All posts by Collin Fox

Uncomfortable Expositions for Unpopular Questions #1: Expendable Aircraft on Call

By Collin Fox and Harrison Schramm

This is the first in a series of articles that ask necessary but unpopular questions of the West’s defense-industrial complex. The best questions for this series are also the worst: they should be unpopular to ask and produce disquieting answers — when an answer is even possible. Got a provocative question? Send it to

Choose your own adventure: How is America’s next great power war most likely to end? (Pick one.)

A: The conflict is over rapidly, the U.S. is victorious, life goes on, and there’s nothing to analyze, 

B: The conflict is over rapidly, the U.S. is defeated, and there’s nothing to analyze, or

C: The conflict is over quickly, everyone is dead, and there is nothing to analyze.

If you chose ‘none of the above,’ you probably don’t have a future as a late 80’s action screenwriter,1 but you might have one as a strategist.

Let’s pull the thread on the implicitly rejected option D: The conflict drags on. The defense establishment’s preoccupation with nuclear conflict throughout the Cold War has left a poisonous fallout of assumptions with an unexpectedly long half-life, chiefly the implicit expectation for a short, sharp conflict between great powers. While this expectation has many repercussions, from combat logistics to global economics to conflict termination, the attrition of combat aircraft is the topic today.

Each Services’ jet fighter community chase highly favorable attrition ratios; these cannot be assumed for a future conflict. Although current U.S. aircraft are exquisite feats of engineering that border on the miraculous, the trend creates an (un)virtuous cycle: Fewer aircraft need to be more exquisitely engineered, and more exquisite aircraft are fewer in number. This cycle is perhaps best described by Norman Augustine: “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

In contrast, a conventional conflict against a peer adversary could very easily result in the rapid attrition of top-line munitions and aircraft, both in the air and on the ground. From there, the war would become an entrenched stalemate – an admittedly unpopular yet plausible proposition. What actions should the United States and its allies take now as a hedging strategy?

The idea of a stalemated war in the skies over the sea against China or Russia echoes the First World War’s Western Front. Here, a stalemate is not defined by earthworks and wire across physical territory, but rather the inability to field a second wave of air power after the first is lost. American airpower would get very thin very fast after removing F-22s and F-35s from the flightline, and even more so when the runway itself becomes cratered rubble scattered with burning aircraft. 

In the other corner, China’s significant production capabilities are neither unlimited nor invincible. The need for experienced replacement pilots to operate replacement aircraft may also be a critical factor in a future great power war, just as it was for Imperial Japan. In such a future, the ability to rapidly reconstitute a force of “acceptable” — vice “exquisite” aircraft will be a vitally important factor for the United States to support war termination on favorable terms.

A threefold sequential hedging strategy can preserve and expand aerial combat power against rapid attrition. The first tenant is that an aircraft saved is an aircraft produced. Existing exquisite platforms need to be carefully employed and well-protected by legions of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). Secondly, the United States should seriously consider – and exercise – a true capacity to quickly return retired (“mothballed”) aircraft to active status. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the United States should invest in the design and prototype production of new, replacement combat aircraft, both manned and unmanned, that are designed to be built quickly and in large numbers.

No plan survives first contact with the adversary

General war is (generally) unpredictable. Clausewitz underscores the play of random chance and probability in war; Sun Tzu advises commanders to win without fighting. After all, when politics can deliver desired aims with certainty, why escalate to the chaotic friction of combat? The present authors have formal education in applied probability and endorse the wisdom of getting a sure thing over a wager with blurry odds. A great power war in the coming decades would likely result from strategic miscalculation by one or more belligerents – namely, the eventual loser(s) – which would create a heady and uncertain operational fog in the opening engagements. Many commanders would be tempted to extract a rapid, decisive victory from this melee. In an era of long-range, precision guided munitions fired across expansive distances, combat aircraft will be the closest thing to shock troops charging to the front line, the bloody fray of attrition warfare.

For the United States and its Allies, the risk to force for exquisite and hard-t0-replace platforms needs to be understood, acknowledged, and mitigated before they are exposed to risk in high-stakes battles. One way to mitigate the risk to force is to rely on unmanned systems; however, as these systems have similar – or in some cases, greater – complexity to manned systems, we expect that they will be subject to the same production shortages as manned systems. 

