Where is the Navy Going To Put Them All? (Part One)

Where is the U.S. Navy Going To Put Them All?

Part 1: More Drones Please. Lot’s and Lot’s of Them!

AORH class jpeg

Sketch by Jan Musil. Hand drawn on quarter-inch graph paper. Each square equals twenty by twenty feet.

Recent technological developments have provided the U.S. Navy with major breakthroughs in unmanned carrier landings with the X-47B. A public debate has emerged over which types of drones to acquire and how to employ them. This article suggests a solution to the issue of how to best make use of the new capabilities that unmanned aircraft and closely related developments in UUVs bring to the fleet.

The suggested solution argues for taking a broader look at what all of the new aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles can contribute, particularly enmasse. And how this grouping of new equipment can augment carrier strike groups. In addition, there are significant opportunities to revive ASW hunter killer task forces, expand operational capabilities in the Arctic, supplement our South China Sea and North East Asia presence without using major fleet elements and provide the fleet with a flexible set of assets for daily contingencies.

These sorts of missions provide opportunities for five principal types of drones. Strike, ISR and refueling drones as winged aircraft to fly off fleet platforms, UUVs and the Fire Scout helicopter. So we have five candidates to be built, in quantity, for the fleet. Let’s examine each of the suggestions for what they should be built to accomplish, what sort of weapons or sensors they need to be equipped with and what doctrinal developments for their use with the fleet need to happen.

Strike drone

The current requirements are calling for long range, large payload, and the ability to aerially refuel and are to be combined with stealth construction techniques for the airframe, even if not stealth coated. These size and weight parameters mean this drone will require CATOBAR launching off an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Which also means it will be supplementing, and to some extent replacing, the F-35C in the air wings for decades to come. The merits of how many strike drones versus F-35Cs, and the level of stealth desired for both, will be an ongoing debate for the foreseeable future.

Given that a strike drone built with these capabilities will be tasked with similar mission requirements to the F-35C, we will assume for now that the weapons and ISR equipment installed will be equivalent, if not exactly the same as the F-35C. This implies that whatever work the U.S. Navy has already done in developing doctrine for use of the long range strike capacity the F-35Cs brings to the fleet should only need to be supplemented with the addition of a strike drone.

It is worth remembering that while these drones are unmanned, since they are CATOBAR they will still require sailors on deck to move, reload and maintain them. Sailors who also need a place to eat, sleep, etc.

And the carriers are already really busy places. However welcome the strike drone winds up being, there is not going to be enough room on the carriers to be add even more equipment. Therefore each drone will be replacing something already there, both physically within the hangar bay and financially within the Navy’s budget.

ISR drone

Most of the current public discussion surrounding an ISR equipped drone is rather hazy about what sort of sensors, range and weapons, if any, are wanted. However, the philosophical debate over mission profile, including a much smaller size, localized range requirement and the presumed emphasis on ISR tasks is revealing. The key points to concentrate on for such a drone are the suggested set of missions to be conducted by an arc of ISR drones around a selected location, sensor and networking capabilities, range and durability requirements and a limited weapons payload.

The traditional use of aerial search capabilities onboard a carrier task force was over the horizon, well over the horizon thank you very much, locating of the opponents surface assets. Over the years the extended ranges of aircraft and the development of airborne ASW assets changed the nature of the search and locate mission and the assets being used to conduct it. Adding space based surveillance changed things once more. The coming improvements in networking and data processing capabilities inside a task force, a steadily rising need for over the horizon targeting information coupled with the need to function within an increasingly hostile A2AD environment has once more altered the requirements of the search and locate mission. Search and locate essentially has become search, locate, network and target.

Being able to fund as well as field large numbers of anything almost always means keeping it smaller, and deleting anything not strictly needed beyond occasional use is an excellent way to accomplish this. For the ISR drone, not arming it with anything beyond strictly self-defense weapons is an excellent way to keep size and costs down. Since the primary missions of the ISR drone will be the new search, locate, network and target paradigm, concentrating funding on those capabilities is an excellent way to limit both development and operating costs.

Particularly since putting a large number of the drones, each capable of at least 24-30 hours on station, supplemented by refueling, in an arc around a task force in the direction(s) of highest concern means that the SuperHornets of the fleet can largely be freed from the loiter and defend mission and return to being hunters.

