Over the past couple of years, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has argued forcefully for weapon systems that are directly relevant to the kinds of "hybrid and more complex forms of warfare" we are "most likely to face in the foreseeable future."1 Our "conventional modernization programs," he has said, "seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions-the wars we are in-require 75 percent solutions in months."2 He has also noted a need to shift from short-range to longer-range systems to give the United States the capability to "strike from over the horizon."3
Whatever the nature of the most likely near- and intermediate-term conflicts, the need for effective Navy-Marine Corps sustainable force projection is certain. Ground troops cannot always count on the availability or timeliness of close air support. The only effective alternative is long-range, high-volume, flexible, accurate, sustainable, and inexpensive naval gunfire support.
In the new security environment, naval gunfire support is likely to be needed not only in the littoral regions, but also far inland. Future blitzkriegs from the sea will almost certainly bypass the beach. In 2002, future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged that the Marine Corps' operational maneuver from the sea and ship-to-objective maneuver concepts rely on "long-range, responsive, accurate, and lethal fire support from Navy ships."4 The following year, the then-new Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Mike Hagee, testified that Marine expeditionary forces ashore remain "at considerable risk for want of suitable sea-based fire support until DD(X) joins the Fleet in significant numbers."5
In early 2007, the Marine Corps began testing a new concept developed by its Warfighting Laboratory as a response to the asymmetrical advantages enjoyed by current and potential adversaries. Referred to as Distributed Operations, the concept decentralizes decision making to small, physically separated, independent units (i.e., companies, platoons, squads) that are tactically unified through command-and-control networks. To employ the advantage of extensive dispersion that reduces their vulnerability to enemy observation and fire, the units will depend heavily on supporting arms (e.g., indirect naval gunfire support) to supplement organic firepower.6 Joint special operations forces will share that need.
'The Wrong Impression'
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on 6 March 2008, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James T. Conway responded to a committee member's questions with the following comment: "If you have a visual of the Tarawa landing beach, you have the wrong impression in mind of how we would intend to do future amphibious operations. We would intend to go where the Navy is not. We would intend to go deep across the beach. . . . The Navy rightfully will not go closer than about 25 miles to an enemy shore because of the anti-access systems and the potential destruction of Marines, Sailors, and ships costing billions of dollars. So, we have to somehow bridge that difference."7 The ultimate goal of Marine Corps planners is fire support to a range of 200-plus nautical miles to cover MV-22 Osprey insertions.
The need for gunfire support from ships at extended distances from shore will not be limited to conflicts against nation-states. In its 2006 fight with Israel, the Hezbollah in Lebanon made a successful strike against an Israeli corvette ten miles offshore with a C-802 cruise missile. The missile has a maximum range of about 75 miles. The threat from antiship missiles to amphibious ships carrying assault forces and equipment is not insignificant. "Once the enemy gets guided weapons, the whole [scenario] becomes totally different," one analyst believes. "You ain't going to be operating 25 miles off the coast. You've got to operate a hundred miles offshore. . . ."8
The Navy's shipbuilding crisis has prevented resolution of the gunfire-support problem for years. Until July 2008, the primary ship on which the Navy intended to rely for that support was the Zumwalt-class destroyer (also known as the DDG-1000). The most notable feature of this multi-mission ship is two vertically loaded 155-mm Advanced Gun System guns and an associated Long-Range Land Attack Projectile that will have a range of 83 nautical miles. The first two ships of the class were authorized in Fiscal Year 2007. But design and cost problems plagued the program from the beginning. The Navy had hoped to build 32 of the new class, but that number was later reduced to 24, then to 7. In April 2009, Secretary Gates confirmed that the DDG-1000 program will end with a third ship.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead has proposed a new approach to shipbuilding. In a news conference on 12 February 2008, he noted that a way to reduce construction costs would be to explore the use of common hull forms. "We can no longer design a different ship for every different mission that we have," he said. "We have to look at some commonality of hull form and then decide what sort of mission capability you want in that ship."9
For a considerable time, Navy officials have continued to make positive comments about the prospects for closing gaps in the requirement for 24/7 expeditionary fire support. But not everyone is so confident. Retired Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, former commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, has expressed strong skepticism. "For 12 years the Navy . . . repeatedly sought letters or requested studies detailing the Marine Corps' naval surface fire support requirements," he has said, but "when provided such specific requirements Navy leaders have acted irresolutely. In several cases they touted new technologies that never lived up to their promises. I am not convinced that the Navy has been or is serious today about naval surface fire support."10
The Solution: The Electromagnetic Launcher
When Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder while experimenting with life-lengthening elixirs around 850 A.D., they had no idea what impact their invention would have on warfare around the world. Another new technology will potentially have a similar effect on naval warfare, or at least on the naval gunfire support mission. The technology has already been identified and tested for use in a new weapon system-the Railgun, or Electromagnetic Launcher (EML).
