Influence Squadrons Are Here, But Will We Use Them?

By Captain Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy

Influence-squadron components suggested during this iteration of the discussion anticipated Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s proposition that it is the payloads, the rapidly interchangeable sensors and weapons, that mattered and not the platforms that carried them. In an application of both Intel cofounder Gordon Moore’s law of computing processing power and historian Brooks Adams’ observation regarding the halving of historic cycle time, the “Fords vs. Ferraris” and “Payloads not Platforms” arguments advance the proposition that the rate of technological advances renders designing a ship around a combat system moot. Rather, the Navy should design ships as “pickup trucks” with an electrical architecture sufficiently open and a payload capacity large enough to accept the multiple generations of sensors and weapons during a ship hull’s lifetime.

Platform capabilities suggested previously for service in influence squadrons included a mothership to logistically support the force, provide a base for helicopter and unmanned sensors, and host the squadron’s commodore, support staff, and command-and-control cell. Other elements of the squadron included two or three small, cheap blue-water combatants, a group of coastal-patrol craft, logistics craft to link and resupply the force, and a riverine detachment for brown-water operations. Various versions of ships with these characteristics have been suggested. These were to be deployed or forward based in the Western Pacific, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, Caribbean Sea, and off the coasts of Africa and South America, where American interests require persistent support. Oddly enough, over the past four years nearly every one of these capabilities has come into production and soon will be forward-deployed.

Riverine Force/Near Shore Patrol

The U.S. Navy’s capability in riverine and near-shore environments has never been better. Coming off ten years of near-continuous operations on the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the riverine force is well exercised and on top of its game. Equipped with riverine command, patrol, and assault boats ranging from 33 to 49 feet in length, this force remains ready to interact with the vast majority of the navies of the world whose maritime concerns are limited to protecting commerce on their major rivers or in and around their oceanic port facilities.

Should influence operations require extension into the near-shore littoral, the newly designed Mark-VI patrol boats that will soon begin arriving in the Navy’s inventory to replace the Cyclone -class boats that have seen continuous heavy use throughout their service lives. At 79 feet in length, a main deck cabin to support the crew, a 600-nautical mile range, and remotely operated weapon systems, these boats will set the standard for near-shore security-force assistance and building partnership capacity for the generation to come. Their ability to operate independently will be constrained, however, by the level of support they receive from the remainder of the influence squadron.

Logistics/Connector Craft

Throughout the strategic dialogue surrounding the influence-squadron construct, one area has been remarkably consistent: The essential role of the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) as an intra-theater logistical connector and limited mothership for the influence force. Derived from the commercial Superferry design produced by the Austal USA shipbuilding company, the JHSV was fast-tracked through the design and construction process in response to the demands of the war on terrorism. Capable of carrying everything from troops (312 in airline-style seating) to more than 600 metric tons of cargo (to include an M1A1 Abrams battle tank), the Spearhead -class JHSVs can make 35 knots fully loaded with a 1,200-nautical mile mission range. With a 19,375 square foot mission bay with six major equipment interface panels, the craft is maximized for flexibility. Right now, it is considered to be a ship that can transport troops, tanks, or helicopters quickly across large distances. But the fact is that tomorrow it could integrate a number of custom-built mission packages from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) support to long-range sensors that could take the utility of these relatively cheap platforms ($400 million per ship) in radically different directions.

As it stands, JHSVs can influence their area of operations in a number of ways. They can move men and materials around a theater in a rapid manner, allowing an influence squadron commodore to respond to tasking quickly and efficiently. In addition, they can be equipped with specially mission-configured CONEX freight containers to meet requirements from local medical support to humanitarian response/disaster relief. The JHSV can also be quickly reconfigured to serve as a school for instructors working with small navies performing harbor-patrol functions. In this role it would provide limited-duration logistical support for riverine or Mark-VI patrol boats operating alongside maritime partner navies. The JHSV’s 13-foot draft and maneuvering thrusters allow it to work in surprisingly small port facilities. Although presently unarmed, the ship has sufficient flexibility to integrate off-board weapons systems that would allow it to work as an offensive platform within a low threat environment. In a recent speech, Admiral Greenert suggested installing railguns on these ships in the near future.

