Littorals are increasingly dangerous to naval forces. The proliferation of sophisticated shore- and ship-launched antiship missiles, asymmetric tactics such as the fast-boat swarm, and sophisticated anti-access/area denial technologies, makes these areas more difficult to penetrate and dominate. Though few groups or nations can challenge or threaten the U.S. Navy on or below blue water, the risks presented today to our manned warships by the green and brown waters of the world are neither negligible nor cheap to mitigate.
With increased global piracy, smuggling, more capable insurgent and terrorist organizations, and our gaze once again shifting to the Pacific, the United States has rightly recognized the importance of littoral warfare, addressing that with new hardware and tactics. It is my contention, however, that our design and procurement vis-à-vis the littorals is flawed and requires rethinking. It is apparent that current designs—either those in the pipeline or currently joining the Fleet—are force dividers, unable to properly defend themselves from the range of littoral threats. Keeping these mission-specific (modular) vessels safe will require more-capable ships to be taken from other operations, although they’ll remain vulnerable as they steam away from escorts and into the littorals.
The solution is to design, procure, and utilize vessels that minimize the need for our men and women to enter highly contested littoral areas, and to deploy those unmanned vehicles from purpose-built mother ships that are part of an integrated blue-water task force.
A new “littoral domination ship” (LDS) would take advantage of cheaper and established commercial hulls—much as the Navy’s new mobile landing platform ships do—modifying them so combat-capable autonomous and semiautonomous unmanned vehicles would be launched, controlled, and retrieved. The LDS would include unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), unmanned surface vehicles (USV), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Standing off from the near-shore area, and, with minimal defensive close-in weapons of her own, the LDS would rely on a task group to provide defense-in-depth from submerged, surface, and aerial threats. The LDS would have float on/float off bays with supplemental cranes to deliver her waterborne unmanned vehicles, and sport a large enough flight deck to accommodate manned helicopters, vertical takeoff and landing UAVs, and winged UAVs.
Purpose-built UUVs would use fouling-resistant jet drives, provide sensors for the networked group, and detect and localize targets for the LDS or other vessels. The UUVs would have the ability to automatically detect and avoid obstacles, as well as bypass others—for instance by cutting commercial or defensive netting. As the UUVs creep quietly beneath the waves, USVs would ply them.
The USVs would be semisubmersible to minimize profiles and signatures. They would have automatic obstacle avoidance, a range of sensors for awareness and targeting, and would carry a remote gun, ultra-lightweight antiship missiles and torpedoes, as well as less-than-lethal capabilities for antipiracy or other operations. Using variable buoyancy, a reinforced hull, jet drives, and powered keel rollers, the USVs would traverse reefs, rocks, and man-made barriers. Flying over the LDS’ USVs and UUVs are her UAVs.
Armed and unarmed UAVs would provide battlespace awareness as well as targeting or direct attack against surface and submerged targets. The UAVs would be protected from aerial threats by the group’s surface-to-air missiles as well as aircraft from an amphibious or carrier strike group, or those that are land-based, if feasible.
Besides penetrating and then dominating contested near-shore areas, the LDS and her unmanned vehicles would also provide lane-clearing for manned systems such as SEAL delivery vehicles and Marine Corps ship-to-shore tractors.
The littorals are too dangerous for the big expensive submarines and ships of the Navy and their crews, and they are far too dangerous for smaller manned vessels that lack comprehensive defensive and offensive systems. Whether preparing the littorals for Special Forces, for an amphibious assault, or executing anti-piracy or other near-shore domination operations, by designing, deploying, and employing unmanned vehicles tailored to littoral domination, the United States can deter aggression, undermine asymmetric tactics, and project force ashore while minimizing the casualties that our enemies will so desperately seek to inflict.