Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Non-traditional Drone Motherships - Cheaper & Better?

Earlier this week, guest blogger Mark Tempest posted some interesting ideas on low cost alternatives to traditional combatants which could be configured to carry unmanned surface vehicles, playing on the idea that payload truly is more important than platform.  These concepts are unorthodox, though as Mark points out, not unprecedented.  In a time of shrinking budgets and smaller fleets, the navy should explore how to optimize various combinations of ships and the unmanned vehicles they will carry, with an eye towards both effectiveness and efficiency.  Mine counter-measures is an important, though often short-changed mission, with various trade-offs between payload and platform.

Between the Littoral Combat Ship "seaframe" and mission modules, the U.S. Navy has invested billions of dollars in R&D and acquisition money to develop (though still not fully) the capability to conduct off-board, unmanned mine counter-measures.  LCS will carry the Remote Minehunting System, a rather large, complex, diesel-powered snorkeling vehicle which has been under development for about two decades.  RMS is designed to tow a side scan sonar in order to detect mines.  Contrast that arrangement with the Coastal Command Boat, pictured here with an embarked Kingfish, an unmanned underwater vehicle which essentially performs the same job as the RMS with its synthetic aperture sonar. The CCB, or the follow-on MK VI patrol boat can carry two of these UUVs.  A well deck equipped amphibious ship (LPD, LSD, LHD) could be configured to carry multiple MK VIs, resulting in the ability to rapidly deploy several UUVs over a wide area at any given time.  Additionally these patrol boats, or as Mark suggests, another Craft of Opportunity, could be forward deployed or prepositioned in various overseas ports, including ones too small or too politically sensitive to station a larger combatant.  An LCS can bring an MCM capability to a mine field at 40 knots, much more rapidly than dedicated MCM ship.  A C-17 with patrol boats and a UUV Det can transport MCM package at 10 times that fast.  Certainly there are other trade-offs in capability, cost, and versatility in all these options.

Given these emerging MCM alternatives, future fleet experimentation to identify other payload/platform configurations that can achieve the same operational results as the LCS/RMS package in a more affordable manner is certainly warranted.  Because of the relatively low cost involved in these platforms and UUVs, the answer doesn't have to be all or none and more than one alternative can be pursued without breaking the bank.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cheaper Corvettes: COOP and STUFT like that

If the answer to the Navy’s future is robotics, then Admiral Greenert’s July 2012 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings piece, “Payloads Over Platforms, Charting a New Course” opens up a whole new world of possibilities for using existing small ship platforms as “trucks” to deliver large numbers of modern weapons platforms to areas of interest.

As former Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work emphasized during his recent appearance on MIDRATS,  the Littoral Combat Ship is such a truck–a vehicle for delivering unmanned weapons system.

This post is meant to take that concept and cheapen it.
What is a corvette? Something smaller than frigate but larger than a patrol boat, I guess. The LCS in either of its variants is large at about 380 feet in length and displacing 2800 tons. A Gearing-class destroyer from post WWII measured in 390 feet and 3400 tons.  The Perry-class frigates are over 440 feet and 4100 tons.

Seems we have a lot of size and space to play with.
It occurs to me that we need to take the thinking that developed the WWII escort aircraft carrier (CVE) and model it down to a ship that is a “drone” carrier (and by “drone” I mean unmanned vessels of any type- surface, subsurface and aerial) – like the LCS only in the smaller economy version.

After all, if the real weapons systems toted by the LCS are its drones, then virtually any vessel capable of lowering said drones into the water or into the air and hosting their command and control system can be a “drone carrier,” too. Such a ship becomes a “mother ship” for the drones.
Are drone carriers are really “war ships?”  Remember, “payload over platform.”
Suppose we take a hull like an offshore oil platform supply “boats”  outfitted with a “surface warfare module” (yes, like that designed for the LCS) and four davits designed to lower four USVs into the water.

If the USVs are outfitted with torpedoes or missiles like those discussed here, and if you deploy them in the face of a threat, you now have a ship with capable weapons systems out there.
Other vessels might include large tuna clippers and small freighters.

Photo: San Diego Tuna Clipper (they already have a stern launch system)
Even better, you have now added complications to the targeting systems of any opponent because instead of having one vessel to engage, it now has five. Make up a small squadron of such mother ships (say 4 per squadron) and your opponent now faces 20 vessels.  These may consist of multiple threats- a squadron may have USVs in combinations of missiles, torpedoes or other weapons.
If the mother ships carry additional drones, the threat increases as each batch is placed in the water. Proper use of an aerial relay drone may allow the mother ships to be reasonably far from the action site, under the umbrella of a larger warship or some sort of converted floating offshore oil platform configured properly to “sea base” operations.

The drone mother ships will require a tender of some sort for fuel and other hotel services, but such a tender need not be elaborate nor expensive. Under the proper circumstances they might be shore supported.

One of the cost-saving features of this concept is that the drone mother ships might be acquired in a COTS fashion either by lease or purchase. Under an old U.S. Navy program (and one used by the Australians), there is precedent for using a “Craft of Opportunity Program (COOP)” to acquire vessels to experiment with. While the U.S. experience with COOP involved inshore mine hunting, the underlying concept is sound–lease or buy already built units that can meet the minimal standards of your “drone trucks”–and avoid the expense and delays of design and construction (albeit allowing for necessary modifications) .  The other expression for acquiring such ships is “STUFT”-”Ships Taken Up From Trade,” which the Royal Navy used to put together a force during the Falkland War in 1982.

These vessels can be minimally manned and are, in the famous phrase “expendable.” Since they deliver their weapons remotely, speed is not really an issue. Instead, deck space and electrical capacity will be important. Manning could be mixed CIVMAR, active and reserve Navy.
For example, an older diesel powered platform supply vessel capable of 12 knots and about 290 feet in length could work if properly outfitted. I suspect it, even with the appropriate modifications will not cost any close to even a cheap non-truck warship. Heavy lift a half dozen of these to where they are needed and you have a force multiplier on the cheap. Lots of deck space for vans, generators and cranes and perhaps even some self-protection bolt-ons.

Are they “corvettes?” Payload-wise they could be . . .
Of course, unlike a “standard” corvette but like the LCS, these drone carriers are dependent on modules.

Reprinted with permission from CIMSEC. Eagle1 is the nom de plume for Mark Tempest, who maintains his own blog EagleSpeak and co-hosts the popular Naval Affairs podcast “Midrats.” Mark is a retired attorney and former US Naval Reserve Captain (Surface Warfare).