National Security & Defense

Count Unmanned Vessels

The Sea Hunter unmanned vessel in the Williammette River following a christening ceremony in 2016. (John F. Williams/US Navy)
Policymakers should recognize the Navy’s reliance on unmanned vessels.

Two important defense issues — the overall size of the Navy and the role of unmanned platforms within it — are about to be joined in one of the most important policy decisions of our time. The president campaigned on a promise to grow the Navy to 350 ships. After his election, the Navy itself stated that it needed a minimum of 355 ships to accomplish its missions. Three separate force-structure assessments conducted in 2016 concluded that the Navy needs a fleet of 355, 382, and  414 ships. Even a Navy-veteran congressman, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, recently weighed in, following the grand example of the great early-20th-century Representative Carl Vinson, and stated his support for a 426-ship fleet to support the nation’s interests on the five oceans of the globe.

The Navy has also recently stated its intention to invest in new unmanned surface vessels, buying two such platforms a year over the next five years for a total of ten “ghost fleet” vessels for the service.  These vessels will measure 200 to 300 feet in length and displace approximately 2,000 tons of water. Vessels of this size are considered to be ships, not boats, by most measures, especially if they are armed. But will these ten unmanned vessels count in the Navy’s plan to get to 355 ships? Should they “count” in the battle-force ship count?

There may be some disagreement on the definition of a “ship,” and this will not be the first time such a debate has occurred, even in recent memory. Following a 2013 force-structure assessment, then-secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus informed Congress that he intended to modify the battle-force ship-counting rules to include ten patrol craft operating with the Fifth Fleet, one high-speed transport ship, and both of the Navy’s hospital ships, increasing the fleet size by 13 ships with the stroke of a pen. This reversed a policy decision by then-secretary of the Navy John Lehman in 1981, in the midst of his quest to grow the then-479-ship fleet to 600 by the end of the Reagan administration, to count only “those ships which actually contribute to the Navy’s wartime mission of combat and support.” Lehman’s decision was itself a reversal of a Carter-era decision to includein the ship count some reserve and civilian-manned ships that performed auxiliary and miscellaneous support missions. To be sure, both the Mabus and Carter-era (Graham Claytor and Edward Hidalgo both served as secretary of the Navy during the Carter administration) decisions were representative of historic ship-counting methods used during times of peace, innovation, and transition within the force. This is to say that ship counting has always been a fluid exercise that has reflected the current technological trends of the day.

Today’s Navy is characterized largely by manned aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, as well as logistic support ships (oilers and supply vessels), and currently totals up to a deployable battle force of 289 ships. If current projections hold, the fleet will once again be close to 300 ships by the end of 2019, but only at great cost. The Navy’s shipbuilding budget has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2013, but this increase has not brought a parallel increase in ships purchased. This is due to the Navy’s inclination to buy the most expensive ships: aircraft carriers ($12 billion), Aegis-combat-system-equipped destroyers ($1.9 billion), and the world’s most advanced nuclear-powered submarines ($3.25 billion). Countering this trend is the Navy’s decision to provide between $400 million and $600 million a year for the next five years to build a total of ten large unmanned surface vessels.

In other words, the Navy is purchasing ten vessels for less than what it spends on just one submarine. Given their size, it is possible that the unmanned vessels can be built in any of the many smaller yards scattered around the nation, including shipyards on the Great Lakes and along major rivers, thereby increasing competition, potentially driving down costs, and strengthening the defense industrial base. However, the question still remains: Can we consider them “ships” and will they be counted as such? If we count them, should we also count the new large unmanned underwater vehicles, capable of self-deploying across vast oceans, that are being purchased over the next few years?

Perhaps it is best to consider former secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s words from his 1981 ship-count memorandum. Will these new unmanned vessels “actually contribute to the Navy’s wartime mission of combat and support?” According to Rear Admiral Randy Crites, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, the new platforms “will serve as both a sensor and a shooter.” Rear Admiral John Neagley, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, went even further, envisioning concepts of operations where large groups of unmanned surface ships bearing weapons and sensors would sail into battle in company with manned cruisers and frigates. The new unmanned underwater vehicles are envisioned to carry out anti-submarine and mine-laying missions. Given these thoughts, it is clear that unmanned vessels will contribute to the Navy’s wartime missions of combat and support and that an argument should be made to include them in the ship count.

VIEW GALLERY: Aircraft Carrier USS Harry S. Truman

The U.S. Navy has always been innovative. Its first six frigates were of an original design that used the unique live oak wood of North America to fashion a vessel that was stronger than its competitors. The U.S. also invested in steam-powered and iron-clad vessels before other nations. During the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s it even experimented with helium-filled rigid airships (which were counted in the battle force). Today the Navy is taking its first steps toward a significant investment in a new family of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, and it has been working with unmanned aerial vehicles in fits and starts for over three decades. Firmly embracing these platforms, both in fleet concepts of operations and in the ship count alongside more-traditional ships like the new frigate under consideration, will put the Navy on the right course not only to win the next war but also to preserve the present peace.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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