Along this line of effort, an attractive and ongoing approach is to develop risk-worthy UCAVs, which would blunt enemy attacks while also distributing friendly sensors and weapons. These platforms are a low-hanging fruit, relatively inexpensive, and ready for accelerated operational development after decades of development. In addition to these operational considerations, producing these platforms in significant quantities in the near future would also help maintain the industrial base for accelerating production should the need arise.

The Replacements

Assume for a moment that the 80’s screenwriters are wrong, and a great power war drags on through months and years. What mitigations should the U.S. put in place now? An extended great power conflict would require a fallback capability of ‘second tier’ aircraft. Much of this fallback capacity already exists in the form of reserve and Air National Guard squadrons, many of which would likely see combat. Nevertheless, the logic of attrition also applies to these reserve aviation forces. Aviation-specific manpower policies, motivated in part by Imperial Japan’s pilot shortfall in WWII, grant a relative abundance of trained and experienced American combat aviators. Even so, they still need aircraft to fly.

Fortunately, the United States also has a large collection of retired but ‘preserved’ aircraft, most of which are at the ‘boneyard’, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. While the modernization of current air wings are underway, budgeteers would do well to broadly consider service life extension programs (SLEP) for the ‘best’ past generation aircraft as a potential backfill for the attrition of manned aircraft and invest in greater capacity to accelerate the same.

While increasing funding for maintaining, preserving, and regenerating aircraft in the ‘boneyard’ is one course of action, it is admittedly not well-aligned with the broad incentives of either government or industry (with the possible exception of Arizona’s 2nd congressional district2).

A complementary approach is to prepare plans ‘at the ready’ for aircraft that can be rapidly built and fielded. For these aircraft specifically, the more parts they have in common with contemporary military (and civilian) aircraft, the better. 

“Good Enough” means both things: good must be good and enough must be enough. 

The first two hedges are admittedly expedient stopgaps, not optimal solutions. The most likely operational environment (the Indo-Pacific) and the most likely/dangerous belligerent (China) frames the required operational capabilities for replacement aircraft: They must have long range to be relevant across the vast distances of the Pacific and should be low-observable to evade detection and survive against capable air defenses. 

Clear and well-justified system requirements should be based on a stable, reasonable, and coherent vision of the planned operational environment. The fiscal operational environment for this concept also means that it should be designed for rapid production and moderate cost, and by extension, low technological risk. Speed of production is a key performance parameter. Other performance parameters, like airspeed, should be strictly scoped against requirements creep.

Let good be good and enough be enough.

The Department of Defense should start with these modest and well-justified requirements to then develop progressive iterations of merely sufficient designs. Early and detailed systems engineering can help reduce risk, as can the conscious integration of mature technologies over the exotic temptation of leap-ahead capabilities. Government-ownership of these designs would allow widespread and more competitive aircraft production if the need ever arose, in keeping with the successful development and acquisition model of the Tomahawk cruise missile. A wide base of the American manufacturing and political establishment could be incentivized to invest in aerospace manufacturing capacity through the grant mechanism previously described in Distributed Manufacturing for Distributed Lethality


The uncomfortable part of this question is not overcoming an engineering challenge or reinforcing the industrial base. It’s the recognition of just how destructive a future great power war would be, and that our best, most expensive ‘kit’ will likely be the first to be lost. It’s the acknowledgement of just how important a fieldable ‘second line’ of aircraft could be as a hedging strategy should most of each side’s exquisite first rate forces end up on each other’s spears. 

Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer serving as a military advisor with the Department of State. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College.

Harrison Schramm is a retired Naval Aviator. He is President of the Analytics Society of INFORMS and a Principal Research Scientist at Group W. 

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of any institution with which they are affiliated.


