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US Navy launches development of ‘large unmanned surface vessels’

The US Navy has kick started the research and development of ‘large unmanned surface vessels’ (LUSV) to help the fleet meet its platform shortfall as a means of implementing the concept of distributed lethality in the face of growing peer competitor capabilities.

The US Navy has kick started the research and development of ‘large unmanned surface vessels’ (LUSV) to help the fleet meet its platform shortfall as a means of implementing the concept of distributed lethality in the face of growing peer competitor capabilities.

Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.

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The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.

Further challenging the previously unrivalled dominance of the global maritime commons by the US is the resurgence of an increasingly modernised Russian Navy and the proliferation of advanced, increasingly capable weapons systems, once previously only the domain of global powers. 

These factors, combined with a period of sequestration during the Obama administration and rising funding challenges, have given rise to growing concerns about the US Navy developing a 'hollow force', one that has a large fleet, with little to no manpower to support the tactical and strategic requirements of America's national security doctrines. 

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Despite President Donald Trump's commitment to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the funding question remains an important one for consideration. 

Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."

In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.

While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry. 

Echoing calls for an increase to the US shipbuilding enterprise in response to the rapidly evolving geo-political reality, US Republican senator for Georgia David Perdue jnr has recognised that the US can and should be doing more to keep pace with its rivals. 

"Right now, the world is more dangerous than any time in my lifetime. The United States faces five major threats: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. We face those threats across five domains: air, land, sea, cyber space and space," Senator Perdue explains. 

"The US Navy is one of the most effective tools we as a country have to maintain peace and stability around the world. Today, however, the Navy is in danger of being surpassed in capability by our near-peer competitors. On top of that, our competitors are becoming even more brazen in their attempts to challenge our Navy every day."

In order to meet the growing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of peer competitors, namely the Chinese Navy, the US has sought to diversify its fleet composition away from large-scale, costly platforms like aircraft carriers, amphibious warfare ships, destroyers and cruisers. 

As a result, the US Navy has embarked on a series of research and development and concept-ship acquisition programs in order to develop a a suite of unmanned surface and submarine vehicles to expand the number of ships available to US and by extension, allied commanders.

Diversifying the fleet composition

While the US Navy has just launched its own Future Frigate program (FFG[X]), which saw the selection of a modified Fincantieri FREMM frigate as the basis, the Navy has also recognised that despite being a 'cheap, cost-effective alternative' to provide a global presence for low-to-medium intensity operations, unmanned vessels will play an increasingly important role. 

To this end, the US Navy has awarded a number of shipbuilders contracts worth US$41 million ($56.2 million) to kick start developing requirements and potential designs for a new class of 'large unmanned surface vessels' (LUSV) in the size class of a guided missile corvette. 

Explaining the US Navy's concept, Paul McLeary writing for Breaking Defense said, "The ship is being envisioned as a critical part of a radically modernised fleet that will rely heavily on unmanned ships to scout ahead of manned vessels, conduct electronic jamming and deception, launch long-range missiles at targets found by other forces, and act as a picket line to keep Chinese and Russian ships and submarines away from American aircraft carriers, and far-flung bases.

"Today’s contracts are a mix of requirements analysis and alternative design approaches that will help the Navy figure out exactly what it wants, and avoid the ire of skeptical lawmakers who are watching the program closely."

This diverse and truly global role necessitates an incredibly capable vessel capable of meeting a growing and evolving threat environment in the Middle East, Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. 

"The awards today are part of the effort to take a relatively slow approach to buy the new ships, which are envisioned as coming in about 200 feet to 300 feet in length and having full load displacements of 1,000 to 2,000 tons. The idea is to use existing commercial ship designs to build low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships capable of carrying a variety of anti-ship and land-attack missiles," McLeary expanded. 

Such a vessel would fit in a unique position within the US Navy's force structure, fulfilling an important role within the operational concept of 'distributed lethality', namely fulfilling a key 'sensor' and 'shooter' platform, freeing up larger, manned platforms to conduct strategically sensitive operations. 

Towards the magic '355-ship fleet'

Despite a record level of investment in the US Armed Forces, the US Navy's shipbuilding budget is dominated by expensive, big-ticket acquisition programs, namely the new Gerald R Ford Class aircraft carriers, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines and Virginia Class attack submarines. 

Indeed, the FY2020-21 budget request seeks US$19.9 billion ($29.6 billion) for shipbuilding, approximately US$4.1 billion ($6.1 billion) more than the levels enacted for the FY2019-20 budget request. 

As part of the Navy's budget request, the service asked for two Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, a single Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine and Virginia Class attack submarine, one FFG(X) future frigate, a single LPD-17 amphibious transport dock and two towing and salvage ships. 

The US$4.1 billion ($6.1 billion) reduction saw a cut to both the Virginia and FFG(X) programs, each of which were expected to see two ships funded in the FY2020-21 budget – moving forward, the longer-term budget cuts will also see the US Navy cut five Flight III Arleigh Burke variants. 

Additionally, the US Navy's budget requests US$2.5 billion ($3.7 billion) for aircraft acquisition over the 2020 decade, requesting 'just' US$17.2 billion ($25.6 billion) – which would deliver 24 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, 21 F-35Cs (split between the Navy and Marine Corps) and four E-2D Hawkeye aircraft. 

Despite this investment, Senator Perdue highlights some major challenges in light of Beijing's own rapidly evolving shipbuilding capabilities, stating, "The Chinese Navy has 350 ships today, compared to our 300. By 2034, China is projected to have more than 425 ships. Even if we reached 355 ships, we would still have a 70-ship disadvantage, at the least.

"On top of that, because of the range restrictions in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which just ended in 2019, China has surpassed, or 'out-sticked', us in some missile capabilities as well.

"There are several steps we can take to respond to these developments. For starters, we need to place greater emphasis on funding our shipbuilding enterprise. Also, we need to rebuild our industrial supply chains through consistent, robust funding and by eliminating continuing resolutions."

In response, the US Navy, working in conjunction with the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of a broader national defence review has launched a review of the contemporary force composition, culminating in the plans to scrap two Nimitz Class supercarriers to better allocate manpower and resources, in a decentralised, less vulnerable 'system-of-systems' network of platforms and capabilities. 

As explained in DefenseNews, this new review would herald a major restructure and shift in the way the US Navy seeks to respond to the mounting challenges: "The study calls for a fleet of nine carriers, down from the current fleet of 11, and for 65 unmanned or lightly manned surface vessels. The study calls for a surface force of between 80 and 90 large surface combatants, and an increase in the number of small surface combatants – between 55 and 70, which is substantially more than the Navy currently operates."

While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time – recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. 

Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford classes, respectively – US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy's capacity to adapt and win the fight. 

"Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time," ADM Gilday stated. 

"Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it."

Former acting US secretary of the navy, Thomas Modly, has reinforced the President's push for a 355 ship force, stating, "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"

Building on this, he raised the important question around next-generation weapons systems including hypersonics, unmanned and autonomous systems and new operational concepts to support the objectives of the US Navy. 

"How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So, I’m going to focus a lot on that this year," Modly said at the time.

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over.

In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war". 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

US Navy launches development of ‘large unmanned surface vessels’
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