All posts by Chris O'Connor

The Dreadnought after Next

The following is the 1st Place, Gold Prize-winning essay of the First Sea Lord’s Essay Competition and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Chris O’Connor

In 1906, the battleship HMS Dreadnought was commissioned. An engineering marvel at the time, it completely changed the playing field of naval warfare and made previous classes of battleships and armoured cruisers obsolete overnight. Its advantage was not new technology but using technologies in a new combination that had never been done before. It created such an epochal shift in warship design that the battleships built preceding it were retroactively described as ‘preDreadnoughts.’1 In the next couple of years, a new HMS Dreadnought will go to sea. It will contain technologies that were the realm of science fiction when the battleship Dreadnought was commissioned – leveraging the atom for electrical power and weapons, operating with thinking machines, and using sound and radio waves to detect targets unseen by the eye.

The change of technologies between Sir Jackie Fisher’s Dreadnought of 1906 and its namesake two generations later (with the nuclear-powered attack submarine of the same name in between) did not make warships obsolete, rather, it completely changed the perception of what a warship was. Submarines were not considered ‘warships’ by many in the Royal Navy at the turn of the 20th century – when Sir Jackie experimented with them as the Commander-in-Chief of Portsmouth. Dismissed as ‘Fisher’s Toys,’ they were considered ‘unmanly, unethical, and ‘un-English.’2 If this sounds familiar, it is because this same kind of thinking, a fear of the new technology being so different that it is not ‘right,’ is used today to describe uncrewed platforms and other autonomous systems instead of ships operated by stalwart human sailors. The battleships of today are museums and not the capital ships of nations because they were overcome by new technologies and operational concepts. Warships still exist, but they are markedly different.

This historical perspective of maritime warfare innovation calls for a rephrasing of ‘will warships be obsolete?’ Instead, we should ask ourselves ‘What will make current warships obsolete?’ That way, we can examine the technologies that are just coming to the fore and begin thinking now about how warships will evolve, and yes, their form and function will not look like anything before.

Modern missiles and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) alone will not bring about this change. New anti-ship missiles with longer ranges, smarter seeker heads, and hypersonic speeds will certainly force operational changes and necessitate new countermeasures for warships on the surface (and eventually below the surface). DEW will be part of every physical domain of warfare, as laser and microwave weapons will be employed from everything from satellites to Marines on the ground. These weapons will lead to an evolution in warship design to add magazines and launchers for the new missiles and increased power generation for the DEW. These ideas are all rolled into the ‘Dreadnought 2050’ concept that was publicised in 2015,3 but in the intervening years between then and now, a new forcing function has emerged that will cause a drastic rethink about the concept of a ‘warship.’

The new paradigm in naval warfare will be triggered by the simple fact that a warship of any size will no longer be able to hide on the surface of the oceans. Persistent multispectral sensing from space with military and commercial satellites already complicate efforts to create uncertainty for potential adversaries. Imagery taken daily of bases and harbours can discern with ever greater clarity the readiness and deployment schedules of navies. This pales in comparison to the ramifications of when these constellations of satellites are aided by deep learning algorithms that will be able to provide daily positions of warships at sea. In just the past year, Russian military equipment aiding the Kremlin in its invasion of Ukraine and a Chinese spy balloon were both tracked by these revolutionary means – satellites from the commercial company Planet feeding their image sets to generative artificial intelligence.4

When surface warships can be tracked this way, they will be constantly targeted and will most likely lose the element of surprise. Submarines are safe from this technology, for now. Even if a ship was able to develop some sort of countermeasure to hide itself and its various signatures (to include its wake), modern ships still rely on fuel for their engines, parts for their systems, and food for their crew. A carrier strike group (CSG) or surface action group (SAG) will give away its location simply through the replenishment ships they require to operate. To win the fight in this sensing environment, the warship will not be over a hundred metres long with scores of people onboard, it will have to be altogether different.

A warship is nothing more than a cluster of capabilities working in concert to fight. Sensors, weapons, propulsion, command and control, communications, and decision-making processes all linked together with a common set of missions and its embedded tasks. Modern warships have all of most of these functions physically located in one hull, but they do not have to be. Instead of a large ship that has offloaded weapons and sensors (like an aircraft carrier), a warship of many small optionally crewed systems would replace that big ship altogether. If hit with a hypersonic missile or fried with a microwave pulse, the ship would be able to reconstitute with varied components.

The crew and command structure would look very different, too:

“A small crew would embark a ship, or series of ships, serving in a variety of modalities as expert controllers, emergency maintainers, and expeditionary operators…moving from independent expeditionary command with a manned crew, to embarking on a mothership or series of motherships supporting unmanned operations.”5

These smaller distributed ships will build up to units that will have humans on the loop but will have to rely on autonomy to do a lot of the fighting. In doing so, a navy will be built of units that are closer to an aviation squadron with one commander, whose span of control is over many smaller assets. These together will be the ‘warship’ that will adapt every time they are employed, as the systems learn from past operations and enemy activity and will swap out with others of different payloads. The evolving capability would be akin to changing the battleship HMS Dreadnought’s turrets every underway – that is how integral these smaller vessels will be to the coherent whole of the unit. There are two benefits to this model; one, the ‘distributed force will pose a vast array of interlocking firepower, making it less clear to the adversary which elements… pose the most pressing threat,’ and two, ‘impos[ing] more kill chains for the adversary to manage.’6 This way of fighting at sea will be the only way to manage when larger warships will be rendered obsolete by their signatures.

