Category Archives: Sea Control

Main podcast series of CIMSEC. Hosted by CIMSEC President, Matthew Hipple.

Sea Control 127 – Dr. Tom Fedyszyn on Russian Navy Ops, Acquisition, and Doctrine

By Ashley O’Keefe

If you’ve turned on the news recently, you probably noticed that Russia has been dominating it. From their intervention in Syria, to the increasing range and scope of their naval deployments, and the release last year of their new Maritime Strategy, Russia – and the Russian Navy – have turned our focus back to our Cold War foe. In this episode of Sea Control, we explore the Russian Navy’s modernization plans and recent newsworthy stories with U.S. Naval War College Professor (and retired Navy Captain) Tom Fedyszyn.

Read on below or listen to the audio below. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

AO: Hello, and welcome to the Center for International Maritime Security’s Sea Control podcast. I’m Ashley O’Keefe, the CIMSEC Secretary, and I’m here today with Dr. Tom Fedyszyn, of the U.S. Naval War College. He’s been a member of the faculty here since 2000, and he serves as the senior advisor to the College’s Russian Maritime Studies Institute. He received a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in Political Science while he was on active duty. His 31-year naval career included military assignments as the U.S. Naval Attaché to Russia, and two tours at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He commanded the USS Normandy and the USS William V. Pratt, and deployed to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Norwegian Seas. He was a principal contributor to both the Lehman-era 1980s maritime strategy, and NATO’s strategic concept following the Cold War. He’s a nationally recognized expert and publishes regularly on maritime strategy, NATO strategy, and the Russian Navy, which is our topic today.

Let’s start off with a very basic question: why is it that we should still be interested in the Russian Navy? I thought that we were interested in China’s rise these days.

TF: Most people in the U.S. Navy seem to care more about China’s navy than the Russian navy. I can attest to that because I’ve been a Russian navy guy for a long time, and I was the rough equivalent of the Maytag repair man for about twenty years. My phone never rang! I’m sure my China counterpart’s phone was ringing regularly.

But the world has changed. Let’s quickly take it to a couple of years ago, when you’re looking around the world, and see Russia, which for about 20 years had been that big former enemy who looked like it was going to be the next big cooperator – a nation aligned with and becoming more and more like the West. And then we were shocked in 2014 when all of a sudden Russia annexes the Crimea, starts a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, and gets everyone’s attention. And so that same country that was cooperating with everyone back in 1998, even 2005, is now listed in NATO documents, for example, as some combination of adversary and aggressor. So, all of those military forces that they had that looked like they were going to do nothing but exercises with us now are potentially aggressive forces that we, especially those in the intel world, need to look at a lot harder.

AO: So where does the Russian Navy operate today? Are they in the same places that they used to be? Are they really a meaningful threat?

TF: Those old enough in the audience remember the old Soviet Navy. For 15-20 years, they were effectively our equivalent, less carrier battle groups. In other words, they outnumbered us in terms of submarines, they were equivalent to us in major surface combatants, and every theater we operated in, they did too. Then they had a 20-year period where they went to sleep, were in a coma. So that’s why we didn’t hear about the Russian Navy for a long time. I’ll make the case that starting around 2008, the Russian Navy began to get money, they began to get smart, they began to get joint, and they began to operate again. So today, pretty much anywhere, you can find ships of the Russian Navy. In some parts of the world, you can see a militarily significant force, and others just in ones and twos. But noting that 15 years ago they were nowhere, there were none in the Atlantic, there were none in the Mediterranean…whereas today they’re almost everywhere. However, they’re not necessarily a military force to be reckoned with at the high level.

AO: Admiral Sir Philip Jones (the British First Sea Lord) said a few days ago that they were seeing the highest level of Russian submarine activity in 25 years. That’s a sentiment we’ve heard not just from the Brits, but also from the NATO commander last year. If that’s true, what is so significant about that fact?

TF: Going back to that turnaround, it was sometime around the year 2000. Speaking only from unclassified sources, from what’s been in the open press, I’ll summarize for you. Between 2001-2003, our best guess is that there were virtually no Russian submarines in the Atlantic. Realizing, of course, that was going to be where a good portion of WWIII was to have been fought, for them to have no submarines in the Atlantic is a very low standard against which to compare the First Sea Lord’s number. But what we’ve been seeing is almost every year since 2008, there’s been an increase in submarine activity of between 5-15 percent. So right now, we’re getting roughly 1,500 at-sea days for Russian submarines all around the world, but an increasingly higher percentage in the Atlantic. So, again, we did start from around zero, but we’re looking at meaningful numbers again. Certainly not the level that we saw during the Cold War, but the trend is very clearly upward.

AO: Specifically when we hear about submarines, we often hear about the “GIUK gap.” For a generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War, we don’t know what that means. Can you tell me its significance, and do we care about it today?

TF: We lived and died by the GIUK gap back during the Lehman days. This is the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.” Just look at a map of the North Atlantic and you can see that it’s the rough equivalent of a choke point for any Russian submarine to get out into the Atlantic – it’s got to run that gauntlet. We did set up a veritable gauntlet there. We had all kinds of sonar and SOSUS activities, we had our own submarines up there, and we had probably the biggest maritime patrol aircraft base in the world up in Iceland, with P-3s flying everywhere. The likelihood that some of our forces would find you, if you were a Russian submarine running that gauntlet, was very, very good. This is essentially what we’re up against now. We had about 20 years of nobody trying to run that gap, and now they’re running that gap again and we’re seeing – or hearing them – again.

A map depicting the GIUK Gap (Heritage Foundation)

AO: Another thing that we didn’t used to hear about was Russian aircraft carriers. We thought the Admiral Kuznetsov was going into an extended maintenance period, and instead, she shows up off the coast of Syria. How did she perform, and what did we learn from that deployment?

