WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is completely misaligned to meet the threats the military says it must counter in the 21st century, and it’s not correctly constructed to pursue its own strategy of “distributed maritime operations,” according to new study from the Center or Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In the 118-page report, analysts Bryan Clark and Timothy Walton highlight fundamental shortfalls of the destroyer-heavy surface fleet and illustrate how assets that were once core strengths of the surface force — heavy-duty air defense radars and densely packed multimission warships built around vertical launch systems once considered high capacity — have become vulnerabilities as adversaries have adapted to U.S. capabilities.
The service must dramatically increase its focus on bolstering the offensive punch of its surface combatants as well as fully embrace advances in electronic warfare and laser weapons to combat the anti-ship missile threat, according to the CSBA report. Furthermore, the fleet must find ways to take advantage of more passive sensors and reduce its reliance on giant radars that have been at the core of its air defense missions since the Cold War, the report noted.
The Navy’s strategy to defeat China’s anti-access, area-denial strategy also needs work. The service’s stated plan to spread out forces over a broad theater rather than aggregate around an aircraft carrier won’t prove effective unless the service makes big changes, the think tank’s study found.
“The U.S. Navy’s adoption of distributed operations will not by itself reduce the surface fleet’s vulnerabilities or make it more lethal,” the report said. "Concepts for distributed operations are often portrayed by Navy leaders as a way to complicate adversary targeting and create more opportunities for surface forces to attack the enemy. Proliferation and improvements to commercial and military ground-based, airborne, and satellite sensors, however, will likely overcome any complexity imposed by simply distributing today’s fleet.
“Unless the U.S. surface force changes its approaches to surveillance, targeting, counter-[surveillance and targeting], and engagement of air, surface, and undersea threats, they will have insufficient operational flexibility or weapons capacity to take advantage of distribution."
The report said the fleet should fundamentally reshape itself by reducing its reliance on large active sensors and moving away from manpower-intensive surface combatants that are too expensive to operate on the scale needed to counter China. It also said the Navy must pursue a more organized strategy for combating the advances in Chinese capabilities.
Such steps include embracing technologies like high-powered microwaves and lasers to combat anti-ship missiles at closer ranges, freeing up the vertical launch missile magazines for more offensive weapons. This would counter attacks from adversaries that are designed to get U.S. Navy ships to empty their vertical launching system cells trying to engage anti-ship missiles with anti-air missiles.
The Navy needs to employ more passive sensors to detect enemy targets rather than rely on giant radars that tell anyone with sophisticated electronic sniffing equipment where the U.S. Navy’s big guns are hiding.
Using radars such as the SPY-6 destined for the Flight III destroyer is essential for the ballistic missile defense mission, but it also shines a giant electronic flashlight that would likely betray the ship’s position to a reasonably sophisticated adversary.
“The physical signatures of U.S. surface combatants and their reliance on organic radar increases their susceptibility to detection, while the cost, multimission utility, and relatively small number of U.S. surface warships makes each of them too valuable to lose operationally or financially,” the study said. “The vulnerability of today’s U.S. surface fleet to Chinese and Russian battle networks reduces its ability to support U.S. military strategy and operational concepts.”
As an alternative, the Navy could field optionally manned corvettes and medium unmanned surface vessels with advanced sensors that can communicate targeting and surveillance data to larger manned ships. That would keep enemy sensors preoccupied and from detecting the larger manned surface combatants.
“New concepts for surface fleet missions... will increasingly rely on unmanned systems to perform sensing operations because unmanned systems can achieve the proximity or distribution to use passive sensors effectively or employ active sensors at acceptable risk,” the study reads.
“Engagements will largely continue to be ordered by a human operator, although that operator may be on a nearby manned platform and the weapon launched by an unmanned vehicle. Unmanned systems would conduct almost all counter-[surveillance and targeting] missions; they can make risk-worthy decoys or employ active countermeasures without exposing a manned platform to detection and attack.”
