When former TOPGUN trainer and emergent LCS-killer Christine Fox, the Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, demanded a “more capable [small] surface combatant“–namely one with innate air-defense capability–she did more than merely lay out a plan to kill a wayward surface-ship program. She offered a glimpse of what the Department of Defense (DOD) envisions as the future trajectory of American naval power and U.S. innovation at sea. DOD wants to fight like it is 1986.
This vision of the future is worth discussing.
1. Like in ’86, DOD is tapping a deep-seated fear that America is at risk of losing uncontested air superiority at sea. Now, this, in itself, is not entirely controversial, given that almost every third-rate power out there can field some kind of strike platform or lob some kind of missile forward. And we certainly must acknowledge that 1) this trend will only accelerate over the coming years and recognize that 2) the air picture will become increasingly complex, cluttered by a bewildering number of manned and unmanned platforms.
This is America’s (and, likely, a former TOPGUN Analyst’s) nightmare. Ever since World War II, America has been particularly intolerant of air defense vulnerabilities at sea. Other countries, however, routinely operate forward while sporting considerably less air-defense than the typical forward U.S. platform–many ships in the international armada have no air defense capability or they resort to simply stashing a few Stinger missiles near the bridge (And they haven’t lost a ship lately, either!).
Now, contrary to rumor, the LCS is not defenseless. It goes to sea with a pretty good point-defense anti-air weapon (RAM or SEARAM, depending upon the type)–the same point-defense used by carriers and big amphibs (And, as an aside, some RAM missiles may have a modest anti-surface capability, too). Instead, our current defense tastemakers want to reduce risk by adding in something more immediately capable of taking the fight to the aircraft, as a source used in Chris Cavas’ excellent Navy Times piece, suggested:
“The real need is for an escort to accompany convoys, logistic ships, even parts of the battle fleet. Analysis shows that as a gap. But LCS cannot provide air defense to ships it’s escorting — it only has self-defense,”
That controversial admission suggests that DOD lacks confidence in the Armed Force’s ability to maintain air supremacy. It suggests we fear that our allies’ airborne resources will be insufficient, our carrier air wings will be absent, all our land-based aircraft will be elsewhere and even assumes the much-vaunted support from “Air-Sea Battle” will be gone. It suggests DOD expects significant air-defense deficiencies–and expects that, in the very, very near-term, the U.S. will be unable to provide battlefield coverage at sea. It suggests that the F-35 is ineffective and that the UCAS will not offer the all-weather, 24/7 coverage UAV-boosters suggest. Fine.
But it also suggests that America will be unable to provide effective air coverage even in uncontested, low risk areas where convoys and logistical ships are expected to operate.
If that doesn’t embolden competitors, I don’t know what will.
2. DOD is doubling down on weaponry (and tactics?) from the Eighties. I’ll be frank. The MK41 vertical missile-launch system (VLS) family was developed back in the seventies to house a missile family from the sixties. And, yes, there is a lot to like. As a system, it has chalked up a reliable record. It has evolved with the time. And everybody uses the same system.
But…aren’t those the same advantages battleship admirals claimed for rifled breech-loading heavy guns back in the 1920’s? It’s the exactly the same argument. (Interestingly enough, the timing of the gun’s design spiral to maturity and obsolescence is almost identical too–breechloaders started entering service in the 1860s, were argued about in the 1920s…and by 1941 they were, ah, bombed into strategic irrelevance)
So, rather than adopting something smaller and lighter, and force function into a newer, more efficient form, we’re going with a legacy program because, what? We don’t want to go through the pain, suffering and expense of designing a new, smaller launch system? Or pony up the cost of designing a much, much smaller missile? Or pay to develop an entirely new weapon? (I’m not even going to touch battle fleet organization here, but aren’t carrier battle groups kind of old-school?)
Rather than complete an Analysis of Alternatives for, say, bolting a cheap and easy SeaRam battery or two aboard auxiliary ships (um, how many incoming threats do we expect in a “low-threat” area, anyway? And weren’t UAVs and UCAVs supposed to provide 24-hour, all-weather air surveillance, early-warning and air defense, too?), our defense taste-makers are pressing to purchase a fully-burdened, legacy platform that is, in essence, designed for a war that has already happened.
