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News | April 30, 2022

Get Real or Get Outpaced: Reality and the Future of U.S. Navy

By Mike Knickerbocker

American domination in a period of unipolarity is coming to an end—if it hasn’t already. Advantages granted by leaps in technology now last weeks or months, not years as they once did during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Flat and shrinking budgets, coupled with poor program concepts hedging on unproven or developing technology, management, and execution, have left the Navy with bloated contracts and ineffective platforms. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has never lived up to its billing, and maintenance costs far outpace its usefulness leading the Navy to retire relatively new hulls decades earlier than planned. The Zumwalt-class destroyer has grappled with program cuts to build count and immature technologies, which have left it without a full complement of weapon systems and an undefined role. The ballooning production and maintenance costs, along with the emergence of hypersonic weapons, threatened to render the Gerald R. Ford-class of supercarriers obsolete or, at the very least, less effective.

These realities threaten to trigger a short-sighted reaction to cut or scrap these programs entirely, threatening readiness and capability for decades to come with no viable alternative. These programs all hold something in common; they were leveraged against the promise of unproven concepts and a dependency on immature technologies. The desire to have platforms that do it all and possess all the latest bells and whistles has come at the detriment of designing and building platforms that are ready for the fight today. Advanced complexity has resulted in lengthier initial build times and in-service maintenance availabilities that hinder national security strategy. The high-end battle that is likely to characterize a future war involving opposing superpowers does not necessarily hinge upon merely who has the largest or most technologically-advanced force. History has taught us that forces are usually on a level playing field when it comes to technology in great power war. The side that can effectively employ these forces while repairing battle damage and replacing losses is the one that is most likely to come out on top. 

In getting real with the force's current state and future design, the United States Navy must acknowledge its ever-growing list of failures or shortcomings in attempts at new platforms. Requirement creep continually mutates the original designs and concepts for new ship classes almost beyond recognition. And with each attempt at building ever-more-complex ships, the American military-industrial complex has shown an inability to effectively produce or repair these platforms on time or within budget. The Navy is then left with ships that far exceed the projected cost of production and fall short of advertised capability. Often the most significant missing capability is that of availability as systems fail and repair facilities struggle to meet production and delivery timelines to keep ships operational and ready for deployment. It is high time that the United States Navy ceases its sole pursuit of multi-mission platforms in every design and instead fills out the balance of the fleet with mission-specialized platforms. This will allow the Navy to prioritize quantity over complexity while still fielding capable, modern warships and other platforms. Multi-mission destroyers and frigates will still be the cornerstone of the fleet, but streamlined designs will provide platforms that are simpler to repair and quicker to build. This can be achieved by considering three points in the fleet design and modernization decisions. First, overreach in the initial design of new platforms. Second, mission-oriented designs for new platforms. And finally, the means and processes by which we build ships and other platforms.

Shooting for the Moon and Cratering

When it comes to new platforms, the United States Navy needs a higher floor, even if that means a lower ceiling. Too often, the United States military has sought a technological answer to gaining superiority at the detriment of force structure and readiness. The Zumwalt-class is a clear example of a platform designed and developed concurrently with the systems it was designed around. Unfortunately, the technology and systems it required did not progress at the same rate as the rest of the design. This led to the commissioning of a warship without a useable main battery. The stalled and troubled development of immature, key technologies led to the program buy being cut drastically from over thirty ships to only three. This rapid reduction in scale led to a dramatic spike in the cost of initial builds and procurement of replacement parts, placing the employability and sustainability of the class at risk. The USS Gerald R. Ford is another case where the designs outpaced the technologies but were different in that some of those reaches were necessary. The changes to design in aircraft launch and recovery equipment, along with updates to the hangar deck and aircraft elevator designs, were essential to achieve greater sortie generation rates and safer, more efficient systems. However, attempts to include an unproven radar system and weapons elevators, amongst other immature technologies, added unnecessary complexity and delay to the initial building, outfitting, testing, and deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) requested information for proposed designs on a wing-in-ground effect craft for strategic sealift that could haul more than 100 tons of cargo over great distances at high speeds. This is reminiscent of previously failed projects on the part of the Soviets and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. However, many of the issues with pilot ability to account for and control all the forces at play can be solved with modern-day technology, including automation for stability control and height above the water. Still, revisiting this technology with such a lofty goal presents an extremely high risk to such a program being successful or staying within budget and timeline. The immediacy of potential threats would dictate that the Department of Defense pursue smaller ground-effect craft to hone the technology and apply lessons learned to more significant future platforms while addressing near-term needs and long-term goals. Once we achieve success with smaller platforms and simpler designs, spiral development should take us to an expanded goal of size, capability, and complexity. The first automobile was not a semi-truck, and we must remember that in exploring new platforms and technology.