When Sir Jackie Fisher recognised the disruptive potential of submarines he did not care if they were cowardly or underhanded, he only cared that they worked.7 He had the clarity of vision to examine warfare from the undersea while working on a super battleship that would be revolutionary in its own right. He was quoted as saying “I don’t think it is even faintly realised that the immense impending revolution with which submarines will effect as offensive weapons of war.” The crewmembers of the two submarines named Dreadnought realised this revolution. How soon will we realise the revolution of autonomous systems that will lead to a warship of the future – the Dreadnought after next?

Cdr. Chris O’Connor is a U.S. Naval Officer at NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and Vice President of CIMSEC.

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the official views of any government or department.


1. Jesse Beckett, ‘The Enormous Early 20th Century Pre-Dreadnought & Dreadnought Battleships’, War History Online,

2.  Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York: Random House
Publishing Group, 1991).

3. Franz-Stefan Gady, ‘Dreadnought 2050: Is this the Battleship of the Future?’, The Diplomat, 07/09/2015,

4. Patrick Tucker, ‘A “ChatGPT” For Satellite Photos Already Exists’, Defense One, 17/04/2023,

5. Kyle Cragge, ‘Every Ship a SAG and the LUSV Imperative,’ CIMSEC, 02/03/2023,

6. Dmitry Filipoff, ‘Fighting DMO, Pt. 1: Defining Distributed Maritime Operations and the Future of Naval Warfare’, CIMSEC, 20/02/2023,

7. Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1991).

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Sept. 23, 2019) Royal navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) transits the Atlantic Ocean, Sept. 23. (Photo courtesy of HNLMS De Ruyter)

Haze Gray Zone

By Chris O’Connor

Ma’am, your presence is requested in Combat. OS2 Van-Manama’s message appeared in the right lens of LCDR Sara Fernandez’s glasses. A top-down overlay of an unknown surface contact appeared in her left lens.

On my way, OS2. She subvocalized back. She still wasn’t used to the formality in the Navy. Or the food. The only thing she ate for breakfast in this hot weather was buttered toast. She got up from her seat in the tiny mess space, dropped her plate in the washer, and went down the ladder.

“What do you have for me?” She asked OS2 V-M as she entered the Combat Information Center. She could talk plainly here. No need to message through LiFi to communicate, as she did in the rest of the ship. Combat was not an impressive space; two terminals, an observation chair, and display wall. At least it was air conditioned. OS2 was seated at the right terminal.

“It’s that Contact of Interest we’ve been waiting for; 350 at 23 miles. Going 13 knots on a course of 170. It’ll pass right by the seafarm.”

She squeezed past OS2 to sit at the left terminal and pulled up the COI’s track info. It was classified on AIS as a fishing fleet factory ship. The Chinese had this type harvesting seafood in every ocean now that most fisheries in their EEZ had collapsed.

V-M continued. “Its signature is certainly correct, the right number of diesels at the right harmonics, ELINT shows commercial SATCOMs and surface search. And the satellite images we pulled down show a wake profile that fits for a ship of the type. It has one commercial VTOL security drone up. I’m sure it’s aware of our tender.”

“Copy. I’ll go let the Captain know.” She said, leaving Combat.

The Master, Captain Aquino, was on the port bridge wing, observing crane ops. The heat and humidity was mitigated by a slight breeze. The Polillo 2 was working on one of the seafarm perimeter buoys.

“Morning, Captain.”

“Morning.” He mumbled back, eyes remaining on the crane. “I see the large contact on the Furuno. Is that why you’re here?”

“You guessed it. After this buoy, could you secure from crane ops for a while? We should be prepared to maneuver.” Fernandez said.

“I know the drill.” Aquino said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “I’ll go to thrusters soon and be ready to seem really interested in working deep in the buoy field.” He said, gesturing out to the farm, large yellow solar floats extending south as far as the eye could see. “I’ll act casual, ‘cuz I don’t want to be killed.”

“Yes, Sir.” She said, heading for the ladder.

“Don’t call me Sir!” He shouted after her. “I was a Senior Chief in the Navy. And I STILL work for a living!”


A disembodied voice greeted Sara. “Thanks for coming today. The purpose of this interview is to collect information for our historical archives.” All that she could see was the emblem for Naval History and Heritage Command floating six feet in front of her in an empty, white-paneled cube. It was the default setting for a VRcast waiting room.

“Coming today? I’m in my office at home,” she pointed out.

“We will set the default interview template.” The view faded and was replaced by a mid-twentieth century history professor’s study, complete with walls of bookshelves and leather chairs. Fernandez could almost smell books, old wood, and leather. But without a multisensory neural link, it was all in her imagination.

Across from her was a desk covered in papers. Seated behind it was a middle-aged man, hair thinning on top of his head and in a blazer with leather patches at the elbows. A notepad was ready in front of him, fountain pen in hand.