If we go that route, we’ll pour a lot of money into developing something perfect for fighting and winning on a 1986-era battlefield. The ship will be chock-full of new versions of traditional Cold War weapons, hailed as an “instant classic” by a few Admirals who have fond memories of life at sea in the Eighties, and everyone in the anti-LCS crowd will love it.
But that ship will be obsolete at launch.
3. DOD assumes next-generation tech–UAVs and energy-weapons–are a bust at sea. Despite all the promise of rail guns, lasers, emitter-based disruptive energy weaponry and 24/7 all-weather air support from long-endurance UAVs, the DOD’s number #2 seems to be signaling that the U.S. will scale back R&D and innovation to pursue smaller, incremental advances of legacy systems.
Look. The first Flights of LCS were starting to be seen as flexible platforms to advance fast-moving tech into the maritime battlefield in a relatively cost-effective fashion. LCS provided the Navy a modular platform with the space/weight/power margins to easily test new technologies, field them and then use them to build new concepts in naval warfare.
And that goal makes certain sense given the expected direction of naval warfare–if we assume, say, that threats in the air and sea domain will proliferate, the need to develop something capable, say, of finding and hitting/soft-killing an ever-growing number of “things” increases. With a laser, railgun or other aggressively-minded emitter, the magazine essentially reverts to an efficient, easily-stored and easy-to-resupply liquid form (or, even better, you’re in a ship with nuclear power!). Fuel, railgun pellets and spares seems to offer lot more flexibility than well, hoping the contents of your un-replenishing big steel VLS box are the right mix for the given threat of the day. And that was where the LCS could shine.
Inflexibility aside, VLS locks sailors into a firm, easily-identified-by-the-adversary numerical constraint–all while giving old-school, traditional ship-drivers sufficient confidence in their ability to enter the danger zone, survive long enough to fire off the contents of what will be an insignificant handful of VLS cells and, then…what? Take hits and die heroically in their Level II survivable platform?
Is that really what we want?
In a world where threats are getting smaller and more numerous, the only way anyone can claim that VLS-launched missiles are the right thing is if the entire catalogue of future U.S. weapons are fatally flawed. That may be so…but, back in the day, even the quaint breechloader looked like an awfully risky proposition.
The heavy VLS, when coupled with legacy weapons and sensor suites, makes innovation that much harder and more costly. For a small ship, legacy systems weigh the vessel down, reducing the opportunities to try things that are truly innovative. Instead of getting something neat and new to sea early and often, we’ll be taking a combatant offline. For a long time. For a handful of innovations that may not work. (Hey, does anybody remember those really neat Mine Warfare-ready DDGs we made awhile back? How did they do?)
Look. I hate knocking VLS. It fits the “warfighting first” goal of the fleet. It looks, at first analysis, like a cost-effective route forward in comparison to other emergent systems. There are certainly a lot of advantages to taking a working, solid system and incrementally advancing it. There is certainly innovation to be had–the anti-ship ArcLight strike missile, for example. But at the end of the day, a VLS launcher is just a small, heavy box in a floating truck.
And right now, in this period of relative peace, is exactly the right time to start thinking out of the box, and to consider what else–beyond boxes–that our floating pickup trucks might carry forward to the fight in the evolving air-sea-subsea domain.
If we fight as we have been for the past thirty years, our supremacy will vanish as other countries develop similar-looking navies, and, we will, quite possibly, lose.
All levity aside, there’s something else that should trouble us all about Ms. Fox’s infamous memo. By doubling down on the Eighties-era VLS/Standard Missiles as our “main-gun” system, ceding the sky and hamstringing R&D, our defense tastemakers are signaling, in essence, two things.
Either they have become so frightened by the impending cost-cuts that they’ve pretty much rejected clean-sheet naval innovation outright, or they think that the strategic threat at sea is so dire we no longer have time to indulge in clean-sheet innovations.
Neither option is good.