1. In turn: A. “Top Gun”, “The Final Countdown”, etc;, B. “Red Dawn”, C. “The Morning After.”

2. Where “the boneyard” is located.

Featured Image: Navy aircraft from the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force and a B-52 bomber from Barksdale Air Force Base conduct integrated joint air operations over the South China Sea. (Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Stephens/Navy)

The Porcupine in No Man’s Sea: Arming Taiwan for Sea Denial

By Collin Fox

Precision munitions have been sinking warships for the better part of a century, but never before have they been so capable, so widely proliferated, or benefited so much from omniscient surveillance and precise targeting. These convergent factors have propelled modern sea combat in a violently stagnant direction that strongly favors the defensive. A transit through contested waters in the Western Pacific would draw effective fire like a casual stroll through no-man’s land on the Western Front, circa 1916. Now, as then, tactical forces must stay invisible or out of range to stay alive and combat effective, lurking to deploy their own withering fires against emergent targets.

After years of bemoaning the impact of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) on its own power projection paradigm, the United States military is belatedly adapting the same methods with its own forces, while overlooking the geopolitically unique contributions that certain allies and partners can bring to the fight. The factors that have made sea denial easier, sea control harder, and contested power projection a real challenge apply to virtually all potential belligerents – including China and Taiwan. The United States should not simply rely on its own conventional military forces to deter Chinese aggression in the Pacific, but should also start major military foreign assistance to Taiwan and so transform the island into a prickly fortress of sea denial.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Republic of China Marine Corps battalion in Kaohsiung in July 2020. (Photo via Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China)

Omnipresent Weapons, Omniscient Surveillance

A degrading security environment and the convergence of accessible technologies have democratized precision strike. The notable trends seen during 2020’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also apply at sea; even lesser powers like Australia, Iran, Pakistan, Serbia, Taiwan, and Turkey are now producing their own anti-ship missiles. The great powers are going a step further, with China deploying “carrier killer” ballistic missiles and the United States converting land attack cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and air defense weapons into long-range ship-killers.

The improvements in the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting cycle are even more impactful than these growing arsenals. Satellite constellations produce optical, infrared, and radar-generated imagery of every non-polar square meter on the planet several times per day. When combined with other sources and then distilled through increasingly capable artificial intelligence algorithms, this data can pinpoint most naval surface forces. The title of a recent USNI article encapsulated the change: “From Battleship to Chess.” Hiding is ever-harder, finding is ever-easier.

The reality of tactical omniscience applies to all major surface vessels, and catalyzes long-range precision weapons to create a massive maritime no-man’s land. To be seen is to be targeted, and, more than likely, killed.

Keeping Below the Trenchline

Prevailing in this future battle hinges on keeping forces alive, supplied, connected, and tactically relevant within a thousand-mile no-man’s land. Each service’s operational concept tackles this challenge through the same basic approach of survival through networked dispersion.

Both the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advance Base Operations and the Army’s Multi-Domain Transformation concepts would disperse missile-equipped forces on islands around China, creating unsinkable and hard-to-find fire bases that could persistently hold Chinese forces at risk. The Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept would likewise bounce platforms between airfields, “diluting the amount of firepower that [enemies] can put down on any one of those targets.” The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept would leverage the inherent mobility and firepower of naval vessels to similarly frustrate enemy targeting.

Each service’s distributed concept would still incur significant riskstationing offensive fires on foreign soil demands dangerously uncertain political assent from each host nation, while the Air Force would be hard-pressed to maintain enough persistent and timely fires within a distant and contested environment. The Navy’s existing surface platforms might bring the assured access, persistence, and mass that the other services lack, but would nevertheless remain more exposed to enemy targeting and fires. Aside from service-specific risks, each of these disaggregated concepts rests on the dangerously flawed assumption of assured communications. In sum, victory is hardly assured and defeat is possible.

The net uncertainty of American overmatch erodes conventional deterrence against China, which increases the risk of miscalculation, escalation, and conflict. The United States should zoom out to reframe the strategic problem, rather just fixating on tactical and operational solutions.

Building a Better Porcupine, or Subsidized Buck-Passing

The conventional problem framing for defending Taiwan casts the deterrent value of American forces as the essential guarantor of regional stability. As the balance of power continues to shift, this binary framingeither China can be deterred by American power, or it can’t has produced strongly divergent policy proposals. Richard Haass and David Sacks argued that an unambiguous security guarantee for Taiwan would restore deterrence and so keep the peace; Charles Glaser advocated “letting go of Taiwan” to mitigate the decreasingly justifiable risk of a major war with China. Like other proposals, both frame the problem too tightly – through the basic paradigm of American military power. 

