7 Revolutionary Hardware Changes the US Navy Should Make in the Trump Era
Under the new administration the Navy could maximize a planned budget increase and tailor its force to 21st century demands.
- The War Zone
- Must Read Features
Along with all branches of the military, the Navy is set for a series of changes over the next four years of the Trump administration. Although an arbitrary if not counterproductive goal of fielding a 350 ship Navy has been set by the administration, there are also seven key changes in hardware procurement related to the naval combat domain that the US Navy and the administration should make.
These recommended hardware initiatives range from large strategic ones to smaller tactical ones, but they would all result in a far more flexible and deadly sea faring force, and total force overall. And it's not just about making use of an increased Navy budget—it is more about spending money more wisely and creating a more adaptable fleet tailored to tackling the unique challenges of the 21st century.
Our regular readers will recognize a few of these, as we have discussed some them in great detail before, but for the sake of brevity we will keep each recommendation largely conceptual in scope. Additional links will provide more detail and background on each recommendation. Also, this piece does not include procurement changes that are already emerging or underway, or recommended changes in tactics and operating procedures—such as more training to operate in GPS and space communications denied environments—that are also important but outside the scope of this report.
The War Zone's recommendations are:
Procure a diesel-electric submarine fleet with an advanced form of air independent propulsion that can be forward based abroad.
The Navy's mix of Los Angeles, Sea Wolf and Virginia class nuclear fast attack submarines are in extreme demand. With the Virginia class boats currently in production costing over $2.6 billion per unit, the service will be hard-pressed to provide the capacity the USN needs to meet emerging missions demands and threats.
These include keeping a resurgent Russian Navy in check, countering China in the Asia-Pacific theatre, keeping tabs on North Korea's submarine movements, protecting carrier and amphibious strike groups, countering Iran's naval forces in and around the Persian Gulf, as well as all their other tasks like special operations support and reconnaissance.
In all, the US Navy will maintain a force of roughly just 55 attack submarines for the foreseeable future under current plans. Considering a large portion of that fleet is pier-side, in training, or under heavy maintenance at any given time, and how many missions the fleet has to address, that number of boats seems far too small for today, let alone for tomorrow. Adding a few more Virginia class submarines to the inventory would help, but they are so expensive to build and operate that depending on an all nuclear force seems to be a unsustainable strategy.
Since the Navy retired its last diesel-electric submarine in 1990—the USS Blueback—many submarine manufacturers around the globe have perfected multiple types of advanced diesel-electric submarines that use a variety air independent propulsion (AIP) concepts. From Stirling Engine based, to fuel cell based to lithium-ion battery based, these technologies allow diesel-electric submarines to dive for long periods of time (multiple weeks in many instances) while remaining as quiet, if not quieter than their nuclear counterparts.
As many as five of these vessels could be built for the price of a single Virginia class SSN. With all this in mind, the USN should embrace this new paradigm in sub-surface warfare and procure an advanced diesel electric submarine design alongside serial production of the ever more capable Virginia class.
So that the Navy can get the best submarine for its dollar, license manufacturing a foreign design here in the US, such as Japan's cutting-edge lithium-ion battery powered Soryu class submarine or even an advanced version of Germany's proven Dolphin class AIP capable submarine, would be ideal. These vessels can be outfitted with US combat systems and sensors and forward-based in friendly countries abroad, something our nuclear submarines cannot do. They can even be teamed with Littoral Combat Ships that are being fielded under a similar concept.
By building say four AIP equipped diesel electric submarines instead of every third or fourth Virginia class boat ordered, the Navy will have a far more capacious attack submarine force. A majority of the regional missions can be executed by these far less expensive but still very deadly submarines, freeing up the big Virginia class boats for missions where their nuclear capabilities are far more of a necessity. In doing so the Navy will be able to meet the growing demands for attack submarine capabilities in the coming decades, and the service will be able to adjust its submarine building requirements more easily based on foreseeable demands.
Replace the Littoral Combat Ship with a frigate capable of area air defense as soon as possible.
The Littoral Combat Ship program has been a failure. The Navy needs to change course as soon as it possibly can and replace the design with a more capable and survivable frigate that features a potent area air defense capability.
This specific capability would come in the form of a vertical launch system (VLS) capable of firing RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles. This feature alone, paired with the proper radar and combat system upgrades needed for targeting, would allow these ships to operate independently of multi-billion dollar and already over taxed Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers in medium and even high-threat environments. This way the frigate could not only do anything the LCS can do, but it can also take the pressure off America's most capable and expensive surface combatants for many missions, like convoy escort duties and protecting key elements that support the sea basing concept.