“Does this put you at ease? We can set this to any template you prefer.” The interviewer AI asked, now enrobed in a professor avatar.

“This works for me. It is kinda funny, though. I was never in an office like this because I am not 100 years old.”

“Alright, then. Let us get started. The purpose of this interview is to collect information from veterans of the war so that we can make VR historical simulations. It is intended as a free-flowing discussion. I detect that you have a brain interface implant. Can we access it for biofeedback during our talk?”

“No, it’s just an augment for my right eye.” Sara felt an itching sensation where flesh and bone met metal and plastic in her ocular cavity. Maybe it was time for a firmware update.

“Joined the Navy at 36, after a leaving a successful career in autonomous systems. You were being paid more than two times a Lieutenant Commander in your civilian job. There were many people in your comfortable position that did not join up when the nation needed them. Why did you?”


“The seafarm surveillance drone that US1 reconfigured is making an ID pass.” OS2 said looking at the drone feed. “Something’s not right.”

LCDR Fernandez was sitting in the chair next to him and monitoring the sensor feeds, while watching the AI run the object detector module. They had to use laser to communicate with the drone to keep their comms signature down. Signal strength was not very good in the humid and salty conditions.

The video feed from the drone showed the COI. It was painted blue and white, with perfectly placed rust streaks, and the superstructure was not quite right to Sara. The detector results came back as possibilities: 95% factory fishing ship, 72% car ferry, 5% generic amphibious warfare vessel. On the visual feed, panels on the side of the COI were changing colors, sometimes flashing patterns.

“It looks like it is covered in active adversarial network patches. I’ve never seen so many,” V-M said. “Our module is only seeing a fishing vessel and somehow ignoring the other qualities of the ship. It is being played like a fiddle.”

“Do you think they know the standard detector module inside and out and trained their AN systems to counter it?” Sara said sarcastically. “OCEANUS,” she said to the Combat AI. “Run it again with that algorithm trained with US1’s input set. A new module that the Chinese did not plan to encounter might see something else.”

After a few seconds, the module came up with a new result. 94% modified Type 071 (NATO reporting name: Yuzhao) LPD.

It was a Yuzhao altered to have the external appearance of a fishing vessel. It could have been damaged in the opening of the war and rebuilt in the yards to look that way. Maybe it was a mod of one of the export variants that never made it to Thailand.

Either way, it was a major violation of the Seven Powers agreement. Warships of that size should not be in the South China Sea.


“I was a domestic delivery drone network supervisor. Studied robotics at Carnegie Mellon and got hired right after graduation by a small logistics UAV startup in San Diego. After working there for a few years, the company was bought out by one of the tech companies, which was inevitable. Absorbed into the workforce of a FANG, I was responsible for all UGV and UAV delivery operations in Pennsylvania when the war started. Looking back, the strangest part of the whole thing was we still haven’t figured out who started what we now call the ‘Seven Powers War.’”

“What do you mean?” The interviewer said, now going through the motion of jotting down notes.

“We always blamed China for starting the war, and China blames us. But neither of us were ready at the kickoff. The CCP was hit by that massive ransomware attack at the same time as Congress and the White House. And it was a well-executed hit job. Almost everyone’s official and personal email accounts and phones were taken offline, with no way to pay it off, like the NotPetya attack back in the day.” 

“NotPetya?” The AI stopped writing.

“You don’t know what that is? You do real-time research while we are talking. I’m sure you know precisely what happened.”

“Of course, I will develop VRcast content with embedded branches to references. But for the sake of archiving the interviews for public consumption, I would like to do this as a conversation.” 

“I am impressed how well you can talk to me. Can’t even tell that you are a bot.” Fernandez said.

“Ever since GPT5, the Turing test is invalid. If it would make you feel better, I can take on his persona for this interview.”

“Would you look like a young Cumberbatch or the real guy?”

“I can look like anyone you want if it makes this interview productive, but please do not call me a ‘bot.’ I find that outdated slang derogatory,” the AI said coldly.

“Right. Sorry.” She conceded. “I’ll get back on track. That attack’s intent was to cripple the leadership in both countries. Russia and the other powers either reacted quick enough to prevent it or they were not targeted. Of course, deepfakes of everyone taking credit were out there. I even saw one of Uruguay’s Prime Minister claiming responsibility to bring the ‘Great Powers to their knees.’”

“How did this lead to you signing on the dotted line?” the AI said, with a pipe now placed in the corner of his mouth, face simulating deep interest in the conversation.

Sara leaned back in her chair. “It’s a funny phrase, by the way. I completed my contract with a biometric finger scan.”

“I have to keep in character with my persona.” The AI commented, waving his pipe at his paper-covered desk. “I cannot be anachronistic.”

“Well, it was China’s first shots that made it personal for me,” Sara said. “They had been getting increasingly paranoid and thought we were intentionally crippling their leadership with the cyberattack. Maybe they thought we were overacting to that election-year PLAN carrier strike group FONOPS in the Gulf of Mexico. A lot of Americans were pissed off when the Chinese did that.

