Overlooked in the CNO’s CSIS Speech

by admin on October 5, 2016

So the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, gave a speech at CSIS, and everyone is excited about his surprise termination of the term “A2/AD”.

That’s all well and good–I have hated the A2/AD debate since the term crawled out from the torrid fever swamps of swarm boats and carrier killers (Read this, for example:)–but there was something a bit more interesting than A2/AD in the CNO’s speech that risks being ignored/overlooked.

It was his simple call to focus on the Naval mission:

To me, everything must be appreciated through the crystal clear lens of enhancing the Navy’s ability to conduct its Title X mission, as discussed in “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” which states that the U.S. Navy will operate at sea and be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat to protect America from attack and to ensure the nation can project strategic influence around the globe wherever and whenever necessary in support of our national security policy objectives.

That’s solid stuff–usually Navy doctrine is formulated by the CNO, presented once and is promptly forgotten.

But I’m glad this CNO is revisiting his doctrinal foundations. Framing is important. Focusing on the Navy’s mission doesn’t–like A2/AD, or “Carrier Killer” or “Small Boat Swarm” or “Little Green Men” throw the United States immediately into fear-driven, defensive-oriented tactical discussions–discussions that often exaggerate threats and make our competitors 20ft taller than they actually are.

“Pearl-clutching” and fear-mongering worked in the neatly bi-polar Cold War, but today, in a more multilateral world, fretful talk bolsters American competitors. The United States can no longer afford to endow competitors with overblown wonder-weaponry or unmerited skill. America must learn to manage threats and challenges without fear.

Changing this approach is going to be hard. Leveraging fear is baked into America’s national security community; far too many careers got built on overestimating the Russians, or by fearful pearl-clutching over Carrier-Killers and Swarm Boats.

Fearlessly managing challenges is hard. So it’s really heartening to have somebody like the CNO stand up and say “stop this nonsense”.  The Navy mission is a far more healthy staring point for American maritime strategists, the American Congress, U.S. industrial stakeholders and the American public alike.

MTMNM_map_listGeography Counts!

Another healthy suggestion that got overlooked in the A2/AD story is this:

Potential adversaries challenge us in different parts of the world. Those areas have different geographic features like choke points, islands, ocean currents, and mountains. Different geographies dictate a wide variety of concepts and technologies that enemies will use to fight in those different areas. This variety has a major impact on how U.S. naval forces best seize and maintain the initiative.

This is good. Sailors need to understand the region they’re working in, and their fleet–or the part tasked to be responsive to aggression–must be molded to work, fight and win there.

Part of that is understanding the physical characteristics of the potential battlefield–but it’s also about understanding the wider context–the regional diplomatic interlinks, the regional balances of power and all that other good stuff. In a multilateral world, all that stuff really matters–and can tip the scales between peace and war…and victory.

Hopefully the CNO will follow this “clear-talking initiative” up with an effort to de-emphasize bilateral comparisons–comparing naval strength of China and the United States is interesting (and scary), but comparing the naval strength of China (with about 1.7 basic aircraft carriers) with all the other naval forces of Asia (with a whole bunch of big carriers, little carriers and other nascent flat-decks) is more informative–suddenly making the dragon look a bit more like a paper tiger.

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140309-N-ZZ999-007As ubiquitous as maritime helicopters are, America often forgets that the sustained operation of rotary-wing craft off smaller surface combatants only really started in the sixties.

Today, it’s easy to scoff that helicopters got their start aboard combatants decades ago, but…for the U.S. Navy, the regular use of helicopters aboard smaller combatants spans only a few generations of hullform–in an evolutionary sense, this means America is still learning what works. Given the chronic (and sometimes catastrophic) problems of integrating helicopters to the low-freeboard DDG-51 flight deck, the U.S. Navy may not have the right answer yet.

It’s high time for some serious thinking. The U.S. Navy hasn’t been helped by the fact that ongoing struggles with the mundane issue of landing and keeping helicopters aboard small combatants has fallen through the cracks for decades.

Take this story on a 2013 mishap aboard the USS William P. Lawrence:

In the decades before the Lawrence tragedy, helicopter pilots and ship crews repeatedly warned about the hazards on low-freeboard flight decks, messages that were either missed or ignored in a breakdown of the Navy systems used to identify and mitigate hazards. They called for changes that, if instituted, might have prevented the deaths, recommendations adopted only after it was too late.

The dangers of wave impacts on frigates and destroyers were reported in 13 hazard reports filed between 1983 and 2013, HAZREPS obtained by Navy Times in a 2-month-long investigation and presented publicly for the first time. These messages are chock full of warnings from aviators that presage the tragedy of Sept. 22, 2013.

In contested seas, failure to facilitate safe launch-and-recovery of rotary-wing craft across the entire span of a surface combatant’s operational profile is going to be a real problem. The challenge isn’t going away–in a few years, unmanned rotary-wing platforms will be an absolute requirement for survival in a contested environment, and engaged surface ships won’t be able essentially stop maneuvering to launch and safely recover stuff.

Fighting surface combatants will need to launch and recover at speed while maintaining full maneuverability–something that might be impossible given the Navy’s huge inventory of low-freeboard flight-decks.

So let’s not take our eyes off the underlying systems engineering challenge. It will be all too easy for aeronautical engineers, in all the excitement of fitting fancy sensors, comms gadgets and weapons to all the neat and new unmanned airframes out there, to overlook the critical-yet-mundane job of ensuring operational integration to the ship.

All Navy stakeholders–SWOs and Flight Crew alike– would be smart to take a moment and remember that helicopters are still kinda new additions to the surface combatant arsenal. There is still a lot to learn.  The Kamen LAMPS Mk1 Seasprite, for example, began operating off Garcia Class Frigates, and helicopters only had a chance to integrate onto three subsequent Frigate-sized hulls (the Brooke, Knox and Perry Classes). For Destroyers, the Coontz Class had a platform, but that was pretty much it until the Spruance, Kidd and DDG-51 Classes. With only two or three hull-form “generations” available to obtain operational experience, there’s just not been a hell of a lot of room to experiment.

As far as the future goes, the U.S. Navy seems likely to maintain the low-freeboard DDG-51 even though the DDG-51 flight deck is too low to reliably use without forcing the ship into a constrained operational envelope.

There aren’t any alternatives; the only real “high-freeboard” platforms remaining in the surface combatant fleet are on CGs, the LCS-2s, the DDG-1000s and maybe, in a pinch, the NSC Cutter and EPF. But CG’s are leaving, the LCS-2s are at risk of getting cancelled, the DDG-1000s are too few in number and the NSC Cutter and EPF aren’t combatants. It’s low-freeboard or pretty much nuthin’.

So that begs the question: How are next-generation rotary-wing UAVs going to integrate with the low-freeboard DDG-51s?  Can they be engineered to operate on–and survive–wet decks and wave strikes?

I don’t know.

So, as America starts really leveraging the potential of rotary-wing UAVs aboard small combatants, the UAV engineers need to revisit a basic operational premise–and ensure that their new “do anything” rotary-wing craft can actually land aboard a low-freeboard flight deck without interfering in the ship’s ability to, well, uh, fight.

Put another way, if Navy can’t figure it out, then the Navy will need to think about a new ship, operational concept, or….you get the idea.

Navy ain’t easy sometimes.

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