Beyond being far more versatile and able to operate much more independently than the standard LCS, this ship will be able to confront the growing anti-ship missile threat, one that it is rapidly proliferating among non-state actors. It will also feature other improvements, like the ability to fire medium-range land-attack and anti-ship missiles. The current LCS configuration—a giant jet boat meant to supposedly fight in the littorals where the anti-ship missile threat is most unpredictable—simply will not do. And that is not to mention the baseline LCS's many other design and conceptual deficiencies and failures.
Currently, the Ingalls Patrol Frigate concept—which is based on the Coast Guard's Legend class National Security Cutter—seems like the most attractive, low risk and logical fit for this mission set. Yet at this point, even acquiring a reworked Littoral Combat Ship design of either class would be acceptable if it would mean getting these capabilities fielded a better chance of actually happening.
Under the Obama administration, the LCS was already truncated to 32 examples (from 50), with just another eight "up-gunned" models that feature enhanced armor and some extra bolt-on weaponry coming to fruition from ship 33 to 40. After which the program is slated to be shuttered, and long before that point, the Navy would have to down-select a single LCS design—either Independence or Freedom class—to be built.
If the Trump administration cannot cancel the LCS entirely and work quickly to replace it with a proper frigate, maybe a compromise to rework the LCS deal altogether by putting a "frigate" version—one that includes ESSM capability—into production far sooner than before the 33rd vessel (at best) would be an acceptable way forward. Currently the Navy has contracts through the 26th LCS hull in place, so at the very least, it could switch over to an LCS "frigate" derivative at that time, but sooner would be better.
Even if ultimately less hulls can be bought for the same amount of money by quickly moving to a more complex frigate version of the LCS design or a new frigate design altogether, these ships will have far greater utility and will be able to operate independently in a much wider threat spectrum than their weaker progenitors.
Under such a plan a 350 ship Navy may remain elusive, but a 340 ship Navy, where a much higher number of those ships can operate without the need of a multi-billion dollar destroyer or cruiser nearby, and are much more survivable and deadly in actual combat, results in a far more effective and flexible overall force.
Both manufacturers, Austal USA and Lockheed Martin in conjunction with Marinette Marine are now actively pitching their enhanced LCS "frigate" designs, and Saudi Arabia was very interested in buying the Freedom class version. If the US agreed to do so as well, some development costs could be shared, along with the realization of larger production numbers, and thus lower unit costs.
Build smaller aircraft carriers
The supercarrier still has its place in America's arsenal, but naval aviation and naval warfare have changed since its genesis during the early decades of the Cold War. Since then, the supercarrier has become grossly expensive to construct, with the first of the new Ford class supercarrier costing roughly $13 billion, without research and development included. The second carrier in the class, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), is slated to cost roughly $11.5 billion.
At the same time, the carrier air wing has shrunk from nearly 90 aircraft during the 1980s down to around 65. In addition, precision guided munitions have allowed one strike fighter to reliably take out multiple targets on a single mission, instead of an entire air wing going after a single strategic target or small set of targets in a single alpha strike in single day. With all this in mind, the Navy's demand to build ever larger aircraft carriers is counter productive and may be unsustainable in the long term.
Nuclear supercarriers are also extremely costly to operate, and their availability is based around a highly rigid and complex timetable. The recent carrier gap has proven just how little elasticity there is in America's all supercarrier force. A mix of supercarriers and smaller carriers in the 65,000 ton class would allow for a more flexible overall aircraft carrier force, with greater strike capacity being able to be deployed on short notice.
For instance, if the Navy were to replace every third Nimitz class super carrier with two smaller carriers, let's use a license-built CATOBAR version of the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers for instance, the fleet would eventually be made up of eight super carriers and eight smaller carriers, for 16 in total. Or replace every fourth supercarrier with two smaller carriers, which would result in a fleet of nine supercarriers and six smaller carriers, for 15 in total. That is based on modifying Donald Trump's current mandate for 12 supercarriers. You can play with the numbers as you like, but even cutting America's supercarrier force to ten ships, while adding four smaller carriers, would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Under such a plan, supercarriers can also have their schedules better adjusted for concentrating on deployments and projecting power abroad, instead of executing more menial tasks like training new Naval Aviators or keeping up fleet aircrews' carrier qualifications. The smaller carriers could be made available for these tasks, and would expand America's ability to rapidly deploy naval power as need be along a far less rigid schedule.