TF: First, let me make a little editorial about Russian aircraft carriers. Russians have been talking about building aircraft carriers for a long, long time. It has effectively been talk. What we’ve seen, loosely, is that the Russians’ ability to build very large ships is not very good. With the possible exception of submarines, their performance in building large things that float has been at the “D”/ “D-” level. And of course aircraft carriers are part of that category.

So, when you get what we might call a “sea control” admiral in charge of the Russian Navy, invariably, he will talk about building aircraft carriers. I don’t think there’s been a time when there wasn’t someone in the Russian Navy talking about building aircraft carriers. But what they deliver – well, for their operations right now, they delivered one ski-jump carrier with a very limited air wing.

Do understand that it’s a very high-prestige ship in their navy. It’s unique, and it does give a special capability to their navy that no other ship brings. So, Russian people are very proud of it. Much as in American politics, domestic politics matters to them, too. And the fact of the matter is that the Russian press, which used to be reasonably free when I lived there 20 years ago, is no longer free. It’s very much controlled by the government, and it’s a propaganda tool. What you have now is an opportunity for the government to put a spin on aircraft carrier deployments, which obviously make them look good, and that’s what we saw.

Two stories: when Kuznetsov deployed to the Syrian coast, if you had only read the Russian press, you’d be convinced it was the most successful deployment in the world. Note, of course, that the air wing was only about half of what it might have been, and only a quarter of what we would consider a real air wing.

So, if you read the British press, all you’d see is a ship belching black smoke (and on some days, it even looked like white smoke, for all you surface warfare officers, not good). You’d also have seen the four British destroyers that were tailing it and having it in their sights the whole way.

So, was it successful? To the Russian people, absolutely, A+. To the western world, not so much. The air wing that they took was miniscule. Second, they don’t have much opportunity to exercise their air wing. While I’m not an aviator, I know that this is very difficult. So, I wasn’t at all surprised when within their first week they lost two airplanes due to an inability to operate a flight deck and an air wing properly. So when you only take over 20-25 airplanes, and lose two in the first week, we shouldn’t be surprised that effectively the entire air wing went ashore. That probably wasn’t anywhere in the Russian press, but it certainly was in the western sources. So, did Russia end up with more airplanes in their Syrian operation? Yes. Did the Russian aircraft carrier carry them down there? Yes. Was it a successful aircraft carrier operation? I would say no.

AO: Given that lens, my next question may seem a little silly, but what about the Shtorm 23000E, the next generation aircraft carrier? Defense News was reporting about it earlier this month, citing possible Indian Navy interest. Does this seem likely to be built? Will they keep trying?

TF: The Russian economy is built on exporting minerals (mostly oil and gas). Below that, it’s arms exports. They export almost as much as we do! But they have such a small economy that their arms sales really matter. So, when you look at Russian military capability, sometimes that’s just a small part of why they deploy. A larger part of why they deploy is to show off what type of technology they have and to try to sell it. You mentioned the Indian Navy. When I was in Moscow, there were more Indian officers there than from any other nation. U.S. was second. Why? Because the Russians, by the default of politics, ended up selling India its navy. Still today, about 70 percent of the Indian Navy is Russian. I’ve spoken to lots of Indian Navy officers about this. The sense is that they don’t like the Russian ships, they don’t work too well, they’re suboptimal, but they can afford them. The U.S. has this double-whammy where we’re not that good at selling high technology, and when we sell it, it costs a lot of money. And the Indian budget makes them buy Russian – and they continue to buy Russian. So, should the Russians be able to continue to build the Shtorm, India would be the most likely nation that would buy it.

But remember, of course, Russia just sold and delivered to them the Vikramaditiya, a ski-jump carrier which was 4 years overdue, 300 percent over budget, and every Indian naval officer I’ve spoken to has said, “Well, it’s not a good ship, but we needed an aircraft carrier and we could afford it, so we got what we got.” If this Shtorm really does turn out to be good, the Indians may well want it, but the Indians are also in the process of building their own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would be their first choice, and if they can build it (they’re not very good at building ships either, unfortunately), they’ll stick with their domestic product.

Now, will the Russians actually build it? I would be very pessimistic. When they talk about Shtorm, they talk about building between 3 and 6. That’s how definitive they are – they can be off by a factor of two. It seems that they’re leaning in the direction of nuclear power, but sometimes you can read press articles that suggest maybe not. So they’re so unsure of where this is going, and their track record of having a yard that can build a 65,000 ton ship…it’s unlikely. In fact, if they ever get around to it, they’ll probably have to build it in two sections and then weld it together. I’m no shipbuilder, but I know this can’t be easy.

AO: Let’s switch gears and talk about their new Maritime Doctrine, which was released in 2015. What’s changed since the last version?

TF: Their last one was in 2001, and I’m nerdy about this but I read these documents. It’s important because you need to know what changes there are from one document from the next. If you read American naval strategy, you’ll note that there are significant differences between the one that just came out on the street and the one in 2007 – those differences will affect how we operate and what ships we build. Same for the Russians. In 2001, they wrote what they called a Maritime Doctrine, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a Navy admiral present at the drafting. It was like the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Tourism, and the Secretary of Energy sat down and, at the last minute, invited an admiral in to come in and write a couple of words. It clearly was a maritime doctrine, not a naval doctrine.

In 2015, the new maritime doctrine was signed by President Putin in a formal scene built for television, aboard a brand-new frigate, named for Admiral Gorshkov, as you’ll recall, the founder of the great Soviet Navy, in Kaliningrad harbor. The only other people there were the admiral who ran Kaliningrad harbor, the chief of the navy, the chief of Russian defense, and Russia’s national security advisor. The Secretaries of commerce, tourism, etc. weren’t invited because this new document is significantly different. The tone is just wildly different. You will read phrases like, “The Russian Navy’s mission is to ensure non-Russian naval ships are not allowed to operate freely in the Arctic.” Things like, “NATO is the principal threat to Russia therefore the Russian navy must deploy to the Atlantic because the NATO Navy must be engaged before it gets to Russian shores” and “The Russian Navy will have a permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean.”

