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.
- - - - -
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.
- - - - -
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?