WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is nearly done assessing whether to put missile tubes on an unmanned surface vessel, comparing the idea to other options for getting missile launchers out to sea.

The ongoing distributed offensive surface fires analysis of alternatives is in its final stages and expected to complete by the end of April, Navy spokesman Lt. Lewis Aldridge told Defense News.

The study will compare the Navy’s preferred plan — a large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV) outfitted with vertical launching system tubes that can fire strike missiles — to other options. Four categories of options being considered are modifying existing naval ship designs, such as amphibious ships, expeditionary fast transports and expeditionary sea bases; modifying commercial vessel designs, such as container ships and bulk carriers; creating a new naval ship design; or creating a new commercial ship design, Aldridge said.

A 2019 study on the future surface combatant affirmed the need for an LUSV with missile tubes, to supplement DDG(X) as a large surface combatant and the Constellation-class frigate as a small surface combatant. This family of systems would allow the large combatant to focus on the most sophisticated missions, while the small and unmanned combatants could distribute firepower in more places across the ocean.

Despite the Navy’s certainty on this armed LUSV requirement, lawmakers have been concerned about the immaturity of unmanned technology and the Navy’s ability to use unmanned ships for the remote launch of missiles in a secure manner. The Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act limited the Navy’s ability to pursue an armed LUSV until a new analysis weighed alternatives. Aldridge said that study used the approved top-level requirements for LUSV — the requirements six industry teams have been considering — as the baseline option, though he could not elaborate on those requirements.

The analysis compares the LUSV baseline to alternate options in four focus areas: warfighting capability and capacity analysis, cost and affordability, technical risk, and industrial base considerations.

While it’s unclear what will come of the Navy’s study, Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia who serves as the House Armed Services Committee vice chair, told Defense News last month she favors the idea of modifying an existing ship to add missile capacity to the fleet until unmanned technology is more mature.

To create an interim “Tomahawk arsenal,” she said, Military Sealift Command ships could be good candidates. These ships fit somewhere in between the naval vessels and the commercial vessels as outlined in the analysis of alternatives, with Military Sealift Command ships conducting missions like resupplying the warships in the fleet.

“If the Navy went out tomorrow and told MSC go modify this hull; put two, three VLS launchers in there; come up with the electronics, communication systems, the Tomahawk Weapons Control System, the different things that are necessary to essentially launch Tomahawks … I honestly think that it is something that could be implemented in a very short timeframe, essentially with existing capabilities,” she said.

She noted the Navy would be decommissioning a handful of cruisers this year, making those VLS launchers available to be used for this purpose.

Easier said than done, she acknowledged, “but I know that we did go back with the [Spruance-class] DDs, you know, cut a big hole and put a VLS launcher where there wasn’t one initially, so I just don’t see it as being a huge technological challenge.”

Luria said military cargo ships turned into missile shooters would need protection from traditional warships. Still, she said, it “is an opportunity, I think, to bring more firepower in combination with other [cruisers or destroyers] that have air defense capability for a much lower cost than developing some of these other ideas that are further off future.”

Pursuing Luria’s idea, or others being considered under the analysis of alternatives, could get missile tubes on ships faster than waiting for the LUSV program of record, which is still several years away from developing a final design and moving into construction.

The topic of missile capacity in the fleet has been a source of tension between the Navy and Congress. The Navy wants to accelerate decommissioning its Ticonderoga-class cruisers and has argued the ships aren’t relevant to today’s fight, are increasingly time-consuming and expensive to maintain, and — most recently — are unsafe for the crews that man them.

At the same time, Luria and Rep. Rob Wittman, among others, have said decommissioning the cruisers without a near-term replacement ready would take hundreds of missile tubes out of the fleet at a time when the Navy needs to prepare to deter powers like China or Russia.

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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