Remember, for a lot of years, there were virtually no Russian ships. When I deployed William V. Pratt there in 1989, we watched the 5th Eskadra leave the Med. We were fully expecting that we would be doing the usual tricks with our Soviet counterparts, cat and mouse games with their submarines, etc. They all left! And so the admiral called in all the skippers and said, “We have nothing to do. Any ideas?” I said, “15 port visits?” And he had nothing better, so we were able to have a loveboat cruise. But obviously the world has changed. The Russians are back in the Med. They’ve got a flotilla there, between 7-10 big serious warships, and the reason that they’re there, according to their maritime doctrine, is because of the NATO threat. You read “NATO threat” all over this document. When you read it in the Pacific, it’s clear that they are all about establishing better relations with the Chinese and Indian navies. And so they call a spade a spade. They’re not afraid to talk about which fleets are growing.

And by the way, every fleet is growing according to this document. You wouldn’t think it, but the Black Sea fleet, which was supposed to go away, now because of Ukraine and Crimea is now getting bolstered more than almost any other fleet. They’re talking about expanding each of their fleets – qualitatively and quantitatively. Finally, there’s a huge chapter on shipbuilding this time. They have a huge shipbuilding organization, and it is tasked with building navy ships in response to the demands of the navy – the missions that the navy intends to do. So, in tone and in tenor and in content analysis, the words in the 2015 document are significantly different. The picture of Putin and chief of defense sitting there in the wardroom of the frigate Gorshkov, I think is worth 10,000 words by itself.

From let to right: Victor Chirkov, Dmitri Rogozin, Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu and Anatolii Sidorov onboard the frigate Admiral Gorshkov (Kremlin.ru)

AO: Let’s pick apart this modernization plan. There’s a strategy, then there’s a modernization plan inside of that strategy. Let’s talk about the surface navy, first. How do they expect to evolve and modernize?

TF: They’ve got a plan, and I’ll give you another editorial, too. Whatever they say, decrease it by about 50 percent. They lie, cheat, and steal when they talk about how many ships they intend to operate this year. When I look back on what they say and what they actually do, they get about half. Once again, it’s one of these “how tall are the Russians?” questions. During the Cold War, the debate always used to be, “are they 8 feet tall? 10 feet tall?” We ended up saying maybe 5’6.” Today, we’re having that debate again. No one is saying that they’re 10 feet tall. We’ll get to that later. But, for about 20 years, they were about 0 feet tall. They built virtually nothing. The ships that they had – which was the second-biggest navy in the world back in 1989 – they pulled the plug on it. The ships were just tied at the pier, they began to rot. Though quantitatively it was still huge, qualitatively it was a mess. I can attest to that because I was at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-90s and probably a lot of the reports that I wrote on the Russian Navy at the time, when they were read in Washington, were laughed at. They were so horrifically bad. Now when you talk about modernization, they went from nothing to the point where they’re building a few ships now. The few ships that they did build were aimed at arms exports. So yes, they sold submarines to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, the Chinese Navy; they kept very little. Just ones and two of everything they built.

That started to change around 2008. They continued to build ships, but increasingly to build it for themselves. In the year 2000, it wasn’t uncommon when they started to build, say, a frigate, to take 14 years from the time they laid the keel to the time that they delivered it. Laughable, yes. But that was the way life was back then. Understand, of course, Russia. Russia is a small economy. They lost the Cold war because their economy couldn’t keep up with our economy. We outspent them to death. They’re very aware of that. But what we had was that if we forced them to build a lot of ships, they would run out of money fast. They knew that, therefore they didn’t build a lot of ships. Starting around 2005-2007, economists can help us here, but the economy started to go up. I don’t mean to say this with scorn, but to a great extent, Russia is a large Nigeria. They’re dependent on the price of oil. And if the price of oil goes up, their wallets are very thick. Price of oil goes down, they’re threadbare. Price of oil went up – it was over $100/barrel, and they had more money than they knew what to do with. They had a brand-new secretary of defense back in 2008, Serdyukov. Maybe we don’t know him in the west, but in Russia, they really appreciate what this guy did. He demanded that a lot of money be spent on all the services, and the navy got more than their fair share – 40 percent – of this building budget.

He did that, one, and two, he also kicked a lot of butt and took a lot of names with respect to the operational readiness of the fleet. He saw, full well, that the Russian Navy couldn’t operate with the Russian air force, or the Russian Army. Remember that, back in the 70s and 80s in the U.S.? That’s what they started to grow out of. Under Serdyukov, he understood that they had a conscription-based military, many sailors were almost illiterate, and they, of course, were not the type of sailors that you and I would like on our ships. He started a policy that said, “if it goes to sea, and certainly if it’s new construction…no conscripts.” Conscripts were left to be mess cooks at navy bases. And the real sailors, the contract sailors, went to ships. Remember before I told you ships didn’t go to sea too much in 2000-2002. But they started to go to sea more, without the conscript sailors, and so you got a qualitatively improved force. And at the same time, you were building ships that weren’t just for arms export. They were for your navy. I’m bragging here – get over this – but it used to take them 14 years to build a frigate and now they can build one in five or six. OK, that’s not very fast, but they’re getting better at it. They’ve consolidated their shipbuilding, and they’re building a couple of ships per year. They announce they’re putting out eight warships a year. I’ve yet to see a year where eight ships came out. But, three and four, yes. And of course, they’re not big ships, they’re smaller, they might even be enhanced patrol boats, but at least they are putting out ships. But there are meaningfully, a few classes of ships and submarines that they’re putting out that do appear to be successes.

AO: So speaking of submarines, perhaps you can give a brief overview of today’s submarines, especially how they stack up against U.S. submarines. Are they as good as they once were?

