New concept aims to get more from the fleet sooner

WASHINGTON – U.S. Marines based out of Norway, another Marine expeditionary unit operating from Sicily. U.S. submarines forward-deployed to Scotland, littoral combat ships in the Mediterranean. Supply ships, fleet oilers and amphibious ships armed with cruise missiles. A third aviation-centered assault ship. More networked connectivity.

Those are just some of the changes and enhancements proposed by the new iNavy concept – i for Improved Navy -- a set of force enhancements that, according to its proponents, can be implemented over the next five years to make the existing fleet more lethal and effective.

"It's things we can do between 2017 and 2022 to improve our Navy, to improve our capabilities and to improve the size of the Navy in order to fill some of the gaps we have today. And to do so in a manner that doesn't preclude us from doing things in the long term to ensure that we've got the Navy that we need in 2030, 2035," said John Miller, a retired vice admiral who led the team that developed the concept.

The concept isn't dependent on buying more ships, since it's unlikely any new construction would enter service within five years. Rather, Miller said, the idea is to improve the overall readiness of the service as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"iNavy is a larger Navy. It's a more lethal Navy. It's a Navy that's more forward-deployed and it's a Navy that's more ready. It's those four attributes," he said.

"We can't just grow the Navy, that's not the solution that's going to meet all the demands we have," Miller explained. "We really don't have the money to do that and we don't have the industrial capacity to just build a bigger Navy in a very short amount of time.

"Most of the Navy we're going to have in 2022 is already with us. In fact, most of the Navy we're going to have in 2030 is already with us, about seventy-five percent of it. So you have to look at other things we can do to get more out of the Navy we have."

Working with the support of Tom Donnelly at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Miller, a former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, proposes moving a number of U.S.-based forces to forward-deployed locations, with a particular emphasis on beefing up the U.S. presence in Europe. Among the proposals is to establish a Mediterranean base for one of the two aviation-centered assault ships, America or Tripoli. The Mediterranean base would also support cruisers, destroyers and logistics efforts. He advocates an amphibious ready group (ARG) and associated Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) based in Sicily, similar to the ARG and MEU now forward-deployed to Japan.

Another new Mediterranean base would support littoral combat ships, and a U.S. submarine base would be established at Faslane, Scotland, already home to a British Royal Navy sub base.

The emphasis on more units in Europe, Miller said, is a reflection of recent rebalancing efforts to move more forces to the Pacific where, he said, "I think we've moved sufficient numbers."

And forces based in Europe, he added, could move easily to other theaters when needed.

"Where we really see gaps of concern is in the Mediterranean and in the North Atlantic and an area of the Baltics," Miller said. "Moving forces into the Mediterranean helps you in a couple of different places -- in the Mediterranean, in the North Atlantic and also in West Asia, because you're closer to that part of the world. You could swing those forces into the Central Command area as a possibility or into the Indian Ocean as well."

Miller would move more submarines to Guam, shortening the transit time to the Western Pacific or Indian Ocean theaters. He also proposes forward-deploying the other aviation assault ship to the Pacific, and advocates building a third aviation ship, not in current shipbuilding plans. He would beef up purchases of Marine Corps F-35B joint strike fighters to fill out the assault ship decks.  

Miller's iNavy also embraces distributed lethality concepts to get more firepower out of the fleet. All 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers would be retained and fully modernized, and the combat systems of all destroyers would be upgraded to Aegis Baseline 9, the current top-of-the-line standard. A key element would be to arm at least six San Antonio-class landing ship docks and six T-AKE dry cargo ammunition ships with vertical launch systems (VLS) able to launch cruise missiles. The ships also would receive cooperative engagement capabilities to allow more sophisticated warships to control the weapons. Miller's concept also envisions returning all four Supply-class fast supply ships to Military Sealift Command service and providing them with VLS, and considers similar modifications to Kaiser-class fleet oilers.

Miller and his team conducted a series of four war games, running scenarios with and without iNavy concepts.  In every scenario, the iNavy dramatically improved U.S. responses to regional threats.

"The more forward-deployed we are the more ready we are and the more capable we are of responding to crisis," Miller said. "We need to be more forward-deployed than we are today. You have to have the numbers of ships and aircraft and you have to have sufficient lethality and be properly networked."

Greater emphasis would be placed, he said, on expanding the Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) network, which links together weapons and sensors on a variety of different ships, aircraft and shore units.

"A NIFC-CA-configured strike group is one that's easier to disaggregate and operate in different geographic areas while staying connected," Miller said. "You have more synergy than if you don't have a NIFC-CA-configured strike group. That's mature technology and we've deployed it so we understand how it works. It's just a matter of buying the kit and installing it."

Miller is beginning to brief Navy brass on the concept, and an AEI report is forthcoming.

"All four of the concepts attributes are required," Miller said. "It's not just a bigger Navy or a more ready Navy or a more lethal Navy or more forward-deployed Navy. It's all four of those attributes together."

One analyst familiar with the iNavy concept is impressed.

"This was a very focused excursion into how we could do better with what we already have with modest adjustments in the next few years," said Bryan McGrath, one of the co-authors of a recent fleet architecture study conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "I was grateful to see that group of smart people had looked very hard at the near-term horizon. There are a world of things we can do in the next few years that are interesting and can have impact."

But McGrath noted that "there's a considerable amount of diplomacy to be done to make those things happen," referring to the multiple forward-basing proposals. He also brought up another issue.

"There has to be a reason why, a sense of urgency, compelling reasons to force the Navy and Congress to make these adjustments," McGrath observed. "But that compelling narrative has not been created, and no one is out preaching it. I know in my heart there is one.

"I think Admiral MIller's team makes a very useful contribution that when a compelling narrative arrives that makes these things important, they will be useful first steps, and relatively straightforward to implement. But without that narrative it's going to be difficult to pull off."

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