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.”
In a potential conflict, Chinese forces could incapacitate U.S. and allied bases in-theater, and then exploit VLS warships’ shallow magazines and immobile logistics chain to put them out of the fight, regardless of whether the vessels themselves are actually destroyed. Holmes explained the dynamics of such a maneuver, where “anti-ship strikes at sea could deplete our defensive missile arsenal, even if the PLA scores no hits. That means the carrier task force or surface action group would have to take vessels off the line for days or even weeks, depending on where they went to rearm. They might have to cruise thousands of miles to do so.” By Holmes’s calculation, “Debilitating U.S. Navy combat power without a fleet engagement would constitute a win for Chinese defenders. It's a mission kill on a VLS-equipped ship for the length of time that ship is away.”
Underway Replenishment or “Forward Reloading?”
It remains unclear what specifically CNO Richardson and the Navy have in mind for “bringing back” the ability to reload vertical launch cells at sea (Admiral Richardson’s Public Affairs Officer did not respond to an email requesting clarification before publication). Early Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers once had VLS strikedown cranes that were rated to lift medium-range SM-2 surface-to-air missiles and ASROC antisubmarine rocket-boosted torpedoes, but were incapable of lifting larger loads of the size of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the new multipurpose SM-6. The cranes were left off the newer Flight IIA Arleigh Burkes to make room for additional VLS cells. A 2009 study by Marvin O. Miller of the American Society of Naval Engineers demonstrated in tests ashore the potential feasibility of a robotic VLS reloading arm, stored and maintained aboard a logistics ship, that would do away with the more precarious block and tackle system of the legacy strikedown crane.
Neither Holmes nor Clark believe that the Navy’s new reloading capability will take the form of underway replenishment, in which a logistics vessel steams alongside a combatant at 12–13 knots and transfers supplies and fuel over a high wire between them. Rather, both advocate for a doctrine of forward reloading, where combatant and logistics ships meet in protected harbors close to the contested zone and replenish missiles either at anchor or while holding position under power, as was done off Oman’s Masirah Island in 1991. Holmes, who served as a Surface Warfare Officer before transitioning to academia and was, in fact, the last gunnery officer to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger aboard USS Wisconsin during Operation Desert Storm, elaborated on the technical challenges associated with replenishing missiles underway, and how they would likely influence operational and strategic practice toward the anchorage-based model. “We must rediscover how to rearm close to the combat theater, and that probably means improvising weapons depots in the Western Pacific. It probably cannot be done during alongside operations. We can transfer gun projectiles and suchlike by high wire when alongside an ammunition ship, but, say, an SM-6 or Tomahawk is simply too big to do it safely. We might well damage the missile or the VLS cell. We need calm seas to do it. This would be one time when a nice calm lee would be a help—hence the value of geographic features like islands and atolls.”
Clark suggested that even legacy systems like versions of the strikedown crane would still be useful under this adapted construct of forward reloading at anchor. “Ships today can replenish weapons at sea, but they cannot easily reload weapons into their VLS magazines outside of port. Systems that have been developed for at-sea reloading tend to not work well in even moderate sea states. If the Navy put these systems back on ships, however, ships could reload in a calm location closer to the fight, such as an island or atoll, rather than having to go all the way back to a secure port. That could save weeks of transit time and enable them to get back on the front line faster. We advocated these systems be put back on to ships in our fleet architecture study earlier this year.”
The CSBA study also proposed the construction of a purpose-built class of VLS rearming ship, which would fill a serious hole in the Navy’s logistics force that was left by the early retirement and disposal of its entire destroyer tender fleet in the 1990s, a decision that stands as yet another stark monument to the Navy’s post–Cold War strategic delusion that it would never again face a peer adversary actively contesting American command of the sea.
Pacific Command Takes Action: Small but Crucial Expenditures
CNO Richardson’s expression of the Navy’s intention to liberate its surface forces from the shackles of shore-based VLS replenishment have certainly come at an opportune time, and recent moves by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, seem to corroborate that the Navy is indeed working to address this vulnerability and to strengthen combat logistics across the board. In a May 18 unfunded requirements letter reported last week by Breaking Defense, Admiral Harris made three seemingly innocuous and inexpensive requests that largely escaped notice in press coverage but constitute some of the most crucial investments for assuring U.S. and allied viability in potential conflicts in the Western Pacific: $9 million for “airfield damage repair and port damage repair initiatives,” $5 million for “no-notice agile logistics exercises,” and $8 million for “MILCON [military construction] for Dynamic Basing at Palau and Yap.” With the current presence of such large, centralized U.S. and allied bases along the First Island Chain, ensuring the recoverability of shore facilities—so a single attack cannot put them out of action for a strategically significant period of time—is vital to maintaining long-term survivability inside the PLA’s envelope of ballistic missiles and other Anti-Access/Area Denial weaponry. In turn, conducting snap exercises simulating war conditions for mobile logistics units eases dependency on vulnerable fixed installations and affords Western Pacific striking forces far greater flexibility. Lastly, investing in Palau and Yap, two islands that for the past fifteen years have been under Compacts of Free Association with the United States, offers American naval and air forces invaluable strategic depth by laying the groundwork for ad-hoc basing capacity—Holmes’s proposed “improvised weapons depots”—on U.S.-controlled territory along the Second Island Chain, just six hundred miles west of the Philippines.
