Building the Surface Fleet of Tomorrow

By Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, U.S. Navy

The Challenges

The current and pending budget reductions are imposed on a surface force that was not built for or during our recent land conflicts. Unlike the post-Cold War drawdown, the current and projected security environment is not more peaceful; rather, the rise of regional powers wielding anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities presents a direct challenge to the U.S. Navy and all nations with a vested interest in the freedom of the maritime commons.

The fiscal state of our nation imposes unique and difficult force planning challenges, as sequestration forces non-prioritized cuts in the defense budget and continuing resolutions limit flexibility in budget allocation. Added to these challenges is the nation’s desire to maintain a balanced military force, which requires strong, capable land, sea, and air forces.

The cost of ships, manpower, sensors, weapons, and combat readiness continues to increase. As the cost of manpower and ready, forward forces rises, the resources available for training, acquisition, and modernization are increasingly constrained. The future recapitalization of the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine force looms as an additional resource constraint, specifically on our shipbuilding budget. Yet the demand for surface forces is unlikely to decrease—it more than likely will increase.

The redeployment of land forces from the Middle East will be mostly complete next year, and U.S. national interests in that region are unlikely to go untended, a responsibility that will fall largely to the Navy. America is also increasingly turning its attention to the Far East, and as a result of the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance the Navy will employ 60 percent of its forces in the Pacific. The President’s September 2009 decision to implement the phased adaptive approach (PAA) to the ballistic-missile defense (BMD) of Europe creates a sustained requirement for BMD equipped surface combatants in the Mediterranean.

Due to the nature of the conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the Navy, and the surface fleet specifically, have valued strike warfare over other mission areas. As a result, surface force sea control programs, skills, and capabilities have diminished and, in some cases, were eliminated. As we rebalance to the Pacific, we must properly prioritize procurement and training to firmly establish our preeminence in war-at-sea capabilities, specifically so we can persistently execute these missions in any maritime environment where our access might be challenged. It will be increasingly difficult, however, to operate and maintain the current surface force and its associated manpower while procuring the future force and its associated weapons and sensors for the war at sea.

Near-Term (0–10 years)

In developing the vision for the surface force, I am guided by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s three tenets: Warfighting First, Operate Forward, and Be Ready. These provide clear and unmistakable direction for my programming priorities. Sequestration and the prospect of continuing resolutions make that prioritization more difficult and raise the prospect of driving the surface force out of balance. That balance depends on the investments we make each year in ensuring forward deployed combat power and appropriate levels of ready surge capacity, shipbuilding, modernization of existing platforms, training, and, finally, research and development.

Given the CNO’s priorities, the most immediate impact of decreasing resources will be on the readiness of non-deployed forces. We will accept additional risk in available surge capacity to ensure the combat readiness of forward deployed and next-to-deploy forces. Ship modernization timelines could be impacted or de-scoped to free up resources to plan for the future, protecting investments in both shipbuilding and research and development. All of this must be done with a weather eye to the ship-repair industrial base, the capacity of which is critical to maintaining Fleet readiness and mitigating surge risk should a crisis erupt.

That said, the near-term surface fleet will remain the world’s most sophisticated, globally distributed, powerful, and combat-ready force. No other nation possesses the warfighting capability and capacity of our Navy. Late last year, we launched the Zumwalt (DDG-1000), sending a signal to the world that a new level of surface-warfare capability had joined the Fleet. Although we will only build three of these ships, their presence introduces a number of state-of-the-art capabilities including electric drive propulsion through the integrated power system (IPS), the advanced gun system (AGS) firing long range land attack projectiles (LRLAP), the peripheral vertical launching system, and the SPY-3 multi-function radar. The DDG-1000 program is quietly moving forward, delivering these capabilities within cost and on schedule. Obviously, when you cut a ship class back from 32, to 13, to 10 and then 3 hulls, the cost per hull will go up as research and development/non-recurring engineering costs are spread across only a few ships. Understanding that, I am proud of this program, and it has set the stage for an exciting era of ship construction and development for the future.

The most versatile and powerful surface combatants—the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke s—remain the workhorses of the Fleet. We will continue to field Flight IIA variants until 2021, and the program remains an excellent example of how government and industry can work together to control costs while delivering unmatched combat power.

The littoral combat ships (LCS) will join the Arleigh Burke s in ever increasing numbers. These fast, agile, focused-mission ships are optimized for operations in near-shore environments yet are fully capable of open-ocean tasking. Recent analysis of the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) module components has concluded that the LCS executing ASW will add substantial capability to the effort to locate and destroy adversary submarines in challenging water columns. Designed to defeat asymmetric, anti-access threats such as mines, quiet diesel-electric submarines, and fast surface craft, over half of the planned 52 ship-buy will be completed in the near-term. The LCS will be poised to affordably assume an appropriate portion of the forward presence and shaping responsibilities vital to the deterrence of potential adversaries and the assurance of friends and allies.

