The U.S. Navy is looking to restore its ability to reload its ships’ vertical launch systems at sea, which could be a dramatic logistical game changer in the planning and execution of high-intensity contingencies against peer competitors.
This encouraging revelation comes from an exclusive one-on-one conversation with Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson following his remarks at the U.S. Naval War College’s 2017 Current Strategy Forum last month.
After discussing the means by which the Navy seeks to ensure its forward-deployed naval forces remain survivable and up-to-date with the latest tactical and technological innovation, Admiral Richardson said in reference to vertical launch system (VLS) underway replenishment, “we’re bringing that back.”
Since its operational debut in 1986 aboard the sixth Ticonderoga-class cruiser, USS Bunker Hill , the Mark 41 vertical launch system and its successor the Mark 57 have become the main battery of the preponderance of the Navy’s surface fleet, while the Mark 45 has become the principal means of deploying cruise missiles aboard submarines. Vertical launch systems are among the most adaptable weapon mounts that the Navy fields, allowing a ship to carry a variety of defensive and offensive missiles in the same shipboard infrastructure, and to fire them in rapid succession.
However, unlike other Navy striking arms like the carrier air wing, vertical launch systems cannot, at present, be practicably resupplied and reloaded while at sea. Once a VLS-equipped ship or submarine expends its missiles, it must withdraw to an equipped friendly port to replenish. This represents a significant operational liability, especially in high-intensity combat scenarios against peer adversaries. U.S. surface combatants currently in service have 80–122 VLS cells per ship, each cell being capable of accommodating either one large-diameter missile (such as Tomahawk cruise missiles, rocket-assisted antisubmarine torpedoes, and SM-2, SM-3 and SM-6 Standard Missiles) or four small-diameter Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles for local air defense out to thirty nautical miles. Ships therefore could potentially run through their stocks startlingly quickly. In April’s punitive strike on the Syrian government’s airbase at Shayrat, fully sixty Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross against a single, stationary target that was not actively evading or returning fire, and the next day USS Porter left station for a six-day transit back across the Mediterranean to its homeport of Rota, Spain to reload and begin preparing for its next patrol. And despite this significant expenditure of ammunition, the targeted airfield reportedly resumed flight operations several hours after the strikes concluded.
“Out of Action for an Unacceptable Period of Time”
Leading naval thinkers have identified the Navy’s current inability to reload vertical launch systems outside of port as a serious vulnerability. Bryan Clark, a retired nuclear submariner at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis and coauthor of a fleet-architecture study published by CSBA earlier this year, explained, “In our analysis, we expect surface combatants to quickly expend their VLS magazines even in a small confrontation and need to leave the conflict area to reload.” Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper at the Ferrybridge Group and the Hudson Institute and a coauthor with Clark on the CSBA fleet-architecture study, added that “Distributed Lethality,” the surface fleet’s new doctrine for a more offensive posture, “succeeds or fails on the strength of the logistics that support it. If a ship has to head back to a selected port to reload, it is out of action for an unacceptable period of time.”
“A Ship Is a Building When Sitting next to the Pier”
These issues are perhaps nowhere more salient than in the Western Pacific, where the United States now finds itself facing down a peer competitor for the first time since the Cold War. While China's People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can concentrate its entire naval strength in its own home waters under the protective umbrella of aircraft and missile artillery based ashore in China’s continental interior, the Navy can only allocate a portion of its globally dispersed force to East Asia, and is further hamstrung by the more than six thousand sea miles that separate its fleet concentration areas in the Continental United States from the potential combat theater along the First Island Chain. James Holmes, professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College and one of the preeminent voices on American maritime strategy with respect to an ascendant China, considers the current dependence of VLS-equipped warships on shore installations in the context of the susceptibility of forward bases and the ships docked there to Chinese missiles. For Holmes, “The bottom line is that we must be able to regenerate combat power, and we can't count on reloading missiles pierside in places like Yokosuka, relatively close to the theater. A ship is a building when sitting next to a pier, and thus is exceedingly vulnerable to ballistic missile and other area-denial weaponry.” Regarding concerns about anti-ship ballistic missiles being able to strike ships at sea as well as in port, Holmes added, “There is some debate about whether China can detect, track and target surface ships far offshore in order to vector in DF-26s or what-not. There is no debate at all about whether the Strategic Rocket Force, PLA Air Force, or PLA Navy can range Yokosuka. Guam, the next closest place to the theater, would be under the PLA's shadow as well.”