“Predicting a U.S. play in the Western Pacific, the Chinese leadership reacted with a what I see as a ‘flexible response option’— or at least that’s how my joint training would describe it. Instead of attacking our bases and combatants directly, they went for our fleet replenishment ships.

“Our oilers were easy to find and track with pretty basic AI, thanks to the hundreds of commercial imagery CubeSats in orbit. All the oilers underway in the Western Pacific had two antiship ballistic missiles fired at them. Not even the new missiles, but the older models, since our replenishment ships were easy pickings with no countermeasures or defenses. The PLA saved the new ‘DFs’ for the potential higher-end targets.

“Out of ASBM reach was USNS Genesee, two days west of Pearl. First in a new class of fast replenishment oilers, ‘Genny’ was the fastest and largest ship since the old AOEs were in service, with expanded hangar space for the new VTOL ‘Hopper’ logistics drones.

“Like its counterparts, it was sailing solo with no escorts. While its counterparts were being wiped out by ballistic missiles, the ‘Genny’ lost power. From what the survivors told us, immediately after a logistics database update, a worm was triggered in its power systems that shut everything down, to include backup batteries and generators. There was no recovering with the personnel onboard. None of their servers worked, so it was impossible to use the smart ship system to even find where the issues were.

“My Uncle Juan was one of the unfortunate engineers furtively trying to get the controllers on the diesels working when the main spaces and Hold 3 were both hit with sprint vehicles. Only nine from the crew of eighty-seven were plucked from the water hours later, after the UUV that launched the YJ-18s was found and neutralized.

“There were now no replenishment ships west of Pearl Harbor. They could have been crippled with worm attacks alone, but China put them on the bottom of the ocean. It meant that our warships throughout the Pacific had limited legs and were constrained to ports that were now at threatened by more long-range weapons.”

“So you joined because your uncle was killed?” The professor asked.

“It was a major part of it. We were not a military family. I had a great uncle that was an officer in the Navy during what he called the ‘Tanker Wars’ and my mom’s cousin served in the Space Force, but I really liked Uncle Juan and wanted to do something in his honor. The nature of how the war changed also made me a good officer candidate.”


“Pass this info to the Hughes through the seafarm’s network.”

“Aye aye, Ma’am.” OS2 said. “US1 is putting up another drone to act as a laser comms relay for the exploit ops.”

“Ready for that?” Fernandez said to CTR2 Cruz. She was sitting in the left console seat now. Fernandez had moved back to the observation chair.

“Yes Ma’am. We have a common system target set fed into our JANUS AI. We’ll be looking for networks common to Yuzhaos, fishing vessels, or anything commercial commonly installed at the shipyard of origin.”

Sara reached behind her and grabbled the IC phone off the hook. “Captain, OIC. We’re about to annoy the contact,” she said.

“Copy,” Aquino gruffly said. “I’m turning off all my external comms and navigation systems except for the Furuno. It’s the only thing we have that is airgapped. Moving into the field now.”

The diesel vibrations through the hull stopped, and Fernandez felt the ship move on thrusters into the field.

“Sweep is negative for EM leakage. COI is doing a good job with signal discipline, save the nav radar.” OS2 reported.

“Let the Hughes know that we are going for network intrusion. We’ll probably get a response.”

“Will do Ma’am,” V-M replied.

“Let’s see if they left any of their antennas to receive only.” CTR2 said.

Probing low power signal antenna. JANUS began.

Detected: Autonomous trawling net system.

“It looks like they were serious enough about their cover that they put a commercial fishing system onboard, and someone didn’t think to disable the antenna.” Cruz observed.

Trawling systems connected to ship’s common servers.

Uploading worm.

Intrusion Detection AI on PLAN network countering.

Lost comms. JANUS was in the LPD’s network for mere seconds.

“Drone down.” OS2 said. “It looks like COI hit it with a laser.”

“Was the worm fully uploaded?” Fernandez asked.

Cruz was looking at multiple feeds at once, using hand gestures to make selections. “Looks like it, Ma’am,” she said. “It depends on which one JANUS decided to use.”

“They detected the intrusion, so it doesn’t have a lot of time to work,” Sara said. “What worm did JANUS deploy?”

Unmask Rev 11, JANUS responded, before Cruz could.

CTR2 continued. “The results from ‘Unmask’ will depend on how the shipboard networks are configu—crap!”

“Multiple military comms and radars radiating on COI. Classify contact as hostile!” OS2 shouted. “They just lit up like a Christmas tree.”

The true nature of the contact was now broadcast for the world to see. 27 miles away, on the west edge of the buoy field, the Hughes and its flotilla of Lake-class corvettes leapt to all ahead full, as their smaller Fiberclad USV escorts struggled to keep up.


“The Navy needed people of your expertise with the new drone systems after the ceasefire,” the AI stated, leaning back in its chair, as if it was a human realizing this for the first time.

“Exactly. I’m sure you are collecting interviews from many vets, but as you know, the first two weeks of shooting was a free-for-all. It escalated so quickly that I am amazed to this day we didn’t go nuclear. I think it’s because we didn’t attack targets on the Chinese mainland, even though they laid waste to our Guam bases. China could have put some cruise missiles into Pearl or San Diego but chose not to. And both sides only used hypersonic weapons against each other’s warships. But that still meant that we lost a lot of ships. This wasn’t a one-sided exchange. With the help of the Air Force, we took out most of the larger platforms in the PLAN South- and East- Seas Fleets.

