Keeping Our Asymmetric Edge

By Representative J. Randy Forbes

Building more things will be part of the solution, but what the Navy really needs at present are new things—innovative capabilities and concepts that will “change the game” in the many areas of maritime competition where the trends are against us. In many of these capacities, building more of the same will mean running harder and falling farther behind. For example, we will not be able to keep up with the insatiable demand for missile defenses simply by continuing to build costly interceptors and large surface combatants to carry them. Instead, we should be seeking new concepts and capabilities to defeat the threats we face at a price we can afford.

Such novel capabilities are in line with what the Department of Defense is seeking with its “third offset strategy” and the Defense Innovation Initiative then-Secretary of Defense Hagel announced last November. According to senior DOD leaders, the objective of this initiative is to “offset” our competitors’ growing capabilities and capacities (such as their expanding arsenals of antiship missiles) instead of struggling to counter them symmetrically. To do so, however, the Pentagon will need to be able to identify and then rapidly develop the kind of game-changing capabilities and concepts called for above. Although the Defense Innovation Initiative appears to focus on technology, new equipment alone will not solve any operational dilemmas. New concepts and ways of thinking will be needed to employ innovative technologies more effectively.

How Congress Can Help

Congress cannot develop these concepts and capabilities by itself, but it can significantly aid the Navy and the DOD’s efforts to do so. The House and Senate have the power to ask questions, commission studies, and authorize and appropriate funding. Although these powers are often used to maintain the status quo, they can and should be used to promote innovation. Hearings and commissioned studies should be used to identify capabilities and concepts worthy of rapid development, while the powers of the purse should be used to fund game-changing programs at the levels they deserve, going above and beyond the DOD and Navy bureaucracy’s requests, when merited. DOD and the Navy may bristle at what they perceive as micromanagement by Congress, but they should remember the beneficial role that strong congressional advocacy played in the development of carrier aviation, nuclear propulsion, GPS, and the Tomahawk missile, among other concepts and capabilities.

While all of Congress should take an interest in sustaining America’s maritime superiority and the many benefits it provides, the House and Senate Armed Services Subcommittees on Seapower (and Projection Forces, in the House) must take the lead in fostering and promoting naval innovation. In the coming weeks and months, the House’s subcommittee (on which this author sits as chairman) will hold a series of hearings on innovative concepts that could alter and offset our competitors’ growing capabilities in a number of critical domains and warfighting areas. In each instance, the Navy faces challenges and opportunities that merit further exploration and public debate.

Surface. Congress must help the Navy ascertain what roles our surface forces should play in future operations and what concepts and capabilities should be developed to maximize and sustain their qualitative superiority in the years ahead. With the exception of our aircraft carriers, the surface fleet has been generally neglected in conversations about the future of American sea power. For decades, our surface combatants have been largely relegated to escort duties or tied down performing critically important but unglamorous presence and missile-defense duties. These ships now find themselves “out-sticked” by adversaries with longer-range and more capable antiship missiles, and some analysts have predicted that the proliferation of these and other advanced antiship capabilities will result in American surface ships, including carriers, being relegated to the sidelines in future high-intensity conflicts. Although the Navy has been fielding more and more capable air- and missile-defense weapons, the growing costs of these interceptors—which are several times more expensive than the threats they counter—suggest this is not a winning strategy.

That said, things might be looking up for our surface forces. Earlier this year, the Navy unveiled a new concept of “distributed lethality,” which calls for our surface ships to be up-armed with offensive weapons. While still in its infancy, under this plan our surface fleet could regain a more substantial role in antisurface warfare. Meanwhile, a number of combat systems currently under development have the potential to empower concepts like this. These include significantly longer-range and more advanced antiship missiles that could greatly enhance surface combatants’ offensive firepower, as well as high-energy lasers, railguns, new projectiles for traditional guns, and cyber- and electronic-warfare systems that could yield new approaches to air and missile defense. Taken together, these emerging concepts and capabilities suggest that our surface Navy is entering an era of growing capability and importance. Further public discussion will be needed, however, to explore the future roles of our surface fleet, develop the concept of distributed lethality, explore how air and missile defense could be performed in the coming decades, and identify the capabilities that hold the greatest potential to offset our competitors’ mounting strengths.

