The 450 ship fleet
Aug 01, 2011
The US Navy's current shipbuilding plan is a modified version of the 313-ship plan developed in 2006. Designing, building, deploying, training, and developing the doctrine and tactics of naval battlegroups requires significant time and resources, which is what makes the strategic guidance of the shipbuilding plan so important. At the same time, it can’t be static, but rather flexible and adaptable to changing realities.
Naval experts seem to be somewhat (to extremely) concerned about our naval force structure. The general concern is that it is too small (in terms of number of ships). Misplaced priorities is another common concern. The current fleet stands at around 270 ships, and so even the 313-ship fleet will take some effort, especially considering the current fiscal situation and the Navy’s consistency in underestimating shipbuilding costs.
Our naval forces are organized into two main types of groups: the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). A typical formation looks like this:
Each group has a set of unique core assets (group ships in the diagram) as well as other support vessels, such as surface combatants, supply ships, and attack submarines that are plugged in as needed. Supply ships are provided by the Military Sealift Command (MSC). While being able to plug-and-play assets into group formations instantly and universally is probably the ideal goal, the reality is probably not so fluid.
Below is an example of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG), whose core group ships consists of an Aircraft Carrier and its Carrier Air Wing (CAG).
Current Fleet Groups
Our current forces contain 11 Carrier Strike Groups and 11 Expeditionary Strike Groups. A logistic group was envisioned in the original 313-ship plan, called a Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF), but has since been scaled back. It was intended to provide sea-basing capabilities in support of combat operations. Currently there are 3 MPF squadrons, each with some container vessels operated by the MSC and a T-AKE cargo ship. They will shortly receive another ship called a Mobile Landing Platform (MLP)
450-ship Fleet Groups
The 450-ship plan adds an additional group formation called the Hive Strike Group and would expand the number and size of the MPF fleet. For the purposes of this proposal, the expanded MPF sqaudran is being called a Combat Logistics Group (CLG). Below are the 4 different group formations in the 450-ship plan.
The next graphics compare the size and types of groups in the 313 ship plan and the 450 ship plan. The large number represents the number of groups of the particular type and the small number represents the number of core ships in the group. The 3-letter acronym is the abbreviation for the group. Some supply ships as well as the ballistic missile and guided missile submarines are not included in these diagrams which is why they don't add up to total fleet numbers.
Carrier Strike Group
The Carrier Strike Group is the same in both ship plans, centered around a super carrier and its air wing, it is a powerful and versatile power projection group. The 313-ship plan has 11-12 CSGs. The 450-ship plan retires or sells 4 carriers and than halts production after CVN 79 for a target goal of 6 CSGs.
Expeditionary Strike Group
The Expeditionary Strike group is the same in both ship plans. The ESG is designed to conduct amphibious operations. Its lead ship is an Amphibious Assault Ship (LHA/LHD). Two other amphibious vessels, an Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD) and a Dock Landing Ship (LSD), make up the rest of the groups core vessels.
The 313-ship plan has 11 ESGs. The 450-ship plan calls for 6 ESGs. The Amphibious Assault Ship requirement for the remaining 6 ESGs will be filled by the existing Wasp class vessels, while the America class vessels currently being built will be used for the new Hive Strike Groups. A second production line will be started in 2018 to build replacements for the Wasps.
Construction will continue on the Amphibious Transport Docks currently being built. Two others that are planned, LPD 26 and LPD 27, will be re-tasked into command vessels for the Combat Logistics Groups. The remaining ESGs will only need 6 LPDs, but will end up with 9.
Of the current Dock Landing Ships, 4 will be transferred to the Combat Logistics Groups and the rest will remain with the ESGs.
Hive Strike Group
The Hive Strike Group is a new group in the 450-ship plan. It is designed to conduct operations in the littoral regions. The main vessel of the group, a modified Amphibious flatdeck, and eventual purpose built vessel, is intended to serve as a mothership in support of a swarm of littoral combat vessels. The littoral combat vessels will be organized into 3 ship squadrans (littoral Surface Action Groups or litSAGs). Each squadron will have one Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and two littoral combat corvettes that will utilize the same modular mission modules used by the LCS. The 450-ship plan envisions a littoral corvette design of 1300 tonnes at a cost of $250 million. LCS construction will continue as currently scheduled to arrive at a LCS fleet of 18 ships. LCS corvettes will be produced at a rate to attain a 2:1 ratio of corvettes to LCS. For lack of a good historical precedent I am using the designation of LFG (littoral frigate) for the littoral corvettes.