TF: The answer is yes, remembering of course that they were never as good as our submarines. But they got close, and they’re getting close again. Two general areas. First of all, boomers, SSBNs. We have the luxury of having a blue water sea control navy. They don’t. We can talk about that later. But first and foremost, their navy is there for strategic deterrence. So when they get a dollar, they spend it on strategic deterrence, first. Their most successful building program is what they call their Borei class – the 955 class SSBN. They’ve got three in the water already and five more coming, and most western analysts look at it as a successful building program. The bigger problem that they have is with the solid-fuel missile that they’re trying to mate to it, the Bulava. That’s had a very checkered past, in which at times virtually every shot was a failure. Now they’re getting about a 50 percent success rate. They’re happy with that. They’re mating the Bulava to the SSBN, and they claim they’re ready to operate. Their deployments have been short. They tend to be in the old Bastion areas that we got used to looking at during the Cold War. But the point is that their SSBNs are going to sea again with an SLBM. And even though they did have a few other Delta IIIs, Delta IVs, Typhoons, these were unreliable, it was rare for them to deploy. The Russians were proud to say that if necessary they could fire a ballistic salvo from pier side. That’s true. But I’m not sure that’s anything to brag about. So yes, they did have a submarine force with ballistic missiles. But now they’ll have a force, with more to follow, that I expect will be delivered on time. So now they’ll have a force of about eight SSBNs that can deploy and shoot missiles from sea.

Russian Navy Borei-class submarine (RIA Novosti)

Now, SSNs, they’ve got a very impressive new submarine. It’s large, has got a lot of new weapons systems, and is reputedly very quiet. At least in the unclass world, it looks to be close to, but not quite, an LA and Virginia class. It’s got a lot of things, but the problem is that it’s so sophisticated by Russian standards that they’re having a hard time following it with what they claim to be seven more of the Severomorsk class warships. I think it’ll happen, but it’ll happen very slowly, and it’ll be almost like custom-made cars. They’ll happen, but it won’t be like an assembly line. It’s a little too difficult for them to put them on an assembly line yet. But they will be very good, once they do come out, and they’re now talking about a follow-on class of SSN with hypersonic cruise missiles and more sophisticated gadgetry. But if I can summarize, their submarine building is way better than their big surface ship building program. That’s where they’ve concentrated, where they’ve put their talent, their money, where they’ve had most of their successes, and that was true back during the Cold War much as it is today.

AO: Continuing our scope through “things the Russians might build…” missiles. What does it mean that Russian corvettes were able to successfully launch missiles out of the Caspian Sea last year?

TF: Well first of all, cynics say, ‘boy won’t a lot of people want to buy that missile?’ We’re sure that the Russians are wanting to sell it, and they’ll probably sell it a lot cheaper than the U.S. will. But the Russians couldn’t get over how great this was because they were able to shoot this Kalibr-class missile from two different directions, from two different, small platforms. The Buyan patrol boat, which is a 1000 ton patrol boat, can carry 8 of these missiles, with a range of 1500 miles, which is a lot, and, depending on what you read, only three of them were misfires. 23 out of 26 hit something, presumably a target. You know, when we were shooting our first cruise missiles 25 years ago, we had a worse failure rate than that. And they not only shot from Buyans in the Caspian flotilla, but then they also shot from diesel submarines, the brand-new improved Kilo-class submarines, which are delivering to the Black Sea fleet. They shot a series of them from the Med. So they had cruise missiles coming from both directions, from unsophisticated small-ish ships. Very sophisticated weapon, and the world took note of that.

AO: Changing gears a bit, let’s go a bit bigger picture and talk about maritime power. Is it fair to call Russia a maritime nation? Most people would call it a land power. How does that figure into Russia’s national security posture?

TF: That’s right. It’s mostly a land power. But it’s a land power that knows how to use maritime power in selective and judicious ways. I’m going to inject a bit of personality into this too. I think Vladimir Putin prides himself on his navy. I think he identifies with his navy. The navy is sleek, it looks cool, it packs a quick punch. He is a judo master after all. He has used his navy in a number of ways – Syria is the classic example – not only does he have a force off of the Syrian coast, but he is protecting the logistics with his flotilla. 99 percent of all the Russian logistics that goes to Syria comes from the Black Sea, through their port in Tartus. It’s defended by his naval forces, they’ve delivered air power also, and there’s air defense that they’ve set up there. What he has is an opportunity to play a weak hand and to play it forcefully. To a great extent, he played his navy in the 2013 red line on Syria chemical weapons – that’s when he deployed his force. And he was quick to point out that he had a naval force in the Med, when we really did not. His naval force would watch and ensure that the Syrian chemical weapons were delivered to the right place for destruction. It’s a small hand, but he plays it and isn’t afraid to over play it.

He sends his ships, when we were discussing reestablishing relations with Cuba – he sent a cruiser into Havana harbor, and it was sitting there while our diplomats were discussing relations with the Cubans. So, he does a lot with a little. And he’s more than happy to identify with his navy. There’s really no navy celebration that he doesn’t put on his navy hat. With the exception of going barechested, he is most likely seen in Google wearing navy hats. He just seems to like his navy. And he’s been funding his navy very well for quite some time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in naval attire (AP)

So, I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s a maritime nation, because it’s not a sea control navy. He has admirals that have been telling him to build a sea control navy. But our 6th fleet commander did take a look at what he would be up against, and he was not afraid to admit that while it isn’t a sea control navy, it’s not just an A2AD navy, either. It can do more than bloody our nose if we decide to get into a fight with them in the Black Sea, in the Baltic, and certainly in the Arctic. It can do a number of things that can hurt us. They just don’t have the sailors, the seamanship, the tradition, the Admiral Gorshkov, to go after us again in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific. But near their shores, they’re extremely potent.

AO:  Is there anything else you think our listeners need to know, that you think we’ve missed, to wrap up our discussion?