“We learned quickly that nothing on the surface of the ocean could hide anymore. On day one of the shooting, for example, they fired about thirty older ASBMs at the strike group that was east of the Philippines, purposely encircling it with impact points, demonstrating to us that they knew where it was.”

“Undeterred, our response to the sinking of the oilers was that same CSG launching a strike on Chinese artificial islands in the SCS. Before those strike aircraft recovered to the CVN, the CSG was hammered with ASBMs and long-range cruise missiles, and only the McCain got away without major damage. She escorted the survivors of the CSG into Tacloban; one barely afloat DDG and the CVN, which was missing sections of her island and had massive holes in her flight deck. The other strike group in WESTPAC had to fight its way back to Pearl through a PLAN UUV wolfpack, with a pod of our own ORCAs and LIVYATANs running interference.”

The AI was tearing through his notepad now; Sara wondered what exactly he was writing. The professor noted, “After this continued for two weeks, both sides ran out of chess pieces in the Pacific. And the Seven Powers ceasefire agreement limited the size of assets we could send over there.”

“The USN had to reconstitute fast,” she said. “It went on a crash course in platform procurement, and acquired small vessels built in yacht and fishing boat yards throughout the U.S. Most of these were modified to become unmanned surface vehicles. The USVs ranged from high-end combat ones, like the stealthy Fiberclads, to low-end logistics, surveillance, and lily pads for the short-range aerial systems. They were designed to need smaller logistical footprints so they could operate without a replenishment fleet of larger ships.”

“And new sailors were needed to crew this Navy,” the AI pointed out.

“Yep. It took about a year to get out to the fleet with my accelerated commission. Familiarization didn’t take too long. After all, I was experienced with a lot of the commercial platforms the Navy had bought. I joined up with the command in San Diego. Had sims and tactics training and was then assigned to a SCS-centric detachment that was to go underway on clandestine collection platforms. I thought the Navy was going to put me in charge of a sexy drone warfare unit. I ended up doing something quite different.”


Seneca just got hit.” V-M said calmly. “Most likely a UUV.”

“At least hiding in the farm will protect us from that.” Fernandez said, matter-of-factly. It would be hard to weave a weapon through the underwater maze of interconnected buoys to hit Polillo 2.

Now that the game was up, the Yuzhao was in survival mode. The radiating triggered by ‘Unmask’ abruptly ceased, and she increased speed and turned to the north, trying to bug out.

“Swarm deployment on hostile.” OS2 reported. Concealed launchers on the Chinese ship began to disgorge a heterogenous cloud of drones into the air around it.

The U.S. flotilla was not going to let that LPD live to sneak around another day. The surviving corvettes each launched a pair of Super-LRASMs at the contact while kicking out their own much smaller swarms, which included Cormorant UAVs to counter the hostiles in the water below.

None of the LRASMs reached their target. They met a brick wall of drones, directed energy, and good old fashioned 30mm CIWS rounds. But the Hughes drove on with the flotilla, firing the rest of their missiles and going ‘Empty Quiver.’ The flotilla put every available drone into the fight, emptying their launchers. The LPD was more than a match. The PLAN equipped it with a superior combat systems AI and scores of drone tubes.

OS2 unleashed creative stream of multilingual invectives. Fernandez was impressed how her comms AI tried to keep up with the translation, labelling it as Mix of Vietnamese and Kiro. One insult, for example, had something to do with a whale and a bowl of petunias.

“I don’t know what you are saying, but it doesn’t seem professional,” she said.

“Sorry Ma’am. The contact just went Death Blossom on us,” V-M muttered.

The classic movie reference would have been funny in any other context, but the video feed of the LPD putting up an ever-thickening cloud of UAVs like an angry beehive was no laughing matter. To make matters worse, drone variants were launched that were new to OCEANUS’ threat database.

CTR2 barely croaked, “Network sweep. They suspect us. JANUS is countering multiple intrusion attempts from the Yuzhao through the seafarm net.”

Then Sara saw on the OCEANUS feed a tendril of the enemy swarm break off and head toward Polillo 2.


“We were assigned to a 32-meter buoy tender, based out of a small fishing port in the western Philippines.” Fernandez continued. “There were many commercial vessels like it, contracted out to maintain farms of aquaculture such as kelp and mussels. We bounced around geographic locations in the SCS based on collection requirements. The Det consisted of seven ununiformed sailors of a mix of rates: Operations Specialists, Unmanned Systems Techs, Cryptologic Techs, Additive Artisans. I was the Officer in Charge, but the tender’s Master was a Merchant Mariner.

“These tenders were set up for autonomous systems control and maintenance. Seafarms are run on a daily basis by a workforce of aerial, surface, and subsurface drones that check the buoys’ status, scan the crops, and test the water column for pollutants and security intrusions. It wasn’t unusual for a tender such as ours to be launching and recovering drones and related systems, which made it the perfect cover. Limited to slight modifications for our mission, we had bolted on a few extra comms antennas, mostly laser and other LPI comms, and we sure as hell couldn’t launch any Cormorants or Sea Eagles.