We deployed the LCS to Singapore and learned a lot. We are addressing some organizational and process challenges with this new manning, training, and deploying model. The Freedom (LCS-1) had her share of maintenance and equipment issues, and we are addressing those through, in some cases, modified maintenance periodicities/procedures and in other cases equipment changes. That said, she is still the first of her class and loaded with first in the Fleet systems. We pushed the envelope on purpose to deploy her earlier than planned, assuming risk in doing this, but the risk was absolutely worth it. As with the deployment of any new capability, there is a learning curve and we have made a huge jump on that curve in a very short period of time.

Important capabilities fielding in the near-term include the naval integrated fire control-counter air (NIFC-CA), which provides engage on remote and over-the-horizon/below-horizon air defense capabilities; the Aegis Baseline 9, which will enable NIFC-CA; and the Aegis advanced capability build (ACB) 16, which will integrate advanced BMD capability, shipboard electronic warfare capability, the MH-60R helicopter, and the SPQ-9B radar. Further, the SM-6 missile combines the proven propulsion of the SM-2 family with an active seeker for enhanced endgame success, while the air and missile defense radar (AMDR) offers significant capability against advanced ballistic missile, cruise missile, and anti-air warfare (AAW) threats. The SQQ-89A(V)15 ASW combat system is equipped with the multi-function towed array sonar, advanced active and passive processing, and modern displays—all on commercial off-the-shelf hardware—and the electromagnetic rail gun, a system with great promise across a number of critical mission areas. All these fieldings will add significantly to the Navy’s ability to dominate the maritime domain.

During this time, we will continue to invest in our people and the quality of their work, ensuring they are trained for the jobs we ask them to do. We have already restored Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) and established the Weapons Tactic Instructor (WTI) program this summer. WTI is the cornerstone of our plan to improve tactical training, specifically in ASW, integrated air-and-missile defense (IAMD), and anti-surface warfare (ASUW)—the war at sea mission set—at both individual and ship levels These efforts are strongly supported by the Surface and Expeditionary Warfare Training Committee (SEWTC), a Navy-wide effort to make disciplined investments in our operational success, that has had a profound, positive effect on our manpower and training investment strategy.

The improved process starts with the activities of the Surface Training Systems Program Office (PMS 339), the center of gravity for existing and future Navy surface training systems. Our priority is to update our training systems in the school house so that sailors arrive at their ships proficient on their gear and ready to sail. Critical to this effort will be getting the mix of training methods right, with realistic immersive training using computer environments supplementing hands-on training and mentoring from fully qualified technicians.

Our recent conflicts and the increasingly complicated security environment have required operational excellence across a very diverse mission set, and this expansion into new missions has cost us some tactical proficiency in our traditional areas. The combined effects of the SEWTC, BDOC and WTI will reverse this proficiency gap. Surface Warfare is taking back the war at sea and making investments in improving our core competencies of ASW, IAMD, and ASUW.

Mid-Term (10–20 Years)

This period will see the introduction of the Flight III DDG to the Fleet, a modification of the proven, tested Arleigh Burke -class that extends and sustains the primacy of surface warfare in IAMD operations. Significant upgrades include substantial increases in available power and cooling to enable the S-Band AMDR and surface electronic warfare improvement program (SEWIP) Block III. SEWIP Block III will focus on electronic attack (EA) (jamming) capability improvements required for the AN/SLQ-32(V) system to keep pace with threats and will provide a common EA capability to all surface combatants.

In the mid-term we expect shipboard lasers will reach an operational maturity. Opportunities for insertion in the Flight III DDGs will present themselves, as well as in the ships that will join the future surface force in the 2030s—vessels that will be designed and built in this period.

The hypervelocity projectile (HVP) is also likely to be fielded. A next-generation, common, low drag, guided projectile, the HVP is capable of completing multiple missions for gun systems such as the Navy 5-inch, 155-mm, and railgun. Missions envisioned include naval surface fire support, air and missile defense, and anti-surface warfare to name a few. The HVP’s attributes, coupled with accurate guidance electronics, may provide game-changing, low-cost mission effectiveness against current and future threats.

Electronic warfare improvements, increased laser capabilities, more capable gun projectiles, and a return to Cold War-era electronic warfare concepts of operation will improve the currently unfavorable cost/exchange ratio between increasingly inexpensive and capable threat missiles and our very capable—and expensive—interceptors. We will work to decrease the cost per engagement, in some cases with less expensive hard kill systems, in others with active or passive electronic warfare measures. Ensuring our ability to remain within any contested battle space is critical to the success of any major maritime operation.

During this time frame we will complete the LCS building program, and those vessels will have assumed our nation’s surface mine warfare responsibilities in addition to a growing share of surface ASW and ASUW missions. Through forward stationing and rotational crewing (three crews for two hulls); the LCS will assume the lion’s share of maritime security missions for which flexible surface platforms are optimal. The ability of the LCS to efficiently perform a variety of presence and shaping missions will contribute to optimal employment of DDGs and improve the prospect of increasing these ships’ service lives.

