The America-class amphibious assault ships possess big decks, making them also suitable as conventionally powered light aircraft carriers (CVLs)—a potentially dramatic design shift over more expensive, ever-larger nuclear-powered ones. Forthcoming ships in the class, including the future Bougainville (LHA-8) shown in an artist’s rendering, incorporate a small well deck, giving them flexibility to employ a variety of unmanned aerial, surface, and undersea vehicles—but at significant cost to the baseline aviation-centric design. (U.S. Navy courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries)
The U.S. Navy’s current fleet design does not match today’s conditions, much less those expected over the next 20 years. Today’s fleet—a mix of ship types that are simply evolutionary improvements and larger versions of designs from two or more decades ago—is too small, and the ships on average are too large. It is time for the Navy to make broad, significant changes in the fleet’s design.
The rapid rise of global connectedness—and the technological progress and proliferation that it has sparked—raises new challenges for designing a fleet with the capabilities required to execute its missions across the globe. The ability to detect warships at long ranges or even globally is no longer a U.S. monopoly. Commercial space sensors are burgeoning, and their data is available in the marketplace. Many nations have sophisticated military space programs, distributed networked sensor fields, and long-range unmanned aerial vehicles that can search far from shore. Sensor capability is advancing faster than the ability to elude detection. Long-range precision-guided weapons are proliferating and can be brought to bear in numbers against what these sensor systems detect. Weapon speed is increasing while weapon signature is decreasing.
The current fleet was not designed with this threat environment, where losses likely will be significant, in mind. The fleet concentrates too much capability in too few manned hulls that are too large. Not enough are forward deployed to provide sufficient firepower to achieve warfighting success. And the fleet is too expensive per unit to be able to afford enough capacity to meet global requirements and wartime resiliency.
As retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes has taught for many years in his definitive books on fleet tactics, the Navy is making it too easy for an adversary to win with a devastating first salvo against a few large ships.1 A new fleet design is needed to address these vulnerabilities.
Trends That Drive Change
Multiple recent studies on future fleet design have consistently characterized the threat trends and challenges and defined required changes.2 The trends can be grouped into seven areas:
Affordability. Constrained defense funding will be an inevitable consequence of federal budget deficits. Fleet designs based on increasingly expensive ship designs will deliver steadily smaller fleet sizes in the presence of likely fiscal constraints. The cost of the Navy’s current 355-ship fleet design is “60 percent higher than the amounts the Navy has spent on shipbuilding over the last 30 years and more than 25 percent higher than the amount appropriated for 2017.”3 This is not realistic.
Autonomy. Technology steadily increases the variety of missions that can be handled by unmanned elements of the fleet. Artificial intelligence that lets sensors send commanders concise, reliable reports and optimized tactical recommendations—rather than high-bandwidth sensor data requiring interpretation—will make unmanned systems ever more useful as integral elements of the fleet. This will give the fleet an edge in the battle for speed of action in combat and will limit the demand for connectivity to achievable levels.
Textron’s Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle can perform many different missions when staged from a well deck. Working with a variety of manned and unmanned ships and sensor systems, such a platform could become a primary component of future mine countermeasures systems. (Textron Systems)
Defense. U.S. forces will face an expanding inventory of weapons and increasingly pervasive sensor coverage that will require new approaches in defensive and deception capacity. The fleet must develop the ability to operate on a more dispersed basis without loss of combat effectiveness or survivability compared to aggregated-force operations. Ship defense must shift toward high-volume/high-lethality and more compact short-range systems to reduce the cost and magazine demands of big, long-range defensive missiles.
Offense. The range and lethality of threats will place a premium on initial offensive operations conducted with long-range missiles and unmanned systems rather than by manned platforms penetrating defended areas. The fleet must have the capability and weapon capacity to inflict immediate offensive punishment rather than playing defense while slowly aggregating a roll-back force. Weapon inventory capacity must be divorced from the size of manned warships by augmenting their magazines with weapons launched remotely from high-endurance unmanned “wingman” vessels.
Distribution. The growing risk to ships from precision weapons will require improved distribution of capability across the force. Each manned ship will need appropriate organic self-defense and offensive weapons, but none can have so large a fraction of total force capability that its loss would risk mission success. The longstanding trend of making each new class of ship larger and more expensive than its predecessor unduly concentrates capability and diminishes affordable capacity for geographic coverage. This must be reversed.
Connectivity. The need to disperse the fleet geographically while facing a growing threat to communication satellites and networks will demand over-the-horizon, secure, high-capacity data fusion and exchange networks among dispersed units. High-flying, long-endurance unmanned aircraft will have to provide organic broad-area sensor and communication support to and among dispersed forces.
Logistics. The far-forward nature of Navy operations and the requirement for greater dispersal will increase the demand for survivable sea-based logistics; fixed bases are vulnerable to precision attack. A distributed fleet will require enhanced capability to reload or augment magazines and the new capability to manufacture critical repair parts at sea.
Building Blocks of the Future Fleet
These trends and their implications must shape a new fleet. Its ships must be smaller on average to reduce strategic vulnerability and provide geographic coverage. While ships generally deliver capability more economically the larger they are, this presumes they will operate in a safe environment with total sea control. That assumption does not apply in overall force design, where there is significant risk of ship attrition. If every set of 96 vertical-launch missile cells must come with a $2 billion guided-missile destroyer wrapped around it, the price of delivering firepower capacity forward will be too high. Unmanned payload “trucks” working with smaller manned control hubs will reduce risk in contested waters.
The fleet must be as capable of conducting electromagnetic-spectrum warfare as it is of kinetic warfare. Those portions that will operate closest to threats must be unmanned, submersible, or both, and the manned platforms must be capable of directing the unmanned ones. Every ship should be capable of managing its own signature and employing offboard deception systems to limit adversary identification and targeting.