As to whether conventional or nuclear propulsion would be used for these smaller vessels is up for debate, but there are benefits to both. Regardless, increasing the Navy's carrier fleet density should be more important than its magnitude. And even if these ships run on nuclear power, they will create more overall carrier availability at any given time.
Some may say that the Navy should just procure America class LHAs that are currently being produced to support the USMC's growing F-35B fleet. This is also a possibility, but their sortie rates cannot approach anywhere near those of a CATOBAR carrier, nor can the overall capabilities of their air wing. Even the F-35B lacks the 2,000lb class internal weapons carrying capabilities of their counterparts.
Still, this would be a very cost effective alternative to continuing with an all supercarrier strategy, and the USMC is already working on its plans to deploy the America class in "Lightning Carrier" configuration, where nearly two dozen F-35Bs would be deployed aboard at one time.
The America class could be further modified to support F-35 strike fighter operations as the Navy would have no need for the spaces set aside for the current design's embarked Marine contingent. As such, hangar space could be further expanded, as could magazine and fuel capacity. Although under such a plan, the US Navy would have to procure the F-35B with its short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities, but that may actually be a good thing when paired with the strategy below.
Prioritize the deployment of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) aboard Navy aircraft carriers.
The technology exists, it is a game changer, and the aircraft carrier concept can be totally revitalized by it. The advanced semi-autonomous/autonomous UCAV, basically an operational version of the X-47B, would give the carrier air wing what it needs the most—far more reach and penetrating punch.
With an unrefueled combat radius double or even triple that of their manned fighter counterparts, UCAVs can reach deep into the enemy's anti-access/area denial bubble and begin to break it down at its core. At their most basic, they can accomplish penetrating strike and surveillance missions, but their true potential becomes unlocked when they can work as an autonomous swarm to break the enemy's decision cycle and pick out its metaphorical eyes and ears cooperatively.
All this and so much more is detailed in my past special feature about this revolutionary technology, which is a must read in order to understand the UCAV's overwhelming potential to revolutionize air combat, and why they have disappeared from the public's view in recent years.
The Navy was supposed to field an advanced UCAV for its carriers by the end of decade. Strangely that requirement has been dumbed down into a sensor and refueling platform once dubbed Carrier-Borne Aerial Refueling System, or C-BARS. Now the Navy calls it a MQ-25 Stingray, but what it isn't is a stealthy, hard hitting, penetrating UCAV that it could have been.
The terrible decision to go for a drone tanker and sensor platform over a UCAV—that could have done both roles as well as many others—was likely the result of a cultural override by the Navy that historically protects the fighter pilot as a concept, as well as a move to protect high priority (and highly lucrative) manned fighter programs like the F-35C, and even the Super Hornet to some extent. These aircraft could quickly become far less relevant once the UCAV genie is let out of its bottle. But tanking and orbiting around collecting information, that unglamorous role can be done by the drone without putting the fighter cadre at risk.
Sadly, by not procuring a carrier-borne UCAV, America loses, as the UCAV revolution will just be prolonged and our capabilities as a fighting force, not just to strike at the enemy but to survive while attempting to do so, will suffer for it. Not just that, but a very stealthy UCAV could have made procuring the F-35C irrelevant, and frankly it still can.
Pursuing UCAVs over the F-35C would be a valiant endeavor for NAVAIR. It would give the Navy the stealth strike capability it was promised way back in the late 1980s as part of the long defunct A-12 Avenger program. It would also do so likely at far lower cost than the F-35C and with greater range and low observability—all without putting a pilot at risk for the most dangerous of missions.
The Navy could still procure the F-35, but in the form of the B variant, alongside purchasing smaller America class derivative carriers as part of an overall revamp of the Navy's current carrier/carrier air wing force mixture. In fact, a supercarrier loaded with advanced UCAVs, Super Hornets, Growlers and Hawkeyes, paired with a modified America class "Lightning Carrier" loaded with F-35Bs, may represent the best of both worlds. Under such an arrangement, a full variant of the F-35 could be eliminated from production—and the most expensive one at that—the F-35C.
Maybe the ultimate modern rendition of the aircraft carrier concept will eventually feature a deck filled with only UCAVs, each easily adapted for a whole host of roles. And once there is no man in the loop directly, and no manned fighter aircraft to integrate with, the efficiency and lethality of automated air combat can be unleashed on a grand scale. Really, the aircraft carrier is more suitable for UCAVs than land bases, especially if the entire air wing is made up of advanced inter-networked drones. Above all else, such a capability would be a quantum leap over anything the enemy has to counter with.
Outfit the Navy's three Zumwalt class destroyers as they were originally intended.
