With the Trump administration and a Republican congress at the helm of the United States, the US Navy (USN) seems determined to press its case for additional funding. Its 2016 force structure assessment (FSA), a document which lays out the “needs” of the Navy based on input from officers and experts, assessed the required number of ships at 355. This is a massive increase over the 307-ship FSA issued in 2015 during Obama’s term. However, many in Congress and in the defense community are skeptical of the US Navy’s current roadmap. It is not so much that they oppose expanding the Navy in principle — rather, they view its plan to simply purchase more ships of existing classes as inadequate. Instead, they argue that the Navy needs to fundamentally re-think how it operates and what kinds of equipment it uses in order to stay ahead of the curve. To shed light on the issue, Congress recently mandated three reports to offer alternative visions of the US Navy’s future. While each came to a differing conclusion, all three echo the basic sentiment that change is needed going forwards.
Perhaps the most revolutionary of the three reports was issued by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or the CSBA. This massive document is more wide-reaching than the other two, questioning the Navy’s conventions in realms from surface combatant weapons to maintenance scheduling. While the document delivers insightful analysis throughout, only a few of the most intriguing proposals will be covered here.
First of all, the CSBA criticizes the USN’s current deployment methods, which it says cannot deliver persistent, reliable deterrence, because removing a carrier strike group from a region tends to create a void which adversaries could exploit. Also, current forces are moved around within their Combatant Commander Areas of Responsibility, which prevents them from mastering the nuances of a specific region. To remedy this, the CSBA proposes creating dedicated deterrence forces, each tailored to a specific region. These forces would be permanently assigned to their area of operations, ensuring that power vacuums are not created by the removal of assets from an area (except for in extreme circumstances, such as wartime).
In order to provide striking power to the deterrence forces, the CSBA proposes using the LHA and LHD amphibious warfare ships, with F-35B short takoff/vertical landing aircraft, as light carriers. Eventually, these ad-hoc carriers would be replaced by purpose-built catapult arrested but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carriers of about 60,000-ton displacement. This would provide the deterrence forces with the ability to launch their own strikes without relying on the presence of a carrier strike group, greatly increasing the offensive prowess of the deterrence forces and their ability to rapidly impact a conflict. Of course, commissioning light carriers would be quite costly, and crowding amphibs with F-35Bs reduces the amount of space left for Marine Corps equipment, potentially reducing the Marines’ combat power until the purpose-built light carriers are fielded. Note that one of the deterrence forces in the Atlantic would also have a permanently assigned nuclear carrier.
With deterrence forces handling localized, day-to-day operations, the rest of the fleet would be organized into a maneuver force which would patrol the Pacific and Middle East. This formation, composed of two carrier strike groups (CSGs), would participate in high-profile exercises and be called to trouble spots, providing additional presence much like the independent carrier strike groups which operate now. However, since mundane tasks are delegated to the deterrence force, the maneuver force would have large amounts of freedom to visit troubled areas on a whim. With two nuclear carriers, the maneuver force would be capable of delivering massive, sustained firepower. If a conflict were to break out, the CSBA envisions the deterrence forces rapidly expending all their munitions in a high-tempo assault, holding off the enemy long enough for the maneuver force to arrive and take over operations for the long term.
To this end, the CSBA recommends the cancellation of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Small Surface Combatant (an LCS-based frigate) programs as soon as a replacement is found, as the deterrence groups need more firepower than the LCS can deliver. A multirole guided missile frigate (FFG) would replace the LCS program as America’s small warship, delivering enhanced capabilities similar to those of European multirole frigates. This vessel would have an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM)-based air defense suite, antisubmarine warfare equipment, and would be capable of escorting other members of the deterrent force, such as mine warfare ships.
