Wargames, threat assessments, weapons analysis and pure ship numbers were all critical variables for the Navy’s Future Naval Forces Study, a detailed examination which determined that it is both feasible and vital for the Navy to achieve a fleet that is armed with drone boats, technically advanced and as large as 355 ships.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently outlined the parameters of the study, and pointed to some of its key findings, during a recent presentation at the RAND corporation.
“First, they examined the naval forces we currently have; second, they explored future force options needed to retain dominance in 2045 given China’s likely modernization plans; and, third, they war gamed these options, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each combination of ships against different future mission sets,” Esper told the audience, according to a Pentagon transcript.
The scope and goal of the study, which Esper said was led by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, explored “wider and more ambitious future fleet options.” While being clear to operate within what he called a budget-informed manner, Esper did say funding for shipbuilding will need to be increased without creating what he called a “hollow Navy” in the process.
“This study will serve as our guidepost as we decide on, program, and build our future fleet, and conduct follow-on assessments in select areas. In short, it will be a balanced force of over 355 ships—both manned and unmanned,” Esper explained.
Pursuing a carefully calibrated mix of manned and unmanned systems is by no means surprising, given the Navy’s current modernization trajectory which includes the rapid addition of small, medium and large undersea and surface drones.
The Navy’s emerging Ghost Fleet of increasingly interconnected, AI-enabled drone boats is fundamental to these kinds of initiatives, because rapid technological advances now enable groups of drone vessels to share data, coordinate mission objectives and operate in relation to one another while needing little to no human intervention. Hardened networking of synchronized drones, coupled with humans performing command and control functions, can help bring the Navy’s key goals to fruition.
Esper pointed to this when discussing the most significant findings central to the study, an area of emphasis which further fortifies the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations approach. This strategy is intended to draw upon new tactics made possible by longer-range, higher-fidelity sensors, advanced weapons guidance systems and, perhaps of greatest significance, the ability to facilitate secure air, surface and undersea networking across vast distances.
This not only increases survivability, as less condensed force structures are naturally less vulnerable to enemy fire, but also expands the reach of networked maritime combat units. For example, this would let unmanned boats can test enemy defenses, surveil coastline for points of attack and even launch offensive attacks in a larger, disaggregated, yet highly coordinated fashion.
This weapons and platform acquisition plan is already well on its way, as one merely needs to give quick thought to the high number of emerging Navy programs. The Navy is now moving quickly on a building swarming fleets of interconnected drone boats, Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels, Large Unmanned Surface Vessels and both medium and large Unmanned Undersea Vessels. All of these platforms, to emerge in coming years, are intended to expand the warfare envelope for Navy forces, enable dispersed operations and, most of all, network to one another.
The Navy is also embarking upon an ambitious new shipbuilding effort with its growing fleet of new Frigates, according to Esper.
“As an example of where we are headed, earlier this year, the Navy granted a $795 million contract to purchase the first ship of a new class of guided missile frigates—with an option to purchase nine more totaling nearly $5.6 billion,” Esper told RAND.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article first appeared earlier this year.