A Navy designed to operate globally to deliver deterrence, sea control, and power projection must have ships drawn from a set of six fundamental building blocks. The types of platforms within each category, the capabilities hosted on them, the boundaries between them, the mix of manned and unmanned within them, and the operational concepts for employing them must change profoundly from today. Ship designs that are mere incremental improvements over today’s will not be adequate in either capability or capacity to fulfill the Navy’s core missions.
The categories of the six building blocks may sound familiar, but the actual ships and their missions must change from today’s fleet design:
Aviation combatants. The fleet will require ships capable of operating manned and unmanned fixed-wing aircraft with substantial payloads in tactically significant numbers. These ships can serve as manned forward-control hubs for unmanned combat aircraft and long-range missiles and will manage airborne sensors that can deliver long-range search and targeting. While the aircraft may continue to require assisted launch and recovery, their missions will not demand high sortie rates. Future aviation combatants must be smaller and far more numerous than current aircraft carriers. Smaller, nonnuclear aviation combatants are less cost efficient per ship in an unchallenged environment, but the strategic risk of excessive concentration of capability in too few very-large ships in wartime must outweigh this. Aviation combatants require regular replenishment of aviation fuel, so using nuclear propulsion to eliminate the need for the ship’s fuel replenishment must be re-weighed against this risk.
Ballistic-missile submarine combatants. Big, ultralow-signature submarines that carry a significant number of large ballistic missiles and operate covertly will remain the key element of the nation’s nuclear deterrent force. While nuclear weapons will remain the highest priority payload for these submarines, their mobile and survivable launch capacity could be used for other missions of high strategic value—such as very-long-range conventional strike, space control, or space asset reconstitution.
Undersea combatants. Submarines will remain the least detectable element of the fleet, operating as the farthest forward manned element in high-threat situations. Manned submarines will take advantage of longer-range weapons and offboard payloads to sustain their survivability. Large unmanned underwater vehicles—teamed with manned platforms or operating autonomously—must provide a greater fraction of the undersea capacity for deployable payloads such as land-attack weapons, undersea sensors, and mines. Pushing this capacity onto bigger unmanned vehicles will permit future manned submarines to become smaller and more numerous and serve as agile control nodes for manned-unmanned teaming.
Surface combatants. Surface combatants will remain key to sustained sea control and maritime security operations, but the mix of ships must change. Their survivability in high-threat environments and their need for both threat detection at longer ranges and increased magazine depth must lead to a new approach. Manned and unmanned ships must be designed to fight together as a single networked combat system.
Larger manned combatants will serve as command and fusion hubs for this force and will provide long-range multimission capability. Smaller, more numerous manned combatants will serve as mission-specialized nodes with shorter-range capabilities. Both must have deep magazines with economical defensive capability using directed-energy, hypervelocity, and electronic weapons. No ship in the future fleet can be a defensive liability; all must contribute to offensive capability. Both types of manned ship must embark significant aviation assets, including long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles.
Oceangoing unmanned surface vessels will contribute as active emitters for force-wide distributed sensor operations. They will offer the ability to deceive adversary targeting systems and will provide magazine depth. In areas too dangerous for manned warship operations, small and fast unmanned craft may provide useful short-range offensive antisurface capability. The mine countermeasures mission must shift entirely to unmanned vehicles.
Expeditionary combatants. The ability to move Marines ashore rapidly will remain a key element of the fleet’s power projection capability. But as defensive threats have made waterborne delivery of heavy vehicles into a contested objective problematic, airborne delivery of light mobile forces from the sea has become more important. Heavier seaborne forces and vehicles will continue to provide a valuable strategic capability to reinforce rapidly, but logistics ships predominantly will deliver these onto friendly shores. Future expeditionary combatants must be optimized for the air-delivery mission, with the flexibility to adjust aircraft loadout when sea control is the fleet’s primary mission demand. Types that have well decks will provide the flexibility to deliver unmanned surface and undersea vessels for a broad variety of missions.
Logistics ships. The capability to sustain high-tempo operations in distant seas without depending on nearby ports will remain a defining characteristic of the Navy. The fleet will continue to need ships that can deliver a steady supply of fuel, food, and ammunition to distributed combatants from logistic points in safer locations. What will change is that these ships will require significant self-defense capabilities, increased speed, and reduced size, and will be fielded in greater numbers because of their high value and the decreased logistic efficiency of distributed operations. The future combatant force must become less dependent on vulnerable in-theater bases for maintenance, repairs, and medical care, so ships with the capability to provide these forms of support forward in wartime will be a critical element of the force.
A Sea Change in Fleet Design
The rapid proliferation of threat technologies does not mean the end of the Navy’s capability to sustain its core missions. It is, however, a strong incentive for a fundamental change in ship characteristics. The path will face significant challenges, ranging from technical issues of networking across a distributed force to organizational issues that will result from allocating missions in new ways—adding large unmanned vessels and constraining ship size. Success will require firm guidance to establish the requirements to field the new generations of ships and aircraft that will mark this sea change in the design of the fleet.
1. CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.), and RADM Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
2. Including three 2016 “fleet architecture studies”—one each by the Navy, the MITRE Corporation, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—produced in response to section 1067 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
3. Congressional Budget Office, “Comparing a 355-Ship Fleet with Smaller Naval Forces,” March 2018, 5.
Captain Barber is a retired surface warfare officer and Navy Senior Executive Service civilian. He was the Navy’s chief analyst of future force structure and capability requirements on the OPNAV staff as a civilian from 2002 to 2014. He is an engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Naval Postgraduate School.