Magazine article National Defense

Sailor-Less Ships Soon Could Be a Reality in U.S. Navy

Magazine article National Defense

Sailor-Less Ships Soon Could Be a Reality in U.S. Navy

Article excerpt

It was 15 years ago when Vice Adm. Walter Cebrowski and Professor Wayne Hughes discussed the need to develop a network of small, inexpensive, minimally manned and unmanned platforms that would complement the Navy's larger force-projection ships and provide access to the contested littorals.

Their anticipation of what we now call the anti-access/area denial threat was remarkably prescient. They foresaw that large combatants, although cost-effective in terms of power projection per dollar, were brittle and at risk of being negated by a sophisticated adversary's use of modern anti-ship missiles. They argued that large numbers of small platforms, although individually less survivable, would provide a more robust capability to "gain and sustain access."

It was expected that a significant number of these small platforms, which they dubbed "streetfighters," would be lost to enemy action in a major conflict, but that in so doing, they would divide the enemy's attention and deplete its offensive and defensive capability. The streetfighter vision was influential at senior levels within the Navy and led to serious discussion about the need for a small combatant designed for the littorals. This eventually led to acquisition decisions in the early 2000s that resulted in today's littoral combat ship.

The vision of operating LCS out in front is severely limited by the fact that it is a manned platform, and therefore not truly expendable. The notion that manned platforms on land, sea or in the air could be designed to be expendable in battle has been shown to be politically impractical. The decision to invest more than $20 billion in a crash program to design and field the mine-resistant, ambush-protected ground vehicle is testament to the value that we place, appropriately, on providing a reasonable degree of survivability to any manned platform that is expected to go in harm's way.

Decisions to increase the level of survivability were a factor in driving up the cost of the littoral combat ship from the original vision to the ships that are being delivered today. Although not a small or inexpensive vessel in historical context, LCS may be the smallest and least expensive commissioned manned warship that the U.S. acquisition system is now capable of producing. It's also likely that concerns about the survivability of the LCS will lead to reticence in committing it to use in the highest threat scenarios of the future.

The "streetfighter" vision of swarms of small combatants operating close to an enemy's shoreline in conditions where large numbers of platforms may be lost is not appealing when each platform carries 75 or more sailors.

The Navy's progress in fielding unmanned surface and undersea systems is less clear. Unmanned surface vehicles are being incorporated in the LCS mine countermeasures mission module, and the Navy is moving forward with the fielding of a large diameter unmanned undersea vehicle. Budgets for these programs are small compared to the manned platforms that they support and to the sums being spent on unmanned air systems.

The Navy's vision for unmanned sea vehicles is also limited by the self-imposed paradigm that unmanned platforms must be hosted by a manned combatant. The LCS is designed to launch and recover unmanned sea vehicles, but these vehicles are restricted in size to approximately 10 tons, about the size of an 11 -meter rigid hull inflatable boat. Unmanned surface vehicles of this size have minimal payload, range and open-ocean sea keeping capability, which will constrain their ability to conduct meaningful operations at any significant distance from the host platform.

The desire to host a large unmanned undersea vehicle within the payload tube of a ballistic missile or attack submarine provides similar limitations on vehicle size and endurance, with the additional complexity of balancing propulsion energy density against the need for submarine safety certification. …

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