The Navy Is About to Transform Almost Everything

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In 2000, the Bush Administration came into office with the promise to the U.S. armed forces that “help was on the way.” A central element of this assistance was the restructuring of the military based on 21st Century technologies that would empower revolutionary operational concepts.

Unfortunately, the combination of two unanticipated wars and a degree of technological hubris laid low that transformation and its architect Donald Rumsfeld. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did produce some transformational capabilities – IED jammers, unmanned aerial vehicles and ground robots – most of the Bush-era programs to develop radically new high-end capabilities were, one by one, cancelled.

Transformation is back – at least in the U.S. Navy. Quietly, in some instances almost stealthily, the Navy has been investing in an array of new capabilities that when deployed will transform operations on and from the sea. While not planned or executed as a single, coordinated program, when viewed holistically the Navy’s investments in new ships, aircraft, sensors, weapons and networks promise a geometric, even logarithmic, improvement in capabilities.

Let’s start with the heart of any Navy – its ships. There is the Gerald Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN-78), begun during the Bush Administration, with breakthrough capabilities in power generation and management, modified flight deck, an electro-magnetic launch system for aircraft and significantly improved radar, communications and command and control systems. 

The USS Zumwalt DDG 1000 is the Navy’s first stealthy warship with a radically new integrated power system, advanced sensors, enhanced battle management and greater automation. The heart of the Navy’s future surface warfare capability, the Arleigh Burke DDG 51 Flight IIs are being enhanced with new sensors, computers and other networks and the planned Flight IIIs will have a version of the new Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) and possibly enhanced power generation capabilities for advanced weapons systems and sensors.

Each block buy of the Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarine has seen major improvements in sensors, weapons and ship systems. Beginning in 2019, new Virginia-class SSNs will have an additional Virginia Payload Module (VPM) mid-body section containing four large vertical launch tubes that can each carry as many as seven Tomahawk missiles or other large weapons.

While the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is experiencing many of the difficulties associated with the introduction of every new class of ships, its modular payloads offer major improvements in the Navy’s ability to conduct mine countermeasure and other missions. Moreover, if equipped with advanced weapons, sensors and other systems such as those discussed below, the LCS could prove to be a potent warship.

The Navy’s aerial fleet is also being transformed. The Joint Strike Fighter will provide the Navy with its first fifth-generation aircraft (F-35C) and the Marine Corps with a much improved successor to the Harrier, the F-35B. Deployed aboard large deck amphibs, the F-35B, particularly in combination with the V-22 Osprey, could change the way the Sea Services employ airpower.

Then there is the EA-18G Growler, the electronic warfare variant of the highly successful F/A-18 that in a few years will be equipped with the Next Generation Jammer. Add to these the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye with its game changing battle management capability and the P-8 Poseidon multimission maritime surveillance aircraft.

Finally, the Navy is making a serious investment in unmanned aerial systems with the new, larger version of the Fire Scout (MQ-8C), the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance variant of the Global Hawk, the RQ-21 Blackjack, and the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.

The Navy is on the threshold of being able to equip its surface fleet with “space age” weapons. Tests being conducted this year at sea with the Maritime Laser Demonstrator and in 2016 with an electromagnetic launch weapon or rail gun could provide the basis for their transition to programs of record that would see such capabilities deployed as early as the beginning of the next decade. Advances in power generation, storage and management could allow lasers and rail guns to be deployed on virtually every class of Navy ship from aircraft carriers to the LCS, and even on amphibs and support vessels such as the Mobile Landing Platform and Joint High Speed Vessel.

The effects of these transformations on Navy ships, aircraft and weapons will be further enhanced by advances in sensors and networks. The Aegis air and missile defense system is undergoing continuous planned improvements, in part to exploit the capabilities of new variants of the Standard Missile (SM-3 and SM-6). When the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) is included in the mix with its ability to be deployed in modular form aboard different ship classes, and sensors are tied together with current and future weapons systems (including those in the Joint Force) through the Navy’s Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system, the result could be a true revolution in military affairs.

Much remains to be done before the transformational implications of many of these advances in platforms and systems can be realized. But the Navy is clearly on a path towards a radical change in its capabilities.

Dr. Daniel Goure, is a Vice President at the Lexington Institute. 

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