Specializing in Sustainable Success

The United States Navy should review the design of the Constellation-class frigate and unmanned vehicle programs and develop variants that are oriented toward specific mission sets. Half of the frigate build should continue to be the multi-role, aviation-capable version currently in planning. However, the remaining half should be a design that does not possess permanent aviation facilities, instead opting for maximization of available deck space for vertical launch system (VLS) cells or other launcher systems. These platforms should either be swords, exclusively loaded with offensive weapon systems, or shields, carrying only point or area defense weapons. Reducing the requirements placed upon these variants will likely result in a reduced cost for the initial buy and streamline required in-service maintenance and future modernization. Providing specialized offensive and defensive platforms to theater commanders allows them to assign platforms to mission areas where they are needed without incurring a loss of capability where they could be used. For example, shield-configured frigates could provide escorts for high-value units such as carriers, troop and cargo transports, and oilers without taking away any significant numbers of offensive weapons from other tasking. Sword variants could pair with multi-role platforms to conduct land strike, surface warfare, or subsurface warfare missions in hunter/killer-styled surface action groups. In the event that frigate conversion would be too costly, then the pursuit of a non-aviation-capable corvette with all available deck space committed to defensive systems to serve in an escort role would be a viable alternative.

The scope and scale of unmanned systems have been greatly expanded by the navy in the last decade. Current designs are centered around enhancing autonomous fires, electronic warfare, and intelligence collection capabilities. Such designs are dependent upon still developing technology as well as unclear doctrine and legal implications. Unmanned and autonomous platforms should initially focus on fulfilling logistics missions both at sea and ashore as part of amphibious operations. Focused engineering on addressing the survivability of resupply efforts in the high-end fight will yield proven processes, platforms, and applications that can then be applied to combined arms and joint fire concepts. The resulting technologies and systems can then be adapted to delivering lethal or other non-lethal payloads while addressing the ever-growing gap in contested logistics.

Regulating and Outsourcing a Broken System

The People's Republic of China is building modern warships at an unfathomable rate for the United States and its domestic infrastructure. Congress, the Department of Defense, and the United States Navy should review the laws governing procurement and construction to maximize the service’s ability to field and maintain the most significant number of capable warships and platforms. The military-industrial complex bears a significant share of the burden for shortcomings and failures in designing, producing, and maintaining new and existing naval platforms. It is an industry with limited risk and even more limited options for accountability—four of the seven shipyards in the United States service government contracts exclusively. Insulating defense contractors from paying a price for coming up short includes the government’s policy of self-insurance. As a means of warranty coverage, the government pays contractors the cost for repairs or redesigns in the event of system failure or installation mistakes. Such measures mitigate and nearly eliminate the potential that private shipyards or contractors will lose money if their design or quality of work falls short of what was promised. This collection of circumstances has led to a loss of competitiveness and self-improvement within American defense contractors. The government must revise how it monitors, assesses, and holds accountable the performance of the military-industrial complex.

If domestic pressure is not enough, then the Department of Defense should consider joint production instead of merely joint development with partner nations. Allies such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain possess proven designs and capable production facilities and capacity well beyond that of the United States. The joint production of specialized platforms would also provide a more comprehensive network of available repair facilities, replacement parts, and technical expertise for onboard tech assists when issues go beyond the ship's force. Increasing such an economy of scale would likely drive down cost per unit due to more significant buys of hulls and parts. Finally, this would foster competition in the shipbuilding industry and motivate it to continuously reinvest in its infrastructure and improve its efficiency and proficiency at building and repairing ships or risk losing future contracts or facing potential financial penalties.

Changes such as the above do not provide an immediate or complete fix to the realities and challenges that face the fleet. However, they are steps in a direction that should be explored. The facts of failed modernization will have far-reaching consequences that will eventually come. We must get honest about these, shift our platform, and force a new design mindset. We must get real about the systemic issues plaguing the capacity and the effectiveness of the United States industrial base. China is the pacing threat, and the United States is in danger of falling (further) behind. Still, we must change our approach to regain our pace and maintain an advantage in strategic competition. What we have been doing, particularly in naval shipbuilding and platform design, has not been working. We must focus on attainable goals, proof of concepts, successful employment, and then spiral development to provide a force capable of winning the nation's wars. That might also mean a reduced focus on deterring aggression, as reality dictates that force designs might not always be able to deliver both. It is time to establish an enduring maritime strategy and force design, acknowledge the collective shortcomings of all stakeholders, and embrace the change needed to succeed in a changing world. That is how we truly get real and get better.