Despite budgetary challenges and a reduced fleet size objective, the U.S. Navy intends to continue to maintain a strong global presence. The USN’s most senior officer tells how the fleet will evolve, and retain its edge in critical areas such as the undersea domain.
WASHINGTON, DC – Twenty years ago, the U.S. Navy (USN) operated a fleet of about 450 warships. On any given day, around 100 were forward-deployed to different global regions.
In an exclusive interview with IHS Jane’s , the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan W Greenert said the service continues to maintain the same number of forward-deployed units, even though the current fleet comprises 165 ships fewer and despite the fact that budget pressures forced the cancellation of a number of deployments in 2013.
“Ten years ago, we had 300 ships. We provided 100 forward,” said the CNO. “Today, we have about 285 ships. We provide 100 forward. It is this presence that is as important today as it was 20 years ago, and will be in the future. What will evolve are the type of ships and aircraft.”
Alongside the acquisition of traditional vessel types – nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, as well as destroyers and amphibious ships – the USN also is updating its force by procuring new types. Designed to accommodate weapons and systems that can be reconfigured or swapped out for specific missions, four key vessels are simultaneously adding capacity and flexibility to the fleet while freeing up high-end platforms for specific warfighting tasks. These vessels are the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB).
“These [types] are new, more efficient, less expensive options, not designed to go into heavy combat or do joint forcible entry with the U.S. Marine Corps, but to provide offshore options to do things such as counterterrorism, small contingencies, protecting an embassy, or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Adm Greenert said.
Referring to the 2013 film Captain Phillips – which recounts the hijacking of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama off Somalia in 2009 – the CNO recalled a scene depicting three USN warships surrounding a small orange lifeboat.
“It looks like quite an armada,” he said, noting that the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), and the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Halyburton (FFG 40) were called to the crisis because they happened to be in the region. “We could have done that mission with a Joint High Speed Vessel,” he asserted.
JHSV and LCS are seen as able to conduct maritime security operations, including counterpiracy, as well as supporting high-end units (including marines and special forces) operating ashore.
As for MLP and AFSB, with their volume and command-and-control capabilities Adm Greenert likened them to large-deck amphibious ships, without the heavy protection. He said the ships could be employed to monitor the undersea environment via sensors deployed in situ, and also could embark autonomous systems to survey an area of interest.
These new vessel types and their payloads will be central to the USN maintaining its edge in the increasingly contested undersea domain in particular.
“We’ve been the predominant nation investing in [this domain] and moving around in it, but there are others that are investing a lot more,” said Adm Greenert. “We cannot sit on our laurels.”
Maintaining acoustic superiority to enable the USN to retain its underwater stealth is a top priority, the CNO said. “The challenge will be to be able to go where it matters, when it matters, in the undersea domain. It would take probably hundreds of submarines if it was just about submarines.” Keeping this edge means establishing a network of fixed and remote air, surface, and underwater platforms, systems, and sensors, he explained. This would include unmanned systems and the recently deployed P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
LCS is planned to host mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission modules. Adm Greenert said the ASW module is expected to be “a discrete level improvement, perhaps a quantum leap, over what we can do on another surface ship.”
“The issue is to get the sonar away from the ship and the noise caused by the machinery on the ship,” he explained. Sonar arrays are often mounted on a vessel’s bow, but in the case of LCS, all of the arrays are towed from the ship and their depth can be controlled.
“It’s like putting a Bose sensor right out the back,” said Adm Greenert, who added that the LCS sensor’s capability increases because its distance from the ship reduces background noise. “You can move the sensor itself. It’s not stuck on the bow …. You can actually move it at varying, different depths to take best advantage of that.”
Noting that LCS and its interchangeable mission packages have been criticised for lacking true warfighting capability, Adm Greenert countered: “If it can go out and find something like I’m describing to you, [and] it can launch torpedoes – that’s warfighting.” Responding to criticism that LCS is vulnerable to surface attack, the CNO said: “It won’t be alone. If there is a [surface] threat … I would have a destroyer with it, with an Aegis radar to give it air and surface cover.”
As for undersea vulnerabilities, Adm Greenert reiterated: “We’re not lone wolves anymore. Those days are pretty much gone.” He added that the USN continues to work with Asian and Latin American nations with diesel submarine expertise, as well as improving interoperability with the UK Royal Navy and French Navy nuclear-powered submarine fleets.
“Bringing what people have, pooling it together in an alliance [is] … really a key to the future,” said the CNO.
Grace Jean, Jane’s Navy International, Dec 17