A Fleet for the Unmanned Era

By Lieutenant Colonel J. Noel Williams, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Three inescapable and fundamental changes have required the Navy to begin evolving the ships of its Fleet. First, precision-attack munitions combined with long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance have allowed relatively small munitions carried on small combatants (or mobile launchers ashore) to successfully attack large surface combatants at ranges well beyond the littorals. These missile threats—especially given the deep magazines available to shore-based systems—mean that even the most sophisticated afloat missile-intercept capabilities will be overwhelmed in a saturation attack.

Second, ships in the “deep blue” can now be effectively attacked from the shore, thus changing the calculus of naval combat-power assessment. Comparing the capabilities and capacities of fleets to one another is no longer sufficient. We must adopt a systems view that holistically assesses them together with the shore-based assets that project power seaward. “Forts” can now attack fleets from afar and this will require new concepts of operation, strategies, payloads, and platforms.

Third, the United States no longer possesses overwhelming economic overmatch. Potential adversaries could outspend us should they choose to do so, and they can also field new systems much more rapidly than our sclerotic acquisition processes will permit—and at lower relative cost. We must develop and procure ships in a more responsive and streamlined way.

A New Class of Surface Combatants

Given these imperatives for change, a new and affordable class of surface combatant is required to begin the essential evolutionary process toward a new fleet architecture better suited to address future challenges. Captains Wayne Hughes and Jeff Kline and Commander Phil Pournelle have well articulated the fundamentals driving the requirement for a new Fleet design. 2 How can we make it a reality?

Through a confluence of technological opportunities and mission requirements, we can combine two planned ship procurements—the LX(R) and the new littoral combat ship (LCS)—into one, thereby gaining efficiencies of scale and achieving great flexibility in mission tailoring. The current LCS, too small to be a frigate and too big to be a patrol craft, is a failed procurement.

As Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox acknowledged in her February speech at AFCEA West,

Given more advanced antiship munitions being developed by potential adversaries, I believe it is an imperative to devote increasing focus and resources to the survivability of our battle fleet. Niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment have a valuable place in the Navy’s inventory. Yet we need more ships with the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary. 3

The LCS must be replaced with a more capable ship for independent and deep-water operations while opening the way for smaller craft in the littorals. At the same time, amphibious landing ship docks (LSDs) are entering their twilight years.

The Case for the ‘FHD’

The LCS and the LSD should be replaced by a new class of surface combatant, which could be called the frigate helicopter dock (FHD). 4 Such a vessel would provide robust interfaces to all physical domains: to the surface and subsurface through a well deck, and to the air through a flight deck. It would also add substantially to the offensive striking power of the Fleet with a 48-cell vertical launch system (VLS) and a 5-inch gun. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert is correct to emphasize the importance of payloads, and the FHD would provide nearly infinite payload possibilities.

Historically only the Marine Corps has been interested in well decks, given its essential requirement for ship-to-shore connectors. Today, however, it is clear that surface and subsurface unmanned systems are the key offensive and defensive instruments of the future, and a well deck can enable these systems. The compromised attempt to provide such an interface for the LCS mission payload suggests a growing recognition of this evolution but resulted in the “hayloft,” a large mission bay with very limited access to the sea.

As my coauthor, Captain Jerry Hendrix, and I argued in “Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier” in May 2011, the future Fleet will, in part, consist of small, medium, and large carriers—carriers of unmanned systems. 5 The FHD would likely fall into the “medium carrier” category depending on how the rest of the Fleet evolves. At around 10,000 tons displacement, this would be a big frigate, larger than foreign-designed ships of analogous concept such as Denmark’s Absalon -class support ship and Germany’s F-125-class frigate. The FHD’s hybrid nature requires this larger size to accommodate a sufficient well deck and more robust armament. Figure 1 provides an overview of potential FHD characteristics.


The FHD’s larger size would give it greater sea-keeping abilities, opportunities for enhanced survivability, increased lethality, and from a mission standpoint, better endurance and versatility for independent operations. Unlike Denmark and Germany, the United States is more concerned with distant “away games” and we have a long history of robust frigates for this very reason. As presence requirements increase, especially in the Pacific, these improved operational parameters will be critical.

