Navy Leaders Want a More Flexible Fleet

By Eric Beidel
After fighting two land wars for a decade, the military is putting an emphasis back on the sea and is shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region and to a more maritime-weighted mission in the Middle East.

A new defense strategy calls for a more agile force that can rapidly deploy and plug in capabilities as needed. The military must have the ability to project power in contested areas and strike quickly from over the horizon, the strategy says.

For the Navy, this means investing in directed energy, perfecting an electromagnetic railgun, maintaining the existing number of aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious ships, and increasing the cruise missile capacity of future Virginia-class submarines. It means upgrading radars and designing a conventional prompt-strike option for subs, senior Pentagon officials said.

In the near term, the Defense Department has decided to keep all 11 aircraft carriers and their 10 air wings, each of which consists of about 60 aircraft. In the future, a significant portion of the fleet will be forward based in places like Europe, Singapore, Bahrain, the Diego Garcia territory and Japan. Officials announced that they will convert an amphibious assault ship into an “afloat forward staging base” to support mine-sweeping operations in the Persian Gulf.

“We span the globe,” Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work said in January at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in Arlington, Va. “We get there quicker,” with smaller assets such as the Joint High Speed Vessel and the Littoral Combat Ship, which can travel at 35 and 40 knots respectively.

The country is on the verge of a golden age in sea power, Work said. The current fleet is like no other in the history of the world, he said. And a mix of high- and low-end ships designed for what Work called a “total force battle network,” will play a major role in a concept of open payloads that can be used by everything from unmanned systems to Marines. It fits right in with a defense strategy that stresses smaller, agile, innovative forces, he said.

Ships are just one piece of a larger network that includes other important weapon systems such as P-8s, BAMS [broad area maritime surveillance] unmanned aircraft, Fire Scout drones, remote mine-hunting systems and unmanned surface vessels, Work said.

The Navy has to make smart investments in anti-torpedo torpedo defense, directed energy and electromagnetic rail guns. Those three research areas will allow the surface fleet to be dominant for some time to come, he said.

“We have plenty of strike,” Work said. “I need theater ballistic missile defense that I can fire without breaking the bank.”

A fleet that can intercept missiles and deploy lasers that can “kill anything from horizon to horizon” will be able to get into denied areas and exert its firepower on enemy targets, he said.

“We don’t need to say, ‘Oh my goodness, we don’t have 600 ships,’” Work said. “This is a different fleet. It is a more powerful fleet. I will take this fleet over the 600-ship Navy, a third-generation Navy, in a heartbeat.”

Everything about the future fleet is about flexibility — open payloads, open architectures, configurable ships. Smaller ships could carry a Riverine squadron or unmanned systems. Medium vessels could have a torpedo in a bay or 40 Navy SEALs.

The Navy has the platforms; the future is all about the payloads, Work said.

But there are still a lot of issues with the platforms, analysts said.

Outside experts agree on the need for improved electric weapons such as lasers and rail guns. However, they point out that the Navy’s commitment to such technology is uncertain. There was little to no money in either the 2011 or 2012 budgets to continue development of high-powered solid-state lasers, despite a fair amount of progress up to that point, said longtime naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke, of the Congressional Research Service.

“You can go ahead and develop these weapons but if you don’t have the ships that have the power and cooling and the infrastructure needed to support them, then you still don’t have any,” he said.

No existing surface combatant can take a laser significantly above 100 kilowatts without running out of cooling or power or both, O’Rourke said. “And if you wait until the lasers are ready to start designing the ship that is going to take them, then it is going to be many, many years before you have a significant number of those ships in the fleet,” he said.

The Navy needs a new roadmap to move its surface force to integrated electric drive. The benefits would be many, including the ability to support electric weapons and other high-powered systems and payloads that would be available in the future. The service at one point did have such a strategy, but it was done in conjunction with programs that have been truncated or cancelled, which left the plan to crumble, O’Rourke said.

The service also needs to address shortcomings in its own shipbuilding plans, analysts said. The Navy already appears to be backsliding from a goal it established just a few years ago of having 313 ships in its fleet.

“Circumstances have now changed,” Adm. John Harvey, commander of Fleet Forces Command, recently told reporters in Washington. “I can give you a 500-ship Navy or I can give you a 100-ship Navy.” The proper size depends on a variety of factors, he said.

Work made similar comments at the symposium.

“Is it going to be 313 ships or 310? I don’t care,” he said, touting the role of other weapon systems such as drones and P-8 maritime aircraft. “Everything interconnects. You can’t just count ships.”

Navy officials recently announced that they would conduct a force structure review that would revisit the number and types of ships that they need. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert said at the conference that the study would be undertaken in the spring. A Navy spokesman would not comment on the review, saying that it was in the earliest stages of planning.

