by DAVID AXE
For years, the U.S. Navy has struggled to field new warships capable of operating in shallow, crowded, coastal waters, while also boosting the number of ships in the fleet. Today, the Navy operates some 280 warships. For nearly five years, senior Navy officers have insisted they need 313. With shipbuilding budgets flat and the cost of vessels rising, the Navy has been unable to grow the fleet. Meanwhile, the sea service still hasn’t made much progress in building the near-shore “littoral” combat fleet it has long envisioned. Large, blue-water warships still dominate the fleet.
A vessel exists that could solve both problems, boosting the fleet’s numbers while also filling that niche, near-shore gap. An experimental catamaran dubbed Sea Fighter, currently owned by the Office of Naval Research, has the potential to make an effective, affordable littoral warship. But the four-year-old vessel, built at a cost of just $60 million, has been deliberately buried under artificial restrictions by admirals and their political supporters, who prefer costlier and frankly riskier solutions to the Navy’s problems.
Sea Fighter is a 260-foot-long, aluminum-hulled, wave-piercing catamaran displacing short of 1,000 tons and drawing just 12 feet, according to Navy figures. The catamaran was the brainchild of Duncan Hunter, a Congressman from California. Hunter, who has strong ties to California shipbuilders, inserted language into defense legislation to build the ship in 2005. Hunter’s wife christened the ship upon her completion in 2006. Sea Fighter was the “fastest ship in the Navy by a huge margin,” Hunter said in 2007, while arguing for more added funds to continue developing the vessel. He also praised the catamaran’s small crew. It was, he said, exactly the kind of ship the Navy needed.
One influential Navy officer agrees. The officer, who has worked in a chain of Pentagon think-tanks devoted to exploring new naval concepts, spoke on condition of anonymity. Sea Fighter is “very fast, can cover large areas and has a nice sensor suite,” the officer said. “This is the kind of thing you could put out in large numbers to cover a large area to do counter-piracy or partnership-building.”
In 2007, Hunter had overseen legislation requiring the Navy to spend $22 million adding weapons to Sea Fighter, so that the vessel might be commissioned into the combat fleet and sent out on operations. The Navy “fails to take full advantage of the capabilities of this vessel,” the legislation asserted. Without weapons, the ship would never deploy.
But the Navy refused to abide by the law, and today Sea Fighter remains unarmed and unavailable for combat taskings. Senior Navy leaders effectively blocked Sea Fighter‘s development, apparently in order to protect further production of its Cold War-era Burke-class destroyers and the controversial Littoral Combat Ship. The Burkes are 9,000-ton, multi-mission destroyers optimized for air- and missile-defense and deep-water warfare. A single Burke costs more than $1 billion and sails with at least 250 crew.
The Navy has said it might build up to 12 new Burkes, in addition to the initial production run of 62 vessels. The LCS fleet could eventually number up to 55 ships. “They want Burkes and they want LCS,” the anonymous officer said. But the Burkes and LCS will not help the Navy grow the fleet, or extend into coastal waters. They are too expensive at a time when annual shipbuilding budgets average below $15 billion. And they are not ideal for near-shore missions.
“People talk about LCS as a ‘small ship,’” Commander Don Gabrielson, Freedom‘s first skipper, said at a meeting of the Surface Navy Association on Nov. 12. “Last December, we tied up in Norfolk across the pier from an FFG [Perry-class frigate]. My first reaction was, ‘Who shrank the frigates?’ From our bridge wing, we looked across the top of the superstructure of the FFG — and we had two more decks above our heads.”
Sea Fighter, by contrast, truly is small and cheap — as well as perfectly adequate for most missions, according to the unnamed Navy officer. For the price and manning of one Burke, the Navy could have more than 10 Sea Fighters. The officer said the Navy recognizes Sea Fighter‘s potential, but is uncomfortable with small, cheap, truly numerous ships — especially considering its deep commitment to Burkes and LCS. Hence the refusal to army Sea Fighter. In ignoring the directive to arm the catamaran, “they made sure the low-cost platform would not be put in a position to compete with the high-cost platforms.”
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