Since I am assuming the railgun will also be joining the fleet in large numbers some discussion about the range of the search, locate, network and target arc suggested above as it relates to the railgun is in order. The publicly disclosed range of the railgun is 65 miles, so an arc of ISR drones needs to be farther out from the task force than that, quite some way beyond that to provide time to effectively network location and target data developed back to the shooters. In the anticipated A2AD environment the primary threat is very likely to be a missile, mostly subsonic but the potential for at least some of them being hypersonic exists. Therefore, the incoming missiles or aircraft will need to be located, networked information sent to the surface assets armed with railguns and the targeting information processed quickly enough that the bars of steel launched as a result will be waiting for the incoming missile at 65 miles. Precisely how far out beyond the railguns effective range the arc of ISR drones will need to be will almost certainly vary by circumstance and the nature of the opponent’s weaponry. Nevertheless, whether subsonic or hypersonic, missiles move rapidly and this means an effective arc of ISR drones will have to be a long distance out from the task force. The farther out the arc is, a higher number of drones will be needed to provide adequate coverage.

This implies a need for a minimum of 6-8 ISR drones on station, 24/7, in all kinds of weather. Since there are inevitable maintenance problems cutting into availability time, this implies a task force will need take twice that number to sea with it. Particularly if a second arc of two or three ISR drones is maintained just over the horizon, or simply overhead. This inner group can also provide local networking abilities for the ASW assets of the task force. Having at least one ISR drone close in to provide a rapid relay of information around the task force by its sub hunters should also be planned for as a doctrinal necessity.

This arc of ISR drones is a wonderful new capability to have, but…., but fifteen drones are not going to fit on a CVN. Not when an essentially equivalent number of something else needs to be removed to make room for the newcomers. Our carriers are packed as it is with needed airframes and trading out fifteen of them from the existing air wing is not going to happen.

Nor is there room elsewhere in the fleet. The CCGs and DDGs have limited space on their helo decks, but even if the new ISR drone were equipped with the modified VTOL engine from the Osprey program, there still wouldn’t be space for more than a few of them. Once more, it is a case of needing to take something out of the fleet to put the new capability in.

This means we have to build a new class, or classes, of ships to operate and house the quantities of drones desired, including operating space, hanger and maintenance space and sailor’s living spaces.

Refueling drone

A drone primarily dedicated to the refueling mission takes on another of the un-glamorous, but unending tasks involved in operating a task force. Instead of the proposed return of the S-3 Vikings as tankers, a somewhat larger drone can be designed from scratch to be a flying gas station with long range and loitering times, presumably with vastly more fuel aboard and built to only occasionally load weapons or sensors under the wings. It could have ISR capabilities or ASW weapons slung under the wings as distinctly secondary design characteristics. In understanding when to use manned versus unmanned systems obviously any extra weight and space gained by losing a cockpit allows for more fuel carried, longer loitering times and extra range. These advantages need to be balanced against the occasional need for a pilot’s skills on scene.


As for the UUVs in development, much has been made of their ability to dive deeply and search for things as well as their ability to autonomously operate far out in front of a task force, including the possibility of submarine launched missions. While interesting a more incremental use of the roughly six feet long torpedo shaped UUV currently in use for deep diving missions might be more appropriate.

While we wait on further research developments to establish ways to effectively utilize a long range, long duration UUV reconnaissance drone, a more mundane use of what we have right now can readily be used for ASW purposes. We could equip a six-foot UUV with the sensors already in use for ASW purposes and cradle it in open sided buoy in order to hoist the UUV in and out of the water. This buoy could be used over the side, or far more usefully, launched and recovered by helicopter. Wave and say hello Fire Scouts.

Fire Scouts

Any helicopter asset that the U.S. Navy has can be used of course, but without a pilot aboard the Fire Scouts are much better suited for the long hours required to successfully prosecute ASW. Taking off with the UUV cradled inside it’s buoy, the Fire Scout can deploy the buoy, allow the tethered UUV to swim to the thermocline or other desired depth, hover while allowing the UUV to transmit or simply silently listen, wait for the resulting data that is collected to be reported via the tether and broadcast by an antenna on the buoy and then once the UUV has swum back into it’s cradle within the buoy, drop back down and relift the buoy and move it to the next needed position. This redeployment can be hundreds or thousands of yards away at the mission commander’s discretion. This cycle can be repeated as many times as wanted or fuel for the Fire Scout allows. A difficulty that can be resolved aboard the nearest surface ship with a helo deck, leaving the buoy drifting in place, UUV on station and transmitting as refueling takes place. Shift changes by pilots should not materially interrupt this cycle. The most likely limitation that will force the Fire Scout to lift buoy and UUV out of the water for return aboard will be the exhaustion of the power source aboard the buoy being used to operate the reel for the tether and broadcast the data collected to an overhead airframe. Which just happens to be another use for the ISR drone or a ScanEagle.

In the next article we will examine how the Navy can make profitable use of UUVs and buoys, deployed and maneuvered across the ocean by the Fire Scout helicopter, in quantity, in pursuit of the ASW mission.

