November 1, 2005  

Surface ship, submarine missions are coalescing

The Navy is at a crossroads of great consequence. It faces decisions that will shape ship-based war-fighting requirements for the next century. In an era of reduced blue-water threats, the Navy must transform to meet combat ashore requirements (strike) and current littoral challenges.

Littoral requirements are being considered via the Littoral Combat Ship program. If defense of the littorals was the only requirement levied against the Navy, it is possible that Navy procurement funding might suffice. However, the Navy must support additional missions (such as strike) as requested by regional combatant commanders.

In conjunction with required mission capabilities, the Navy finds itself in a tight fiscal environment brought on through entitlements for Navy personnel and ship-procurement programs. The Navy in this environment must be cognizant of the pressure points and develop strategies to address each issue, yet maintain balance and support bold innovation.

The pressure to find a replacement for the Aegis fleet has reached fever pitch. The surface Navy a few years ago thought it had the answer with the arsenal ship design. However, this design was scrapped in favor of the DD(X) program. The DD(X) design was then held up as the correct answer for almost five years. This design program has also recently come under scrutiny. As with numerous inter-war year design cycles, these fits and starts are common. At issue is the question of requirements, known as required operational capabilities (ROCs), versus capital. It is difficult to pre-guess the ROCs needed to compete in the next generation of warfare. This, coupled with huge financial constraints, makes the next step murky for the surface Navy. The Navy wants to return to the drawing board to develop DD(X) designs that marry capabilities with available capital. The problem is the advanced age of the current fleet and the enormous negative effect yearly inflation exhibits toward capital earmarked for ship procurement.

Like their surface counterparts, the submarine community is feverishly working miracle designs framed for aligning capabilities with cost levels agreeable to the nation’s purse strings. The first answer, Seawolf, was considered an excellent design, but too expensive for the quantities desired. The Virginia-class and modified Ohio-class (SSGN) submarines represent the next answer as the subsurface way ahead. Although cheaper than the Seawolf program, these plans will still cost the Navy more than it would like to spend.

In reviewing the Navy shipbuilding global picture, it is apparent there are two separate war-fighting communities in almost the exact same position. Both the submarine and surface communities are facing modernization requirements without adequate capital necessary to buy the required quantities of ships and submarines. Without the correct funding earmarked for shipbuilding, program costs to the government become exorbitant and economies of scale cannot be employed. The result is like the Seawolf program: a shipbuilding program highly capable but lacking funds to deliver the correct number of ships to meet geopolitical requirements.

However, if enough capital can be secured to build ships with one single design, then economies of scale can reduce final costs for each ship or submarine. These facts are in large part the reason the submarine and surface ship programs have been unable to get underway. Costs of emerging technologies and general ship design and construction have made ownership costs beyond the checkbooks of both directorates. Ignoring this situation is not a wise option. History has shown that failure to pursue cutting-edge combat technology is usually followed by a heavy price with losses at sea. One option to consider when situations seem untenable is innovation.

A possible solution could be a design of hybrid ships made with the best capabilities from both surface and subsurface communities. This would combine the expertise of both directorates, and plan one ship that features all capabilities necessary to defend the country well into the 21st century. Specifically, break the stove-pipe community paradigm and meld both ROCs with available resources in order to have the capital to create a fleet of hybrid ships.

The evolution of Navy ships has tended toward this result for a long time. Ships and submarines have become more multicapable as construction costs escalate. This multilevel mission capability has led to redundancies between communities. Some examples include the overlap of tactical strike and anti-submarine warfare.

Further, ships have reduced radar profiles and freeboards as protective measures to evade high-tech sensors. In that vein, ships have started to look like surfaced submarines rather than the ships of old. This is particularly true of the latest rendering of DD(X). The conversion of trident submarines (SSGN) to land attack submersibles represents one of the last legs of evolution from capital ship to capital submarine. The question almost begs itself, why not continue the metamorphosis to create Navy ships that have the mission abilities of surface ships but can submerge like a submarine?

Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the U.S. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), alluded to this trend 10 years ago.