Moving to more unmanned offboard sensors was the vision behind the Defense Advanced Research Agency’s Sea Hunter program, and many suspect the medium unmanned surface vessel will be derived from the Sea Hunter drone.
The Navy recently transferred control of the Sea Hunter to the surface Navy’s new development squadron, which is tasked with formulating with a concept of operations for medium and large unmanned ships.
The report also called for the Navy to move quickly on fielding a large optionally manned corvette. This is a departure from the Navy’s plan to field a large unmanned surface vessel, or LUSV, that is envisioned as an external missile magazine able to autonomously operate alongside the fleet, expend its missiles and return to reload, leaving the ship with more time on station and with more missiles in its magazine to use as offensive strike weapons.
“Instead of procuring an optionally manned LUSV that may be difficult to employ throughout the spectrum of competition and conflict, CSBA’s plan introduces a similarly designed [corvette] that is designed to be, conversely, optionally unmanned and would normally operate with small crews of around 15–24 personnel,” the study read. “[So-called] DDCs primarily armed with offensive weapons would serve as offboard magazines for force packages.”
Pursuing an optionally manned corvette as opposed to a fully unmanned ship allows the Navy to buy more offensive punch for its shipbuilding dollar, while also gaining the peacetime advantage of having more manned warships that cost less to operate, the study argued.
“By having small crews, DDCs could contribute to peacetime training, engagement, maritime security, and deterrence,” it said. “DDCs would also have a lower risk compared to unmanned vessels of being captured or herded out of operating areas by adversary forces like China’s People’s Maritime Militia. During conflict, personnel could be removed, and the DDCs could operate autonomously in highly contested areas.
“However, the presence of crews onboard, primarily to protect sensitive systems and weapons, would be preferred throughout competition and conflict.”
The current state of affairs
The report shows that the Navy is not just misaligned for a wartime threat, but for its peacetime mission as well.
About three-quarters of the surface fleet, including ships in service and planned construction, is composed of large surface combatants with large air and missile defense radars, according to the study. But in reality, the ships spend the bulk of their time on other missions such as anti-submarine warfare, surveillance, deterrence, maritime security and counterterrorism operations.
Ships have gravitated to these missions partly because of real-world requirements but also because the fleet lacks a small surface combatant capable of performing them.
“By deploying air defense-oriented multimission combatants for almost every surface force operation, the Navy is sub-optimizing the investment in these platforms and arguably consuming their service life unnecessarily,” to report read.
Furthermore, it’s extravagantly expensive.
“The weighting of the U.S. Navy surface fleet toward CGs [cruisers] and DDGs [destroyers] is costly,” the think tank reported. “Large surface combatants are approximately $1.8 billion each to build. More significantly, these highly-integrated multimission platforms are difficult and expensive to maintain and upgrade. For example, the mid-life modernization of a CG or DDG costs more than $100 million and takes more than a year to complete; as a result, the Navy is constrained in its ability to adapt and improve surface combatants.”
The new Navy
The study envisioned a completely revamped fleet that has traded large surface combatants for more optionally manned surface ships.
The study also called for a fleet of 74 large surface combatants by 2048 (the scope of the study) and keeps the 52 small surface combatant requirement of the 2016 Force Structure Assessment. In this scenario, instead of large surface combatants, the Navy would pour money into so-called enablers, the optionally manned corvettes and unmanned surface vessels.
The study also said the Navy requires a total of 96 corvettes and 110 medium unmanned surface vessels.
Inverting the fleet from a destroyer-heavy, manpower-intensive fleet to a smaller, more adaptable fleet that is bolstered by cheaper ships and more offensive punch would ultimately increase the number of vertical launching system cells available to the fleet by 1.4 times the current projected number, the study found.
“The U.S. surface fleet could better support the National Defense Strategy by enabling smaller, more proportional force packages to operate at acceptable risk in contested areas and equipping them to counter enemy aggression,” the study said.