TF: Sleep well at night. If it were a fair fight, our navy still can so wildly outperform their navy that they would never seek a fight like that. As you see Russian doctrine talking about things like hybrid warfare – they’re always interested in an unfair fight. So, they may very well want to take their hybrid warfare, their little green men equivalent, to sea, and they may be interested in provoking us in other ways that we have yet to predict, and we should be ready for that. This would not be existential. But it could certainly hurt us, and it could hurt our pride, and it could certainly surprise us. So I would say let’s be ready for that.

But on the positive side (assuming you look at Russia as an adversary or as an aggressor), their military, much as the Soviet leaders, is dependent on their economy. Their economy has performed very poorly over the past couple of years. Partly price of oil, partly western sanctions, but the bottom line is they’ve had a negative GDP for a couple of years. What’s happened under Mr. Putin is that his budgets have had to shrink in every area. If you were a provincial governor, your budget shrunk by 50 percent last year. If you were a pensioner, your pension was cut 50 percent last year. If you were the chief of navy, your budget wasn’t cut, and you were about the only guy whose budget wasn’t cut. If their economy continues its bad performance, I would argue that the chief of navy is going to get his budget cut next year. All of the grand plans for the new aircraft carriers, destroyers, will be put on hold, and it will be again, sometime in the future. Don’t expect to see it in the near term.

AO: Professor, this has been a super interesting Sea Control podcast, and I want to thank you for joining us. We really appreciate your time, insights, and hope to talk to you again soon.

TF: Ashley, thank you very much. Time did fly and I had a great time.

Ashley O’Keefe is the CIMSEC Secretary for 2016-2017 Editor. Her views and those of Professor Fedyszyn are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Sea Control 126 – End of the Year Episode 2016

By Matthew Merighi

It’s the end of the year, so the CIMSEC team gets together to talk about the events of 2016 and does its best to look into the crystal ball to see what is on the horizon in 2017.

Happy New Year from the entire CIMSEC team!

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control and the Host of Sea Control: North America. He works as Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Sea Control 125: Bryan McGrath on Fleet Design, Distributed Lethality, and the 350-Ship Navy

By Sally DeBoer

The ushering in of a new administration on January 20th has many wondering what campaign promises will materialize and meaningfully affect the U.S. Navy. Is it reasonable to expect movement toward a “350-ship Navy” and, if so, what might such a Navy look like? Where can increased military spending be focused to have the most immediate impact on the United States’ readiness to address near peer competitors?

To answer these questions, we invited one of the United States’ foremost experts on American Seapower, the Hudson Institute’s Bryan McGrath, on this episode of Sea Control. Hosts Sally DeBoer and Mike also talk with Mr. McGrath about measures to increase force lethality, the newly established N50Z office and efforts to let strategy inform the budget, and burgeoning threats in the 21st Century.

Listeners interested in attending Mr. McGrath’s American Seapower Speaking Tour can find more information here.

Read on, or listen to the audio below. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SD: The first topic we’d like to discuss with you is fleet design. The forthcoming Trump Administration has, as part of its campaign promise, vowed to increase military spending and indeed establish a 350-ship Navy (as discussed by Steve Wills in his fantastic recent CIMSEC Article: A New Administration, A New Maritime Strategy). Due to sequestration and decreased funding for platforms in general over the past decade or so, as well as the Reagan-era platforms reaching the end of their service life, we are coming from behind. Where should money be spent to have the most immediate impact?

BM: With respect to the 350-ship Navy, I think the thing to keep in mind is that they have wisely not established a timeline for when they want to reach 350 ships. I’ve done a lot of work over the last few years looking at how the industrial base could flex to meet a larger navy and it seems to me that getting to 350 would be beyond anything but an emergency shipbuilding plan during two terms. What they ought to do is concentrate on getting us on a path to 350, articulate what 350 ships looks like, and create a sense of trust in the congress that the Navy can build ships cheaply and efficiently.

One way to get started on this, and obviously Steve Wills is one of the most articulate defenders of the LCS, is to build more LCSs relatively quickly. I have written an article on this for the Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower where I recommend building two ships per yard in ‘17 and ‘18, and then moving to the frigate design and conducting a competition where the winning yard would build the frigate starting in ‘19 and the losing yard would continue to build LCS through 25. These would be the LCS-plus that the Navy is going to bid on in ‘17 that will have surface-to-surface missiles and air search radar, from what I can tell. This would be one way to produce 12-15 small surface combatants between now and ‘25. That keeps those two shipyards in business.

I think industrial base concerns are important and I recently listened to a hearing on LCS where people were making fun of or dismissing industrial base concerns. I think that’s strategically inept. If we are going to build and maintain the world’s finest navy we have to have a strong maritime industrial base. Plus, the fact is that Wisconsin, where one of the ships is built, was part of breaking down that blue wall and helped elect Mr. Trump. Alabama, where the other ships are built, is the home state of his attorney general. There are political realities here.

The other political reality is Sen. McCain and his desire to move away from the LCS ASAP. I think the Navy could go a long way toward meeting Sen. McCain’s concerns if they articulate within the next year or so what the follow-on frigate is going to be and that it will acquire it at the latest by FY26. There’s a hole in the small surface combatant biplane right now during 4 years in the late 20s that we need to fill and keep building ships.

You asked how to get started – hot production lines can build LCS, and build more oilers. We need oilers and need to rebuild the logistics fleet which is far smaller than it should be. We should also consider ship-to-shore connectors, ocean-going tugs, and understand there are a bunch of ships that can be built quickly, on budget, and show that we’re going forward.

Importantly, in ’17 and ’18, and even more important than building ships, is plugging the holes in the maintenance and modernization of the entire fleet, and not just ships but depot level maintenance on aircraft as well. We are at the ragged edge of hollowness right now and if we decide to start building ships willy-nilly on a base of shifting sands when we haven’t addressed modernization issues then we are making a mistake. I think we can build ships and accomplish this, and plus-up personnel accounts so that we can move and train people. If we’re going to build the Navy 30% bigger then costs are going to be incurred that aren’t bound up in shipbuilding.