The CSBA acknowledges that procuring new frigates and light carriers would be quite expensive. As a tradeoff, the report suggests limiting construction of large surface combatants (LSCs), ie. destroyers and cruisers. To boost combat power without extra LSCs, the CSBA envisions increasing the capability of all surface combatants with high-tech defensive solutions. Radiofrequency weapons, such as jammers, form a core part of the CSBA’s re-envisioned LSC defensive suite. Lasers are another system which the CSBA sees promise in. One problem frequently cited by naval experts is that American LSCs would run out of interceptors if subjected to a large missile barrage. The CSBA proposes re-formulating the missile loadout of LSCs to address this. By removing half of the LSCs’ long-range Standard Missile-2s (SM-2s) and replacing them with ESSMs, of which four can be packed into one cell, the overall number of interceptors would be increased significantly, albeit at the price of some long-range capability.
To boost combat effectiveness of the fleet overall, the CSBA also urges increased usage of unmanned vehicles. The report envisions drones participating in every aspect of warfare, from airstrikes to intelligence gathering. To facilitate this, dedicated drone operations groups would be formed, utilizing large utility vessels such as Expeditionary Fast Transports and Expeditionary Sea Bases to launch, recover, and command all types of drones. This is similar to ideas expressed in the other reports.
The carrier air wing would also be altered by the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. For offensive power, the plan calls for 12 armed low-observable UAVs to embark with the maneuver force. The lack of a pilot would allow these drones to undertake risky penetration missions without the risk of personnel loss. Aerial refueling, now performed by F/A-18s, would be re-assigned to 12 utility UAVs. Since the utility tankers would be much cheaper to operate than the fighters which currently perform refueling, cost savings would be likely in the long run.
All of these alterations, especially the additional ship classes, would come at a price. Namely, the shipbuilding budget would need to be increased 18% in the short term, and the larger, more complex fleet would cost about $38 billion extra per year to maintain in the long run. This is a steep price tag, but that is not altogether surprising considering the significant restructuring and procurement proposed by the report. The report also lists a few alternatives to its main plan which sacrifice certain programs, such as nuclear carriers and attack submarines, to achieve the basic goal of re-organizing the fleet while adhering roughly to current funding levels.
MITRE’s report focuses more specifically on force levels and offers suggestions relating to the US Navy’s combat effectiveness. The primary question posed to MITRE was “how many ships does the US need to defeat one neer-peer adversary while holding another at bay?” MITRE’s answer is that such a feat would require 414 ships, a stunning figure. The reason for this shocking assessment is simple: American adversaries have the home field advantage. Most hypothetical conflicts take place in Europe or East Asia, which are much closer to Russia and China than to the United States. This proximity allows for missiles and airplanes to reach the battlespace easily, while American forces would have to travel great distances to get to the battlefield unless they were pre-positioned. The sea is also vast and exposed area, whereas land allows for concealment, so Russian and Chinese missile truck-based missile launchers could use cover and disperse themselves, whereas American naval forces would be forced to defend themselves with sheer firepower. Furthermore, a squadron of trucks, which cost exponentially less than a ship, can carry the same number of missiles. These factors conspire to create a formidable challenge, which accounts for the staggering 414-ship sum.
Rather than seriously advocating for a 414 ship Navy, MITRE’s report focuses on giving suggestions to approve the USN’s combat effectiveness as much as possible relative to current levels. As such, all the following points are based on MITRE’s proposed improvements to the existing fleet.
One of MITRE’s most important claims is that, in 2030, the USN won’t be able to “hide” its location by simply moving around. Currently, the detection range of most equipment is limited, and satellites do not re-visit each point on earth frequently enough to provide accurate targeting information, so keeping ships in motion is often adequate to remain concealed. However, MITRE notes that sensor technology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, and by 2030 it is almost certain that naval forces will be constantly monitored. This means that the USN will have to fend off the massive precision attacks allowed by such long-range targeting.
In light of this requirement, MITRE advocates for the immediate cancellation of the LCS program and its replacement with a multirole frigate, similar to the CSBA’s proposal. Unlike the CSBA, MITRE believes that large surface combatants are crucial to the fight of the future. Thus, MITRE proposes that the Navy buy one extra Arleigh-Burke class destroyer per year to bolster missile defense capabilities.