The concept of the EML is not new. Its viability was demonstrated in the 1970s, and it became the subject of much attention when President Ronald Reagan proposed the antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative. Since that time, the technology has improved, and progress on the gun's development has been rapid.
The technology is relatively straightforward. The barrel of the EML consists of two parallel rails about 12 meters long. The rails are bridged by a conducting, sliding armature that completes an electrical circuit between the rails. The projectile sits in front of and is pushed by the armature. Electrical current travels from one terminal of the power supply up one rail, across the armature, and down the second rail, back to the power supply. The electrical loop induces a powerful magnetic field between the rails.
The interaction between the current in the armature and the magnetic field between the rails create a Lorentz force (the magnetic force on a moving charge) exceeding a million pounds. This force accelerates the armature and projectile down the barrel, causing the projectile to leave at a hypersonic velocity of Mach 7.5. After the all-weather projectile is launched in a six-minute arc, most of which would be in drag-free flight outside the sensible atmosphere, it would be guided back to a land target by GPS. Damage to the target would be caused by the kinetic energy of the projectile, which would hit the target at a speed of about Mach 5.
'Deep Across the Beach'
EMLs could be designed for several different missions, but the constant advantage they would provide is the launch of very high-speed projectiles. It doesn't take much imagination to think about the operational advantages-especially to the long-range naval gunfire that would be required to support the "deep across the beach" concept described by General Conway-of a weapon system that can fire a projectile with accuracy some 200-250 nautical miles. The 5-inch MK45 gun, the main workhorse on today's surface combatants, fires its unguided, slow shells approximately 13 miles. In circumstances involving amphibious or other expeditionary landings, a ship carrying the EML would be beyond the range of land-based enemy radar and could begin bombardment sooner and with greater surprise.
Another major advantage of the EML would be operational flexibility. Planning for a mission with a Tomahawk cruise missile requires a certain amount of time. Because the EML would only require the GPS coordinates of a target and would have a muzzle velocity of over Mach 7, the response time from a call for fire to the impact of an EML projectile over 200 miles away would be about six minutes. Because of its planned rate of fire of 6 to 12 rounds per minute per launcher, one EML ship could provide the gunfire support normally required of two or more ships in multiple ground engagements.
The EML would also have other advantages. Because of its accuracy, it could provide the equivalent of close air support if friendly aircraft were not available because of weather or other factors. The high angle of the trajectory and the maneuverability of the EML projectile would reduce airspace confliction. Because the projectile would descend on the target at a steep angle, its lethal kinetic energy would be directed at the target, rather than in all directions, as is the case with a conventional high-explosive shell. The result would be less collateral damage. The high angle of the trajectory would also permit gunfire support on reverse slopes.
The danger of antiship missiles and the necessity for the Navy to operate at greater distances from the shoreline also make the EML desirable for a tiered ship defense. The velocity of the EML projectile would reduce the ability of an incoming missile to maneuver effectively. Because the EML could engage incoming threats far from the ship, the dangers of blast effect, chemical agents, etc. would also be reduced.
The EML would have a relatively simple logistical tail that would significantly reduce operating costs to the Fleet. A single Tomahawk costs about a million dollars. Current estimates are that the EML projectiles would cost roughly $10,000 each. Because the projectile would leave the barrel at hypersonic velocity, its kinetic energy at impact would not require a high-explosive warhead. Currently, ships can carry only up to 70 guided missiles, and they must return to port to restock because the missiles can't be loaded at sea. EML projectiles could be loaded at sea, and because a propellant would not be required to fire them, ships would have more usable magazine space and be able to carry a much greater number of them. The absence of propellants and explosives would also make the EML ship a much safer place for the crew.
The Slow Pace of Acquisition
A widely publicized step forward in the development of the EML took place on 31 January 2008. In a test firing of a laboratory EML at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, a 3.2-kg projectile was accelerated to a speed of 5,600 miles per hour. The 10.86 megajoule electromagnetic muzzle energy set a world record. The shot was roughly the 100th at that facility since October 2006.11
Work on the EML is presently being led by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) as one of several Innovative Navy Prototypes. After the successful completion of a Preliminary Design Review, ONR issued a task order to a team headed by General Atomics for the final design, fabrication, and testing of a prototype capable of delivering a muzzle energy of 32 megajoules.
It has previously been assumed that a condition for the development and production of the EML is the successful production of an all-electric ship that has the capacity to generate the amount of electric power needed to support the designed rates of fire. This factor is likely the basis for the current ONR goal, which is to mount a fully functioning weapon system on board a deployable ship no sooner than between 2020 and 2025. Sixteen years is an eternity to wait for a long-range naval gunfire support capability. The EML technology is being held hostage to insufficient funding and the (relative) geologic pace of its development and procurement. Given the difficulties encountered by the Navy in recent years in its efforts to stabilize its shipbuilding plans, there is little reason to believe in the projected schedule for the first operational deployment of the EML.