The Future (Beyond 20 Years)

While two decades from now may seem like the distant future, decisions we make today will determine capability and capacity of the 2034 surface Navy. With this in mind, some assumptions about what that world will look like are in order.

• The world will be more multi-polar than it is now, with the United States, China, Russia, India, Brazil, and the Eurozone all vying for resources and for economic, political, and sometimes, military power and influence.

• The United States will maintain powerful naval forces forward, present, visible, and ready to protect and sustain America’s global interests in world of changing power dynamics.

• The volume of ocean-borne trade will dramatically increase.

• Absent conflict, the resources allocated to the Navy in constant dollars will not dramatically rise or decline.

• The overwhelming majority of ships in the 2034 surface force is currently in service or in advanced design stages.

Thinking about the world in 2034 and steered by assumptions such as the ones above, several key attributes present themselves when envisioning the ships that must be acquired beginning in 2028 for delivery beginning in 2035: flexibility, scalability, modularity, and commonality.

Flexibility. We cannot afford to build ships that are retired because they have been outpaced by the threat; rather, they will need to be retired because they have reached the end of their service life. Defined interfaces and modular designs will treat capability as a commodity, enabling continuous modernization to stay one step ahead of the threat. These “designed-in” features will dramatically lower the complexity of modernizing ships, reducing the time spent in overhauls, increasing operational availability, and reducing total ownership cost.

Scalability. Scalability is the quality of being able to increase or decrease capability through common hardware/software combinations. The most important example of this is the air and missile defense radar. While this digital, phased array radar represents a significant performance and life cycle cost improvement over SPY-1, we are designing-in scalability so that it can be fitted on future small combatants, big deck amphibs, and next generation carriers—providing commonality savings in logistics, maintenance, and training.

Modularity. Modularity is represented in today’s surface force primarily by the mission modules associated with the LCS. In this case, modularity is achieved by building ships with the ability to accommodate mission packages—essentially integrated cargo—that can be removed and replaced pier-side in a short period. A future version of modularity starts with a new way of building ships, a method in which common functional building blocks are arranged in different combinations to create platforms of differing capability mixes. One “class” of ship could have several variants, as determined by modules inserted during new construction. Within those modules, defined interfaces and rapidly reconfigurable spaces will enable developers to constantly respond to Fleet needs without intrusive and complex shipyard availabilities.

Commonality. We must begin to treat capabilities as commodities, leveraging government defined physical and data interfaces to achieve commonality across the surface force wherever possible. We must break the link forever between the “combat system” and the “ship” so that we can achieve efficiencies of scale associated with the elimination of excessive variation in our ships, irrespective of the class. Where the submarine force or the naval air forces have already fielded capability we need or desire, we must integrate it wherever possible. We must strive to achieve commonality not simply in the things we buy and build, but also in the things we design. Design specifications, then, should be standardized wherever possible and re-used unless a substantial business case exists to the contrary.

We will define requirements for rapidly reconfigurable shipboard spaces during this period, enabling future surface ships to undergo more efficient and less costly modernization periods. The intrusive nature of current modernization efforts costs too much and takes too long to complete. The extensive cutting of bulkheads, the movement of major equipment bolted and welded to decks, overheads, and bulkheads, and the creation of holes in the skin of the ship to enable such efforts, will be largely replaced by ships designed with moveable and reconfigurable spaces, planned and efficient paths for the movement of equipment, and strategically placed hull portals which enable equipment removal and insertion. Making the move to modularity will further allow us to maximize the service lives of our ships as we will be able to update the combat systems equipment to more easily and affordably keep pace with rapidly advancing technology.

Setting the Next Generation Up for Success

Change is never easy, and building our future surface force with the above attributes will require a good deal of cooperation among the Congress, the Navy, and industry in the years ahead. We simply cannot continue to defend business as usual and hope to remain a powerful, globally arrayed Navy. Looking internally, we must more closely align the requirements generation and validation processes with existing and future acquisition processes to achieve program stability and design-lock early on, eliminating wherever possible increased, self-imposed cost and turbulence. Industry, too, must change certain behaviors that cause it to focus first on what it might lose from the changes sought and instead begin to determine how it will incorporate, improve, and profit from them.

Just as I was a department head 20 years ago, the Director of Surface Warfare in the year 2034 is a department head in today’s Fleet. This officer shows up every morning while the sun has yet to rise, and likely goes home when it has already set, spending time each day doing his or her best to ensure the ship is as ready for combat as she can be. Decisions made 20 years ago, as well as those made last month, play into that effort. We owe that department head the benefit of good decision-making, long and short term. Most of the stakeholders in ensuring surface warfare dominance understand both the challenges we face and the range of options we have to overcome them. Now is the time to work together to ensure the powerful future of surface warfare.

Rear Admiral Rowden is the Director of Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96). He has served in cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. His most recent sea assignment was commander, Carrier Strike Group 11, and commander, USS Nimitz (CVN-68) Strike Group.


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