Air. Congress must help the Navy explore the extraordinary potential of unmanned naval aircraft, maximize the utility of the future carrier air wing, and sustain the strategic value our carrier fleet. Having operated for decades in permissive environments, our aviators must now contend with advanced air-defense systems, fighters, and electronic-warfare systems that will make it difficult to fly in or near our adversaries’ airspace. Meanwhile, our aviators must also confront threats posed to our carriers by the antiship capabilities previously mentioned and the growing need to stand farther off our adversaries’ coasts—potentially beyond the relatively short range of our current and programmed future carrier air wing. At the same time, delays in the F-35 program and increased use of our existing aircraft are creating a shortfall in strike fighters that will be difficult to fill. Together, these challenges have led some analysts to question the utility and cost-effectiveness of the carrier/air wing combination in the program of record.

Both supporters and detractors of aircraft carriers agree that the carrier air wing must evolve to address these challenges, and almost all analysts see a pressing need to incorporate unmanned aircraft. With their impressive range and endurance, unmanned aircraft could fill a number of capability gaps, including the lack of long-range penetrating strikes; persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; electronic attack; and efficient aerial refueling in the current and programmed air wing. Since unmanned aircraft need not be flown for pilot training and qualification purposes, they could also be procured in smaller numbers and achieve enormous life-cycle savings relative to manned aircraft. The question that Congress and the Navy face is therefore not whether we should incorporate unmanned aircraft into the carrier air wing, but for what missions they should be designed and built in the near-term. Both the Navy and Congress have well-known opinions on this issue, but the debate cannot be settled until broader questions are asked and answered, and these are: What missions will the carrier air wing as a whole need to carry out in the future, and what mix of capabilities will it need to accomplish them? The DOD is currently exploring these questions in an internal review, but public discussion will be needed to support and verify the Pentagon’s analysis.

Undersea. Congress must help the Navy to identify and explore new ways to sustain America’s undersea dominance, offset our shrinking submarine fleet, and impose greater costs on our competitors. Although our undersea force still enjoys an enormous qualitative edge over its competitors, we face a shrinking submarine fleet and a precipitous decline in our undersea payload capacity. By 2029 this fleet will be 25 percent smaller and seven boats below the current requirement. Meanwhile, at roughly the same time, the Navy will be retiring all four Ohio -class guided-missile submarines, along with 616 missile tubes—roughly 60 percent of our current undersea capacity. At the same time, demand for undersea forces and the persistent, undetected, assured access they provide is likely to increase as threats to American naval forces mount in other domains. In short, at a time when our submarine force will likely be called on to do more than ever, it is shrinking to a smaller size than it has been at any point since World War II.

To offset new developments in antisubmarine warfare and the dwindling size of our submarine fleet, Congress must help the Navy identify and develop new capabilities and concepts that will serve as force multipliers for the silent service and sustain our ability to project power undersea. As in the air domain, unmanned undersea vehicles could transform this capability. The improving payload, endurance, and autonomy of these systems suggest that unmanned underwater vehicles may be able to augment manned submarines and even replace them in some missions. Payload modules, whether incorporated into future submarines, towed behind them, or emplaced on the sea floor, could potentially offset the loss of SSGN-payload capacity and further reduce the need for manned submarines to be employed in some missions. More broadly considered, new undersea concepts and capabilities such as submarine-launched unmanned aerial vehicles could offset our adversaries’ progress in other domains and impose costs on them. Earlier this year, the House authorized an additional $60 million for Navy UUV, sub-launched UAV, and submarine payload-handling programs. Although not a large sum by DOD standards, this additional funding will substantially increase the resources available for these often-overlooked but potentially revolutionary research-and-development programs.

Todd Harrison, the senior fellow for Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has commented—rightly so—that “the future has no constituency.” Fortunately, there are men and women of both political parties and both chambers of Congress that care deeply about national defense and their responsibility to “provide and maintain a Navy.” To fulfill this sacred trust, Congress must work in partnership with the Navy to identify and develop capabilities and concepts that will sustain our Navy’s qualitative edge. If we want things to stay the same, then things will have to change. Congress should be instrumental in bringing that change about.

Representative Forbes is the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.


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