre on a two-dimensional surface—at least until things go badly wrong, causing a one-way excursion into the third dimension. In contrast, the growing number of systems that would visit harm upon them are small, fast and able to manoeuvre in three dimensions. When you add to that the difficulty of reloading many defensive systems at sea, an attacker who can launch a large number of weapons at surface vessels stands a fair chance of overwhelming them. It’s true, as James says, that larger ships have more power and real estate for defensive weapons, but I can’t help thinking that they’re fundamentally on the ‘wrong end of physics’.
The cost relativity doesn’t stack up either. Like all major military systems, there’s been a steady real cost growth in surface combatants over the years. Depending on the ship type, the annual cost growth per ton is around 2%. The ships are also getting bigger—for precisely the reasons James argues—which means navies are getting a ‘double whammy’ on unit costs. The increasingly large number of increasingly expensive tons means ships are rapidly growing in price and budgets aren’t keeping up.
A modern surface combatant is three times as expensive in real terms as its counterpart from 50 years ago. The effect of that trend is predictable, and the fleets of the western world have been in a steady decline for many years, while their tasks have not. These days the idea of being able to protect world trade, for example, is pretty fanciful.
A replacement for the Anzac frigates is on Defence’s books at the moment as project SEA 5000. For the reasons that James explained, the Navy’s likely to want surface combatants that are larger and better-armed than the Anzacs. I think that reasoning should be tested pretty hard—we could end up making a big investment in a class of ships whose time is passing. When ASPI’s Australia’s Future Surface Fleet conference rolls around at the end of March, I hope there’s an iconoclast or two in attendance prepared at least to countenance that idea.
One of the problems of course is what to do instead. It’s important to be able to maintain a presence at sea for all sorts of reasons, and there are many scenarios short of a full-scale conflict between major powers where the full lethality of modern anti-shipping weapons won’t be the limiting factor. So there’s a lot to be said for bucking the trend of bigger and more powerfully armed warships and moving towards vessels that are designed for ‘less than WW3’. It’s possible that projecting hard maritime power into hotly contested areas in the future will be almost exclusively the job of submarines—though there are challenges there as well.
It’s hard to sell that idea to surface navies, especially when it’s not yet clear that the defensive battle is unwinnable. The US Navy set out to build a new type of surface combatant that was smaller, faster, cheaper and less manpower intensive than the large surface combatants, giving birth to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a vessel that—as the name suggests—was intended for operations in the near off-shore zone. The idea was sound enough (though not everyone agrees) but all too predictably ‘requirements creep‘ saw more and more warfighting systems added to the specifications, which inevitably drove up the complexity and the price.
In effect, the LCS has disappointed (to date) because of the lack of appreciation of the role of a vessel as a ‘low-end’ warfighter that’s able to safely operate against hostile but not terribly sophisticated defences. There are plenty of places around the world where that’s the case—such as off the Horn of Africa, where the ability to deliver force from the sea while defending against lowish-level threats has obvious applicability.
You wouldn’t want to sail an LCS against the anti-access/areal denial capabilities of a major power. But I’d argue that in days to come you probably wouldn’t want to sail even a very sophisticated (and eye-wateringly expensive) surface task group either. It’s time for a hard think about exactly how and where we want our future surface vessels to operate.