“Just as bombers are becoming relatively less important than the ordnance they carry,” he said, “so too might surface warships, which could evolve to become “barges” (with some perhaps operating below the surface) for advanced conventional munitions that can strike pre-designated targets at extended ranges.”

This concept makes the case that barges would be ideal as strike platforms of the future. The reference to the barges “operating below the surface” is the first precursor toward the idea of larger systems operating underwater.

Krepinevich explained how advancing technologies would create systems able to pinpoint military assets accurately and quickly to attempt destruction of enemies from afar. The ocean, with its thermal layers, has always been one of the best at concealing any and all occupants. One of Krepinevich’s associates at CSBA put it this way: “This type of basic anti-navy architecture could be made more effective by incorporating increasingly sophisticated mines, active and passive sea-based sensor networks and quiet-attack submarines. Such architectures would have far lower barriers to entry (cost and learning) than carrier battle group operations, potentially enabling those competitors to leapfrog the carrier era and become major maritime competitors, at least in littoral waters. Absent a revolutionary breakthrough in ASW[anti-submarine warfare], naval power-projection operations could be driven sub surface.”


This reference brings the point home in stark fashion: Technologies meant to find and destroy objects will become inexpensive and plentiful. The world’s strongest navy should not build anything but ships that employ the best covering tactics available. The CSBA suggested that the capital ship of the fleet in 2020 might be an arsenal ship — a missile-firing submersible armed with cruise and conventional ballistic missiles — and that such ships might be armed with a few hundred to a thousand missiles.

A distributed power projection navy might include several classes of arsenal ships and other submersible power projection forces in the fleet.

The hard question generated here is: How long can the Navy emphasize surface designs before the anti-navy threat evolves? If 2020 is the answer, and with the long lead time of procurement cycles, would it not be prudent to start moving the Navy toward that goal now? What possible gain is garnered by building ships that possibly could be found and destroyed with technology online and deployable within 14 years? The Navy must become bold in decision-making before it is relegated to playing catch-up in a world fast becoming shaped by quick-striking revolutions in military affairs.

From a financial point of view, the benefits are both significant and worthy of PowerPoint bullets within the Pentagon. To start, by combining capabilities into one ship, economies of scale can be harvested. First, one ship designed to meet all existing DD(X) and subsurface ROCs would drive huge cost savings in development and maintenance over a ships complete life-cycle. Further, training staff directorates could be significantly consolidated.

The biggest financial gain associated with combining surface and subsurface ROCs into one ship would be the manpower savings. By breaking the stovepipe directorate paradigm, human capital strategy groups would have concrete anticipated manpower savings that could pay for additional ships at sea. As most budgetary analysts will confess, financial offsets are necessary evils that must be proven to Congress for any new program. Manpower is expensive and can siphon critical capital funds from weapons systems development and procurement. Manpower savings are now center court in the battle to field future weapon systems. A program that decreases manpower though consolidation of war-fighting communities should be seriously studied.

Resistance to such a program would be significant. Pressure to continue building as our forefathers built would be easier on many levels. First, the communities themselves could be unwilling to embrace change. Further, interest groups could make such proposals difficult from a congressional point of view. However, there is precedence to the concept of building weapons systems across departmental structures. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is designing airplanes to accommodate military requirements across many services. This joint effort was necessary to reduce the cost per copy. If such cooperation is possible within Defense Department agencies, the Navy could accomplish such a move within the lifelines.

For a savvy organization like the Navy, pressure is not always a negative component. Pressure in the past has yielded superb advancements in weapons systems within the annals of Navy history. The sinking of battleships in Pearl Harbor forced the Navy to shift to the highly successful carrier operations of World War II. The pressures of advancing foreign capabilities, coupled with mounting financial and manpower pressures, dictate a bold, innovative change. The timing of positive pressure upon two distinct warfare directorates, requiring immediate modernization, may not occur again in the next 20 years.

The Navy is at a crossroads. The direction it chooses could dictate the position of the United States in world naval affairs throughout the next century.

Cmdr. John B. Perkins is with the Guard Reserve Matters Office at U.S. Strategic Command headquarters.