Light Blue-Water Combatant

It is a common perception that no ship has entered the Fleet surrounded by more controversy or engendered more resistance than the littoral combat ship (LCS). However, this perception is historically false. When the Oliver Hazard Perry –class frigate was introduced, it was heavily criticized within the Navy and on Capitol Hill, suffered through numerous design reviews and budgetary cutbacks, and experienced a series of major engineering failures during its initial testing and deployment. Because of alterations in design during the development process, the cost per ship rose by nearly 50 percent, and the House Seapower Sub-Committee voted overwhelmingly to cancel the Perry program altogether. Today critics of the LCS herald the Perry s as the gold standard of patrol frigates and escort vessels. Some critics even suggest that the United States should just pull out the blueprints for the Perry s and build more from scratch. Other initial ships in class, from the Spruance and the Ticonderoga to the Arleigh Burke , each suffered significant growing pains until finally finding their stride.

Today, the LCSs are at sea working through challenges and already demonstrating great potential for future growth. Both variants arrived on the waterfront with excess space, weight, power, and cooling as well as yielding the benefit of an open-architecture electrical system. Soon mission modules will enable these ships to perform a wide range of roles, from mine hunting to supporting irregular missions. These modules are in advanced development and will join the ships at their forward-deployed and forward-based ports. What’s more, the design of the ship will allow new technologies such as signals-intelligence modules, vessel-boarding boats, and even rapidly developing mine warfare unmanned underwater vehicles to mesh with the two LCS designs with ease.

Roll-on/roll-off weapons and sensor systems from joint or allied partners could also be added, making the LCS a prime example of the Ford pickup “platform” that can handle an exponential number of “payloads” over a number of technological generations. That all of these capabilities, the inherent flexibility of the design, and excess power, space, and cooling, can be purchased so cheaply so as to enable the Navy to buy these platforms in numbers sufficient to meet forward-presence requirements renders the LCS as an impressive maritime architectural design achievement.

Perhaps this is the reason many nations have responded so positively to the deployment of the USS Freedom (LCS-1) to Singapore, even going so far as to express interest in purchasing the LCS for their own fleets. A frequent complaint of foreign navies while exercising with the United States is that our surface ships, with their far-ranging Standard Missiles and Aegis defense systems “over-awe” them. No one likes to be looked down upon, especially when the mission at hand is to “build partnership capacity” or provide “security-force assistance.” critical elements of influence operations. Most foreign navies count coastal security and resource protection among their leading missions. Blue-water sea control or power projection are simply not on most nations’ list of things to do.

Their strategic interests stop at protecting the shoreline and the resources that lie on or beneath the extended economic zone. To this end they operate smaller ships and depend on mines and coastal-defense missiles to counter offshore threats. To the degree that they can envision looking out from the bridge from their own LCS, performing surface operations, mine countermeasures, and ISR missions, over to the bridge of their American partner who is also sailing an LCS performing the same critical mission, the LCS program will represent a “win” in influence operations.

Mothership/Afloat Forward Staging Base

Initially amphibious ships were suggested as motherships when the influence squadron conversation began. They had command-and-control capabilities as well as a well-deck and a flight deck to assist the squadron in connecting with the shore and other ships during influence operations. The former USS Ponce (LPD-15), an amphibious landing platform dock manned with a mixed civilian and active-duty crew, was even tapped to serve in a mothership role, formally designated as an afloat forward staging base, in the Arabian Sea beginning in 2012. However, all of the current active amphibious ships easily fall within the low-density-high-demand portion of the Navy’s force structure, and the new San Antonio –class ships are too expensive to produce in numbers large enough to fill the mothership role. Another mothership option was to extend the production run of the Lewis and Clark–class dry cargo ship, a relatively inexpensive, commercially based hull at approximately $400 million apiece. These ships could be modified with a command-and-control suite to host a squadron-command element, but the challenge with the Lewis and Clark design would come from its inability to support ship-to-shore movement by sea without having access to a deepwater port where the ship could go pierside.

In the end, however, all of these mothership capabilities—a command-and-control suite, excess capacity for fuel, food, and other materials to resupply the force on station, and an ability to execute ship-to-shore movement by sea or air—can either be found or cheaply installed on the new Montford Point –class mobile landing platform (MLP). The first of these has been delivered to the Navy and can carry enough internal fuel and supplies to resupply other ships with ease.