Jan Musil is a Vietnam era Navy veteran, disenchanted ex-corporate middle manager and long time entrepreneur currently working as an author of science fiction novels. More relevantly to CIMSEC he is also a long-standing student of navies in general, post-1930 ship construction thinking, and design hopes versus actual results and fleet composition debates of the twentieth century.

The Coast Guard and Maritime Strategy

In Prof. James Holmes’s recent CIMSEC review of CAPT Pete Haynes’s splendid new book on U.S. Navy strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War, he called for bringing the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) into the Maritime Strategy narrative.

He’s in luck: The same set of CNA [Formerly Center for Naval Analyses] studies that CAPT Haynes used for his book also addresses that very issue. The CNA studies were written in 2007 in the wake of the publication of the U.S. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) maritime strategy and were completed in 2011, while CS21R (the maritime strategy’s revision) was in gestation. They cover the development of U.S. Navy strategy from 1970 to 2010, the context to same, and include sections on USN relationships with each of the other services, including the USCG.

As designed, the CNA studies are being used as an adjunct to the Navy’s current Strategic Enterprise initiative and as a basis for a burgeoning literature on recent U.S. naval strategy, including CAPT Haynes’s dissertation and book, and Dr. Sebastian Bruns’s masterful dissertation (in English) at the University of Kiel. A copy of the material on USN-USCG relationships, extracted from four of the studies and then integrated as a discrete stand-alone document, is available here.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy Captain and for more than 20 years has been with CNA, which includes the Navy’s Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). He is the author of the U.S. Navy Capstone Strategies series, a comprehensive analysis of the Navy’s capstone strategy, policy, and concept documents from 1970 to 2010. He has also authored other studies on US Navy and US Coast Guard plans, policy and operations, and is the CNA scientific analyst for the Navy’s OPNAV Strategy and Policy Division (N51).

Sea Control 86 – Journalism and Soft Power

seacontrol2Dean Cheng discusses the development and purpose of Russia and China’s new and growing journalism institutions in general, and specifically how Xinhua is maneuvering to pose a challenge to traditional western news sources. We also discuss how China’s growing news and media market makes some traditionally understood methods of diplomatic signalling less clear. We also gripe a bit about journalism in the US.

DOWNLOAD: Journalism and Soft Power

Host & Production: Matthew Hipple
Music: Sam LaGrone

Damen’s Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market, Part 2

Selling To Everyone

The list of Damen’s current clients in the Western Hemisphere highlights one curious fact about this company: the Dutch company sells its equipment to both U.S. allies and foes alike. Certainly, Washington sees no fault in Damen’s decision to upgrade Mexico’s naval equipment. On the other hand, the U.S. government probably frowns at Damen equipping countries that Washington is at odds with, such as Venezuela (which was declared a national security threat by the White House this past March). Similarly, Damen’s shipyard in Cuba, a country that was on the U.S. State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism until this past May, is not considered a positive development in Washington.

Nevertheless, Damen has remained neutral in Western Hemisphere geopolitics, as it has dealt with any government willing to pay. This issue deserves further analysis by stating two obvious facts: the U.S. and the Netherlands have generally enjoyed good security relations over the past decades, and Damen is a privately-owned company, which means that the Dutch government has limited influence in the contracts and initiatives it chooses to carry out. With that said, it is bizarre that Damen chose to build a shipyard in a country that has been at odds with the U.S. for decades, and is also selling vessels to countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, which have become a thorn on Washington’s side for years (in the case of Caracas’ for a decade and a half). Certainly, Damen does not need to take into account U.S. foreign policy in its business decisions, but it is nevertheless important to keep in mind how the sale of military equipment can upset regional geopolitics, particularly if this equipment is sold to nations that have carried out aggressive foreign policies in recent years (i.e. Venezuela).

Damen is Important, But Not A Pillar

While Damen has made a name for itself in the Latin American and Caribbean market, the shipbuilding company has not fully cornered this market, as it still faces a number of competitors.

One of Damen’s major competitor is Navantia. The Spanish company has been trying to sell Peru its frigate F-538 model as well as attempting to sell Colombia (and Peru) its F-110 frigate. The company already has a strong presence in the region, best exemplified by a 2013 contract to upgrade the motor system of a Brazilian corvette, the “Julio de Noronha.” Government-to-government exchanges are also common as South Korea has donated one of its corvettes, the now-called “ARC Nariño,” to Colombia. The Donghae-class vessel served in the Republic of Korea Navy for 27 years before it was given to the South American state.

Navantia Warship. Source: Navyrecognition.com.
Navantia Warship. Source: Navyrecognition.com.

