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Navy’s Fire-Support Weapon Programs Lag 

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by Sandra I. Erwin 

A protracted debate on how the Navy should best provide long-range fire support to ground forces will not be settled any time soon.

Since the battleships were decommissioned after the Cold War, the Navy has been criticized for failing to provide a substitute capability, in the form of long-range artillery aboard surface combatants.

The 5-inch guns available today fire projectiles that can hit targets up to 13 miles away. But that is not enough to satisfy the Marine Corps’ requests for long-range gun support, nor does it satisfy the Navy, which would rather not deploy its destroyers and cruisers too close to the shore and expose them to enemy fire.

The only weapon in the fleet today that can reach long distances from a ship is the Tomahawk missile. But the Marines would prefer to have rapid-fire artillery and claim that the Tomahawk, though a powerful and precise weapon, is too expensive, each costing more than half-a-million dollars.

The Navy has spent more than $100 million so far to develop a new 5-inch satellite-guided munition, called ERGM, with a promised range of 63 nautical miles. But that weapon is years behind schedule and may not be ready for fleet operations until the end of the decade.

The Marines’ best hope for big guns may be the DDX next-generation destroyer, scheduled to begin construction in 2005 and be deployed by 2011.

The Navy requested $1.05 billion for DDX-related technologies in fiscal year 2004, and will be seeking $15.1 billion for the program through 2009. DDX will have a 155 mm gun, designed to fire guided projectiles—at a rate of 12 rounds per minute—from 100 miles away.

The Marines have built their future war-fighting doctrine on the assumption that they will have gun-fire support from ships as far away as 200 miles from the target, said Marine Maj. Gen. James Battaglini, the Navy’s director of expeditionary warfare. “Our requirement is based on ship-to-objective maneuver,” he said during a recent industry conference. “It’s not fires on the shoreline. It’s deeper inland.”

But rather than having the Navy supply all the firepower, the Marines are looking for a “combination of capabilities,” said Battaglini. That includes naval surface fires, tactical aviation, mortars and ground-based artillery.

Battaglini declined to comment on the DDX. “Discussions are ongoing,” he said. “I can’t speak on where we are on that.”

Rear Adm. Henry G. Ulrich III, director of naval surface warfare, said he was disappointed by the Navy’s poor record in surface-fire support. “We’ll work with the Marine Corps to better define the requirements for volume, precision fires,” he told the conference. “We’ll press forward with Tactical Tomahawk.”

In recent years, he said, “we have made a huge investment in extended-range munitions, [but] the return on this investment is simply not there yet. It is a great disappointment.”

Ulrich noted that the DDX was “designed with fire support foremost in mind.”

The electric propulsion planned for DDX “sets the foundation for electro-magnetic rail guns and hypersonic projectiles,” Ulrich said. “That is where we need to go.”

Asked whether the Navy would fund a new land-attack missile program, Ulrich said that would be unlikely.

“We are working with Marines at every level to determine what their war-fighting requirements are,” he said. “We will look at fulfilling those requirements through a series of programs.”

In addition to the ERGM, the Tactical Tomahawk and the DDX advanced gun programs, the Navy is funding the development of an electromagnetic rail gun.

“We are going to see if those systems meet the requirement of the Marine Corps,” said Ulrich. “We will have a debate on whether or not something else is required. It’s too early to tell you whether we’ve reached that decision.”

The Navy budgeted $100 million in 2004 to build an electromagnetic gun prototype.

If the technology works, the gun’s range could reach 200 nautical miles, said an industry source. The development is likely to take 20 years, because it’s a “high-risk technology, due to the engineering challenge,” said the source. The weapon is “not challenged by the laws of physics, but the engineering,” such as the composition of the barrel, to prevent arching, and the stability of the projectile, traveling at 3.5 km per second. The rail gun would fire kinetic tungsten steel rods, expected to cost about $10,000 each.

Vice Adm. Timothy W. LaFleur, commander of the Pacific Fleet’s naval surface forces, said he believes that the Navy and Marines must continue to refine their land-attack requirements.

“The surface community feels we need a land-attack capability,” he said during a roundtable with reporters. “The question is volume and range. Where do we stop and let air take over? Where do you transition from tactical to strategic?” These are questions that will continue to be debated, said LaFleur.

He did not discount the possibility that the Navy may acquire an upgraded Harpoon missile for land-attack missions. The Harpoon has been in the fleet for decades, as an anti-ship weapon.

LaFleur also noted that the introduction of the Littoral Combat Ship will change the way the Navy conducts land-attack functions. The LCS will be a small, modular, surface combatant, designed for operations close to the shore.

The LCS, expected to enter service in 2007, will not have big guns, like the DDX, but could have a limited land-attack capability, LaFleur said.

