Quest for Greater Lethality Drives Navy Modernization Plans (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper
Long-range anti-ship missile concept

The Navy is teeing up a number of high-tech projects aimed at boosting the firepower of its platforms, but challenges lie ahead as the service prepares to fight advanced adversaries.

The Navy’s modernization and budget plans are in line with the strategic concept of “distributed lethality,” which Pentagon leaders are now pushing as other powerful countries such as China are developing more advanced strike capabilities that put U.S. naval assets at greater risk.

“We are increasing the size of the Navy, but what’s really important … is to increase the lethality of each ship,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said during a recent budget discussion hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

Aircraft carriers have been the centerpiece of Navy power projection for decades. The lead ship in the new Ford-class, CVN 78, is slated for delivery this spring. The carrier, built by Newport News Shipbuilding, was expected to be capable of generating a 33 percent higher air combat sortie rate, while requiring much less manpower than the Nimitz-class.

But the vessel has been dogged by cost overruns, schedule slippage and technology concerns.

“Poor or unknown reliability of newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect CVN 78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack or create limitations during routine operations,” J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, said in his office’s fiscal year 2015 annual assessment report to Congress, released in February.

Navy officials said the service has made progress addressing the technical issues. “Most of the risk is starting to fade away on that ship,” Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, said at a Surface Navy Association symposium in January.

But lawmakers have directed the service to “shock test” the vessel. Fulfilling those requirements could delay the first operational deployment until 2021, said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In a boost for carrier aviation, the Defense Department has decided to procure an additional 13 F-35C joint strike fighters over the next five years.

The move will benefit Lockheed Martin, which produces the high-tech fifth-generation aircraft. The F-35C was expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2018, but the joint strike fighter program has been plagued by delays and technical problems, and the critical Block 3F software may not be ready in time.

“It looks like it is going to be 2019, which is not surprising, and it may be even later than that” before the software will be available, Clark said.

To help cover tactical aviation shortfalls, the Defense Department intends to buy 16 additional F-18 Super Hornets over the next five years, a boon for manufacturer Boeing, as the service seeks to extend the service life of legacy platforms.

“The complementary capability of those Super Hornets along with the F-35C gives us our striking power, our reach off the aircraft carrier,” Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of air warfare in the office of the chief of naval operations, told lawmakers during a recent House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing. “The extra Super Hornets over the next several years covers the slide in initial operational capability of F-35C to the right … so it is vital to maintain that [production] line.”

Some observers are concerned that these aircraft are too limited in range for carriers to project power into so-called anti-access/area denial environments, where the threat of enemy missiles could make it difficult for carriers to operate.

The Navy has decided to pursue a new tanker — the carrier-based aerial refueling system, or CBARS — to extend the range of fighters, which in turn would enable carriers to stay farther away from hostile forces when they launch their aircraft. The system will also provide some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, according to the Navy’s fiscal year 2017 budget request. The Navy has decided to restructure the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike program, or UCLASS, and focus on CBARS in the near term, the budget document said.

Clark said industry could probably develop an unmanned tanker within two years or so, given the current state of technology, but the system might be vulnerable to hostile fire.

“It won’t necessarily be stealthy enough to fly into a threat environment,” he said. “It will be sort of a big gas station in the sky kind of aircraft as opposed to being a stealthy [long-range] strike aircraft, so it doesn’t necessarily fix the problem that the air wing has.”

To enhance ship lethality, the Navy is making a big push to develop more sophisticated offensive missiles. The Defense Department plans to spend $2 billion over the next five years to purchase 100 additional Tomahawks, fund research, development, test and evaluation, and support other Tomahawk-related activities.

“We want to diversify the kinds of targets that they can hit, from land attack, which is probably how you first met the Tomahawk many years ago — to an anti-ship version … in the spirit of making everything we have lethal,” Carter said during a recent tour of Navy facilities in California.

Raytheon recently completed a successful captive flight test of a seeker designed for the Tomahawk Block 4 cruise missile, which has a range of approximately 1,000 miles. The multi-mode seeker will enable Tomahawks to engage moving targets on land and at sea, according to the company.

“The information that we collected … makes us very confident that the system performs at the level we want and provides the ability to detect and identify all targets that we need to care about for our naval forces,” said Chris Sprinkle, Tomahawk senior program manager at Raytheon.

The Pentagon plans to invest nearly $1 billion in the long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM, over the next five years. The weapon, originally designed to be air-launched, is now being developed by Lockheed Martin to have sea-launch capability.

The company is striving “to reduce risk and to mature all aspects of surface ship integration … [and] investing in the design of a topside or deck-mounted launcher configuration that will allow for easy integration on multiple surface ships,” Scott Callaway, surface-launched LRASM program director with Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said in an emailed statement.

