Robbie Harris and Lieutenant Robert McFall penned a very interesting article in Proceedings this month. The Transformation (Again!) of the Surface Navy is timely and on point, and just as Robbie predicted the Tomahawk would change surface warfare in his 1985 Proceedings article â€śIs that All There Is?â€ť, Robbie has a new prediction for Surface Warfare in this latest article.
With the new technologies coming online in the near future, such surface assets will continue to be in high demand. Unmanned aerial vehicles already are starting to fly from destroyers. Advanced radars and multi-mission towed arrays are making the surface combatants more capable than ever, but it is the railgun that holds the potential completely to revolutionize the surface fleet. This new weapon will put a piece of lead on target more than 200 miles away. The velocity of the round coming off the ship could top Mach 7. According to retired Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, former Chief of Naval Research, the railgun will be ready to put aboard ships in the next five years. This gun will take the same footprint of the current Mk 45 but since no powder is required for the railgun, the number of rounds that can fit in the magazine is almost tripled. This gun will easily replace the aging Harpoon missile for surface threats, and it will give the Marines on land the surface-fire support they so desperately need.
I know very little beyond the basics of railgun technology, but when Robbie Harris writes something like that about any piece of technology, I feel like I need to do some homework.
The article authors highlight the flexibility of surface forces and hints towards “something else” for the surface force that will sustain the vital role of surface forces in the future. I would argue that “something else” is already here, evident in plain sight, often taken for granted, and for the record – absolutely represents the inherent flexibility of the surface force. It is also slowly eroding just as the Navy needs it most.
Aircraft carriers and submarines are amazing instruments of war, but only the surface combatant force possess the flexibility and capability to forward national interests in all four of the critical 21st century domains: sea power, space power, cyber power, and soft power – and do so both in war and peace. As naval aviation and submarine forces in the Navy evolve towards an unmanned warfighting regime, the surface force still possess an inherent, distributable capability in peacetime operations that can act as a strategic asset in crisis – a vital role as old as naval power itself.
That strategic power manifests itself as manpower.
As the Marine Corps becomes smaller, and build larger ships (meaning fewer total ships capable of being deployed concurrently), it will fall upon the surface sailors to pick up the slack in several critical roles as part of 21st century seapower. These roles will be particularly evident in HA/DR scenarios, but littorals and coastal governance are vital interests to many of our partners, and the US Navy has a role in forwarding global security in cooperation with our partners. While it is absolutely critical to the financial future of the US Navy that ships are designed to operate with smaller manpower requirements, it is just as important that surface forces retain through design excess capacity to support and sustain the maximum number of human beings on a surface combatant of the future as possible. Minimally crewed combatants cannot give up security forces that number a dozen or two dozen sailors during future operations, but in the 21st century the rules of war will likely demand tasking of sailors to other assignments as part of the business of naval warfare – unless someone actually believes sinking 300,000 tons of enemy oil off an ally coast is going to be an acceptable course of action. Not likely.
If I was advising Congress, I would point out that the United States would get considerably more strategic milage by passing a law that forced all new surface combatants to be designed to support the personnel and equipment requirements of a Marine Rifle Platoon than it would forcing the Navy to design surface combatants with nuclear power. No, not the vehicles, the Marines can deliver that heavy equipment for their platoon with another ship – I’m speaking specifically about the manpower and personal equipment with enough supply for a few weeks – and yes this includes any future surface vessel over 3000 tons (including any future LCS Block).
Why? Because in the emerging modular age of surface fleet constitution Navy uniform and civilian leaders discussed at Surface Navy Association, under the single Marine Rifle Platoon requirement, surface combatants would then be organically designed to support the human elements that – instead of a Marine Rifle Platoon – might instead be SOF, Force Recon, Coast Guard elements, civilian specialists, or any number of other maritime professional specialists like CIVMAR.
The authors are absolutely right, there is genuine power in the flexibility of the 21st century surface force of the US Navy, but with the Navy downsizing the capacity to field quality human talent on surface combatants, some of that flexibility is being lost. In 21st century warfare, it is hard to imagine too many naval war scenarios that are absent nuclear weapons where additional human capcity wouldn’t be a necessary requirement at sea during military operations, and the requirements for personnel capacity during peacetime are evident all the time in 5th fleet anti-piracy operations, among many other duties globally.
The US Navy can certainly bomb or torpedo the 300,000 ton oil tanker off the ally coast, but it is my hope the US Navy studies carefully the distinctions frequently discussed in the context of “flexibility” with a 21st century surface combatant vs their modern aircraft/submarine alternatives in future naval war operations. If the Navy really believes they may one day fight a war against China, please tell me our first option for choking logistics to China isn’t sinking supertankers off Vietnam or Indonesia with submarines.
The US can field all kinds of technology without manpower to achieve strategic victory in a violent war, but only human beings are capable of executing the actions necessary to achieve strategic victory in any violent peace governed by modern rules of engagement. In the Navy it is the surface force that historically represents the US faces forward deployed and distributed to overseas places. While the Navy is very wise to build future warships with the smallest practical manpower requirements for operating a warship, the Navy would be equally wise to recognize the surface combatant as the vessel by which professional manpower should be always ready to deploy from. If the Navy takes the capacity to support lots of people on surface combatants away, it is the definition of removing the flexibility that the Navy will absolutely need in a surface combatant force fighting 21st century wars under increasingly restrictive rules of engagement.
The complex nature of 21st century naval warfare begins with the human migration to the sea happening today globally. The oceans are a populated place, and as such is becoming geography with a human terrain that must be accounted for during naval operations. Submarines and aircraft possess no capacity for human engagement at sea, only the surface force has that. If 21st century naval warfare is still a human endeavor, the vital role for surface warfare isn’t going away anytime soon, because surface warfare is the Navy’s primary human interaction capability on the global seas.