2010/03/04

Naval procurement

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In August I wrote about the cost of naval aviation and how much more expensive it is to prepare for naval-based air war in remote places than for airfield-based air warfare (about factor three).

The topic for today is different, and will probably be more of a surprise.
I recalled a claim that the USN spends more money on aircraft procurement than on ship procurement. That would be quite astonishing for such a huge navy and I decided to fact check the claim. The fact check was surprisingly quick and easy.

TOTAL AIRCRAFT PROCUREMENT, NAVY:
14,716.8 (FY 2009, $ IN MILLIONS)

APPROPRIATION SHIPBUILDING & CONVERSION, NAVY:
12,732.9 (FY 2009, $ IN MILLIONS)

The claim was apparently true. Maybe the budget figures were changed in the meantime; the difference was likely not enough to change the conclusion:
The biggest navy in the world seems to have spent more on aircraft than on ships in FY 2009.

Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising, after all. Aircraft like F-35 or NH90 have quite insane per copy prices. Ship prices are outrageous as well, but in the end the quantity multiplier sides with the aircraft.

A modern navy has a defined mission and a defined budget. It would serve its nation best if it accomplished the mission at minimum cost and sustains that performance.
In short; a truly good navy would not spend its whole budget. Such a navy doesn't exist, of course. Armed services are bureaucracies and bureaucracies consider "waste of resources" to be the same as "not to spend everything possible".

Anyway; the efficiency is a quality criterion. A wasteful navy is no good navy even if it accomplishes its mission (and that's difficult to verify in peacetime). This allows for the question of the optimal force structure. A larger (procurement) budget suggests that the budget title has more to offer than a smaller one. It's not perfectly accurate to look only at procurement instead of procurement and operations & maintenance budgets, of course. Well, shit happens. I'm kind of lazy at times.

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I wonder whether the structure is (near-)optimal while looking at the procurement budgets only. Aren't submarines supposed to be the great ship killers in naval warfare? The procurement structure doesn't seem to fit to that assumption - or maybe another mission drives the costs?

That's where I refer to the cost of carrier aviation again. The cost for the carrier-based land attack capability is so outrageously high that I question whether such costs could ever be justified by the small advantage offered to the own nation.

Carrier land attack capability isn't the cost driver for most other nations, though. Nevertheless, their aviation component is taking a heavy toll on their budgets as well. ASW frigates at times look like a ASW helicopter with a moving landing deck, and the cost ratio of ship : helicopters approaches this weird picture as well.

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I identified air power (and subs) as extremely important in naval warfare myself in a post a year ago.
The combination of my musings with the aforementioned real world naval budget anecdote lets me wonder whether the orthodox idea of a navy is obsolete. Maybe we should learn to understand navies as air forces and submarine forces with some supporting floating vessels?
Only offensive navies with amphibious and carrier land attack missions seem to require a prominent surface component.

The U.S. Navy's procurement of Super Hornet and Growler combat aircraft (400+, 90's technology) exceeds the total strength of almost every air force by itself. The U.S. Navy could take on the PR Chinese or Russian air force on its own.

What does the emphasis on naval air war in naval strategy tell us about the German move that took away combat aircraft from the navy to the air force, thus assigning the air/ship mission (mostly) to the air force?
What does it tell us about the German navy which seems to focus on ship hulls (frigates and corvettes) quite much, with lesser emphasis on subs and well, no combat aircraft any more?


The naval air power component has grown in importance way beyond the established understanding of navies and is taking a heavy toll on naval budgets. The consequences of this trend have probably not been incorporated into the common understanding of naval power yet. On the other hand; maybe we do merely see a terrific potential for cutting waste in naval aviation?

Sven Ortmann
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8 comments:

  1. I think a third conclusion can be reached, which is more accurate from the point of view of the US Navy than either of your other statements.

    The US Navy has roughly twice as much naval strength as the entire rest of the world combined. They fulfill their primary missions of:
    1) ensuring that the shipping lanes will stay open and
    2) being able to take the fight to foreign shores simply by existing.

    So why should Congress give them more money?

    If your budget isn't growing then you're not important and that is a fatal thing, career-wise for any and all members of the US government.

    Terrorism seems to be the favored enemy these days and Congress will give you any amount of money you want if you casually mention that "it can fight terrorism too."

    Ships are obviously not useful to fight terrorists in Afghanistan, a land-locked country. But aircraft CAN be used for that purpose. Admittedly the results are very poor at best, but that's not what matters, only the budget and the appearance of doing something matters.

    Furthermore, terrorism fills several other needs for the US military. They can spend money on tons of marginally useful research. It isn't likely to go away so they can predictably continue like this for years. Any time a member of Congress threatens to cut your budget you can brand that member "weak on Terrorism" and bring him back into compliance with your goals of expanding your budget.

    In the eyes of the admirals, the aircraft budget is the single most important weapon they have in the vital mission of increasing their budget. All other considerations are secondary.

    Considering how unlikely it is that we will get into a naval war in the next 20 years, I suspect their attitude is far more realistic than yours, even if yours is far more logical.