Finally, the know-how of Latin American military industries is improving. Case in point, the Peruvian shipyards Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) is currently constructing a new training vessel for the Peruvian Navy, the “BAP Union” – a project worth around $50-55 million USD. Moreover, with support from the Daewoo International Corporation and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, SIMA is building a new multi-purpose vessel for its Navy.

These examples stress how competitive the shipbuilding industry is in Latin America. Not only are there several major companies trying to sell brand new warships, but governments are also donating surplus naval technology. Furthermore, regional shipyards are rapidly improving their knowledge when it comes to shipbuilding, as we now have modern shipyards in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela  that are constructing their own vessels.

In fact, countries like Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela want Damen to construct some vessels in their own shipyards in order for local technicians to learn from Damen’s experts. Certainly, none of these facilities are in a position to build a ship as complex as a carrier, but they can now construct smaller vessels, like patrol boats or support ships.

What this means for a company like Damen is that while it will continue to enjoy new contracts for the immediate future, it will have to continue developing more modern and improved equipment that its Latin American and Caribbean clients cannot purchase, maybe at a better price, from other suppliers, or even construct themselves in the not-so distant future.

A Need for Stronger Naval Forces

As transnational crime over the Caribbean Sea and other maritime crimes, such as illegal fishing, continue throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it has become a major priority for regional states to have modern and capable navies and coast guards in order to protect their exclusive economic zones.

Certainly, it can be argued that the current purchases of some naval technologies are generally unnecessary, given that the region has enjoyed inter-state peace for decades (the last inter-state war in the region was in 1995 between Peru and Ecuador, while the last conflict with naval warfare was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom). Moreover, while transnational crime remains a persistent problem, Latin America has enjoyed cooperation at the inter-state level for two decades (the 2008 Colombia-Venezuela incident notwithstanding). Given this period of peace, some may argue that these defense dollars would be better spent in social programs, especially since many Latin American nations, including Damen-clients like Honduras, are very poor and underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, the reality is different. First, Latin American and Caribbean nations must have some capabilities for deterrence as inter-state tensions continue, such as between Peru and Chile or even the aforementioned 2008 incident between Colombia and Venezuela. Second, transnational drug trafficking remains a major problem from Mexico to Argentina, particularly throughout the Greater Caribbean waters as cocaine is transported from Colombia and Venezuela to the U.S. and Mexico markets. Just last May, the U.S. Coast Guard and the USS Kauffman (FFG 59) interdicted almost 1,800 kilograms of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific.

USS Kauffman. Source:  Mark D. Faram/Staff.
USS Kauffman. Source: Mark D. Faram/Staff.

Hence, it is necessary for Latin American and Caribbean naval forces, including their coasts guards, to have fast and technologically advanced vessels for both internal and regional security – which in turn would diminish their dependence on U.S. security aid. In this sense, the involvement of companies like Damen and Navantia in the Western Hemisphere is a necessity (at least until regional states can build their own high-tech vessels).

Final Thoughts

In recent years the Dutch shipbuilding company Damen has made a name for itself as a provider of high-tech, fast vessels, from multipurpose boats to coast guard speedboats, for various Latin American and Caribbean states. Their clients include nations with small defense budgets like Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, to major buyers like Mexico and Venezuela. Nevertheless, Damen has not cornered these region’s shipbuilding markets, as there are several other companies selling their products, such as the Spanish Navantia, in addition to regional states enjoying growing maritime defense industries.

Moreover, while Damen’s sales to the region have generally controversy-free, the incident over the overpriced vessels sold to Honduras highlights the potential for corruption, i.e. kickbacks, in countries renowned for lacking good governance. I have been unable to confirm if there were other similar discrepancies in Damen’s other contracts in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, countries like Venezuela are known for their lack of transparency (case in point, the billions of petro-dollars spent by Caracas to purchase Russian military technology) while Mexico is infamous for its corrupt state-run oil company, PEMEX. Given these precedents, there are valid reasons for concern over Damen’s deals with its Latin American and Caribbean clients.

Ultimately, the question comes down to whether the region requires new vessels. Inter-state conflict may be scarce, but it remains a possibility given recent tensions between regional nations (i.e. Venezuela and Colombia, Peru and Chile or currently between Venezuela and Guyana). Thus, it is necessary for nations to maintain capable deterrent capabilities. Additionally, these states must have strong navies and coast guards to crack down on maritime crimes that range from illegal fishing to transnational drug trafficking.

In 2015, the waters along Latin American and Caribbean states are far from peaceful and Damen’s vessels, while not the cornerstone of regional navies, are an important addition to hemispheric maritime security.

W. Alejandro “Alex” Sanchez Nieto is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones (UAVs) for civilian and security uses in Latin America. Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

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