by DAVID AXE
U.S. Navy Commander Jerry Hendrix really rocked the boat in April 2009, when he proposed a radical change in the kinds of ships the world’s largest sea service buys and how it organizes them. Hendrix’s article, “Buy Ford, Not Ferrari,” published the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, advocated replacing a portion of the Navy’s high-end aircraft carriers and destroyers (“Ferraris”) with a much larger number of inexpensive vessels (“Fords”) organized into what Hendrix calls “Influence Squadrons.” The new squadrons would deploy across the globe, to the waters off developing countries whose governments struggle against increasingly bold and more numerous smugglers, pirates and insurgents.
Now Hendrix has expanded on his vision. In a follow-on article for the same publication entitled, “More Henderson, Less Bonds,” the officer argues more forcefully for a Navy that can have a wider, more persistent presence across the globe, even at the expense of firepower. Hendrix compares today’s 9,000-ton destroyers and 100,000-ton aircraft carriers to American baseball player Barry Bonds, a homerun-hitter who commanded a multi-million-dollar salary. Smaller, more numerous ships he likens to Ricky Henderson, a less famous baseball player who quietly and reliably scored runs through less dramatic hits that earned him a high on-base percentage.
Bonds is impressive to watch, Hendrix argues, but Henderson wins games. “What if presence, the naval version of [Henderson’s] oft-neglected on-base percentage, was actually the most critical naval mission?”
What Influence Means
The crux of Hendrix’s argument is that the Navy should focus more on preventing wars, and less on preparing to fight them. More broadly, the sea service should work to advance American interests through firm but largely peaceful means, by way of active engagement in troubled regions, rather than maintaining a fleet whose major utility is in fighting and winning a major, conventional war that is arguably less likely than at any point in a century.
“The goal of one nation’s diplomacy is for other nations to align their interests with one’s own,” Hendrix writes. One of the best ways to do this is park a squadron of warships in adjacent waters. “No nation ignores gray-hulled warships flying the Stars and Stripes.”
Not that the squadrons would be idle. “Influence squadrons will be numerous enough to combat piracy — the only naval mission actually enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — and strong enough to take on terrorists who smuggle weapons across the seas as well as interdict the drug lords whose products kill more Americans per month than Al Qaeda has in its history.”
New squadrons will require a new approach to buying ships, for the old approach has resulted in a steadily contracting fleet, as ship designs have grown ever larger and more costly per hull. In 2010 there are around 280 major warships in commission, compared to twice that number 20 years ago. Numbers are set to decline further in coming years as large numbers of surface vessels and submarines — those purchase in the 1980s — reach retirement age. Some planners talk soberly about the coming, 200-ship fleet.
Realistically, the Navy’s roughly $13-billion-a-year shipbuilding budget will not increase, Hendrix argues. In light of that fact, the Navy can’t grow while continuing to buy mostly $2-billion Burke-class destroyers and $10-billion Ford-class carriers. Reversing the decline and boosting the Navy’s presence means buying cheaper ships.
Hendrix lists the vessel types he’d like to see in an Influence Squadron — plus their cost:
* A riverine detachment with six boats ranging from 33 to 49 feet in length, capable of patrolling inland waterways: $40 million per detachment.
* Four 150-foot Coastal Patrol boats (PCs), similar to the existing Cyclone class: no more than $40 million apiece.
*Three 90-meter Multi-Role Vessels, optimized for littoral operations, armed with 40-millimeter guns and equipped with a 500-square meter “logistics deck” that can be reconfigured for different missions: $150 million apiece.
* One catamaran Joint High-Speed Vessel, of the type now under construction for the U.S. Navy, for use as a “connector” between big and small ships and shore bases: $170 million apiece.
* One mothership/command ship based on the T-AKE supply-ship hull now entering Navy service: $400 million apiece.
An Influence Squadron, 15 vessels strong and costing just a billion dollars to build, would be joined periodically by the Navy’s two, 40,000-ton hospital ships to turn the squadron into a humanitarian flotilla. “Alternatively, the PCs and JHSVs can be configured to provide medical support at the pier in austere ports.” The idea is for an Influence Squadron to be capable of strictly peaceful engagement, in addition to more “kinetic” means of influence such as fighting pirates.
The U.S. Navy, so far, has not embraced Hendrix’s vision. The sea service continues to devote the bulk of its resources to building destroyers and aircraft carriers. To beef up hull numbers, the Navy intends to buy more than 50 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ships, which are widely considered too large and too expensive to risk in true littoral operations. They are a poor compromise between yesterday’s large warships and the Influence Squadron Hendrix advocates.
The Navy’s one concession to the Influence Squadron construct is its recent decision to roughly double, to 23, the number of catamaran Joint High Speed Vessels the service will buy in coming decades. What’s lacking is the smaller vessels plus the motherships to turn a catamaran into an Influence Squadron. Indeed, the Navy sees the new JHSVs as replacements for the PCs that Hendrix would like to see retained.