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  2. OK, that's a modified Leviathan bureaucracy argument.

    The roots of today's situation predate 9/11 by far, though. The Super Hornet entered service in 1997 and much of the aircraft procurement in FY 2009 was simply a consequence of that program. The larger part of the remaining aircraft costs are not linked with the COIN fashion at all (maritime patrol aircrat or naval helicopters, for example).
    I doubt that the post-9/11 small wars-itis was very influential on the FY2009 ship vs. aircraft costs of the USN. The failed DD(X) project had likely more influence.


    It's generally my observation that people at the top don't pay much attention to terrorism as a threat anyway. They're quite rational in that regard.
    The terrorism craze and small wars-itis is fierce among opinion multipliers, 'medium management' and among the 'pawns' instead.

    The German government would prefer a top analysis about future energy supply over a top analysis or AQ any day, for example.

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  3. Two comments:
    1) There seems to be a disconnect between the "keeping the shipping lanes open misson" and the rampant piracy off Somalia.

    2) Just wait till Naval Air meets the unmanned drone movement. The entire navy will need to be replaced.

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  4. The shipping lane protection has become a by-product post-'45. The USN wanted the nuke bomber mission as its crowning mission and did first bet on its carriers, then on its subs for it.
    The shipping lane protection mission was kinda lost during the 60's and 70's and rediscovered only during the 80's in the Persian Gulf as a strategy to harm a disliked country that got invaded by Saddam.

    The low ranking of the sea lane protection mission can be seen in the neglect of MCM ships, the small share of classic escorts (FFG) and the story of the Sea control ships.
    The present-day LCS project is about waging naval war in littoral waters - the enemy's littoral waters. Again, not a convoy escort or oceanic hunter type of ship.

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  5. True, a few hundred Protector USV would make the big fleet on Somalias coast obsolete.

    This brings me to an idea, could promotion of officers in a force be enhanced for offering solutions to problems that cost less?
    I'd compare i to a factory that gives out bonus for employes optimizing production. There's of course the problem that the cheapest military is no military, going all the way to the other extreme. So while some money gets saved and not spent part of the saved money needs to be available for other projects enhancing overall performance. Out of a combination of saving and additional spending some people who know their trade could evaluate effective solutions. Part of such a discussion would in turn be running tests in a way scientific experiments work for most objective measurements of planned measures.

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  6. I know how to save money for the navy and improve aviation capabilities. Can I become grand-field-admiral? ;)
    http://pds8.egloos.com/pds/200807/02/96/f0051796_486b7a811372c.jpg
    It's the autogyro, already employed via the Schiebel Camcopter on corvettes.
    Naval ships move and autogyros can fly very slow, enabling them to take off and land at speed difference close to zero. At the same time an autogyro is technically speaking a lot more simple than a helicopter, requiring much less maintenance. It can be reduced to shorter length, thus fitting more into a hangar. The take off length on land can be much shortened by speeding up the autogyro by the airflow of moving at speed or other means.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focke-Achgelis_Fa_330
    The Bachstelze was an unsuccessful submarine launched WWII design without an engine.

    My own suggestions for improvement would be a piston engine-turbofan powered fan with a light thrust-vector ring after the fan.
    The thrustvectoring enables to combine the autogyro with an electric motor/generator that is linked to another electric motor/generator that can be powered by the piston engine or add power with these engines to the fan. For take off or slow speed flight the electric motor connected to the piston engines generates electricity that enables to rotate the main gyro (not much energy, but rather for keeping it at enough speed for some lift) and requires some torque correction. During flight at speed the autogyro is slowed down a bit in order to keep at an airspeed with reasonable lift and the energy is used to additionally power the fan (not a perpetum mobile, but a mechanismen for rotary wing flight speeds in excess of helicopters), again requiring some torque correction.
    These torque corrections would be far less than what we currently see on helicopters because the energy creating the torque in first place would be less. Something similar to NOTAR might be usefull for that task.
    Unlike propellers in a pusher configuration, a fan (like a large Fenestron, but turned 90°) could be seated far more back with increased efficiency.
    The important thing is that these are a naval solution for moving landing platforms. How do you send boarding parties on non-moving platforms with limited suitable area?
    You must be able to circle around the rope they use to descend. Slow speed and maneuverability help to make this a feasable maneuver with available tech.
    A big plus is the re-introduction of energy at least partly derived from fuel efficient modern piston engines. That gives lots of additional range.
    Slowing down the autogyro for optimum airflow independent of vehicle speed breaks the old speed barrier for helicopters with a much less expensive solution.
    Speed can be improved via curved rotary wings of the autogyro that would make the design overall a serious competitor for the V-22 Osprey, the latest craze among naval rotary wings.

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  7. Why did you consider this gadgetry comment appropriate on this topic?

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    Replies
    1. To make a tongue-in-cheek comment.

      This helicopter business is in my opnion symptomatic for a non-reflective overengineered and expensive approach due to unquestioned fashionism (see Laver's law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Laver#Laver.27s_Law ) and a widespread lack of understanding technologies among decision makers.

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