Physics and ship design will ultimately be the deciding factors, but a well deck in a ship of this configuration should, at a minimum, accommodate a landing craft utility (LCU) or its replacement as well as multiples of manned and unmanned surface craft and unmanned underwater vehicles. Optimally, it would accommodate a landing craft air cushion. Building 50 or more FHDs would provide vital Fleet agility and industrial base efficiency, keys to the affordability of this class.

Fifty FHDs would add 2,400 VLS tubes to the battle force, making this platform anything but a niche player. In fact, the FHD would be the utility infielder of the Fleet. It would be used for antisurface warfare (ASuW), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), maritime interdiction operations (MIO), and amphibious missions. Since brigade-level amphibious landings are infrequent events, it would be hugely beneficial if amphibious capacity could be surged from the active Fleet to meet quickly developing threats. This mission agility would greatly improve the Navy’s crisis-response time in a highly efficient manner.

Some subset of FHDs routinely dedicated to sea-control missions could dispense with their ASW, ASuW, or MIO payloads, in whole or in part, and take on a ship-to-shore connector—either for an amphibious disaster-relief mission or a forcible-entry mission. Having such a versatile vessel in numbers would also have the added benefit of reversing the unhealthy trend of ever larger, but ever fewer amphibious ships. Future A2/AD threats necessitate a different high/low mix: The FHD would accomplish this through a substantially greater distribution of assets, thereby enhancing survivability while also providing greater numbers of ships to facilitate increased presence opportunities across multiple regions. This would provide benefits for both crisis-response and steady-state operations.

In profile, the FHD might appear similar to a half-scale San Antonio –class amphibious transport dock, landing platform dock (LPD-17), or an Arleigh Burke –class guided missile destroyer (DDG-51) with a larger flight deck and hangar. It would mount its 48-cell VLS and 5-inch Mark 62 gun forward and carry antiship missiles amidships. Well-deck payloads would be those currently projected for the LCS (but so awkwardly deployed from the hayloft) and LCU (or its successor, like the “LCU-F” proposed in “A Landing Craft for the 21st Century” in the July 2013 issue of Proceedings ). Payload options could also include an arsenal barge, unmanned surface vehicle pickets, and radar and communications packages to off-board radiators, which would reduce the ship’s electromagnetic signature. 6

Tailored Missions

In addition to aggregating the FHD for large-scale amphibious operations, it would be especially well suited for the increasingly prominent Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) mission. With a command element of around 70 and a ground component of approximately a company landing team, the FHD would be an ideal platform to provide the range of capabilities needed to respond to the next Benghazi. Aviation assets would allow for a hangar to accommodate a minimum of two MV-22 Ospreys or various combinations of MH-60, UH-1, and CH-53 helicopters. Given the SPMAGTF mission, C2 suites should be planned to accommodate not just the SPMAGTF’s organic C2 requirements, but also those of a special operations forces detachment. This one ship could launch security or raid forces from well over the horizon and provide them with precision long-range fires. (Marine Corps officers currently attending the Infantry Officer Course are already conducting training missions simulating these capabilities.)

Missions abound for such a versatile ship, and it would be an ideal assignment for junior officers. Getting young Navy officers into the fight early is critical for warfighting and leadership development, and those coming from an FHD would be far better prepared for future assignments on larger combatants than those moving up from an LCS. The idea of a “Gator Navy” as an amphibious component distinct from the rest of the Fleet is already an anachronism. In a networked fleet, all ships must be viewed as combatants and as contributors to both sea-control and power-projection missions. Amphibious ships do more than provide “transport”—they are multipurpose combatants that provide a range of payload options from aircraft to individual Marines. As we progress our thinking toward a single naval battle approach, whereby we view the maritime domain and all forces operating therein as an indivisible whole—and as we further operationalize this mindset through platforms like the FHD—the cultural divide between the “Surface Navy” and the “Gator Navy” will happily fade into the dustbin of history.

As the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Report states,

We must ensure that the fleet is capable of operating in every region and across the spectrum of conflict. No new negotiations beyond 32 Littoral Combat Ships will go forward, and the Navy will submit alternative proposals to procure a capable lethal small surface combatant. 7

The FHD is just such an alternative, as it would possess reduced signature, greater survivability and lethality, improved sea keeping, and the ability to support the evolution of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems.

