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Good Evening, Drifters

You Scorpions fans will recognize the reference in the subject line. There are few genres and eras of music more offensive to my ear than hair metal, but you can always count on it for mellow drama. The Wind of Change is about as melodramatic as it gets.

We’re not here to talk about hair metal, however, but to about a wind of change that’s blowing through the Navy right now. It has to do with a new force structure assessment that’s ongoing that keen observers of the Navy believe may set the service on a very different course than the one its on. And there is no keener observer over the Navy and the Congressional Research Service’s Ron O’Rourke.

So, let’s dive into his latest report and see what Ron thinks the tea leaves are saying about the Navy’s future force structure assessment and what some of the major issues will be.

Let’s Drift!


Let’s Get Integrated

The Marine Corps’ new commandant, Gen. David Berger, released his Commandant’s Planning Guidance in July, and it seems to have jolted the Navy. In it, Berger calls for the Marine Corps to fully integrate itself as a Naval force, supporting the Navy’s access to denied environments. It’s worth reading all 26 pages of it, but the key paragraph is this:

Excerpt: What is abundantly clear is that the future operating environment will place heavy demands on our Nation’s Naval Services. Context and direction is clearly articulated in the NDS and DPG as well as testimony from our uniformed and civilian leadership. No further guidance is required; we are moving forward. The Marine Corp will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations. In crisis prevention and crisis response, the Fleet Marine Force – acting as an extension of the Fleet – will be first on the scene, first to help, first to contain a brewing crisis, and first to fight if required to do so.

When I say this jolted the Navy, what I’m saying is that they really do seem like they are all in on the concept of designing the force around fully integrating the Marine Corps as part of the plan to ensure access. All the sudden, ideas that had been around the Navy ether for some time – distributed architecture, emphasis on unmanned platforms, fewer large combatants and more small ships – seemed to coalesce around this closer Navy/Marine Corps integration.

But what exactly that means for the Navy is something they say will begin with an integrated force structure assessment that takes into account the dictates of the Commandants Planning Guidance and what it might need to support a Marine-focused concept of operations in the South China Sea.

In his latest report, Ron O’Rourke takes on some of these questions.

Excerpt: Navy and Marine Corps officials have suggested in their public remarks that this new FSA could change not only the 355-ship figure, but even more fundamentally, the fleet’s architecture, meaning the fleet’s basic mix of ship and aircraft types. Some observers, viewing statements by Navy officials, believe the new FSA might shift the Navy’s surface force to a more distributed architecture that includes a reduced proportion of large surface combatants (i.e., cruisers and destroyers), an increased proportion of small surface combatants (i.e., frigates and LCSs), and a newly created third tier of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs)

The report goes on to suggest that the integrated force structure assessment would also have implications for the number and composition of the amphibious force and a revamped underwater force as well, which will include a significant number of unmanned submarines.

The potential for a big shift in the way the fleet is put together is driven by the Navy and Marine Corps desire to spread out their forces, reducing the chance that a strike from a long-range Chinese missile could cripple the force and complicate their targeting. Getting to this concept would include deploying unmanned or optionally manned vessels that can be procured for much less money than a full-up multi-mission surface combatant and pack serious capability. The umbrella term for this idea is “distributed maritime operations.”

According to Ron’s report, the Navy has long acknowledged the merits of a distributed architecture for the fleet, but continued to support and fund the highly concentrated, carrier strike group-focused Navy. Here’s what Ron thinks caused the service to shift.

Excerpt: The Navy’s emphasis on USVs and UUVs in its FY2020 budget submission (see next section) suggesting that Navy leaders now support moving the fleet to a more distributed architecture. The views of Navy leaders appear to have shifted in favor of a more distributed architecture because they now appear to believe that such an architecture will be

  • operationally necessary—as the observers have long argued—to respond effectively to the improving maritime A2/AD capabilities of other countries, particularly China;
  • technically feasible as a result of advances in technologies for UVs and for networking widely distributed maritime forces that include significant numbers of UVs; and
  • affordable—no more expensive, and possibly less expensive, than the current architecture, so as to fit within future Navy budgets that Navy officials expect to be flat or declining in real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) terms compared to the Navy’s current budget.

All this adds up to the potential for, what Ron terms, a once-in-a-generation shift in Navy force structure.

Excerpt: “The potential changes to the Navy’s fleet architecture that are discussed below could amount to a once-in-a-generation change in Navy fleet architecture that could have substantial effects on the mix of Navy ships to be built in coming years and the distribution of Navy shipbuilding work among U.S. shipyards.

There is much more to it, I encourage you to read the report in full. But it appears that as it relates to the forthcoming force structure assessment, Sam Cooke put it best: A Change is Gonna Come.

On to Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Fitzgerald Update

The Fitzgerald accident is back in the news this week. The skipper of the Fitz the night of the accident that claimed seven sailors’ lives, after being charged with negligent homicide, is instead leaving the service at the end of this year retiring in his current rank as a Commander.

You’ll want to read the latest Pro Publica piece on this, which is a feature, really, about Benson’s struggle with the Navy, which ultimately saw its case against Benson fizzle after charges of unlawful command influence were levied against, among others, former Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson. You can see Pro Publica’s piece here:

Blame Over Justice: The Human Toll of the Navy’s Relentless Push to Punish One of Its Own

More Reading

Drugs are Bad, Mmkay? Another submarine officer busted for drugs

Speaking of Fitz: Navy Says JO Ship-Driving Skills Show Modest Improvement as GAO Raises Questions on New Training Regimes

In First, NATO Ships Share Target Data & Knock Down Ballistic Missiles

LCS!!! US Navy warships sail through South China Sea, defying China, officials say

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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