Think Outside the Hull

By Captain Robert C. Rubel, U.S. Navy (Retired)

• Presence, surge forces, and force packages

• The processes through which forces are prepared for and recover from deployment

• Bases and facilities that support or host material components of the fleet

• Material components of the fleet, such as ships, aircraft, personnel, weapons, and sensors 4

The CNO directed that fleet design comes before architecture, indicating that how the Navy plans to fight must be understood before platforms can be designed. There is merit to this notion, but there is also a kind of chicken-or-egg relationship in that there currently exists a fleet that cannot be abandoned to start over, and of course there is a constant percolation of new technologies and evolving threats that must be factored into ship design, which in turn influences operational concepts. The net effect is to channel thinking about new concepts and new architectures through the lens of ships. This makes any concept for fleet design and architecture a matter of adjustments on the margin.

If such adjustments were sufficient to prepare the Navy for future challenges, there would be no need to say more, but they are not. China is intent on creating a multidimensional force that is large and lethal enough to keep the Navy from operating at an acceptable degree of risk within the first, if not the second, island chain. Russia is determined to achieve the same in some of its peripheral seas. These countries are basing their strategies on large arsenals of new, more lethal antiship missiles supported by unmanned vehicles, space assets, and cyber. Whether fired from land, ships, aircraft, or submarines, these missiles and their supporting technologies demand a fundamental rethinking of how our Navy fights, not just from the perspective of countering antiaccess systems, but from a true war-at-sea orientation.

Many senior officers can recall the intellectual churn of the “transformation era,” characterized by calls for “disruptive” thinking and attended by many a priori and unsupportable claims of effectiveness for various concepts such as “effects-based” operations. Actual combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed the hollowness of such claims. Having experienced the churn first-hand from various positions within the research arm of the Naval War College, I developed a healthy skepticism about rethinking naval warfare. It seems more practical to provide some reasonable baseline propositions about the nature of emerging technology and establish a logic trail that leads to principles of fleet design and architecture.

The first proposition is that future naval combat will center on the missile in all its forms. This is already evident in the number and sophistication of missiles being procured by all parties. The United States has routinely used Tomahawk missiles for land-attack missions that were too dangerous, too distant, or too politically sensitive for manned aircraft. China and Russia, having no credible carrier-based aviation capability, have invested heavily in antiship missiles to achieve some degree of sea denial against the U.S. Navy, which, for its part, is now buying several types of antiship missiles, attempting to catch up with China and Russia.

If the missile becomes the Navy’s decisive offensive weapon, several important factors follow. The first is targeting. The history of naval combat suggests that the force that can strike most effectively from the greatest range gains a significant advantage. This is why carrier-based aviation superseded the large-caliber naval rifle as the decisive war-at-sea weapon in World War II in the Pacific. Dive bombers and torpedo planes could deliver a greater weight of fire at a greater range than naval guns. While modern tactical aircraft have a combat radius of hundreds of miles, missiles are more responsive, and some, like the antiship version of Tomahawk, have twice the strike range of manned aircraft. Missiles, however, cannot be launched without precise target locating and identifying information. This means that a missile-centric force must have high-quality intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for targeting (ISR-T) data to make use of its missiles’ ranges. While individual units may have their own over-the-horizon targeting capabilities, such as unmanned aircraft, the range of such ISR-T data is likely to be less than the full range of the unit’s missiles. Effective targeting from a force-wide perspective requires synthesizing information from many different ISR assets and broadcasting that information to firing units. Moreover, a dispersed and complex enemy force laydown requires efficiency and coordination in the use of offensive missiles. Key to achieving both is a battle force network that includes sophisticated processing nodes to manage the use of missiles force-wide.

Outside-the-Hull Insights

The Missile Is the Primary Weapon. Modern antiship missiles are nowhere near as large as their first-generation forebears. Even relatively small vessels can carry several. The Chinese Houbei-class catamarans, for example, carry eight YJ-83 antiship missiles with a range of more than 100 nautical miles. Moreover, if missiles are housed in a box launcher or a modified shipping container, they could be placed on almost any kind of ship. If the missiles are capable of being launched on remote command, the host vessel may not need to support them in any way other than an electrical power feed. This means that virtually any vessel could be a missile shooter. The key is a network that can supply the ISR-T data.

In the past, a defining characteristic of a capital ship was its ability to deliver a greater weight of fire at a greater distance than any other kind of ship. In the missile age, the network assumes that characteristic. 5 In previous eras, fleet design and architecture revolved around enabling the capital ship to bring its power to bear. In the age of dreadnoughts, cruiser squadrons scouted for and screened the battle line and destroyers protected it from torpedo boats. If the network becomes, at least metaphorically, the Navy’s capital asset, then it is possible to envision a range of combatants, including aircraft carriers, becoming escorts of sorts for the network. The network will require various capabilities for sensing and communications that will be targeted by an enemy using cyber, electronic, and kinetic means. It is likely that the opening shots of a war will orient on a fight for information superiority, so fleet design and its resultant architecture will have to be focused on winning that fight.