With the MLP design, the remainder of the mothership capabilities can be added as modular inserts to include a helicopter flight deck and maintenance hangar, riverine and Mark-VI patrol-boat berths, air-cushion landing-craft stations, and additional personnel berthing depending on the mission at hand. Any requirement for surface ship-to-shore movement can be met by leveraging the MLP’s semisubmersible ability to increase and decrease its draft to allow float-on/float-off operations. Simply put, all mothership—or in the new vernacular, afloat forward staging base (AFSB)—requirements can be met in this versatile and relatively inexpensive ship. If we choose to use them in this manner we will need more than the three MLPs already scheduled to be built to fully support forward-deployed or even forward-based influence operations in the future.

Forward-Deployed and/or Forward-Based

Four years ago when considering the importance of influence operations, analysis suggested that the Navy needed 355 ships to meet its baseline commitments as well as maintaining constant presence in nine key regions that ranged from the western coast of Africa to the western Philippine Sea. This was based on a standard 3.5/1 deployment ratio that recognizes that you need three or more units to keep one unit forward-deployed. However, the April 2013 deployment of the Freedom to Singapore and subsequent discussions to send more LCSs there in the future would have a significant impact on ship-count requirements. Much as the USS George Washington (CVN-73) carrier strike group provides the United States with continuous presence in the northeastern Pacific, relieving the Navy from having to have three carrier strike groups in continuous rotation to cover the requirement, the movement of a squadron of unarmed JHSVs to the Philippines and the placement of a MLP/AFSB platform in Japan, combined with the LCS operations in and around Singapore, would essentially establish an influence squadron that would range from the western Philippine Sea to the Yellow Sea. That would reduce the number of ships required to cover presence commitments by ten.

If similar forward bases for influence squadrons were established elsewhere—perhaps in the Mediterranean, along the western coast of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf—bases that would not require excessively deep ports or exceedingly complex piers, then the number of ships required to maintain American naval presence would drop significantly. Such a basing model would return the Navy to an earlier era where small, regionally based squadrons represented U.S. interests day-to-day with home-based striking forces standing ready to surge to meet emergent, high-end threats. Such a move would allow a Navy of our present size—around 280 ships but composed of a more diverse mixture of platforms—to maintain the present global economic system in a more efficient manner.

‘Just Showing Up’

The filmmaker Woody Allen is famous for recognizing that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” While this is obviously a tongue-in-cheek quote, at sea it’s actually remarkably true. The requirement to maintain forward naval presence is based on the premise that there is a direct linkage between the frequency of interactions between nations and the potential for conflict. Data suggest that as interactions increase the likelihood of conflict goes down. Much of the globalized economic system that has raised more people out of poverty over the past seven decades than any other period in human history is directly dependent on the free trade, free navigation, and open access to the global oceanic commons that are guaranteed by the U.S. Navy.

To the extent the Navy is present in regions characterized by strategic competition, the established economic system is maintained. Conversely, to the extent the Navy is forced to withdraw its persistent presence because of a shrinking deployable force, then that system is compromised. Already competing powers have announced that they desire the “de-Americanization” of the global economy and recognition of separate and distinct spheres of influence under their control where nontraditional interpretations of governance would be imposed. This is why the United States must maintain its presence forward and why influence squadrons represent an elegant solution to this challenge.

The basic components of the influence squadron are quickly entering the Navy’s inventory. The littoral combat ship with its two variants, the Spearhead -class joint high-speed vessel, and the Montford Point –class mobile landing platform, each built with flexibility and adaptability within their design, each built with excess space, weight, power, and cooling to handle both present and future generations of payloads, have all arrived. These ships should be wargamed together at the Naval War College and then forward-based, integrated, and exercised together at sea. Our nation and our Navy face many challenges and threats, both fiscal and physical. If we are to maintain our position of influence, we must embrace a force structure that emphasizes payloads over platforms, and Fords over Ferraris. It is a force structure we already have, but we have yet to embrace it.

Captain Hendrix is the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and is a former Proceedings Author of the Year.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership