ARLINGTON, Va. — The head of the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet has laid out a plan to prepare his force to deter or defeat a top-notch adversary, calling for specific steps to improve ship maintenance, successfully and rapidly field new weapons, develop high-end tactics, and ensure sailors and officers have high-quality training and mentoring.

Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of naval surface forces, kicked off the annual Surface Navy Association conference by introducing “Surface Warfare: The Competitive Edge,” which warns “we face potential adversaries endeavoring to undermine the current rules-based international order”

“The surface Navy has responded. We have worked to ensure more ready ships are available for tasking, our ships are more lethal and better networked, our crews are manned and trained for the missions they face, and our fleet is maintained, modernized and recapitalized to meet the demands of a globally postured Navy facing determined rivals,” he said.

But the work won’t stop there.

Kitchener is already taking early steps to figure out how to produce more ready ships and identify the cost of doing so. He told reporters after his speech that he’s trying to develop a “north star” number of ready ships the force could produce — which would be the number of ships he’s required to produce under the Global Force Management system for global combatant commanders to use, as well as additional ready ships that could be used for training, experimentation or other Navy tasks outside the global joint force deployment system.

Though he wouldn’t specify that number, he did tell Defense News after his speech that the quantity will allow the Navy to identify what else it could make available for other missions, apart from the normal production rate for the Optimized Fleet Response Plan in support of deployments to combatant commands.

“But most importantly, it allows us to start getting after understanding what does it cost to maintain this many ready ships,” he added.

He said this analysis will consider the whole enterprise — maintenance, spare parts, labor force and more — in order to create ships that are either fully mission capable, mission capable or not mission capable, and it would find the cost associated with each so the Navy can create something of a sliding scale to understand what readiness it will achieve based on how much money it can afford to spend.

What’s in the strategic document?

Kitchener is excited about the end result, but he’s also worried about keeping the surface force on track over the next decade as threats grow in terms of quantity and capability. To focus the surface force, Kitchener’s document includes five lines of effort, each with its own laundry list of follow-on reports and plans to ensure the surface force stays on task:

  • Develop the leader, warrior, mariner and manager.
  • Deliver more, ready ships.
  • Achieve excellence in fleet introduction.
  • Create clear and innovative operational concepts.
  • Establish infrastructure for the future force

Under the personnel development line of effort, Surface Warfare Schools Command and Surface Combat Systems Training Command will develop a 10-year plan to distribute additional trainers to support the fleet. Additionally, the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center will provide a plan on its new Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum, which that tracks sailors’ tactical education and experience.

“We will sharpen our warfighting skills by increasing opportunities for high-quality tactical training, improved education in the art of multi-domain surface warfare in the 21st century, and inculcating warrior toughness throughout the force. Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC) will be the foundation of warfighting excellence, and it will provide deeper insights into how well we train and develop warfighting competence across all warfare areas,” the document read.

On the ready ships initiative, four plans will be delivered by the end of the year to look at various facets of the challenge. Naval Sea Systems Command will “develop options for an improved surface ship maintenance and modernization plan that supports on time delivery of ships … while considering actions and incentives for strengthening the industrial base,” the document noted. And Naval Supply Systems Command will develop a plan to improve fleet sustainment, including “critical sparing issues vital to the force’s operational availability and innovative business process changes to ensure spare parts are available when needed.”

Furthermore, the chief of naval personnel will look at what labor force is needed for ships in maintenance. And the SWO Boss’ special assistant for data analytics will create a Surface Force Analytics Plan and Data Strategy that aligns the entire enterprise around increasing ship readiness. (The title of SWO Boss is colloquially used to describe Kitchener’s position as the top surface warfare officer.)

As the Navy builds these plans, Kitchener encouraged leaders to consider readiness in new ways.

“More, ready ships means getting ships into and out of maintenance periods on time. More, ready ships means taking a fresh look at how we schedule maintenance and modernization, with an eye toward more frequent, shorter periods that deliver higher operational availability, while strengthening and reforming the industrial base. More, ready ships means being more effective in planning and executing complex depot-level modernization periods that deliver the capabilities called for by the Fleet Commanders’ Baseline Change and Configuration Plans. More, ready ships means evaluating just what ‘ready’ means and considering certification schemes that provide sufficient combat effectiveness and safety without holding the force to a one-size-fits-all notion of readiness,” the document read.

On fleet introduction, the document said 10 new or modernized platforms will undergo construction and fielding in the coming decade, and that the fleet will need a smooth introduction to quickly bring these manned and unmanned platforms online and into operations.

Kitchener said during the question and answer portion of his speech that this fleet introduction effort may be the toughest but most important of the five, particularly because of the volume of new systems coming online as well as the current lack of predictability around how fully they’ll be resourced, and therefore the timing of their development and fielding.

Next, the document called for a greater reliance on the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center as well as the warfare tactics instructors, or WTI, it produces in order to develop and train in new and innovative tactics. It called for an increase in WTI production, their inclusion in weapons development programs and their development of warfighting concepts that focus on new technology, including the Maritime Strike Tomahawk and hypersonic weapons, as well as new concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and manned-unmanned integration.

Lastly, the document called for a range of actions to set up the fleet for success in several key enablers:

  • The development of an integrated combat system.
  • The Task Force Hopper effort to operationalize artificial intelligence and machine learning.
  • A greater use of land-based engineering test sites to aide in new capability development.

Kitchener made clear the global implications of having a ready surface Navy and making sure it grows more capable, relative to evolving threats around the world.

“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin specifically called out U.S. warships operating legally in the Black Sea, saying they could be seen in Russia’s crosshairs. The [People’s Republic of China] repeatedly made false claims that they chased our ships out of the South China Sea. The mere fact that our competitors routinely comment on our continued, stable operations proves that being there does matter,” he told the audience.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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