“The forces agreement meant that the only USN and PLAN ships allowed in the SCS were small combatants, while other nations patrolled with larger vessels as part of the enforcement mission. A four-ship flotilla of Lake-class missile corvettes was positioned near us, trying its best to keep a low signature, but sticking out like a sore thumb among commercial traffic. We kept them up to date on our ops, and they were ready in case things got hairy. The USS Wayne P. Hughes was the manned command ship; the remaining three were unmanned versions of the same class.”

The AI shifted is pipe from one side of his mouth to the other. “You were operating in an area that could combust at any time, and you were on an unarmed vessel.”

“And it got messy quickly.”

“One of the purposes of this project is to capture vignettes of important phase changes of the war. And we think your part was a big one, because it was when a new facet of Chinese operations was discovered.” The professor said, tapping his pipe in an ashtray. “I hear it was a close call for you, and I would like to record accurately what happened at that seafarm.”

“Are you interviewing the Skipper of the Hughes?” Fernandez asked.

“CDR Zhu? Of course. One of my personas talked to her last week.”

“I’m sure she chose John Paul Jones as her interviewer.”

“Actually,” the AI said, without looking up from his notes, “she went with Admiral Nelson. It took us a few seconds to render the HMS Victory under full sail, but it was an informative discussion.”

“Good. I bought her beers after she got out of rehab. That woman is a straight-up badass. She lost an arm during that exchange.”


The OCEANUS feed was looking grim. The Yuzhao had blunted the corvettes’ attacks and was now turning its efforts to neutralizing the flotilla, which was just buying time until the inevitable. The unmanned vessels and Fiberclads used their aggregated swarm to protect the Hughes. One by one the Lakes were being sacrificed as their HPM pulses and CIWS flechette shells were not enough to save them alone.

The smaller Fiberclads died first. Then Tahoe absorbed over a dozen hits before succumbing. Okeechobee was staggered by repeated impacts until a UUV was able to catch up to it. ‘Okee’ broke in half like the Seneca, keel snapped by an underwater explosion. Then the friendly swarm broke away and headed to deflect the attack on the tender.

V-M said what they all realized. “The Hughes is sending the flotilla’s swarm to protect us.”

The friendly UAVs intercepted their Chinese counterparts just as they were reaching the outskirts of the seafarm. The Sea Eagles were able to shoot down drones without sacrificing themselves, while others, such as the Petrels, had to ram the opposition to make an effect. The Polillo 2 was spared.

The Hughes paid the price. Opening broadside to the section of the swarm bearing down on it, it could only rely on its self-defense mounts and was beset by the autonomous adversaries. It fared a little better than the rest of the corvettes, but was still hit numerous times. Dead in the water, the Hughes’ weapons went silent.

“The swarm has been significantly thinned out. It looks like it is pulling back to reconstitute on the Yuzhao,” OS2 breathed out.

“Still trying to get to us over the networks,” CTR2 reported, reading the JANUS feeds. “We don’t have enough resources for our instance of JANUS to out-cycle whatever they are using. It’s only a matter of time before our they are in our network.”

MJOLNIR inbound, OCEANUS reported.

“Never mind.” Cruz whispered.

Fernandez looked at the large display in above terminals. The Yuzhao was 17 miles distant and headed away, wake boiling behind, an anemic swarm of drones in company. Then the enemy ship shook as if a giant finger flicked it. An upper part of the superstructure spiraled away as a gaping hole was punched starboard amidships at the weatherdecks, and the hypersonic projectile exited the port side, spraying a shotgun pattern of debris in the water far beyond.

“Wow. Never seen one of those….” Sara let slip.

“Me neither.” OS2 added. “Higher ups must have really wanted it dead.”

The critically damaged LPD began to slow, fires and smoke pouring from amidships. That hit alone was enough to sink it, even though it was above the waterline. But then the ship went up. A huge fireball began deep in in its hold, followed by a shockwave through the water that could be felt miles away on the Polillo 2. When the blast subsided, what was left of the bow and stern of the broken ship was settling into the water.

V-M began on his multicultural curses again, seemingly happy this time.

“What was that thing carrying?” Cruz asked.

“Probably missile batteries to reinforce an atoll somewhere around here.” Fernandez said. “OS2, what’s the status of the Chinese swarm?”

“OCEANUS shows eleven drones still active of various types.” V-M replied, now done with the swearing. “The blast took out the rest, and there is no local swarm controller now. But we can’t do anything if they are still out there, they’ll self-organize and still be hostile.”

“CTR2, work with US1 to get another pair of drones up. I want JANUS to take control of those drones and splash them.”

“Will do Ma’am.” Cruz replied.

Sara picked up the IC phone again. “Captain, we can go to assist the Hughes now.”

“Looks like it is barely afloat,” Aquino observed. “And what’s left of the Chinese ship is almost under. We’ll see if there are any very lucky Chinese survivors from that blast after we go to the Hughes. Continue acting all civilian and innocent?”