The Lowy Institute’s insightful study takes a more nuanced and Australian perspective on the problem. It skips the false choice between doubling down and retrenchment, advocating instead that the “United States should act as armourer, but not guarantor.” The logic is sound:

“If Taiwan acquires, over roughly the next five years, large numbers of additional anti-ship missiles, more extensive ground-based air defence capabilities, smart mines, better trained and more effective reserve forces, a significantly bolstered capacity for offensive cyber warfare, a large suite of unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike systems, and counterstrike capabilities able to hit coastal targets on the mainland, it will continually increase the price China will have to pay to win a war.”

With help, Taiwan could deny China the sea and air control it requires to take the island, while also imposing significant costs on the mainland. Thousands of anti-ship missiles and sea mines would reinforce the stopping power of water, while dispersed air defense systems would help deter or attrite Chinese airpower. The United States should help Taiwan become a better porcupine by subsidizing and directing a new arsenal of democracy.

A delegation from the American Institute in Taiwan with Republic of China naval officers in Kaohsiung, August 20, 2019. (Photo via AIT)

This approach recalls the effective grand strategy that first Britain and then the United States executed as offshore balancers through the 19th and 20th centuries. Offshore balancing is not mere isolationism, retrenchment, or simple buck-passing. When a rising power threatens the regional balance, along with the offshore balancer’s interests, a savvy offshore balancer first puts money and arms on the scale to restore balance through allies, partners, and proxies. For insular great powers like the United States, this initial option of external balancing, or subsidized buck passing, represents a far better option than joining every war on the Eurasian Rimlands. Whenever this subsidized buck passing proves insufficient, though, the offshore balancer has the option, though not the obligation, to enter the conflict with military force against a weakened enemy and so restore the balance of power.

The key to both external balancing and buck-passing against a competitor is that the ally needs to stay in the fight, at least for a while. Britain’s buck-passing to France in the late 1930s did little to help Britain after France’s rapid and calamitous defeat. Offshore balancers should subsidize and strengthen their allies and partners so they can deter, defeat, or at least bleed their mutual foes, buying time and buying down the risk of rapid defeat.

Simply “letting go of Taiwan” would be an unforced error for the United States; any grand bargain that China might offer to encourage appeasement over Taiwan would have no more credibility or durability than the breached Sino-British Joint Declaration concerning Hong Kong. Letting go of Taiwan would unilaterally cede strategic terrain and advantage to China, allowing it to sidestep the potentially ruinous and deterrent costs that a subsidized defense would impose.

Gifts Come with Strings

Taiwan has not received significant military foreign assistance since the United States shifted recognition to Beijing in 1979, and so has a long history of buying American military hardware with its own funds. This cash-and-carry arrangement has allowed it to choose prestige platforms like M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters that better support anachronistic fantasies of retaking the mainland than a realistic defense of the island.

On the other hand, security assistance and security cooperation funds come with focused caveats that seek to build specific capabilities of mutual importance. These funds include Foreign Military Finance (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) grants under Department of State authorities, and Building Partner Capacity and other authorities under the Department of Defense.

Congress could include Taiwan in one or more of these appropriations while creating structured incentives aimed at both Taiwanese and Chinese policy choices. For Taiwan, FMF appropriations above a certain base level could be contingent on Taiwan’s defense reforms and funding levels, or come in the form of matching funds for specific capabilities, such as those ideal for sea denial. Provocative Chinese actions, such as air and sea incursions over the past year, could also trigger additional FMF funding. If each Chinese incursion essentially bought another anti-ship missile for Taiwan, Beijing might not be so casual about the practice.

Republic of China sailors walk by the corvette Tuo Chiang (Photo via AFP/Sam Yeh)

For context, the United States subsidizes Israel’s defense with $3.3 billion per year, which is a bit less than the annual operating costs for two Armored Brigade Combat Teams. Funding Taiwan’s security to a similar or greater level would create a fearsome A2/AD challenge for China, while also reducing plausible American costs and risks for a Taiwan contingency scenario. It would certainly provide better warfighting value than two armored brigades in a maritime theater. This level of assistance would buy greater access, influence, and amicable leverage to pursue American strategic interests in both defense and non-defense areas, such as chip supply chains.