The Navy needs to start by addressing a projected shortfall in large surface combatants — cruisers and destroyers that often are viewed as the workhorses of the fleet. Navy officials have repeatedly told critics not to get too wrapped up in counting ships, but some observers worry that the service is focusing more on assets with less capability that can be bought cheaper.

“This is more than the difference between 313 and 310 ships,” O’Rourke said. “In fact, this is the biggest shortfall for a major category of ships I have seen in my 28 years as a naval analyst. This is huge.”

Current projections show that the Navy will fall about 24 ships short of the 94 required by the 2030s. The number of large surface combatants would remain below that requirement through 2041, reaching a low of 68 ships in 2034.

The Navy also would miss future goals for amphibious ships and attack submarines, noted Eric Labs, an analyst from the Congressional Budget Office.

Fiscal realities may make plugging 24 more cruisers and destroyers into the fleet nearly impossible. But an underlying problem is that the plan is based on service lives — 35 years or more — that no cruiser or destroyer has ever reached. Over the past three decades, the Navy has retired 13 cruisers and destroyers. The average lifespan was 26 years, and none were in service for 35 years, Labs said. Six of those ships were retired strictly for budgetary reasons, so it is unknown whether they could reach the service lives required in the plan, he added.

O’Rourke said that he had seen no activity from the Navy to examine the ability of Flight I and II destroyers to extend out to 40 or 45 years. The shortfall may appear far away on paper, but closing the future gap requires leaders to make decisions now, he said. The Navy needs to begin spending more on maintenance and treat ships better today, he added.

O’Rourke wrote in a December report that shortfalls in cruisers and destroyers, attack submarines and other ships “could make it difficult or impossible for the Navy to fully perform its projected missions, particularly during the latter years of the 30-year plan.”

The Congressional Budget Office has suggested a revised blueprint that includes 24 more destroyers, five more attack submarines and two more large-deck amphibious assault ships. This approach would cost nearly $20 billion per year. The CBO reports the current plan would cost about $18 billion per year, about 16 percent more than the Navy estimates.

Sequestration would throw a monkey wrench into everything. If the Defense Department were forced to take on an additional $500 billion in cuts, the Navy would have to cut 24 ships from its plan. The fleet would only be at 260 ships by 2025, which is 25 less than today, Labs said.

The service eventually wants to buy 55 LCSs, smaller ships that can counter mines, small boats and diesel electric submarines closer to shore. But some lawmakers blame the relatively inexpensive LCS and JHSV for draining resources from what they consider more capable larger ships.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that fewer large surface combatants would threaten both the Navy’s ability to conduct high-end combat and a fragile shipbuilding industry. The requirement for 94 cruisers and destroyers shows the growing need for ships that are able to perform a variety of missions such as ballistic missile defense, open ocean anti-submarine warfare and strike warfare, she said.

“How many ships do we have to be short of that goal before someone in the Navy or at the Pentagon sounds the alarm that the risk for our country’s security has reached a red line?” Collins said.

O’Rourke said that the LCS is becoming a standard item in proposals around Washington for how to cut the defense budget. But Navy officials consider it a point of pride.

“A lot of people still don’t get the LCS,” Work said. “And they’re not going to get it until we get it into the fleet and prove it.”

The hallmark of the Navy also has been criticized. The Pentagon has shown the desire to protect the 11 aircraft carriers from budget cuts, but the heyday of the 100,000-ton monsters is over, said noted columnist and author Norman Polmar, who has been a consultant to several senior officials in the Navy and Defense Department.

For more than 70 years, the carrier has been a cornerstone of U.S. naval power and the measure of such capabilities for all nations, “but the situation now has changed,” Polmar said. “And I believe it has changed permanently and very dramatically.”

They are ghosts of their former selves for reasons related to cost, vulnerability and reduced capability, he said.

The next carrier is expected to cost between $12 billion and $16 billion, maybe more, but by virtue of it being the largest ship in the fleet, it also is the biggest target politically and fiscally, Polmar said.

The carrier’s survivability has always been tied to its ability to move. In the past, an adversary could not pre-stage an attack on one because it might be 300 miles away the next day. But today, with continuous tracking by satellites and long-endurance drones, the carrier has lost its ability to hide, he said.

There are now other systems that perform many of the same missions — long-range strike, air defense, anti-submarine warfare, tactical reconnaissance — just as well, if not better, Polmar said. These include satellites, drones, U2s and offensive cyber-operations.

“Go back and look at the capabilities or reasons we used carriers 20 and 30 years ago and then look today,” Polmar explained. “You’re going to reprogram a satellite — it’s cheaper, easier, faster. You’re going to send a UAV. You’re going to dispatch a U2. Or you’re going to try to do it with cyber.”

Besides the 11 carriers, the Navy has more than 50 submarines and more than 80 surface combatants that can launch Tomahawk missiles. When it comes to strike, air defense, ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine warfare, “I’m putting my money on surface combatants, not on aircraft carriers,” Polmar said.                

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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