What should the Navy’s next generation of ships look like?

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It’s no secret the strategic situation facing the U.S. Navy has changed. Adversaries China, Russia, North Korea and Iran have significantly improved their ability to keep the United States away while they exert greater regional power. Bryan Clark argues the Navy therefore has to totally rethink the design of its next generation fleet. The Hudson Institute senior fellow joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bryan, good to have you back.

Bryan Clark: Thanks for having me on, Tom, it’s great to talk to you again.

Tom Temin: So you guys have put out a pretty detailed report. And I just want to read one of the paragraphs, I think that summarizes it. It says the Navy will need a new fleet design to affordably address its challenges and exploit opportunities while maintaining today’s operational tempo. Unfortunately, the current plans fail to deliver on these goals. So what’s your sense of what’s going on?

Bryan Clark: Well, the Navy’s got a plan that really is designed to support the strategic situation of maybe 10 or 15 years ago, when it was all about having a relatively efficient way of delivering forces that could hold up in most operating environments and deal with threats like North Korea or Iran. But things have changed. Obviously, China’s become a much more capable competitor, the fiscal situation is becoming a little bit more constrained. I mean, defense budgets are likely to stay flat or shrink in the coming years. So the situation the Navy finds itself in going forward is going to be much different than that it faced in the last decade, and they’ve yet to really modify their plans to address that new situation.

Tom Temin: Because there are new destroyers under design review, I guess, and they’re looking for a new generation of those. There’s a new generation of submarines coming. And there’s aircraft carriers on the drawing board. But the question is, are any of those the right vessels for what the Navy actually has to do?

Bryan Clark: Yeah, exactly. So almost every vessel class the Navy has has a new ship coming out in it. So they’re in the process of getting ready to transform the fleet. Some of those designs are still valid going forward into this new environment. You know, the Ford-class carrier, we think, you know, from our analysis still has utility in the future operating environment. But maybe you don’t need as many of them as the Navy was intending to buy. The Next Generation submarines that they’re looking at building have utility again, but again, you know, the rethink the number they’re buying, the biggest change the Navy needs to make is to rebalance the force towards a larger number of smaller and less expensive vessels. That’s partly to give countries like China a more challenging operational picture and more adaptable force that makes it more complex for the Chinese to defeat. It’s also partly to address fiscal constraints because a force of smaller platforms, smaller airplanes, smaller ships, with fewer people on board, is going to be less expensive to maintain in the long run than the current fleet. And we think affordability is one of the major challenges the Navy is going to have to face going forward. And the platforms that it’s been building, the airplanes and ships that’s been building for the last 10 years have not set it up to be affordable in the long run.

Tom Temin: It sounds like they need to be more to use a common term agile on their keel – I won’t say agile on their feet, but agile on their, on their heel of the ship. And more, fewer faster – I mean, the weapons that they are facing, too, are changing from the enemies also.

Bryan Clark: Right, right. So one big challenge is submarines are becoming much more capable and much more numerous. So submarine threat has reemerged as something we need to be concerned about. So new ways of doing anti-submarine warfare that are scalable, and more affordable are important. So using unmanned systems for anti-submarine warfare, in particular. The missile threats are getting worse. So you’ve got a larger number and a more capable array of ballistic missiles and then new hypersonic weapons coming online for adversaries like Russia and China. So coming up with new missile defense concepts that address those new threats is important. And that’s part of why we think the fleet needs to distribute more. And so by going to a fleet with a larger number of smaller ships, so fewer destroyers, more frigates, more corvettes, or unmanned surface vessels – spread the fleet out, gives the enemy more targets they have to shoot at, makes it more difficult for them to justify using a really expensive weapon to shoot a very inexpensive ship. Those are ways that the Navy could improve its strategic situation against a country like China. But it will involve evolving the fleet from its current design towards something that looks substantially different. And you heard Dr. [Mark] Esper talk about that last week with his announcement about the Battle Force 2045 plan, which has a fleet of more than 500 ships, and it’s very consistent with what we propose in our study.

Tom Temin: So that’s really a radical departure from what they’ve been talking about for the last 10 or 15 years of a – whatever the number, 325, something like that.

Bryan Clark: Right, 355, so 355 ships was the goal previously, but the mix of ships was very different than what we’re proposing now. So 355 ships of the traditional big submarines, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, big amphibious ships, and we’re looking to shift to a fleet that’s got some of those still, but a smaller number of those big ships and then a larger number of these smaller ships. So frigates, corvettes, light amphibious warships that the Commandant of the Marine Corps has been arguing for smaller logistics ships to support this more distributed force. So building more smaller ships, which in our analysis found that it was actually cheaper to have that design rather than the current plan that the Navy has been going went down. We were involved in the study that led to the Battle Force [2045] plan that Dr. Esper announced. And we’ve released our input to that study, which was the report we put out a couple of weeks ago. But that shift is absolutely essential if the Navy is going to be able to address the operating environment, especially against China in the next 10 years.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bryan Clark, he’s a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former naval officer. And I think maybe moving up a notch from the fleet itself to the more strategic picture, your report states, the Navy needs a new theory of victory. And maybe that’s really what’s driving all of this, what kind of theory of victory does it need?

