A recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded, "Historically the U.S. military has often been slow to identify, adequately prioritize, and respond effectively to the emerging challenges likely to impose the greatest stresses on our forces in future contingencies…" The 30-year shipbuilding plan just submitted by the U.S. Navy unfortunately confirms this judgment, and recent decisions by the Senate Armed Services Committee threaten to compound the error.
There is an old saying that there are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets. Although somewhat hyperbolic when first uttered, surface ships are increasingly vulnerable to long-range ballistic missiles; by a proliferation of silent submarines being procured by even middle-range countries; and by swarms of high-speed gunboats and anti-ship cruise missiles, which are available to small countries and nonstate actors. In 2006, for example, the terrorist group Hezbollah damaged an Israeli corvette with an anti-ship missile.
The Navy shipbuilding plan perpetuates a force structure designed around increasingly vulnerable carrier strike groups that will find it necessary to operate beyond the range of their aircraft, while at the same time projecting a shortfall in the submarine force every year after fiscal 2022. Two weeks ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee defunded two advanced weapon systems — the free-electron laser and electromagnetic railgun — that are promising technologies aimed at protecting the survivability of surface ships.
Surface ships, such as carriers, are currently protected by escorts using advanced Aegis missile defense systems. Although the Aegis is quite sophisticated, the advent of supersonic, highly maneuverable and low-trajectory long-range ballistic missiles creates the possibility of overwhelming these systems through swarm attacks. The tactical defender has to bat 1,000, while the attacker would only have one get through. The defender has a finite supply of shipboard missiles, while a land-based attacker at long range, with few inventory constraints, will have an advantage. As the Navy R&D chief, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, has said, "We're fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal."
The free-electron laser, the most powerful laser with which the Navy has experimented, has numerous advantages. First and foremost, it has a deep magazine. As long as a ship can generate sufficient power, it can fire the laser. Second, the "cost exchange ratio," which now favors the attacker (the cost of current anti-missile defense weapons runs from $800,000 to several million dollars per firing) would drop into the range of just dollars per firing. The lasers would be precision weapons able to target radically maneuvering missiles or vessels while limiting collateral damage. Their power could be adjusted, allowing a graduated response, a feature whose value is brought home by the video of a British warship being approached by an Iranian small craft that surfaced this month on the Internet.
The railgun, on the other hand, fires an actual physical projectile that might achieve speeds of Mach 10 and hit targets with massive kinetic power at very long distances (200 nautical miles or more). Both weapons are intended to counter the emerging advantages of ballistic and cruise missiles and swarm attacks by high speed and maneuverable gun boats. They are also quite potent when used on the attack. Although not ready for deployment any time soon, these R&D programs have scored impressive progress over the past year.
The Pentagon in general and the Navy in particular can be criticized for building overly complicated, technically unproven platforms at great expense and for failed acquisition schedules. That is a different matter than eliminating the relatively small amounts of R&D funding for programs for two weapons systems that have such transformative and cost-effective potential.
First, we should not develop a shipbuilding plan with 30- and 40-year life cycles without weapon systems that will defend these vessels against the emerging threats over that life cycle. Second, successful navies in the future will use electromagnetic, laser, pulse and acoustic weapons. They will employ more submerged platforms and more unmanned systems — above, on and below the surface. In fact, the future of warfare will increasingly be based on directed energy weapons fired from space — a threat for which we are not fully prepared.
Armies, it is said, are built in years, navies in decades. It is unclear from where we stand today how well the U.S. Navy is being positioned for that future.
David Wise, an Annapolis resident, is a businessman and writer whose work has appeared in Jane's Defence Weekly, Navy Times, Armed Forced Journal and Strategic Insights. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.