Rough Waters Ahead: How to Maximize the Power of the U.S. Navy's Surface Fleet

America's Navy faces a daunting future environment. Focusing on sea control might be the best way to evolve. 

The U.S. Navy faces a daunting future environment. Flat defense budgets, improving adversary capabilities, growing instability and a defense strategy that portends additional responsibilities all conspire to challenge the fleet’s capability and capacity. At the same time, its backbone—the surface force of cruisers, destroyers and smaller combatants—is at a decision point.

The family of futuristic ships Navy leaders planned to field during this decade is now cancelled or truncated with the recent decision to stop building Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). The Navy cannot afford to develop a new family of ships, because its shipbuilding plan is several billion dollars a year underfunded, compared to historical levels of spending. It also cannot afford to build more of today’s ships to replace those acquired during the Reagan era that are reaching the end of their service lives. The size of the fleet will almost certainly decline, its capabilities may fall behind its rivals, and yet that fleet must operate across seas that are growing no smaller in pursuit of national objectives that are growing no less important. 

The most important of these objectives is to deter or prevail in conflict. In that, the Navy’s first responsibility is to gain and sustain access for the joint force. America’s potential enemies, however, are fielding military systems designed to deny U.S. forces the freedom to operate—also known as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. This will require the Navy to again concentrate on sea control, or taking and protecting areas of ocean in the face of enemy land-based missiles, submarines, aircraft and surface ships.

Sea control has been taken for granted by America since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The U.S. Navy had a substantial margin of superiority over its competitors over the last twenty-five years and its surface fleet branched into new missions, such as ballistic-missile defense and counterpiracy, to stay relevant. Along the way, the surface fleet also took on a more defensive character than its Cold War progenitor. Navy planners assumed land-based patrol aircraft and carrier-based strike aircraft would conduct offensive sea-control operations to destroy enemy ships, submarines and aircraft while surface combatants defended the fleet against enemy missiles.

This division of labor should be reexamined in light of the vulnerability of patrol aircraft and the need for carrier-based aircraft to project power ashore in many of the scenarios for which U.S. forces currently plan. It is time for the surface fleet to give priority once again to being able to engage enemy ships, aircraft and submarines. But with the Navy’s fiscal constraints and the urgency of growing threats, this evolution will need to rely on modifications to existing ships and payloads, rather than building a new fleet out of whole cloth.

Getting more offensive power per ship

Several barriers stand between the surface fleet and its ability to command increasingly contested seas. Most significantly, improving adversary A2/AD systems such as anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles are growing more capable and numerous, compelling surface combatants to devote more and more of their weapons capacity to air defense. Taken to a logical extreme, billion-dollar surface ships will not have enough defensive weapons to defeat all the million-dollar missiles an enemy is willing to launch.

Surface combatants must, therefore, be able to destroy enemy platforms before they can attack. To do so, the surface fleet will need a new concept for air defense that increases air-defense capacity while also freeing up more surface ship vertical-launch-system (VLS) real estate for offensive weapons. Today, the Navy employs a layered air-defense scheme that would use two of its longest-range and most expensive interceptors against each incoming anti-ship missile. Adding insult to injury, not only do ships risk exhausting their magazine of air-defense missiles, their missiles cost on average twice as much or more than the incoming missile cost the enemy.

Since the size of air-defense missiles is a function of their range, the first step to increase air-defense capacity is to contract the fleet’s air-defense umbrella from an over-100-mile range to roughly 30 miles. This would shrink air-defense missiles’ size and in so doing increase the number of them that can be carried on a surface combatant by a factor of four or more. It would also enable integration of air-defense systems that don’t rely on missiles such as electronic jamming and deception, lasers and electromagnetic railguns. These systems operate at 10-30 miles and could reduce the number of defensive missiles needed to defeat an attack.