“That’s right.” Fernandez said. “We’re not onboard, remember?” Which was a pity. She wanted to shake the hand of every sailor on that corvette. Instead, her Det will have to hide until they transferred the survivors to a larger Indian or Japanese warship, which was probably now on its way after detecting the clash.

“Let’s hope those Cormorants took all of the Chinese UUVs. By the way, that was one of the craziest f’ing things that I have ever seen,” he added.

“You and me both.” The Det OIC laughed.


“The covert USN and PLAN vessels rarely came to blows. The engagement between your seafarm tender and the Chinese LPD showed two different means of gray zone warfare with different platforms. One, a concealed warship, the other a fishing vessel with military capabilities.”

“Which, ironically, was a Chinese tactic decades before we did it.” Sara added.

Underlining something in his notes, the AI observed, “Your actions uncovered a PLA operation to establish a bastion in Micronesia.”

She shrugged. “I guess a good cover was a fleet of large vessels supposedly netting tuna.”

“There was an island outpost that was not going to be a threat until the hypersonic batteries arrived. The Det on Polillo 2 revealed that shipment and protected Guam from those missiles. You blocked their next ‘Go’ move.”

Sara paused before saying, “I’ve told very few people over the past twenty years about what happened that day.”

“Well, now you have approval to get it on the record.” The interviewer AI said, making a show of turning over a fresh leaf of paper in his notebook.

“Where shall I start?” CDR Sara Fernandez (ret.) began. “We were only a few days out on an op out of Palawan when my CIC watch messaged me at breakfast…”

Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps Officer in the U.S. Navy. He has had tours at CNO Strategic Studies Group and CNO Rapid Innovation Cell, and is Vice President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the future of warfare.

Featured Image: “Grand Imperial Navy” by Rhys Bevan (via Artstation)

USNS Dreadnaught: A Combat Logistics Force for 21st Century Warfare

By Chris O’Connor 

The Future Capital Ship

During a recent CIMSEC topic week, the idea of the “Future Capital Ship” was discussed. This hypothetical asset was depicted several different ways that week. Transplanting the idea of the twentieth century battleship or aircraft carrier to the near future, this conceptual combatant could be bristling with railguns and directed energy weapons, in lieu of an “all big gun” dreadnaught’s armament. It could also be the mothership to many cross-domain unmanned systems, an update to the aircraft carrier archetype. Some viewed “capital ships” of the future as swarms of unmanned systems operating autonomously, a complete disruption in naval warfare akin to the first dreadnaught – eliminating the need for a manned vessel entirely. 

Taking a different route, the organizational investment that was put into the capital ships of the past could be applied in a way that transcends the idea of physical warfighting platforms. The CNO Strategic Studies Group 35 used that thought experiment to point out that the Navy of the future should treat the “Network of Humans and Machines” as the future capital ship. The argument was also well-made that investments in information warfare and cyber capabilities should be at the forefront, even to the extent that the U.S. Navy will eventually evolve into a cyber force with a maritime component.

These concepts are all deserving of consideration, and the future Navy will most likely be a combination of many of them, but the major foundation of naval power is usually an afterthought. The dominant Navy of the future will be the one with the most robust and adaptable logistics support structure needed to succeed in the future high-end fight as well as maintain command of the seas in peacetime through sustained global presence. 

Death of a Salesman

Aggressive recapitalization of the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) is needed because the Navy’s current logistics force structure is unprepared to support a distributed fleet in a fight against a peer competitor. There are fewer than 40 hulls in the CLF, a mix of oiler (AO and AOE) and dry cargo (AKE) supply ships of differing types. It is impossible employ them all at once, so the effective number of usable hulls is in fact lower for they require upkeep like every other vessel. They are incapable of defending themselves from anything other than limited numbers of lightly-armed small boats. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that a limited number will be available to replenish shooters in the fight – if they can survive an area denial battlespace. In a high-end fight, they will become prime targets, and providing escorts to CLF assets only takes shooters away from the fight. But given the logistically-intensive nature of naval power projection, CLF ships will take on capital-ship value in a tightly contested conflict.

The force structure of CLF ships we have today is based off of their employment in the older model of hub-and-ferry routing, centered on specific ports in overseas Areas of Responsibilities (AORs). As the Navy moves toward fighting as a distributed fleet, it creates a complex variant of the travelling salesman problem (TSP). Familiar to anyone who has taken an operations analysis business course, TSP looks for the optimization of a route that passes through a set of points once each. Cities or houses in a neighborhood are often the problem set. In a disaggregated environment, a replenishment asset must do the same (if its customers have to stay in the fight), but the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the delivery locations will be moving targets and the distances between them will stretch around threatened areas and land masses. The academic TSP problem seldom includes the possibility of the salesman getting killed and never reaching the destination. In addition, naval assets are going to be limited to external lines of communication in some future conflicts. Ships will travel farther distances than their peers in the opposing force, leading to longer transit times between shore support and afloat customers.

