Warships International Fleet Review: USA Should Have a Bigger Small-Ship Navy

07.02.10

Categorie: David Axe, Inter-Service Rivalry, Naval |
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Sea Fighter. Photo via New Wars.

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.”

Read the whole story in Warships International Fleet Review.

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8 Responses to “Warships International Fleet Review: USA Should Have a Bigger Small-Ship Navy”

  1. [...] warships, especially Sea Fighter above and links to a New Wars post in this article titled “USA Should Have a Bigger Small-Ship Navy“: An experimental catamaran dubbed Sea Fighter, currently owned by the Office of Naval [...]

  2. FooMan2008 says:

    but what can it do? light on sensors, weapons, storage, room for mission modules, and finally the entire doctrine has a small problem. Most shallow/littoral waters belong to someone and even the smallest nation will do their best to defend their home waters. Lastly are they sea worthy enough or is this another ship required to ‘piggy back’ (requiring another platform) to carry it into the combat zone. Finally even if the weapons are not visible there are very very likely not enough small weapons or crew to fight off the kind of small combatant they will encounter. 25mm seems to be the weapon of the future and it is pretty plain that this converted ferry does not have them!
    Foo

  3. Galrahn says:

    No one has yet to comment on the changes made to FSF-1. Too bad. Note the exhaust now goes where there used to be a helicopter landing area, and the ship has retained its 10,000 sq ft internal bay (bigger than LCS-1).

    Just saying… what can it do? A heck of a lot.

  4. D. E. Reddick says:

    Galrahn is right about the changes to Sea Fighter. There were some construction pictures of her makeover which showed how seemingly hollow panels were used to surround her flight deck. These panels connect to the bridge superstructure on her port side. My initial guess as to their purpose was to increase the stealth characteristics of Sea Fighter. Also, the foredeck was rebuilt and raised, giving her a higher ‘bow.’ I wonder whether those new exhausts take up much of the flight deck. Perhaps the flight deck is still there and meant to be utilized by UAVs. I could wish for an overhead photo of the rebuilt Sea Fighter.

    FooMan2008,
    FSF-1 Sea Fighter is in no way a “converted ferry.” Rather, she’s a SWATH or Semi-SWATH catamaran hullform built for the Office of Naval Research.

  5. D. E. Reddick says:

    I went back and found those construction photos from the rebuild of Sea Fighter. There are multiple threads about FSF-1 at Information Dissemination and New Wars. Here’s the thread at New Wars where the rebuild was discussed:

    http://newwars.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/sea-fighters-new-look/

    Then, here are three additional images of FSF-1 during her 2009 reconstruction. These are from a bicyclist blogger in the Portland area. Scroll down and you can’t miss the three pictures. They show details of the then in-progress rebuild – with the new tower mast being open & exposed; along with the start of fabrication for that ’stealth’ screen added to the flight deck. Click on the pictures for higher resolution imagery.

    http://tonypiff.blogspot.com/2009/09/foldies.html

  6. [...] in quantity. This is the part we left out when posting the other day on David Axe’s “USA Should Have a Bigger Small-Ship Navy“: The LCS fleet could eventually number up to 55 ships. “They want Burkes and they want [...]

  7. Harry A Stutzke III says:

    As a crew member on the sea fighter, I can assure you that we are alive and well and doing what we were designed for, R&D and T&E! As we speak, we are doing what we do best, haze grey and underway! We are much more capable than we are given credit for, but sometimes the less the public knows, the better!

  8. Captain Jenkins says:

    I think that the the ship should be a close to home ship that can protect us if war comes closer than expected. It can move military cargo as well if we needed it to.

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