During this same five-year period, the Defense Department also plans to spend more than $400 million on the advanced anti-radiation guided missile-extended range, a homing missile designed to strike enemy air defenses.

Additionally, the Pentagon is pursuing the standard missile-6. Originally designed as a missile interceptor, the SM-6 is also capable of hitting targets at sea at long ranges, Carter said. The Defense Department plans to invest $2.9 billion in the technology over the next five years.

“The more we utilize and test SM-6, the more we demonstrate its capability, the more we see the potential for it to do other missions” besides missile defense, said Thadeous Smith, SM-6 business development manager at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Going forward there will be “big, big, big money for munitions,” Carter said.

In addition to advancing missile technology, the Navy also intends to increase the number of missiles that its ships can carry. Over the course of the next five years, the Navy plans to procure nine Virginia-class attack submarines. Several will be equipped with the Virginia Payload Module, which will enable the vessels to carry 40 Tomahawks, up from the 12 that they can haul now.

Carter recently ordered the Navy to scale back its littoral combat ship/frigate program, from 52 ships to 40, to help pay for these advanced systems. The Navy is now looking for ways to enhance the lethality of the LCS such as equipping it with an over-the-horizon missile, said Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, director of the surface warfare division within the office of the chief of naval operations.

Meanwhile, high-tech destroyers are moving through the pipeline. The lead ship in the new Zumwalt-class, DDG 1000, has been undergoing sea trials and is expected be delivered in April. DDG 1001 is slated to be launched in June, and DDG 1002 is under construction, said Rear Adm. select James Downey, DDG 1000 program manager.

The Zumwalt-class, with possesses a unique hull design, is stealthy and about 60 percent larger than legacy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It is equipped with advanced vertical launch cells for missiles, and its high power-generation capacity could enable it to carry laser weapons or an electromagnetic rail gun, officials and analysts have said. But due to cost concerns, the Navy decided to only build three.

“This … is the coolest ship ever built,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said during recent remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If Batman had a ship it would be that. … We can only afford three of them, [but] all three are going to the Pacific somewhere, which is pretty exciting.”

The Defense Department plans to purchase an additional 10 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers over the next five years and is pursuing the more advanced Flight III variant. The first Flight III was appropriated in fiscal year 2016.

The destroyers can carry large numbers of advanced munitions such as the Tomahawk and standard missile, and the Pentagon is interested in arming the ships’ guns with new hypervelocity projectiles, officials have said.

But when it comes to firepower, no platform in the Navy’s arsenal packs more punch than nuclear ballistic missile submarines, termed “boomers.” Looming over the service’s long-term acquisition plans is the Ohio-class replacement, also known as ORP or SSBN(X).

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has identified the submarine as the Navy’s number one acquisition priority. The service hopes to procure 12, with the first purchased in 2021. The Navy has estimated that the program will cost approximately $75 billion, but the Congressional Budget Office has put the price tag at about $100 billion.

The Defense Department requested $1.9 billion for research and development and advanced procurement in fiscal year 2017, and expects to spend $13.2 billion on the Ohio replacement over the next five years for R&D and initial construction.

The program “has to continue on track, on schedule within the cost constraints so that we deliver the first Ohio replacement in 2028 and it’s on patrol in 2031,” said Rear Adm. Michael Jabeley, program executive officer for submarines. “Now that’s a challenge in and of itself because we’re incorporating several new technologies into this program” including an electric drive for the propulsion plant and a newly designed missile compartment.

Eric Labs, a senior analyst for naval forces and weapons at CBO, is skeptical that the project will avoid cost overruns. “It would be virtually unprecedented that such a new large, technologically complex shipbuilding program comes in on cost. And that is going to roil shipbuilding as well as the ORP program itself if that materializes,” he said.

Labs described the Ohio replacement as “the 800-pound gorilla in the Navy’s budget for most of the next 20 years.”

“Whether you like the Navy’s cost estimates of this shipbuilding program or you prefer the CBO’s cost estimates of this shipbuilding, the ORP is going to dominate every shipbuilding budget debate for a decade and beyond,” he said. “With the Ohio replacement [program in full gear] and without commensurate increases in resources, in my view the Navy is on a path to 237 ships,” far short of the goal of 300-plus.

But Hilarides is more optimistic that the Navy will receive the money it needs in the 2020s when modernization programs are at their peak. “The idea that there’s no ability to grow any part of the budget, that [the Ohio replacement] has to squeeze out everything else I think is in question,” he said. “I’m confident … that the nation knows that we need a full range of capabilities.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Thadeous Smith as the SM-6 program manager at Raytheon. This story has been corrected to reflect that he is the SM-6 business development manager at Raytheon.

Topics: Armaments, Procurement, Science and Engineering Technology, Shipbuilding

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