The need for an effective naval gunfire support capability is sufficiently great and urgent that the conventional shipbuilding process should not be relied on. Rather than engaging in a lengthy, complicated effort to design a hull that can serve as the platform for a large number and variety of complex combat systems, consideration should be given to the CNO's idea: early development of this weapon system and the placement of the system on whatever is the most appropriate hull form available at the time.
What Needs to Be Done
The following steps could be taken. First, the development and production of the EML and its associated projectiles could be given a much higher priority by the Navy. In accordance with a recent Government Accountability Office recommendation, the development cycle time of the system could be made short. Such an objective has been made somewhat easier to achieve because certain contractors are already performing modest amounts of internal (e.g., at no direct government expense) research and development work. To speed the development of a larger EML with an indirect-fire capability, perhaps first a smaller direct-fire EML could be developed for use in ship self defense.
Second, consideration should be given to the idea of developing an electrical power supply that would not necessarily be used for the propulsion of the platform on which the EML will first be mounted. When the new weapon system is ready for deployment, it could be placed on one of the common hulls to which the CNO has recently referred-for example, on the hull of an underway replenishment (T-AKE) ship, some other relatively cheap platform, or even an existing combatant.12
In a 24 September 2008 inverview, Deputy CNO Vice Admiral Barry McCullough endorsed this general idea. "I don't think there's going to be one material solution to this [naval surface fire for Marine forces ashore] mission," he said. "I think that's what we need to go after so that we have a variety of platforms that can service those requirements."13
If it should be determined that for technical, economic, or other reasons the EML should ultimately be placed on a ship that uses an integrated electrical power system for both propulsion and the EML, the weapon system could still be placed initially on any available hull. It could subsequently be placed on whatever common hull is being used by the Navy.
Self defense would not be an issue. An EML ship would have defensive advantages not available to the DDG-1000. It would be much less vulnerable to attack by land-based missiles, because the range of the EML would permit the ship to operate at great distances from land targets. The DDG-1000 was designed to operate in coastal waters. A ship with an EML capability could also be given a high-volume EML direct-fire capability for use against surface targets.
'One Mission, One Crew, One Doctrine'
Like the Vietnam-era USS Carronade (IFS-1), a relatively inexpensive ship with the EML capability would have a single primary mission: naval gunfire support. While it could contribute to antisurface and other missions, it would not pose the kinds of challenges associated with the complex multiple-mission modules of the Littoral Combat Ships, which require the development of different concepts of operations, the integration of several systems, and the resolution of training and logistics issues. The EML ship would have only one mission, one crew, one operating doctrine.
Construction risk would also be less. Considerable precedent exists for employing a new technology on existing hull forms. "The first nuclear-powered warship, Nautilus," one analyst has noted, "added a nuclear reactor to an otherwise conventional hull design in the early 1950s. The first Aegis combat system ships were based on an existing 1970s destroyer design then in production."14
If this course were followed, we might find that it is not technically possible to expedite the EML program and to produce an operational system sooner than the present milestone dates suggest. But if it is possible, there are powerful reasons not to wait. It is undisputed that naval gunfire support will be an important requirement far into the future. All the services have expeditionary capabilities, and there is little doubt that the United States is likely to be engaged in the kinds of armed conflict that require those capabilities. As Secretary Gates has consistently urged, it is time to think hard about how to procure needed capabilities and get them fielded quickly.
3. Robert M. Gates, "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming The Pentagon For A New Age," Foreign Affairs, January 2009.
4. John Patch, "Overcome by Events: The naval surface fire support dilemma," Marine Corps Gazette, June 2008, p.55.
6. M. W. Hagee, "A Concept for Distributed Operations," Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 25 April 2005, p. VII.
7. Transcript, Hearing before the Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, 6 March 2008.
8. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., "Future Corps," National Journal, 10 May 2008, p. 37.
9. Media Roundtable with Admiral Roughead from the Pentagon, 12 February 2008.
10. Zachary M. Peterson, "Navy, Marine Corps to Study Naval Surface Fires Requirement Gap," Inside the Navy, 22 September 2008.
11. Matthew Jones, "Navy Can See A More Powerful Future As Its Railgun Test Sets A Record," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 1 February 2008.
12. As auxiliary support ships, the T-AKEs are designed to help the Navy maintain forward presence at the lowest life-cycle cost.
13. "McCullough: Mix of Solutions for Naval Surface Fires is Likely," Inside the Navy, 29 September 2008.
14. Christopher P. Cavas, "The Big Gamble," Armed Forces Journal, March 2008, p. 24.