The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan for future warfare calls for a “hybrid fleet,” consisting of an interesting mixture of large warships, drones of all sizes, undersea vehicles and air attack assets. All of these are intended to ensure an all-domain preparedness for warfare moving into future decades of conflict in a new and fast-evolving threat environment.
In the text of the 2021 NAVPLAN, CNO Adm. Michael Gilday calls for a “larger, hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned platforms—under, on, and above the sea—that meets the strategic and operational demands of our force.”
Gilday’s use of the phrase “operational demands” seems significant, as a new blend of small, large, manned and unmanned platforms would be positioned to better respond to a new threat environment requiring more dispersed operations. After all, longer-range attack and vastly improved node-to-node multi-domain networking are designed to fully leverage the fast-unfolding advantages of autonomous, increasingly AI-enabled drones.
“There is no time to waste; our actions in this decade will set the maritime balance of power for the rest of the century,” Gilday said, according to a text of his speech presented online as part of the 2021 Surface Navy Association.
Smaller, faster, dispersed, yet networked and interconnected air, sea and undersea drones can optimize methods of attack for commanders seeking to operate manned ships at safe stand-off ranges and make use of rapid-strike forward-operating weapons and surveillance technology.
“They (drones) will expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage, add depth to our missile magazines, and provide additional means to keep our distributed force provisioned,” Gilday says in the text of his plan.
Smaller boats and drones, Gilday adds, can improve maneuverability and reach, by testing enemy defenses, launching swarm attacks or clearing sea mines.
“Furthermore, moving toward smaller platforms improves our offensive punch while also providing affordable solutions to grow the Navy,” Gilday writes.
What a lot of this emphasis upon “hybrid” indicates is part of the observable rationale that the Navy simply seeks larger numbers of ships, of all kinds. At one point several years ago, the former director of Expeditionary Warfare for the Navy mentioned the prospect of thousands of ships, referring to the prospect of operating large fleets of coordinated drones for humans to control and operate. Perhaps big-deck amphibious assault ships, the Navy leader suggested, could function as “mother ships” operating hundreds of drones. They could use those drones to blanket areas with surveillance, disperse across hundreds of miles sharing information, hunt submarines or even fire undersea, drone-launched torpedoes from surface ships.
Much of this becomes tactically relevant due to the widely understood reality that enemy maritime forces will operate with fortified defenses and anti-ship cruise missiles able to threaten aircraft carriers. Such a scenario requires a carefully crafted operational force posture able to optimize and blend lethality and protection.
Kris Osborn is the 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.