Ship Characteristics Are Not That Critical. A question that is currently difficult to answer is how many missiles would be required to put a single combatant—such as a Chinese Luyang III-class destroyer—and, by extension, a whole force out of action. Modern defensive development suggests that a number significantly greater than one missile would be required, but the total is almost imponderable, despite the best simulation algorithms. The implication is that the Navy must be prepared to mount precisely timed multi-missile salvoes and keep feeding a fight with missile reloads. Current vertical launch systems cannot be reloaded at sea, and even if a reload capability were developed, it likely would require a very calm sea state and a lot of time. If, on the other hand, missiles were housed in a shipping container/launcher, a new set of missiles simply could be dropped on deck by a helicopter. Such a capability not only would distribute combat power—complicating enemy targeting and permitting graceful force degradation—but also would simplify combat logistics. Therefore, the second outside-the-hull insight is that the characteristics of offensive (as opposed to defensive) missile-shooting ships are not that critical, although deck area and container storage capacity would facilitate operations.

The Maritime Operations Center Is a Weapon System. The efficient use of missiles across the force is highly desirable. Because the force is (hopefully) firing from over the horizon, it must avoid blue-on-blue engagements, and it must avoid targeting civilian ships. The force also must avoid overkilling some enemy units while failing to engage others. Achieving all these goals requires not only the requisite sensing and communications, but also a high level of processing and decision making across the force. Given the range of modern missiles, this makes the regional Joint Force Maritime Component Commander’s Maritime Operations Center (MOC) a key node. Just as the U.S. Air Force considers its Air Operations Centers weapon systems, the Navy should regard the MOCs as weapon systems. Thus, our third outside-the-hull insight is that the Navy must start thinking about weapon systems across the force as a whole—not simply within the confines of a particular ship.

Capabilities Other Than Ships Can Be Decisive. History shows us that naval battles generally occur in the littoral and that geographic features, such as islands, often influence the battle. Moreover, land-based forces can play significant roles. This was true from the Battle of Midway to the Falkland Islands. On the other hand, what also was true was that when land-based forces, especially air forces, came into play, they often were coordinated poorly with naval forces. In future missile-based naval combat, geographic features can be useful to the side that has a fleet design and architecture that can exploit them. They can mask forces from enemy missiles, and they can be turned into threats to the enemy by placing land-launched antiship missiles or electronic deception equipment on them. The Navy has significant land-based aviation resources, such as the P-8A Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton, and the Air Force potentially could provide long-range bombers and other assets. This is to say that future naval battles likely will not be purely ship-versus-ship engagements. Therefore, fleet design and architecture must take this into account. Unfortunately, while mentioning them tangentially, the three congressionally mandated studies essentially factor out land-based forces. This is a mistake. Fleet design and architecture should integrate them from the outset. This reflects our fourth outside-the-hull insight, which is that in future fights at sea, capabilities other than ships likely will be critical or even decisive.

The Navy’s Strategy Is Based on Factors Other Than Ships. In his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” the CNO identifies the speed of technology development as one of today’s key driving forces. This highlights the challenge of maintaining a technical lead in weapons and systems. Given that both Russia and China have robust research-and-development programs (including programs to steal and copy U.S. and allied technology), it is reasonable to think that any technological advantage the U.S. Navy attains will be temporary. This suggests that the Navy must be able to field new advances more rapidly than the opposition; in other words, it must assimilate new technology and concepts quickly.

Given the length of time the U.S. defense procurement system requires to field new ship types, the Navy cannot base its strategy for maintaining a technology edge on building new types of ships. Rather, it must focus on building ships in a way that they can be easily and rapidly modified to accommodate new sensors and weapons. Weapon and sensor packages must be designed so they can be mixed and matched and easily installed. As ships and aircraft enter maintenance periods they can be upgraded with the latest capabilities. Beyond the physical aspects of implementing the third offset, the Navy will have to develop training and readiness processes (the CNO calls for “high velocity learning” 6 ) as well as adjustments to organizational structure and culture that facilitate rapid assimilation of new technology and concepts. This is our fifth outside-the-hull insight: the Navy’s strategy for maintaining maritime superiority is based on things other than ship types and characteristics.

There are no doubt other outside-the-hull insights we could uncover, but the five described here are enough to provide a basis for envisioning an alternative approach to fleet design and architecture. The bulk of the ships of the future fleet already exist, so design and architecture must proceed from that basis. The Navy must develop an investment strategy that takes it toward the future fleet. Given the rapid pace of world events, the quicker the Navy can achieve increased offensive punch the better.

While there may be an eventual need for new classes of ships, the immediate need is to create a robust and resilient battle force network. Investment should prioritize the necessary ingredients, including ISR, secure communications, cybersecurity, and processing. Accompanying the equipment investments must be the development of concepts and doctrine, along with the building of a corps of personnel trained to operate the network.

Concurrently, the Navy should accelerate the design and production of a diverse family of missiles, including air-launched versions, for offensive antiship work. Some of these should be housed in either deck-mounted box launchers or—preferably—shipping containers. Another type of missile that should be developed is an advanced, very long-range air defense missile that can provide protection at range for ISR and other assets.