SD: To expand on this, what are the major obstacles you see to the 350-ship Navy and to building toward a bigger navy or putting a nation on that road?

BM: I think the biggest issue is that the president-elect made a 350-ship Navy an article of his campaign, he won the election, and navies never grow unless the president is behind them. The first thing is the president has to stay behind that goal. If indeed he does, it is likely to happen. It’s not guaranteed because his bankers on Capitol Hill have to write the checks. The one thing that I haven’t heard yet, but I imagine they’re hard at work on a story to articulate why we need 350 ships, where, why, how will they operate, to what extent, against whom and what threats? The thing that many people don’t realize about the 600-ship Navy in the Reagan era is that that number was rattling around for a while in the late 70s and it was an article of the election in 1980, but it wasn’t until Reagan came into office and John Lehman was able to tie the emerging thinking of some really visionary admirals in the pacific fleet to that number. You need to have a story. Congress won’t appropriate money until they know what the plan is and why. That’s the biggest problem.

SD: Speaking of a narrative, it seems to me as a non-expert, that the Republican party has moved toward the idea of non-intervention and Mr. Trump said yesterday (and I know there’s a difference between things said in promotion and things that actually happen) that there would be focus on non-intervention and just defeating ISIS as far as U.S. military policy goes. Does that indicate to you anything about his commitment to the Navy?

BM: I’m not sure I would say the Republican party has gone in that direction, but the president-elect of the U.S. and his support base have moved in that direction. I think there is a serious tension within the GOP. I am one of the other guys, I think about American exceptionalism and think the world is better with more America in it. The road to perdition is paved by trade wars and moving away from a global trade posture. So, the problem or the difficulty that I see in making the case for a 350-ship Navy is in the “to do what?” question. If you are going to lean on allies to pick up more slack and if Russia is not seen as a major threat, then a 308-ship Navy is probably sufficient, the one that is there now. In order to justify 350 ships you have to have a more global internationalist outlook, so there is some tension there. I think they can thread the needle, but it is going to be hard.

MK: I would like to bring up the decline in attack submarine numbers throughout the early 2020s. There are ways to figure that out, like building 2 Virginia-class SSNs and one Columbia-class SSBN-X a year, but that is going to have to get done and paid for or we won’t have that capability. The attack submarine force will sharply decline right about the time the Chinese undersea threat becomes more pronounced. Right now, having dry-dock space to maintain the fleet that exists is at a sheer premium if we’re going to talk about plussing up the fleet and there will need to be an increase in shipyard capacity for maintaining that fleet.

BM: This is a national strategic issue. The Navy and the U.S. military should defend free markets but we don’t have to practice them. There are sound military reasons for excess capacity – excess capacity that you would never maintain if you were running a business – you don’t want excess stock on the shelves. That’s not the way the military works, we need excess capacity so that we can ramp up and have a workforce that can do what you need it to do.

MK: The other thing I would add to that is we sort of, based on some dubious lessons from WWII, think that we can build ourselves out of any deficit at the beginning of a major war. That isn’t the history of WW2, most of the naval conflict was fought with platforms that existed at or programs that were underway in December of 1941. Second, the shipbuilding excess capacity that existed in the country at the time does not exist today. I am not saying that we’re headed for world war, but it’s a worthy intellectual exercise to think about how you would plus that up and recognize the time that it would take to make a massive change in fleet size inside of a strategic challenge would be prohibitive at this point with the complexity of ships that are being built.

BM: It isn’t going to happen. In those days American shipyards were building merchant ships, you could take that commercial capacity and turn it into cannibalized excess shipbuilding, tank, plane capacity, etc. It just doesn’t exist now.

MK: But it certainly does exist in China though!

SD: That’s a great point, and we talked about in an interview with Dr. Andrew Erickson of the Naval War College, who is the editor of the new book Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. Could you speak to the CNO’s recent OPNAV staff reform co-locating the assessment division with the strategy folks in the new N50 office. Reactions have been positive people like the idea of strategy informing budget. What kinds of substantive changes do you think we can expect from this arrangement and are you generally in favor of it?

BM: Who could not be in favor of it? It’s like ice cream or air. It’s what we have all always wanted in theory, right? Every strategist or would-be strategist wants resources to follow strategy. I think the CNO is making all the right moves and saying all the right things but resources following strategy is hard, really hard. It’s challenging enough to have resources follow strategy when you are utterly in charge of all of the variables – like if you’re running a company and can put internal investments where you want them to go and enter new markets as you want to. The CNO and SECNAV don’t have those luxuries. They have to respond to national tasking and to national strategy, so I think there is great value in the exercise and in the attempt. I look forward to its success – I might not bet on it. I’m going to meet with the N50 people to talk about some of these things and maybe my opinion will change. I am looking forward to it. I do like that some of the folks from N81 are being dragged over there and that there will be a way to assign them or have some folks who are in charge of thinking about how the fight will happen and what will be the desired strategic outcomes pushing them rather than N81 making it up itself, which kind of appears the way it has been done for a long time.

MK: I am also in the wait and see category. I think no matter how good your intentions may be there’s a tendency in large organizations to sort of know the answer going in. I think there’s the potential there that we assign the answer before the answer is given. If we’re told to program to 350 ships we will find something to do with them, rather than try to take a top down approach, which may take longer, given our needs.

BM: I think the CNO is doing something even more intelligent and even more potentially beneficial to the navy than this N81/N50 alignment thing. And that is taking a more architectural look at fleet design and dividing up or thinking about that architecture through domains rather than platforms, and assigning a honcho to each domain who then works with the resource sponsors within that domain to create a program that serves the domain’s ends – threats, networking, weapons, sensors, platforms – in a more holistic and integral way so that you’re able to allocate functionality more efficiently in a domain without thinking about air, surface, and subsurface and other things separately. Think about fighting in that domain in the most efficient way and allocate functionality that makes the most sense. That could be truly revolutionary if it works.