Combat Logistics Group
The Combat Logistics Group (CLG) is an expansion of the Maritime Prepositioing Force (MPF). It keeps the cargo vessels from the MPF, but also adds a command ship (JCC), 6 Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV), and transfers in a Dock Landing Ship from the amphibious fleet.
This group forward deployed would have tremendous flexibility to conduct a variety of operations. Its command capabilities could be used alone, it could provide logistic support to any of the other group formations, or even conduct small amphibious or strike operations on its own.
The 450-ship plan specifies 4 of these group formations. The JHSVs and MLPs are all soon to be built. Currently 2 Command Ships are available. The other two will be developed from the currently planned Landing Transport Docks, LPD 26 and LPD 27.
Surface Action Groups
The 450-ship plan has 3 different Surface Action Groups (SAG). Both plans have the regular SAG, but the small Surface Action Group (sSag) and the littoral Surface Action Group (litSAG) are both new squadrons for the 450-ship plan.
The SAGs will be procured along the same plan and schedule already currently in place, with the Ticonderoga cruisers being replaced by Flight III Arleigh-Burkes and the DD(X) program starting up around 2028 to replace the Flight II Arleigh-Burkes destroyers.
The main difference in terms of ship numbers between the two ship plans is from the small surface action groups. These vessels are intended as capable, but not top-of-of-the line, multi-purpose blue-water combatants. The Frigate is envisioned as a 3,000 tonne vessel costing $400 million, and the corvette is envisioned as a 1300 tonne vessel costing $200 million. The 450-ship plan calls for 48 of these sSAGs (48 frigates and 96 corvettes).
I have yet to hear anyone in the Navy ever complain about having too many subs. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the more the better, but also that unfortunately subs are really expensive.
A major upcoming concern is the necessity to build replacements for the Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarines. These 14 submarines are one of the main components of our nuclear deterrent strategy, and will be ending their service lives beginning in the late 2020's. Estimated replacement costs for a boat of similar size and capacities are up near $8 billion dollars per boat. There is still some time before they need to be replaced so there are a variety of potential replacement strategies, such as smaller boats with fewer weapons, fewer replacements, or using an elongated version of the current Virginia-class submarines.
The 450-ship plan calls for a fleet of 8 SSBNs of Ohio-class proportions (18,750 tonnes at a cost of $8.2 billion) and an eventual fleet of 66 Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines. The guided missile submarine (SSGNs) will be retired and not replaced.
There is likely a much better strategy for developing the overall submarine fleet. A second option explored for the 450-ship fleet would be to build 3, rather than 2, Virginia-class subs a year and that as soon as designs are available one of those per year would be modified into either an SSBN or an SSGN sub. This strategy would end up with a submarine fleet consisting of 66 SSNs, 16 SSGNs, and 16 SSBNs for a total sub fleet of 98 ships and a total fleet size of 483 ships. Total expenditures for sub building between 2011-2040 for this alternative would be $264 billion compared to $213 billion for the original.
How it can work
If a 313-ship plan is going to be difficult to achieve, how is a 450-ship plan possible?
As it currently stands, nearly half of the navy's sailors are on Aircraft Carriers. Manpower is expensive, and so too are aircraft carriers and their air wings. The 450-ship plan isn't possible by spending more money, it just shifts spending from large expensive vessels to smaller ones. The graphs below will show comparisons between the two different plans
Number of ships
Except for the small surface combatant, all other ship categories are relatively comparable. The small surface combatants make up the bulk of the increased ship numbers.
The manpower difference doesn't look that significant but overall it is. The 450-ship plan has immediate manpower reductions and then stays relatively constant over time, while the 313-ship plan has a manpower bubble during the 2020's. Total manpower-years in the 313-ship plan are around 4 million, while the 450-ship plan only has 3.5 million, for a 13.5% reduction for the 2010-2040 timeframe.
The tonnage in the two plans changes little. Notice in the 450-ship plan how low the tonnage is for small surface combatants, despite how many of them there are.
To make these graphs I stretched ship costs out over 5 years, otherwise the graph was too jagged to be of any use and it only includes ship construction beginning in 2010 which is why it starts so low then rises steeply.
The huge costs of replacing the SSBN fleet shows up rather dramatically in the 313-ship graph. It is a significant chunk of spending even in the 450-ship plan that only calls for 8 of these ships.