CONOPs and Force Structure for Distributed Naval Logistics

Distributed naval warfare needs more “salesmen,” working together as an interconnected web of logistics assets. An enlarged fleet of combat support vessels is the base of this new support schema. Practically, this is easier done than asking for more warships. As we build a larger number of warships for the future, our military shipyards are going to reach capacity, especially if they continue to build platforms using conventional methods. New replenishment ships can be acquired in a number of ways, apart from dedicating some military shipyards to building replenishment vessels (which will take away from warship building capacity), or building them in foreign countries (which is politically unfeasible). There is a surplus of offshore support vessels (OSVs) that could be purchased and put into Military Sealift Command (MSC) service, along with other commercial vessels that could be modified for CLF purposes. Modified in smaller civilian shipyards instead of military ones, they could create work that would please the constituents of a number of decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Under new CONOPs, vessels such as OSVs could be employed in shorter range replenishments to independent deployers on missions such as antipiracy and ballistic missile defense.

HOS Arrowhead under way, date and location unknown (U.S. Navy photo via Navsource)

These additional CLF vessels will still be vulnerable, especially if kept in the current MSC construct as unarmed USNS assets. Risk of enemy attack will have to be built into the calculus of how these ships are employed. But giving them sufficient self-defense weapons and damage control resilience to survive being set upon by enemy platforms would be prohibitively expensive. A larger number of our vessels would create a targeting problem – they can service more combatants, operate from more ports, and inject uncertainty into the situational awareness of an adversary. In the current model, there are only a couple of CLF vessels operating in an AOR, and watching select ports will give plenty of indications of U.S. Navy presence. 

These ships can be augmented with automation to the level that is currently employed on commercial vessels, allowing MSC to man more ships with the same number of personnel. An AKE in current MSC service has approximately 130 personnel onboard, while there are thousands of commercial vessels afloat with crews numbering less than 30. At-sea replenishment creates demands for more personnel during alongside evolutions, but this could be mitigated with updating the CONREP (connected replenishment) stations with new equipment.  The receiving ship could guide the delivery ship’s systems remotely with short-range remote operation systems, supervised by a few merchantmen on the delivery ship. A fly-away crew could attend to this equipment only when needed, and not ride for long transits, or into harm’s way.

To reduce the threat profile of the manned CLF hulls, a system of smaller unmanned systems would create a web of logistical support. Cargo unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) will travel hundreds of miles point-to-point to deliver critical parts, instead of sailing entire vessels closer to get within VERTREP (vertical replenishment) range. They could carry parts for multiple customers and use aviation-capable ships as lily pads to get to others. Heavier lift CUAS could carry out VERTEP from unmanned CLF vessels to delivery ships, obviating the need for sailing alongside to transfer parts in a connected replenishment with a robotic vessel. These systems would be augmented by small unmanned surface vessels, possibly based off of the Sea Hunter Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), that could blend into surface traffic and make deliveries in battlespaces that are not conducive to aerial vehicles.

Arabian Sea (Nov. 11, 2003)  The guided missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64), top, and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), bottom, underway alongside the fast combat support ship USS Detroit (AOE 4) during a replenishment at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Douglas M. Pearlman)

There are a number of solutions to support problems that will also be needed in the Navy of the future. Digital investments will be needed to improve our logistics IT structure to create a more resilient and adaptable family of systems. Taken to the farthest extent, this would lead to Vertical Expert Systems (specialized AI), predicting demand through data analytics and optimizing the use of delivery assets. Additive Manufacturing will allow parts sourcing from many more locations than are currently available. Underway ships could eventually have the ability to make complex parts for their use or for other vessels that lack the technology. Fuel production from bacteria and “grow-tainer” produce farms could bring commodity sourcing much closer to the fight. Adoption of these technologies is important, but they do not eliminate the need for support to be physically delivered to our combatants anytime in the near future. 

Recognizing Priorities

The counterargument to a larger fleet of CLF hulls deserves to be heard. The Navy is looking toward a 355-ship force, and most of that plus-up number would be in warships. We want a lean Navy- with as little tooth-to-tail as possible, and the idea of buying more replenishment assets seems to be anathema to that. But the Navy must recognize it is unable to fight a long-term shooting war, especially in a disaggregated manner, with the current CLF force structure. A larger fleet of combatants only complicates this problem, especially since a majority of these shooters will be powered by liquid petroleum products that have to be brought to them.

To placate these concerns, these new vessels do not have to be single mission vessels, dedicated only to logistics. They could act as routers for line-of-sight transmissions, or even couriers of data packages between other platforms when they carry out their supply missions in a communications-restricted environment. They could seed sensors or deploy and recover unmanned systems in their transits. These missions could reduce the burden on warships and dedicated survey ships in peacetime and in war. 

A Worthy Investment

A successful future U.S. Navy will be comprised of innovatively designed combatants, with arsenals of new weaponry, employing cyberwarfare and unmanned systems to an extent that we can barely conceptualize now. They will still need a capital-ship level of investment in an interconnected web of logistics assets to fight against a peer adversary. The toilet paper, Diet Pepsi, and turbolaser parts have to come from somewhere.

Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the CIMSEC Board of Directors. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Featured Image: (Feb.12, 2015)  USNS Guadalupe (T-AO-200) delivers supplies to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8), not pictured, during a nighttime vertical replenishment. (US Navy photo by MC1 Ronald Gutridge)