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 “Is that All There Is?”, 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.

Posted by galrahn in Marine Corps, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


    The idea of adding facilities to support additional personnel above and beyond ships force is a good idea, even if you can supply VBSS teams from your own crews. Look at crew growth on the DD-963 and FFG-7 classes across their service life. Who hasn’t wanted additional berthing when ATG, INSURV or LEDETs show up? Or even for Tiger Cruises for that matter? Expanded berthing, support equipment, and storage space is cheap when first designed and built but costs a fortune to retrofit later.

  • Byron

    How would the MARDET be commanded? Who would issue the orders? Would the orders come down from a Marine officer off-board? Or would they come from a Naval officer who has little if any understanding how Marines are employed. Things are the same as 1812 where the Marines were under the command of the ships master.

  • Byron

    Sigh “aren’t the same as 1812″…I should know to proofread by now…

  • Another reason to rethink the LCS program.

  • Byron

    Chuck, the only way to re-think LCS is to come up with a good way to give them to the Coast Guard where they belong (that’s if they’ll take them)

  • Rob McFall

    As a follow on to this article, I am intrigued by what some of the tertiary effects could be to our increased technological capabilities.

    In Secretary Work’s speech at the Surface Navy Association Symposium, he said that we should be focusing in capabilities instead of number of ship hulls. As mentioned above, the capabilities of the Surface Fleet only continue to increase and our ability to network with shore side entities also stretches that capability even further. As long as our capability as a naval force continues increasing, is it ok for our ship numbers to decrease as they are projected to do?

  • “Byron Says:

    “Chuck, the only way to re-think LCS is to come up with a good way to give them to the Coast Guard where they belong (that’s if they’ll take them)”

    —They don’t have the range, unless the CG gets some oilers.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    I concur with Byron, things certainly aren’t the same as they were in 1812, or 1975 for that matter.

    So in the brave new transformed Navy, how many MARDET billets will there be for female Marines?

    Before you go saying that fighting Marines aren’t female (and fighting sailors are), remember that we won the War of 1812. How many since 1975?

    I am fully prepared to be regaled as a chauvinist (bring it on), but you don’t win a war on the “Love Boat”. And I don’t care how capable the ship is, it isn’t capable of being in more than one place at a time (where as the enemy is).

    I’ve calmed down now… it’s just that whenever this “transformation” thing comes up it makes some of us who have embarked in a “Man of War” spin up to 300 RPM.

    What it comes down to: Semper Procinctum – but for how much longer?

    – Kyon

  • Byron

    And if LCS doesn’t have the range for the Coast Guard, why are we to think they are suitable for the Navy?

    Here’s a tip: they aren’t; not by any metric you can think of, LCS is an epic fail.



    You do realize that MARDETs were a fixture on US Navy ships until the 1990s right? They somehow managed the command issues without problems. A Marine Platoon, if assigned to a ship, will be commanded as it always has been in the Navy, by the Commanding Officer of the ship through the Platoon Leader. Just like Coast Guard Dets, Helo Dets, SPECWAR Dets, Weather dets, Intel dets, Stinger dets, Army Aviation Dets, Cryptological dets, Cover and Deception dets, and EOD dets (Not all inclusive, those are just the ones I have seen assigned to ships I was assigned to).

    Interestingly, USCG LEDETs make for far more more interesting and convoluted chain of command issues than any of the others.

  • Byron

    USNVO (bangs head on desk): My sore and tired brain cells have suddenly flashed on the Saratoga’s MARDET. You are correct sir.

    However…that was then, this is now and in this political climate, will the ships CO be empowered to use his MarDet using deadly force, or will the chess pieces be played remotely from DC?



    Even in todays climate, I would expect COs will be able to utilize appropriate force within the mission and ROE constraints. But not like in the days of old.

    Lets face it, implementing disabling fire or making an opposed boarding against a Liberian Flag tanker off the coast of Sinagore that is suspected of heading to China during a conflict and refuses to stop is probably not a CO on the spot call. Or what about a Chines flagged ship during a conflict carrying cargo to, say France, fair target or not?

    Even during VBSS operations against Iraqi oil smuggling in the late 90s where there were clear cut cases of sanctions violations, COs were not allowed a great deal of lattitude.

    As I mentioned, LEDET employment from navy ships is a convoluted legal hoop jumping evolution. Based on my experience, I would image something similiar will be required for boarding and siezing of enemy and neutral flag ships, decision to use warning shots or disablying fire, etc.

    That’s just the nature of the world we live in, but at least the shipboard command structure is clear!

  • Byron

    And I think this was the point I was making…

  • SwitchBlade

    On a different subject – I wonder what the muzzle “blast” will be like for a 127mm (5″) projectile leaving the Rail Gun at Mach 7 will be like. Can that gun be back fitted without significant modification of the ship or will it blow out the bridge windows every time its fired?

  • Byron, Virtually all the larger USCG cutters have longer ranges (at slower speeds) than most Navy ships. CG ships need long range because of the nature of the ops large CG ships do. They go from the west coast to Alaska or from the east coast to the eastern Pacific and patrol for extended periods without ever seeing an Unrep. They do refuel from shore but try to minimize that.

    CGs have a nominal range of 6,000 miles and Burkes have a range of about 5,000. The National Security Cutters have a range of 12,000 miles, at least partly because there design allows economical operation at relatively low cruise speeds. Even the little 210 ft cutters have a range of over 6,000 miles.


    On the whole railgun thing.

    “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.”

    Five years? Really. OK, lets see, to be ready to be deployed in the next five years, they would need to figure out how to make it work consistentantly and reliably from land at required power levels, develop a working and reliable mount that would not only work at sea but fit on Navy ships, develop the required support structure on the ship (things like cabling, capaciters, electrical distribution and control systems, etc), and develop required projectiles including INS/GPS guidance and terminal homing.

    All in five years? How long did AGS take? How about the numerous long range projectiles that didn’t work out so well and still are not in the fleet (and were not going mach 7+!).

    I am sure they will be able to put a railgun on a ship in five years, its the whole making it fire and actually hit something other than the ocean that I question. I would guess we’ll be lucky if we see a functional weapon system much before 2030.

  • Byron

    Chuck, I was making a bad joke..bad in that I wouldn’t wish the LCS on the Coast Guard. Maybe the Army?