“I envision the possibility of having a six-pack of canisters that you could load” with a variety of weapons, such as Harpoon 21, torpedoes or other missiles, he said. With LCS, he said, “You don’t need a lot of weapons. You are not going to be taking on major opponents.” Under the Navy’s concept of operations, the LCS will not operate alone, but in a network of ships. “The DDX and cruisers will be close at hand,” said LaFleur.

The LCS, he said, “will have a robust defensive capability. I don’t think it will have a robust offensive gun. ... I don’t think it will have a 5-inch gun to be an offensive capability. The attack capability will come in the modules [such as] torpedoes in an anti-submarine warfare module ... or a vertical-lift helicopter.”

The Navy has budgeted nearly $4 billion for the development of LCS during the next five years. But it has not yet settled on a hull design or on the weapons it will carry. According to an industry source, it is unlikely that LCS will have the “missile box” described by LaFleur, because that would likely put LCS in competition with DDX, a much larger and pricier ship.

The Navy awarded a contract last year to Northrop Grumman Corp. for the development of DDX, but the basic design of the ship is far from complete.

“The design of the DDX at this point—as far as the ship as a whole—still has a number of question mark issues to be determined,” said Vice Adm. Phillip M. Balisle, head of the Navy Sea Systems Command. “When you talk about, for instance, the size of the ship, we’re not to the point yet where we have defined exactly what size the ship will be,” he told reporters.

The Navy now is more interested in the technology and “mission modules” that DDX will bring, rather than the size and shape of the ship, said Balisle. “While we don’t know all the specifics, we do know, we feel very confident, [that DDX] is the foundation to shape a force for the future.” The ship design may not be firmed up until 2005, he said.

Despite the Navy’s financial commitment to these new technologies, skepticism abounds.

The problem is simply that the Navy is funding research projects that are not likely to mature for many years, and is not providing near-term capabilities in the area of land attack and fire support, said retired Vice Adm. Henry Mustin, former vice chief of naval operations.

“In the past 40 years, technologies such as the rail gun, the liquid-propellant gun, the fire-out-of-battery gun, they have been put forward in the ‘get-well out-years,’” he told National Defense.

The development of these futuristic systems is a “long-term proposition that requires peanuts in R&D, compared to the procurement of buying something in the near term,” said Mustin.

“The far-term schemes should be pursued, but when they are pursued instead of the near-term programs, all they are is political fig leaves to cover up the fact that they are not going to spend the money on fire support.”

Fire support, he said, “has been an area that has not gotten a lot of glamour in the Navy. It never was a big thing in the Navy, because the destruction of targets ashore was considered the purview of naval aviation and the U.S. Air Force,” Mustin said. “Why should you put hundreds of millions of dollars into a long-range gun if you can do the job with an F/A-18?”

Mustin said he believes that the DDX ship is “at risk, because of its size. ... It’s too darn big for a destroyer.” Even though the Navy has not settled on the size of DDX, Mustin predicted that it will be bigger than the current Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. “The nation sees ballistic missile defense as a higher-priority mission than fire support,” he said. The upshot is that DDG-51 destroyers and CG-47 cruisers will become higher priorities than DDX. “The DDX is not a player in missile defense,” which may lead to a loss in financial support for the program, Mustin suggested.

He also questioned the benefits of building a new 155 mm gun, which would be bigger than any gun in the fleet. “The money associated with bringing in an entire new line of projectiles of a new caliber means enormous expenses, just buying the ammunition.”

The main reason why DDX exists, he said, is “to meet the requirements that the Marines, Army and Special Forces have laid on the Navy to take out targets at long range.

“Everyone knows that you can’t do fire support with missiles. They are too expensive. ... You cannot buy enough missiles.”

It’s a “basic problem of economics ... insatiable demands to be met by finite resources.” At budget time, the Navy ends up having to put up “a lot of money to satisfy requirements for other services.”

Mustin supports the DDX and believes the ship “should be in the Navy to address the requirements in support of land warfare.” But he anticipates the service will have trouble funding the new ship, along with every other program in its modernization blueprint.

The LCS may run into a similar crunch, noted Dale Gerry, an industry consultant and a former Navy deputy assistant secretary for mine warfare. The LCS concept is “outstanding,” he said, but until construction begins, it will remain a “paper tiger.”

“How many times over the years have we seen platforms proposed fall by the wayside,” said Gerry. “The skepticism is real. ... We’ve seen priorities come and go.”

The Navy must stop spending money on studies and rather use the money on “real capabilities,” he said. Mine countermeasures are a case in point. “At least 30-50 studies are sitting at the Pentagon addressing each and every imaginable problem in the mine warfare arena. They probably have an inch of dust on each study.” But looking at the status of mine warfare programs over the past 18 months, he said the results are disappointing. “We are doing less, not more.”

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