In order to provide the massive number of interceptors needed to fend off an attack in 2030, MITRE wants to revive the idea of a “magazine ship” that has been floated at various points in the past, when it was referred to as an “arsenal ship.” Essentially, a magazine ship would be a vessel with many vertical launch cells, some communications equipment, and not much else. By forgoing radars, aviation facilities, and other features which are common on surface warships, the magazine ship is able to pack hundreds of VLS cells. Nearby ships and aircraft would then provide defense and targeting information for the magazine ship, utilizing its numerous interceptors to fend off saturation attacks.
MITRE is also a major proponent of research into alternative methods of intercepting missiles. The report notes that using a Standard Missile is an expensive way to deal with low-end threats and that American ships can only re-arm their VLS cells in port, which means that a large missile attack could force American ships out of action for weeks while they re-arm. One way to address this is harnessing the 5″/54 caliber Mk 45 gun, which is fitted to all destroyers and cruisers, to fire a hypervelocity projectile (HVP) which is capable of destroying missiles mid-flight. According to MITRE’s report, preliminary testing indicates that the HVP round should work in the missile defense role. However, MITRE seems to have drawn this conclusion based largely on classified information, so their claim cannot be fully verified without a security clearance. Since a 5″ HVP shell costs less than $100,000 and can be carried in the standard Mk 45 magazine, which holds 600 rounds, its successful introduction could provide LSCs with a formidable weapon in the fight against cruise missiles. MITRE also supports further research into electromagnetic railguns, which would be more potent than the Mk 45, but it does not appear that railguns will be feasible in combat until around 2025 at the earliest. For electromagnetic railguns to be implemented, many ships will require expanded power generation capabilities.
MITRE also floats the idea of using a Pershing 3 variant for intermediate range (1,000-2,000 mile) land strikes. The Tomahawk already has a similar range, but MITRE contends that cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk are too slow for some missions. While the notion of using ballistic missiles for long-range attacks from the sea is interesting, it seems unlikely to come to fruition. Updating the Pershing 3 to modern standards and modifying it to launch from surface ships, which have little space to accommodate existing systems (let alone launch facilities for a large ballistic missile), would be costly. The US military seems to be content with its existing cruise missile and glide bomb weapons, which have similar ranges. In any case, much of the Pershing-related content in the MITRE report is also in the classified annex, so it is difficult to fully evaluate the practicality of the proposal with the given information.
To address a perceived shortfall in the US Navy’s attack submarine force, MITRE floats the idea of adding conventional (diesel-powered) submarines to the US fleet. The US Navy has not commissioned a diesel-electric submarine since 1960, so to return to procuring diesel-electric boats would be a major reversal in US strategy. The nuclear vs. conventional submarine debate has been raging for years, wrought on largely by improved Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems, which allow conventional subs to run quietly and stay submerged for weeks on end. This technology erodes the advantage enjoyed by nuclear submarines, but AIP boats still cannot match the stellar endurance or speed of their nuclear counterparts. The main benefit of a conventional submarine with AIP is fiscal: a German Type 212 sub costs less than $500 million, while an American Virginia-class nuclear attack sub is around $2.7 billion. Thus, the US Navy could field a fleet of conventional submarines at relatively low cost. This would help maintain a constant subsurface presence, especially in contested regions where submarines are in high demand but short supply. However, the costs associated with adopting a new submarine type would be high, as personnel would need to be retrained and naval facilities altered.
The Navy’s Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study (AFFPAS) was produced by USN personnel who were encouraged to envision the future of the Navy as they saw fit instead of adhering to official positions. As the AFFPAS’s name suggests, the report focuses on what ships, aircraft, and other assets the US Navy should comprise of in the future. Their assessment has a lot in common with the previous two reports, so this segment will focus on proposals unique to the AFFPAS.
Like the CSBA report, the AFFPAS recommends adding light carriers. Unlike the CSBA report, the AFFPAS calls for these light carriers to be integrated into the existing carrier strike group, using the F-35Bs for additional offensive power. As a nod to the importance of electronic warfare in the future battlefield, the AFFPAS also proposes doubling the number of EA-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft in each carrier air wing. While the American fleet may no longer be capable of hiding, as MITRE notes, an increased focus on electronic warfare would disrupt attempts to target and attack American formations, restoring freedom of movement to an extent.