SD: Let’s switch gears. Characterize the fleet’s current effort to increase lethality in terms of conflict with proto-peer competitors. Specifically, we talk about distributed lethality – which we know you’re an expert on – and would like you to speak to the command and control construct that would accompany DL and the kinds of training and experimentation the fleet will undergo to implement it.

BM: So I just gave a talk at the OPNAV staff/CNA Future Strategy Forum at the Navy Memorial. I was on a panel that was called “beyond distributed lethality” and one of the things I said was that it was gratifying to think that DL had become so integrated into thinking that we could now move beyond it. Some of that was tongue in cheek but not all of it.

The subject of my talk was split into two halves. The first was command and control and the second was combat systems. With respect to distributing lethality in the fleet, this includes things like maritime-strike tomahawk missiles, SM-6’s surface mode, OTH missile for LCS and SSC, and also SEWIP bloc 2 and 3. The Virginia Payload Module (VPM) in the submarine force is the granddaddy of DL in my view. Those guys were on that a long time ago and it really affected my thinking. The Navy’s doing a good job of spreading its weapons and that is important because it makes you harder to find, harder to attack, you get to attack the other guy from multiple angles, and you get to hold more of what he values at risk and through more ways.

SINGAPORE (November 30, 2016) USS Coronado (LCS 4) departs Changi Naval Base to conduct sea trials after a maintenance period. Currently on a rotational deployment in support of the Asia-Pacific Rebalance.  (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michaela Garrison/Released)

The command and control of a distributed force is something that bears a lot of thought. The way I look at this is that there is a slider, a continuum, that describes an exquisite peacetime network and comms environment that I refer to as the pre-first shot state of the war environment. This involves very centralized control, very strict ROE the kind of thing we exist in so we don’t get some guy popping off a shot at the ragged edge of the network starting a war. That requires a very sophisticated network with high confidence in communications. For peacetime operations that’s probably the appropriate manner of Command and Control whether concentrated or distributed.  You’re still going to want to have centralized control over weapons employment in that environment.

You move that slider to wartime, “the knife fight in a dark closet,” where you’ve lost a good bit of your SATCOM, probably on HL, LPI/LPD kinds of comms, radio silence. Commanding and controlling those forces is a real challenge but it is something we have to think about in the bright light of peace while we aren’t fighting someone in that kind of environment. We have to be able to maintain as much war fighting capability as we possibly can as you move down the sliding scale toward dark and quiet from light and loud. We have to back up aerial layer networks, tactical receiving of satellites, and aerostats potentially. There’s all kinds of ways to set up networks and temporary networks. But we have to be investing money and thinking about it and imbue our commanders with a very honed sense of mission command and that is – go execute your last orders and oh, by the way, if we lose comms, use your initiative. Go kill people and wreck things.

MK: There’s sort of two ways to solve that. The first is by increasing your sensor payload on whatever you think your smallest unit of action is going to be. There’s a lot of inventive ways to look a little further over the horizon, and in the “knife fight in the dark closet,” the potential of mistakes is going to go up. In my view, I don’t think enough effort is being applied to trying to figure out how we’re going to integrate air assets into DL. I have a couple concerns with that, particularly because in a similar place the reason that Vincennes shot down that Iranian airliner in 1988, a part of it was because she was in the dark and couldn’t get her aviation support fast enough. The alert package launched off of the Forrestal and they burned to get there but they couldn’t get there in time. I think there could be a similar mistake, and in a modern 24-hour news cycle, this would look even more poorly. Look at what the Russians are going through having shot down an airliner. There is a lot of blowback from mistakes like that and so I am a little concerned. I would like to see an increase in sensor payload of those sorts of ships to give them a better look without national-level assets.

BM: There’s an interesting DARPA/Office of Naval Research joint program called TERN. It’s a medium-altitude long endurance UAV that would take off and land on LCS, future FF, DDG, and cruisers. I think that it’s a couple hundred pound payload, 14 hours in the air. It’s just a truck and then you decide what package goes on (comms, IR/ER, radar), so that’s one way to get around that problem. The other thing to think about though is – if we’re in the real knife fight, I should hope that mistakes will be tolerated. If we are in an environment where we’ve lost SATCOM and we’re fighting a first world power mistakes are going to happen and you have to minimize them but I would hope that there would be some understanding.

MK: The Lusitania sinking by a German U-boat in a war zone, potentially carrying war material, had huge strategic impact. So no I don’t think so and the idea that the entire rest of the world while we and China go at it is probably not reality. So you know, to say nothing of some potential attempt to egg us on to do something. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

BM: Don’t get me wrong, you bring up good points, and your point about the rest of the world is well taken. If the U.S. and the PRC get into a scrap the pressure to end it quickly is going to be immense which has in my view, huge fleet architecture implications. You damn sure better have what’s out there in the fleet be a force that can deny or deter their aggression. If you can’t, their aggression becomes more likely because the probability of success becomes higher. I’m not trying to say we would willy-nilly shoot down airliners, what I am trying to say is that there will be mistakes, incredible mistakes when command and control is taken away, but I don’t know that we necessarily want to use the fear of such a thing to help design our force.

MK: I would generally agree. I am just arguing that the likelihood of mistakes will be lessened and the lethality of your basic unit of combat will be higher with some set of fast moving fixed wing aircraft that can look at OTH targets.

BM: Keep in mind one of the reasons DL is attractive is because you don’t need CAW, or you would need one less, because they’re finite and there’s a finite supply. They can’t be everywhere at once. This is the thing that I tell my aviator friends: in a first-world scrape, that air wing is going to be very busy not just doing strike but doing ASUW, hopefully someday ASW again, certainly doing ISR. I think the CAW is going to be incredibly busy, maybe too busy to provide air cover for a SAG out there alone and unafraid.

MK: I think that’s probably true and possible.

SD: With respect to increasing lethality, are there any initiatives you feel that don’t get enough attention from fleet leadership that could lead to increased lethality?

