Surface Forces: March 22, 2004


When the U.S. Navy talks of improving it's "surge capability" (getting the maximum number of ships to a war or hot sport in the shortest possible time), it is looking at improving an already impressive performance. For the Iraq campaign last year, the navy sent 72 percent of the combat fleet (221 of 306 warships, including seven of twelve carriers, 75 percent of the amphibious ships and 33 of 54 attack submarines). There were 600 navy (and marine) warplanes involved, and over 100,000 sailors and marines. But this was done in the midst of the navys usual (for several decades) routine of six month cruises followed by six months in port. The navy got so many ships and aircraft into the Iraqi campaign by skipping scheduled  maintenance, keeping sailors at sea for very long periods and basically improvising. This meant that when the Iraq operation was over, the navy had more than half its ships out of action for months as maintenance for ships and rest for crews was caught up on.

So the navy went and reorganized itself for better surging next time around. Ships now  spend less time at sea on a regular basis, which saves a lot of money. But this makes it possible for the navy to surge, with less stress, nearly 80 percent of its ships and warplanes. Moreover, the navy is buying thousands of smart bombs and retraining its warplanes to concentrate on delivering them. An F-18 can carry two dozen (or more) of the new 250 pound SDB (small diameter bomb.) The SDB is more accurate than current smart bombs, can penetrate over three feet of concrete and, in most cases, can destroy a target that currently requires the attention of a 2,000 pound smart bomb. Thus fewer sorties are needed from carriers to destroy a larger number of targets once the SBD enters service in 2006. This puts less stress on the ships, aircraft, and sailors that have to make it all work. 

The navy is scheduling the ship maintenance to take place more often, not saved up for several months when, under the old system, the ships would be in port all the time. A modern warship has thousands of mechanical and electronic systems that have to eventually be replaced. While at sea, you can do without some of them (because of redundancy) or patch them together enough to keep them going for a few more weeks or months. But eventually those motors, elevators, pumps, radar sets, radios and electrical systems need replacement or overhaul. Rescheduling the maintenance, and using more electronic diagnostic systems that more accurately predict when systems will fail, makes it possible to keep a ship available for action more frequently. 


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