The Buzz

This Is How the U.S. Navy Will Stay Ahead of Russia and China

Future naval vessels will not only leverage networking technology and vastly improved information systems, the warships of tomorrow will also be modular so that they can be rapidly upgraded. Essentially, a vessel’s hull and propulsion system might be the only constant during the life of the ship.

“The hull and the powerplant are mostly likely going to be very persistent,” Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told reporters during a roundtable on May 15. “They’ll last ostensibly the life of the ship.”

However, the rest of the vessel—given the pace of technical change—will have to evolve over time. The Navy has had to modernize its current surface ships over time, but those vessels were never designed from the outset to be rapidly upgraded. The Navy’s next-generation combat vessels will be designed to rapidly swap out new technologies from the outset.

“Things will be much more modularized, much more compatible and you can iterate your way into the future with faster steps,” Richardson said. “You’ve got part of the ship that’s built to last, if you will, and part of the ship that’s built to grow and modernize. I think we can get some things done pretty near-term.”

Richardson said that he believes that the concept will apply not only to surface ships, but also to all manner of other platforms including submarines, aircraft and unmanned systems. “The pace of change also demands that we design ships with modernization in mind,” Richardson wrote in a new Navy white paper that was formally released on May 17. “The ‘core’ of those future ships - the hull, and the propulsion and power plants - will likely be built to last for decades. To leave room for future modernization, we should buy as much power capacity as we can afford.”

In addition to surplus electrical power, the hull must enable workers to quickly swap out new technologies and weapons. “On top of that hull and power plant, we must plan from the outset to modernize the ‘punch’ -- the combat systems, sensors, and payloads -- at the speed that technological advances allow,” the white paper states. “Future ships should be made for rapid improvement with modular weapons canisters and rapidly swappable electronic sensors and systems. Related, future designs must aggressively go after ways to drive down the costs to operate and maintain the future fleet, no matter its composition.”

Unmanned systems will feature heavily in tomorrow’s fleet. “There is no question that unmanned systems must also be an integral part of the future fleet,” Richardson wrote. “The advantages such systems offer are even greater when they incorporate autonomy and machine learning. And these platforms must be affordable enough to buy them in large numbers, and networked in order to expand our presence in key areas.”

Richardson also reiterated the Pentagon’s mantra that directed energy weapons, cyber capabilities and networks are key to maintaining America’s dominance in the future. “To complement these capabilities, directed energy technologies, cyber tools, and advanced missiles can cripple potential adversaries’ abilities to track or target our forces. Directed energy will also play a crucial and much more affordable role in defending against high rates of fire,” Richardson wrote. “Netting the battle fleet together in ways that are reliable and secure will allow for maximum flexibility. Strengthening and extending our nets will ‘raise all boats.’ Those networks will support multiple functions, but increasingly will also be a key enabler of artificial intelligence-enabled tools, informed by data analysis, that will allow our commanders to make better decisions faster than our enemies.”

If Richardson’s vision comes to fruition, the United States Navy will continue to dominate the world’s oceans for the foreseeable future.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.