In days past, the FHD would likely have been dismissed out of hand. The Marine Corps would insist it was too small, as it would leave too much equipment on the pier. Additionally, connectors are a critical component of any amphibious force, and each FHD would carry only one LCU or comparable connector. However, this shortcoming could be mitigated by ensuring mobile landing platforms could carry connectors on their decks. Also, new concepts that are already being explored by the Marine Corps’ Ellis Group—such as changing the ratio of surface to vertical battalions in the assault, the use of high-speed boats, clandestine insertion means, hybrid amphibious/maritime-prepositioning task-force operations, and distributed assault operations—could, individually or in combination, help reduce the requirement for ever larger ships and allow the demand for surface connectors to be shifted to later in the assault phase.

The Navy, on the other hand, would normally not deign to sully a surface combatant with a well deck or accommodations for a Marine company; a well deck would add complexity and cost to a platform while reducing hull speed. In the past, these drawbacks would have justly been disqualifiers. However, the future of surface warfare is in unmanned systems. The FHD’s well and flight decks actually enhance its warfighting capabilities. In short, disadvantageous characteristics in the current surface warfare paradigm will become assets in the future as unmanned systems become the principal payload, allowing every ship so equipped to be its own battle group that can deploy air, surface, and subsurface unmanned sensors and shooters.

Making it Affordable

There are ways to make the cost of this new class of ships reasonable. While there are substantial costs associated with developing a new ship, the FHD could be used as a pilot to explore new ways to acquire ships more quickly and cheaply. Although functionally new, the proposed FHD would largely repackage existing technologies; thus, the technical risk is low. We simply need a solid hull design and the proper integration of systems we already have.

Given this low technical risk and the prospect of a ship class of 50 or more, we should challenge industry to produce several prototypes to use for trials, and then downselect and purchase a single preferred variant with minor modifications. The prototypes might then be turned over for foreign military sales. While in production, there would be substantial opportunities for sales to overseas markets, providing the added benefit of enhanced interoperability with friends and allies and improved business opportunities for our industrial base. For example, Japan recently agreed to jointly develop an LCS with the United States. Given that Japan is also interested in developing its own marine corps, the FHD would be a perfect solution for dealing with contested territories in Japan’s area of interest.

As FHDs would have substantial lethality, some modest reductions to large surface combatant numbers should be entertained to help offset costs. Also, these ships could be cheaper individually than the expected unit cost of the 11 LX(R)s that must be replaced, which would help to balance costs. Finally, we should leverage economies of scale through multiyear contracts to ensure the maximum efficiency and level loading of our shipyards.

By compromising on their respective requirements, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will be paving the way for the future. We must begin to evolve toward a Fleet architecture of smaller and more numerous, lethal, signaturecontrolled, and protected combatants. The FHD would be the stepping stone toward this development. It fills two requirement gaps, plus it’s affordable and achievable. We just need to decide to do it.

1. CAPT Robert Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Cede No Water: Strategy, Littorals, and Flotillas,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 9 (September 2013), 40–45. ADM John Harvey, USN (Ret.), CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.), CAPT Jeff Kline, USN (Ret.), LT Zackary Schwartz, USN, “Sustaining American Maritime Influence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 9 (September 2013), 46–51. CAPT Jerry Hendrix, USN, and LTC J. Noel Williams, USMC (Ret.), “Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 137, no. 5 (May 2011), 20–27.

2. CDR Phillip Pournelle, USN, “Rise of the Missile Carriers,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 5 (May 2013), 30–34.

3. Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox, prepared remarks at the AFCEA West Conference, San Diego, 11 February 2014.

4. Thanks to Susanne Altenburger for suggesting the FHD nomenclature.

5. Hendrix and Williams, “Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier,” 26.

6. Susanne Altenberger, CDR Michael Bosworth USN (Ret.), and CAPT Michael Junge, USN, “A Landing Craft for the 21st Century,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 7 (July 2013), 60–64.

7. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 Report, 4 March 2014, ix.

Lieutenant Colonel Williams currently provides strategy, policy, and budgetary analysis support to Marine Corps Headquarters.


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