Bryan Clark: So what it needs is to move away from thinking about attrition as being the main way that you deter and then defeat an enemy, which worked when we were thinking about Kosovo, or Iraq or even Libya, countries where the main goal was to kill enough of the enemy or blow up enough of the enemy’s stuff to be able to cause it to not be able to continue fighting. And that was even kind of the Cold War idea against the Soviets. Going forward, countries like Russia and China, you can see with their gray zone operations, they’re much more focused on achieving objectives at the lowest cost possible, by getting that decision making advantage on us basically creating dilemmas that we can’t get around for doing operations that we don’t have a good counter for. So we think decision making is going to be the key for victory in the future. So creating a more complex picture for an enemy to assess, confusing the enemy as your intentions, acting more quickly than the enemy can. Those are all going to be elements of being successful in the future. Because unless a country wants to fight the World War III-style battle of attrition, preparing for that fight is going to be counterproductive. And we don’t think that Russia and China are positioning themselves for that WWIII battle of attrition,. They’re going to fight this gray zone fight. So we need to come up with a force that’s better suited to deal with that.

Tom Temin: I mean, the theory used to be all wars are economic. And so given the fact that they want economic hegemony around the world, then the way to achieve that may not be through that attrition that you described, like we sunk 2 million tons of them, they only sunk a million tons of us, it’s gonna be totally different picture.

Bryan Clark: Right, so it’s about being able to make decisions faster, make better decisions, cut the enemy off, prevent the enemy from being successful. So it’s not so much, we need to defeat him utterly, or we need to invade his territory, we just need to prevent him from being successful. And that’s sufficient for victory. And then to your point about economics, economics could be a factor in that as well. If you want to present the enemy with a situation where victory is not going to be worth the cost, well then they’re going to be dissuaded from initiating the conflict. So this idea of moving away from attrition and toward decisionmaking and affecting the enemy’s decisionmaking really is becoming kind of a central idea. And that’s what is being discussed right now within DoD with the joint warfighting concept that it’s pursuing.

Tom Temin: And what about artificial intelligence, modern communications, and all of these software, basic types of capabilities? How do they fit into the naval picture?

Bryan Clark: Clearly, that’s an element of it, right? So artificial intelligence, we found has got great utility in doing command control support. So a commander can use artificial intelligence tools to help build a course of action and a plan. And then autonomous systems we found are usually better off just being autonomous rather than using artificial intelligence to think on their own. But we do think artificial intelligence has a lot of utility and command and control if the goal is decisionmaking advantage. And then communication systems clearly are going to be important because you need to communicate with this more distributed force. And that’s what JADC2 and some of the work that the Air Force is leading with, the Advanced Battle Management System, the ABMS, that’s what that’s intended to do is provide that communications interoperability among this more distributed force.

Tom Temin: And is your sense that if the military leaders are starting to understand this and discussing it and planning for it, do the politicians get it, I wonder?

Bryan Clark: I think they do get it. You’re starting to see some movement. I know that the Future of Defense Task Force that recently released its report, it talked about some of these ideas about the importance of information, about the importance of decisionmaking about the need for new warfighting concepts. So there’s a appetite on the Hill for new ideas. And I think it’s incumbent upon the military to be able to advance those ideas, and then justify their investments based on those ideas. And the military has not done a great job of that for the last few years. So that needs to be an area of improvement for them as is communicating their intended operational concepts and how they need to be supported through the investment plans they have.

Tom Temin: And do they have time to do this? I mean, Russia, China, some of these countries are moving pretty quickly. And by the time you design a new or think about a new concept for a ship, till you lay the keel of that ship, and then get it float and tested and accepted, it could be 10 or 15 years for the first copy.

Bryan Clark: Right. And so that’s why it’s important that they start now. So some of these changes can happen relatively soon, because you can start fielding more of the ships that are already under construction. So the frigate, for example, that the Navy is building, even though it’s going to cost more than the Navy anticipated, that’s something that’s going to be an element of it that’s already underway. The Navy’s efforts on unmanned surface vessels will need to be continued and supported. But again, I agree with you. I think it’s going to take a few years before the engineering is done on those and the concept of operations is really fleshed out. So it’s gonna take a few years, we can’t turn on a dime. And so it’s important that we start now.

Tom Temin: And just a final question given that the application of these tools and the intelligence elements that make them really what they are, aside from the hardware, is there a ship design or ship concept that another nation, maybe that is not as rich as the United States already has, that could be borrowed? And to save some time and design work?

Bryan Clark: Absolutely. So the Navy is looking at this idea of a large unmanned surface vessel that’s supposed to carry vertically launched missiles, similar to the missile launcher that’s on a destroyer, they would put that onto an unmanned surface vessel. Our argument, our study was that that vessel should just be a manned platform. And there’s examples abroad of those. And so we thought that was a better idea than trying to do this sort of untested technology of an a large unmanned surface vessel, which would be on the scope of a regular ship. So a 2,000-ton ship. We thought it would be better if the Navy went to an existing design for a 2,000-ton ship that’s got missile launchers. There’s several which over in foreign navies right now. The Danes have a really good frigate that’s a little bit smaller than that, and there’s a couple other European navies that have frigates or corvettes on that size as well. So we think this idea of moving towards a smaller corvette ship rather than the large unmanned surface vessel is an important way of speeding up the introduction of this new set of ships into the fleet.

Tom Temin: So we could borrow their violin, we just be able to play it better?

Bryan Clark: Perhaps because we’ve got the battle networks and the weapons to be able to compliment it. Because the corvette by itself is of course, you know, somewhat vulnerable because it’s a smaller ship. But in concert with larger ships, you know, it creates a more distributed fleet that’s harder for an enemy to counter perhaps.

Tom Temin: Sure to make another analogy, take a squirrel and turn it into a porcupine.

Bryan Clark: That’s right, yeah, exactly.

Tom Temin: All right. Bryan Clark is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and co-author of its latest study, “American Sea Power at a Crossroads.” Thanks so much for joining me.

Bryan Clark: Thank you, Tom. It’s been great.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview and a link to that study at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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