The Navy loves to tout its out-of-this-world looking DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyers, but really, they are a sad shell of their originally intended selves. You can read all about this grim reality here, and that report doesn't include the fact that even the DDG-1000's big Advanced Gun Systems, which take up literally the forward third of the ship, have no ammunition because the Navy cancelled the program due to cost concerns.
The "Zunwalts" lack their original radar suite and missile outfit among many other features, and are also having their stealth shaping that came at such a high cost bastardized with bolt on sensors, masts and communications gear to save money. Even their smaller guns have been downgraded to off-the-shelf 30mm Bushmaster cannons. In the end the class of just three ships will be lucky to serve for a handful of years before becoming test ships, and they will probably be cannibalized for parts in the process.
This sad fate can all be averted if the Navy just commits to letting the design prove itself, and not handicap it severely before it ever even goes on patrol. Fit these ships to reflect their original concept. If they are so good at what they do we can build more of them, and if that threatens the Navy's highly questionable decision to move on to building Flight III Arleigh Burke class destroyers instead of more DDG-1000s than so be it.
Currently the tiny class is setup to fail, but we have already invested tens of billions into the design. So making the best of those three ships should be an essential goal for the US Navy going forward. The worst that can happen is that we will have three incredible ships to use for decades to come, but I have a feeling these vessels will prove to be far more revolutionary and valuable than that if they are given the chance—and that includes outfitting them as they were originally designed.
Expand the Columbia class nuclear ballistic missile submarine program at the expense of America's land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force.
The Columbia class nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) will replace America's aging Ohio class SSBNs. Although the program is proceeding, the budget is very tight for these 12 new boats, and each one is slated to have an average cost of $8 billion—that figure includes research and development costs.
The fact is the Navy's SSBNs are the heart of America's nuclear deterrent, and represent the core of America's dedicated second strike capability. Along with constantly improving the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, keeping this specific portion of America's nuclear arsenal as capable as it possibly can be should be a top priority for the Pentagon. Doing so is not a cheap affair—it never has been. But as Russia pushes to rapidly improve their own nuclear arsenal, and is building new SSBNs of their own, the US is spreading itself to thin across its own nuclear triad.
What I propose is controversial, but I think it is wise. At the very least, the Pentagon needs to deeply review options for reorganizing America's nuclear triad into a nuclear dyad. America's tired land based intercontinental ballistic missile program could be retired, and those many tens of billions of dollars could refocused to build a larger, far better funded nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. The Air Force would also receive a large portion of those savings to buy the B-21 Raider stealth bomber force it says it desperately needs, as well as a new very stealthy and smart nuclear-tipped cruise missile to go along with it.
There is no doubt that some will oppose screwing with the nuclear triad at all, but the fact is hundreds of billions of dollars are required over the next decade to modernize the triad, and still capability sacrifices will have to be made. Yes, America's ICBMs would theoretically work as a strategic "sponge" to soak up hundreds of enemy warheads during a nuclear exchange, but that strategy can be viewed as flawed on multiple levels. The fact is, the land-based leg of our nuclear arsenal is disposable, and the money it sucks up and will continue to suck up can be used to bolster the other two legs of the triad to an extreme degree.
Also, by eliminating the land-based ICBM leg of the triad, not only can the other two legs be greatly improved, but advances in conventional war fighting capability can also be realized as a secondary result.
For instance, currently the Columbia class relies heavily on existing technologies, many of which are already found on the Virginia class fast attack boats. If more funds for the Columbia class submarine program were made available, new technologies can be developed that can be used to not only make the Columbia class better and more future-proof, but they can also be adapted for the fast attack submarine fleet as well. Also, significantly more money will allow for more of these boats to be built, and more new and improved Trident missiles to fill their launch tubes.
Although the Columbia class is roughly the same size as the Ohio class, the type will have eight less SLBM tubes than its predecessor—16 instead of 24. By adding say another eight Columbia class boats to the planned fleet of 12 would go a long way in realizing economies of scale in their construction and would help even-out the warheads that were lost when the land-based portion of the triad was retired.
When it comes to the USAF, ensuring a larger B-21 buy also would mean a drastic increase in high-end conventional attack capabilities as well. Not just that, but the AGM-86 cruise missile could be retired and money saved could be invested in buying new Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) stealthy cruise missiles. A conventional derivative of this new nuclear tipped air launched cruise missile could also be pursued with these extra funds.
It is a tough call, but really an extremely advanced nuclear dyad is better than a aging nuclear triad that is constantly under severe fiscal pressure. And let's face it, if doomsday came, the world as we know it could end at the hands of our submarine-launched ballistic missiles alone. But by also reinforcing the aerial leg of the triad, the US will retain the ability to deliver a flexible and credible "scaled response" without even having to resort to ballistic missile barrages.