The production of an unmanned tanker aircraft should be sped up so carrier air wings can maintain distant combat air patrol stations. This collection of investments will yield a more lethal Navy relatively quickly. In fact, some of the basics already have been set in motion. Another rapidly available element of the battle force network is the Marine F-35B operating from big-deck amphibious warfare ships. The electronic capabilities of the aircraft will be of great value in all aspects of defending and fighting the emerging battle force network. Amphibious ready groups should deploy with as many F-35Bs as possible.

The Navy should redouble its efforts to develop a joint sea-control doctrine with the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army. Long-range bombers carrying antiship missiles and expeditionary shore detachments with land-launched missiles will enhance the concept of distributed lethality. Similarly, the Navy must achieve greater levels of integration between its sea-based forces and its maritime patrol and reconnaissance community. Greater cooperation between Tenth Fleet and the forward fleets must occur to make deception operations more effective. Finally, in terms of collaboration, the Navy must undertake patient and nuanced efforts to develop warfighting interoperability with as many nations as are willing. The net effect of such collaboration would be a force more difficult for an enemy to understand and thus to defeat.

We may desire a quick, decisive victory in any future war for any number of reasons, including nuclear escalation risks, but history indicates that wars drag on. The Navy will have to be prepared to “feed the fight” with combat logistics and ships that can stay in the high-end fight longer than a few days. Rearming engaged units with containerized missiles is one idea. Of course, replenishing forces in a hot war zone must be further developed. Moreover, given the potential for significant attrition in a missile-centric fight, the Navy should consider developing a reserve fleet. Since containerized missiles could be put on almost any vessel, and if sensing and decision making are network functions, even commercial ships could be pressed into service as shooters or to perform other functions. In fact, it may be more advantageous to maintain a roster of commercial ships that could be rapidly converted to warships than to maintain a mothball fleet of retired combatants. A fleet of reserve ships requires an expanded Navy Reserve whose sailors must be trained to function in a modern battle force network.

Having explored some implications of thinking outside the hull, we must consider what it allows us to do when we start thinking about ship numbers. The CNO has stated that the choice between combat posture and presence is a false one. In other words, to support national objectives the Navy has to produce both. In a former, less-threatened world, presence was privileged over combat posture. Thus, the Navy acquired the LCS to increase total numbers using a ship that was less expensive and had less combat power. A fleet design that made sense in the early 2000s, however, has been overtaken by events.

In a high-end threat environment, the equation shifts to combat power first, with as much presence as can be generated. A key technology that offers significant help in this is long-range missiles. With them, two advantages emerge: a single ship can engage multiple enemy units, and missiles can be mounted on almost any ship, expanding the types of hulls that can be used as combatants. This is the basis for distributed lethality. If offensive missiles are installed on amphibious ships and service force vessels, then we can do some interesting arithmetic.

In 1987, when the Navy had a total force of 595 ships, 337 were combatants (carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and attack submarines—not counting SSBNs or amphibious warfare ships). The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments future force study lists 265. 7 However, if missiles were mounted on the 35 amphibious ships called for in the study, the number of offensive shooters would rise to 300, significantly closing the gap. Mounting missiles on some combat logistics force ships brings the future fleet even closer to the combat capability of its 1987 forebear. Moreover, the CNO Assessments Division (N81) study prescribes another 136 surface and undersea unmanned vehicles, which further addresses the difference. 8 It must be noted that this arithmetic only works if missiles become the weapon of decision for the Navy.

Thinking outside the hull allows us to discern the outlines of a future fleet that fights primarily with missiles and uses that logic to define its priority investments. The advantage of that approach is that, at least in the short term, it maximizes the use of existing platforms and promises to yield a much more lethal Navy quicker than if the design was based around numbers and types of hulls from the outset. Certain developing technologies, like the rail gun, electromagnetic weapons, high-velocity projectiles, and various types of unmanned vehicles, will all, if they prove viable, further enhance the Navy’s lethality. However, missile and network technology are within our grasp now, and with a little creative thinking, they will allow the Navy to maintain its maritime superiority.

1. Admiral John Richardson, U.S. Navy, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” version 1.0, January 2016, 6. .

2. The three studies were conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, MITRE Corporation, and the Analysis Division of the Navy Staff N8 Directorate. The unclassified portions of the studies are available as follows:



N81: .

3. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, P.L. 114-92, 129 Stat. 726 (2015), Section 1067, Studies of Fleet Platform Architectures for the Navy. .

4. Email from Dr. Maren Leed, N00Z to Author 6 Jan 2017.

5. Strategic Studies Group 35, Final Report, “The Network of Humans and Machines as the Next Capital Ship,” 13 July 2016.

6. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” 7.

7. Bryan Clark, Bryan McGrath, Peter Haynes, et. al., “Restoring American Seapower, A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017), .

8. Navy Project Team, Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, 27 October 2016, .

Captain Rubel was a Navy pilot who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He retired after 30 years of active duty and then served for 13 years on the faculty of the Naval War College, including eight years as Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He has published more than 30 articles and several book chapters on naval and military subjects.

Photo Credit: Naval Strike Missle/Kongsberg DefenSe & Aerospace



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