BM: Everyone gets all excited about lasers. Lasers have been just around the corner for 30 years and I think there are applications, they are coming, they are out there, but it’s not like I think, ‘If we just paid attention we could move it along.’ The technology is moving along at the rate that it can. Railgun? I like the railgun as a concept; I like it quite a bit. I think I like it more than anything in its ASMD role, if you could throw a high energy projectile that blows up and creates a lot of FOD in front of a missile that is a wonderful way to take it out and it’s cheaper than trying to do so with a missile. Again, railgun is moving along, someday we will solve the energy storage problem. Storing the power is the issue, not generating it. I would like to see a supersonic long-range ASM that could be fired from a surface ship or sub, I would like to see that in the inventory, and I am talking 500 miles or so. I’m relatively satisfied with the weapons, weapons programs, and sensors. What I am not satisfied with is the networking, the ISR, and the connective tissue among all the elements. What we don’t have is all the interstitial stuff that helps tie it all together.

MK: I think we’ve made some really good progress toward EW but I am not quite sure we’re there yet or have thought about what it’s going to take to fight in a heavy EW environment, both in EA or some sort of electronic defense and providing the frequency agility that we might need in a very complex EW environment. I agree and I think that the increase in lethality of surface ship ASW systems has really changed a lot of things with the way that you can do ASW. AN/SQQ-89(V)15 is really a change in model for the surface navy and it is a very impressive system.

BM: Great point, the surface fleet needs a weapon that can exploit the detection range of the V15. We need to get something headed out quickly toward that submarine in the 4th or 5th CZ to put it on the defense. Killing subs is hard, scaring them is easy. Bryan Clark has done great work at CSBA that showed we were much more effective in WWII at scaring subs away than killing them.

Speaking of EW, the second half of my discussion at the Future Strategy Forum was about combat systems and I made the case I didn’t command a ship that long ago (2006), that ship is still in the fleet (USS Bulkley) the combat system is essentially the same, but the kinetic combat system and the EW combat system were not the same system. They were integrated to some degree, but not fully.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 26, 2008) Sonar Technician (Surface) 1st Class Mark Osborne supervises Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Randy Loewen, left, and Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class Roland Stout, right, as they monitor contacts on an AN/SQQ-89V15 Surface Anti Submarine Combat System, aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)

We need, at the unit level, to have a single combat system that provides decision makers with automated battle management aids, provide strategies that help you conserve weapons, that tell you the better thing to do here is to jam this missile with this technique rather than shoot it with this missile or this gun that kind of full integration of hard and soft kill EW with kinetics at the unit level is required. But then we have to take it to the next level and have networked combat systems in a SAG so the SAG can husband its efforts in the most efficient way, which leads you up to the strike group. You can get to a point where you have almost a web-based combat system that degrades gracefully down to the combat system that is in the ship providing end-to-end functionality within the ship – hard kill and soft kill – that can be networked among other units in order to conserve assets. We have to find a way where  we are not going Winchester on the first salvo.

SD: We had a great debate on CIMSEC where two of our members debated the use of the term A2/AD, what are your thoughts about the CNO’s announcement to move away from that term doctrinally?

BM: First, I have always considered A2/AD to be redundant. A2 and AD are the same thing. It is sea denial – its keeping someone from doing something they wish to do in a chunk of the ocean. So the term itself is redundant. I don’t have any problem with what the CNO did. I think it is reasonable from the standpoint of trying to get people off their fainting couches. People overestimate the “kill zone” that is the Pacific Ocean. It is just not the case, it is looney to think that, but what I think he’s trying to do by eliminating that term is to make sure people understand that we have some tricks up our sleeves and can absorb some of this risk and fight our way in, fight our way out.

MK: I totally agree. He is saying that A2/AD presents it as a fait accompli rather than an aspirational goal is very well taken.

BM: Let’s face it; dealing with OTH radar – OTH radar has different characteristics at night and day. Sun spots, weather comes into play. What’s really needed is the ability in real time to heat map adversary ISR. We have to be able to see where the weaknesses and seams are and that’s where you go project power and do strike, then get the hell out and go do the next one. We can do that, we just have to think our way though it.

SD: I wanted to mention your American Seapower speaking tour. Can you tell our audience what that means, what you’re doing, and how they can attend?

BM: I think we haven’t been doing a good job of telling the American people the value of investing in their Navy and what the payoff is. My speaking tour is targeted to 23 different Rotary Clubs around Maryland. I have done 12 so far and I talk for 20 minutes and answer questions with a bunch of people who don’t ‘get’ the Navy. I am going to the far western edge of Maryland next week, a town called Oakland, and I’m going to  talk to people about seapower. It’s a result of my frustration and my effort to try to do some good.

SD: I want to thank you for your time today, it was a true honor to have you on the show. Any last comments before we sign off?

BM: I love what you guys do, keep it up!

 SD: Thank you very much, sir. Thank you also to our listeners and have a great holiday season.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. The views of the guests are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Sea Control 124 – In Defense of the Littoral Combat Ship

By Sally DeBoer

Few platforms have introduced the degree of controversy that has resulted from the introduction of and growing pains associated with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). From online message boards to the less-than-enthusiastic 72 page Government Accountability Office report on the program, one doesn’t need to search far to find exasperated and at times vitriolic criticism of the program. Though LCS, like any program, is not without its flaws and growing pains, this episode of Sea Control explores the positive aspects of the program and possible applications to tomorrow’s conflicts against the United States’ proto-peer competitors.

Host and CIMSEC President Sally DeBoer discusses LCS with two military historians, Mike, and retired Navy Commander and Ph.D. candidate Mr. Steve Wills. CDR Wills is a retired Surface Warfare Officer who has written extensively on LCS and other naval issues for CIMSEC and other outlets.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 124 – “In Defense of LCS”

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. The views of the guests are their’s alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency. 

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (April 23, 2014) The littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) are underway in the Pacific Ocean (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney/US Navy)