China would certainly protest this security funding, just as it protests existing weapons sales, but these specific investments would constrain China’s escalation options. Arming Taiwan to the teeth with A2/AD weaponry could effectively and quickly deter China through denial without the escalation and entrapment risks that would come with aggressive proposals to base American forces in Taiwan.

The Limits of Power Projection

Notable critics have argued that Taiwan is simply indefensible, asserting that a “Chinese attack would be shock and awe with Chinese characteristics, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, rocket artillery, drones, and probably thousands of aircraft. There would be decapitation, disruption of Taiwan’s air force and navy in their bases, targeting of U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa.” To be sure, China could batter Taiwan from across the 100-mile strait, but would this “shock and awe with Chinese characteristics” compel Taiwan’s rapid capitulation or even prepare the battlespace for a successful amphibious assault?

Every comparison is fraught, but China would be hard-pressed to match the intensity of fires that American forces once directed at Okinawa – an island 1/30th the size of Taiwan and 400 miles distant, but sharing its mountainous geology. Despite a full week of hellish pre-invasion bombardment from battleships and attack aircraft, the island’s entrenched Japanese defenders not only survived this “the typhoon of steel and bombs,” but then emerged to fight another three months in the longest and bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater. “Shock and awe” only goes so far – particularly when it can be reciprocated.

Technological progress since the Battle of Okinawa has also not alleviated the fundamental difficulty of taking well-defended terrain or targeting elusive defenders. Indeed, the American military’s frustration in hunting for SCUD missiles in the Iraqi desert, for military vehicles in Kosovo, and for Taliban fighters in Afghan caves simply reflects the limits of airpower – even with functional or complete air supremacy. These limits also apply to China, which would have no less difficulty in finding, fixing, discriminating, tracking, targeting, and neutralizing the thousands of mobile anti-ship, anti-air, and strike missile launchers hiding amongst many more decoys, and all scattered through the jungles, mountains, caves, and cities of Taiwan.

Buying Time, Buying Options

Heavily reinforcing Taiwan through focused security subsidies while maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity would maintain conventional deterrence through denial against China. This approach would also greatly reduce the risk of a fait accompli, thereby giving American political leadership time to discover the best outcome for its strategic ambiguity: to rally support at home and abroad, to pressure China through a variety of means, and to enter combat at a time, place, and manner of its own choosing – or even to forego the conflict entirely.

These investments to harden Taiwan would buy time on the order of months and so enable slower, de-escalatory strategies like offshore control while also preserving more aggressive options. On the other hand, Taiwan might only be able to hold out for weeks under a plausible status quo scenario. In such a case, the United States would either risk major escalation by immediately executing a rapid but confrontational approach like JAM-GC, or watch Taiwan collapse from the sidelines.

The United States can make wise investments to pursue its own strategic interests, frustrate Chinese hegemony, and save a threatened democracy in the process. Taiwan needs focused U.S. support to substantially grow its sea denial capabilities quickly. Congress should update legislation and appropriate funds to that end.

Commander (select) Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as a military advisor with the Department of State. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College. The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense, the Department of State, or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: Taiwanese sailors at Kaohsiung’s Zuoying naval base in 2018. (Photo via Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Distributed Manufacturing for Distributed Lethality

By Collin Fox

Increasingly powerful strategic competitors and a flat defense budget call to mind this pithy quote, often misattributed to Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.” The United States Navy’s historical annual shipbuilding budget can either maintain the fleet size at status quo or build a hollow force with more ships. Wargames suggest that either such fleet, as part of the joint force, would not prevail in a conflict with China. This troubling consensus has spurred the Navy to develop Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and to overhaul the fleet in order to implement the new operational concept.

Budget justifications portray Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSV) as both “attritable assets if used in a peer or near-peer conflict” and “key enablers of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept.” American industry must build these and other key enablers even faster than the enemy can attrite them, but where? To overcome the limited capacity of American shipyards in pursuit of this requirement, Congress should develop a distributed shipbuilding industrial base through a variety of structured incentives.