The Palau Question: Access to Vital Anchorages Threatened by Congress
Palau is home to a large natural anchorage (untenable in bad weather but suitable as a resupply area) in the Kossol Passage that was used by both American and Japanese task forces during the Pacific War. Yap’s main harbor is much smaller and has a narrow entrance but its calm anchorage can presently accommodate individual ships of destroyer size, where they would be able to reload and conduct repairs in relative safety from the environment and the enemy. Fighters and maritime patrol aircraft based at the 1,800-meter airstrips on both islands would also be able to provide anti-air and antisubmarine coverage for ships replenishing in the vast lagoons of the nearby Ngulu and Ulithi Atolls, which were evaluated as being able to safely moor 300 and 700 ships respectively during the World War II.
With these harbors and airfields less than 1,300 miles, or approximately three days’ steaming time from the likely contested areas along the central part of the First Island Chain, and 1,200 miles from the South China Sea, this area of the Southwest Pacific would be an ideal place for a fleet to rest, refit and reload VLS cells at anchor in relative safety, away from the prying eyes of the People’s Liberation Army. However, Breaking Defense reported last week that the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act has defunded U.S. payments to the Republic of Palau—$17 million per year owed over the coming seven years as part of the Compact of Free Association that gives the United States exclusive military access to the islands. It is to be hoped that more strategically-minded legislators, such as Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, as well as Representatives Rob Wittman, Paul Cook, John Garamendi, Tulsi Gabbard, Martha McSally and Seth Moulton, will be able to convince their colleagues to resolve the Palau question favorably. Those who are perhaps more skeptically inclined toward such outwardly “soft” exercises of American influence abroad should consider their position on the matter in light of the imperative for anchorages in the U.S. Navy’s wartime operational logistics, Palau’s strategic location as a suitable resupply anchorage and airfield close to a potential combat zone, and the unknown variable as to how Palau will reevaluate its relationships with other nearby great powers should Congress choose to all but unilaterally abrogate Palau’s Compact of Free Association with the United States through the deprivation of U.S. payments that represent nearly 6 percent of Palau’s Gross Domestic Product.
“The Substance of Flexibility” and Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past
Rear Admiral Henry E. Eccles, known to some as the “Clausewitz of Logistics,” once said that “the essence of flexibility is in the mind of the commander; the substance of flexibility is in logistics.” Eccles would know this better than most. Before becoming head of the Advance Base Section that planned the myriad of anchorages, airfields, and supply posts that enabled the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s storming advance to the doorstep of Japan in 1943–45, Eccles witnessed firsthand the crippling effects of logistics gone wrong, serving as a forward-deployed destroyer commander during the last campaign the Navy waged to hold back a peer aggressor on the offensive in the Western Pacific. With their fixed bases destroyed and their tenders of inadequate capability and out of position, the ships and submarines of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet found themselves run down, short of torpedoes and ammunition, and severely handicapped fighting a vastly overwhelming foe off the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies in the grim first three months of the Pacific War. Some seventy-five years later, the agony of the Asiatic Fleet continues to hold vital lessons that contemporary planners should keep in mind.
It is of the utmost importance that the U.S. Navy of 2017 not repeat the mistakes of the U.S. Navy of the 1930s by failing to adequately resource and prepare for the strategic logistical challenges of a high-intensity war fought by American ships and planes forward-deployed on the far side of the world. Relearning how to reload vertical launch systems away from established ports and preparing to adaptively base in remote anchorages are essential first steps in this effort, and should be supported—not hindered—by American policy and diplomacy.
Hunter Stires is a student at Columbia University and a researcher at the Center for the National Interest. He is the author of 1941 Asiatic Fleet Offers Strategic Lessons, published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in August 2016. He occasionally tweets under the handle @HunterStires.
Image: The fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent, left, and the guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf prepare for a replenishment at sea in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 1, 2013. The Leyte Gulf was part of the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group and was underway conducting pre-deployment training. Wikimedia Commons / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Justin Wolpert, U.S. Navy