Outfit LPD-17 San Antonio class of amphibious transport docks with Mark 41 vertical launch systems.
The San Antonio class (LPD-17) has proven to be an incredibly effective "micro military in a box." These ships can be deployed off the coasts of low-intensity conflicts where they can execute a wide spectrum of missions. These include everything from humanitarian relief to special operations to embassy evacuation to close air support to strike missions, and many others in between. The USS San Antonio's recent deployment to Libya proved this model to an unprecedented degree.
These are incredibly versatile ships, and they don't necessarily need to be locked within the standard "Gator Navy" concept of operations. The fact that a single ship has a voluminous flight deck and hangar space that can embark a "pocket air force" of AH-1Zs, UH-1Ys, MV-22s and unmanned vehicles, carries an embarked Marine contingent of roughly 700 grunts and their gear, retains a well deck that can accommodate a large variety of water craft ranging from RHIBs to LCACs, and has mission planning and command and control spaces and capabilities, makes the San Antonio class unique.
What they lack is the ability to defend themselves from a credible aerial threat and the ability to strike deep into contested territory. They have RIM-116 Rolling Airframe missile launchers fore and aft for point defense, but like the LCS, they lack the ability to provide area air defense for themselves or other ships nearby for that matter.
Luckily the San Antonio's designers weren't nearsighted when it came to the ship's potential, as they actually designed these ships with an area for two eight-cell Mark 41 vertical launch systems to be installed. These cells are capable of packing four Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs) each, for a total loadout of 64 highly capable anti-air missiles. Or a mix of ESSMs and other missiles could be carried. For instance, eight of those cells could house BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles, giving the ship an independent penetrating strike capability. Or, upgrade dependent, even the very capable SM-6 could be adapted for the ship's use.
SM-6 has the ability to hit air breathing and some types of ballistic missile targets, as well as possessing a secondary medium-range surface-to-surface/ground capability. In recent months, Lockheed has pushed to get the Navy to fund the installation of the Aegis combat system on LPD-17 class ships, which would allow them to employ the SM-6.
Even without Aegis or the SM-6, the ability to lug around 36 ESSMs and eight Tomahawks would usher in a whole new dynamic when it comes to the ship's mission capabilities. The Tomahawks could also be sidelined by bolt-on canisters of Norway's much touted medium-range Naval Strike Missile—which is likely to show up on many other Navy surface vessels in the not so distant future.
With these additions, a single San Antonio class ship alone could provide a hardened and capable presence in low and medium threat environments, and would be especially capable of supporting contingency operations in "hot spot" regions around the globe. If they were paired with an LCS or frigate for anti-submarine warfare, they could venture into the high-threat realm as well.
The same concept can be ported over to the upcoming LX(R) ships that will replace the Harpers Ferry and Whidbey Island classes of dock landing ships. These vessels will very likely leverage the existing LPD-17 hull design, although their overall capabilities will be degraded compared to their San Antonio class cousins to save money and to better emulate the more basic ships they replace.
But providing room for a VLS on these vessels as well may be prudent, even to work just as a remote magazine for Aegis equipped cruisers and destroyers, and especially for their LPD-17 sister ships that will accompany them during most operations. But if not, an LPD-17 class could protect them with their own anti-air capabilities alone, all without the need for a nearby destroyer or cruiser. This would allow for new pairings of ships for various operations.
For instance, an single LPD-17 class ship could be accompanied by a single LX(R) for additional war fighting capacity. Basically, in doing so the LPD-17 could double its combat power, without the need of another costly LPD-17. All the high-end combat capability, including air defense capabilities, and the small flotilla's "brains" are deployed aboard the LPD-17 with the LX(R) working as something of a subordinate force.
A VLS equipped LPD-17 could also be useful for sea basing operations, by being able to provide air defense for the assets around it. Once again, this would free up destroyers and cruisers for other tasks.
Basically, by giving the San Antonio class its VLS system, it will be able to operate more independently in many more scenarios than it can today. This gets back to the whole arbitrary 350 ship navy mandate. It is better to have a few less ships, but ones that are far less rigidly dependent on others for protection under most circumstances. It allows the US Navy as a whole to be in more places, with more capabilities, at one time than simply demanding "more ships."
Currently 12 LPD-17 ships are planned, a 13th could be ordered to bridge the gap between LPD-17 and LX(R) production if the LX(R)s end up being built based on the LPD-17 hull.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com