One of the most revolutionary ideas in the AFFPAS is the Long-Range Strike Surface Action Group, which would comprise of a Flight IIA Arleigh-Burke class destroyer and a re-purposed amphibious warfare ship working in tandem. The Arleigh-Burke would provide an air defense and missile launch platform, while the revamped amphib would launch long-range UAVs for target detection and offensive strikes. This would allow the surface action group to engage enemy ships at great distances without the fear of personnel loss and without the need for an aircraft carrier. The reconnaissance UAVs would also provide targeting information to the Arleigh-Burke and other nearby assets, helping the force as a whole maintain an accurate picture of the battlespace in realtime. With such surface action groups complementing carrier strike groups, the USN’s airpower would be more diversified than the carrier-centric scheme which exists today.
If there is one theme of the AFFPAS, it’s “drones are the future.” The AFFPAS blueprint would see the Navy expanding its drone force to 713 large drones, which would assist operations in aerial warfare, surface warfare, and subsurface warfare. In addition to modified amphibs launching UAVs as part of the Long-Range Strike group, the AFFPAS calls for the construction of DDG(H) vessels — essentially guided missile destroyers with their aft missile cells replaced by aviation facilities for UAVs. By utilizing armed UAVs, which would be cheap relative to manned aircraft, the USN could spread its offensive power over a larger number of vehicles; this concept is called “distributed lethality,” and the Navy establishment has recognized it as a priority going forwards.
Under the AFFPAS plan, logistics operations would be recalibrated for a more intense combat environment by granting escorts to every logistics group. Also, Expeditionary Sea Bases and Expeditionary Transfer Docks would be used as distribution and maintenance hubs. The AFFPAS suggests allowing VLS-equipped ships to reload at sea, which the MITRE report also mentions. This would require new cranes capable of executing the precise reloading sequence.
In general, all three reports identify the same challenges: the increased ranges of anti-ship cruise missiles, the rapid advance of Russian and Chinese technology, and the logistical difficulties of projecting power around the world. They also project that the Navy’s current procurement schedules will not adequately meet the demands of the future. The broad consensus seems to be that some nature of reform is needed.
On the technological side, all three reports emphasize research into cost-effective defensive technologies, such as electronic warfare, lasers, hypervelocity projectiles, etc. Conversely, missile-based defenses were considered necessary in their current role but insufficient in many capacities. Unmanned vehicles were also championed across the board, which is unsurprising given the successes achieved by drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall, the technological recommendations are not revolutionary; the USN establishment has been funding extensive research into these subjects for decades.
The calls for new ship classes, on the other hand, are more unconventional. The US Navy has a certain amount of inertia, and the current fleet architecture centered around carriers, attack submarines, and surface combatants has existed since World War II. To change it would be costly and consequential, so the cases for innovations such as the DDG(H) and the magazine ship would be difficult to make. The guided missile frigate and light carrier, however, are less foreign. The USN operated Midway-class carriers, which displaced around 64,000 tons upon decommissioning, until the 1990s. The Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate, in service until 2015, was a true multirole vessel similar to what is desired by the CSBA and MITRE.
Unfortunately, while all of the proposals are cognizant of the Navy’s budgetary limitations, none find a way to implement large-scale change without significant funding increases. The studies were conducted during the Obama administration and use the 2015 Force Structure Assessment in their estimations. All increased spending and fleet size relative to those Obama baselines. However, the CSBA and AFFPAS both suggested ship counts similar to Trump’s 350-ship target, so they may not represent an increase in cost relative to the shipbuilding plans formulated under Trump’s administration. Of course, whether or not Trump’s 350-ship target is feasible in the first place is a topic for debate, and Trump has yet to pass a budget so the answer will remain unknown for some time. In any case, the main points outlined by all three studies are relevant regardless of funding levels, and the future of the US Navy may very well depend on groundbreaking ideas brought forth by independent reports such as the three examined here.