There are some fairly remarkable statements by Admiral Roughead reported by Danger Room in Spencer Ackermans latest article Navy Chief Dreams of Laser Warships, Ocean-Spanning Robots. The meat of the article gives us plenty to think about.
The easy part has been the Navy’s robotic planes. A long-range surveillance drone, known as BAMS, will fly above the fleet starting in 2015. A pilotless helicopter packed with sensors and cameras, Fire Scout, already tracks drug smugglers in Latin America and recently arrived in Afghanistan.
But the most important Navy drone is the X47B, a fighter plane that the Navy hopes will take off and land from an aircraft carrier by 2018. “I don’t think I’ve been as excited about anything as the unmanned carrier aircraft,” Roughead said in an interview with Danger Room. Before its first flight in February, “I was like an expectant father.”
At USNI/AFCEA West in January, Bob Work told the audience the Navy has already begun planning to deploy medium UAVs on every cruiser and destroyer. Given how few ScanEagles are currently deployed on the fleets surface combatants, that would be good news. While it is unclear if there is money for it, I’d like to see the Navy conduct a test flight of a Reaper off the deck of the LHA(R) once USS America (LHA 6) is launched, and if the LHA(R) isn’t designed to launch an armed Reaper, then I would suggest there is a serious design flaw.
Subs, on the other hand, are much harder. Roughead is thinking way beyond where the technology is: ships that patrol under water for 60 to 70 days, launched from Littoral Combat Ships or destroyers that swim as much as 7,000 miles without returning to the mothership. They’d collect intelligence, defuse mines and attack enemies, disrupting attempts to deny manned ships a piece of the ocean or the shoreline.
“What I’d like to see is [an unmanned sub] having that duration, having reconfigurable payloads — one truck with different payloads,” Roughead said, “the ability to communicate — UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] underwater, and the UAVs, use them as relays, so the network comes into play. But on the underwater side, I’d like to see a very common truck with different payloads.” In other words, the subs might carry different sensors or weapons, but all of them should be able to travel an awfully long distance.
I read the CNO discussing two ideas conceptually with the description above. First, the future of United States Navy SSKs is that of an unmanned submarine, and second the future of the United States Navy SSGN is that of an unmanned submarine.
Finally, more future tech:
Then come the lasers and the rail guns. Directed-energy weapons — military-grade laser cannons — have been a military dream for decades, along with guns that fire their munitions with bursts of electromagnetic energy. But Roughead directed the Navy’s mad scientists at the Office of Naval Research to go full-bore into laser research. By the 2020s, they estimate, surface ships should have a range of kilowatt- and even megawatt-class lasers for their protection, burning through steel in seconds and firing bullets at hypersonic speeds.
“You’re beginning, maybe, to see the end of the dominance of the missile,” Roughead said. “There may still be some applications that come into play that you might want to use them in. But I also think you’re beginning to also see the increase in the depth of the magazine chain. In other words, the capacity’s going to change, because you essentially have a rechargeable projectile.” Advantage United States, as the rise of lasers will lead to a geostrategic division into “countries that can afford to go into directed energy and countries that can’t.”
This is one of the reasons why the DDG-51 Flight III is indeed, NOT, a no brainer and is in fact a major concern behind the scenes. The debate for surface combatants after the soon to be BMD block of DDG-51 Flight IIAs is what the Navy needs to do next, and if in fact the Navy needs to move sooner rather than later into a common surface combatant hull form that specifically meets the HM&E requirements of the future – and more specifically has the power and generator technologies to make use of emerging new weapons technology.
It is entirely possible that these emerging technologies will mature faster than the surface fleet is prepared to support them, and keep in mind the DDG-51s have legitimate power challenges in supporting these future technologies. It is entirely possible that the US Navy could be asked to fight a war at sea in 2030 against a serious challenger fielding multiple missiles, and to solve the problem, the Navy ends up strapping a laser weapon on a Virginia class submarine because those SSNs, and not the DDG-51 Flight IIIs, have enough power to support that technology. If you think I’m nuts even mentioning this scenario, then you may want to take a second look at the challenges and requirements to make these technologies work at sea as a viable weapon system.
Unlike the transition from the age of guns to the age of missiles, the transition out of the age of missiles will require more from the ship – specifically more power. There are only two ships in the US Navy being built today with the power systems and output in mind that will insure the ship is prepared for these technologies in the future, and that ship class is the DDG-1000.
Which raises the question, how far into the future is Admiral Roughead looking with his long view towards the end of the missile age, and how does that timeline square with the expected life cycle of the major surface combatants in the current Navy shipbuilding plan?
The world wonders.