Seeing First, Shooting First: the Quality of Quantity

Skeptics of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans may wonder how a small, attritable, unmanned, and presently unarmed vessel has become a “key enabler” in the Navy’s foremost warfighting concept. MUSVs will initially support “Battlespace Awareness through Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW).” Scouts have always been the eyes of the fleet, enabling the commander to see the battlespace better than the enemy, win the critical ISR fight, and then fire effectively first. In the age of hypersonic anti-ship weapons, taking that first accurate shot is more important than ever. DMO relies on having many sensor nodes that are widely distributed in order to see first and shoot first, but the enemy will attrite many of these scout-sensors as they navigate the maritime battlespace. The fleet will need an abundance of these scouts to begin with, and will need to acquire more at the rapid pace of attrition through a prolonged conflict.

This raises the industrial base problem, or as it were, the opportunity: How many vessels can be built, how quickly, and where?

Industrial Capacity, Lost and Gained

Eleven American shipyards cranked out 175 Fletcher-class destroyers during the Second World War – over 400,000 tons of just one class of combatants – even as the arsenal of democracy produced incredible quantities of auxiliaries, vehicles, aircraft, weapons, munitions, and many other warships. Most of those shipyards have long since closed; those that remain have little spare capacity. After COVID-19’s fiscal devastation plays out, the paltry seven ships authorized in FY21 may represent the underwhelming high water mark of the “terrible twenties.

China has the maritime industrial base to surge into dominant overproduction. The United States clearly does not, and even struggles to coordinate routine peacetime maintenance between sea services. This industrial asymmetry could spell disaster: The U.S. Navy could not repair battle damage, conduct maintenance, replace lost ships, and grow the fleet during a prolonged war with China. The industrial base just isn’t there, and shipyards take far longer to build than ships.

Ships under construction at the Heniu Shipping Limited Company shipyard in Yunyang county, Chongqing on Dec 5, 2017. (Photo by Rao Guojun/For China Daily)

The existing shipbuilding base must be strengthened to maintain the legacy force structure and continue to produce substantial warships, from aircraft carriers down to the corvette-sized large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV). The shipbuilding expansion for smaller vessels such as the medium unmanned surface vessel (MUSV) must not compete for the already limited industrial capacity. The Congressional Research Service concurs, noting that such unmanned vessels “can be built and maintained by facilities other than the shipyards that currently build the Navy’s major combatant ships.” But if not existing shipyards, then where? This seeming challenge offers a unique opportunity to both grow the shipbuilding defense industrial base and broaden the sea power political base through distributed manufacturing.

The factors that have traditionally concentrated production within a shipyard have shifted over the past few decades: Computer aided design (CAD) allows engineering teams to span continents and work around the clock on the same project. Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines create parts that fit together as precisely as they appeared on the monitor, even if the parts came from facilities thousands of miles apart. Supply chain engineering then brings these disparate parts into a faster and potentially more robust assembly process.

However, the feasibility and economy of transporting large and heavy objects has changed little. Size matters: just because a given component or subassembly can be produced down the road or across the country does not mean that it should be. Until recently, the vessels that mattered in naval warfare – or even their major subassemblies – were just too big and heavy for overland transport. Vessels that could be transported overland lacked the range and payload to count for much in combat. The convergent effects of miniaturization, automation, and fuel efficiency have changed that calculus, as exemplified by the Sea Hunter’s increasingly capable autonomy and 10,000 nautical mile range. The Sea Hunter and future MUSV classes will indeed contribute to the fleet in meaningful ways, yet at 45 to 190 feet long, they can also be transported (in whole or in part) from places that only Noah would recognize as a shipyard. 

The Navy should develop and incentivize a more robust and distributed shipbuilding industrial base by expanding far beyond traditional shipyards and deliberately incorporating non-traditional suppliers. Not only would such an expansion increase competition and manufacturing capacity, but it would also allow ship production to quickly accelerate in crisis or war. Thanks to digital manufacturing, such a shift in production could happen overnight, unlike the laborious retooling and retraining process that civilian factories undertook to produce war materiel in the previous century.

Many different American manufacturing facilities with advanced industrial tools, such as large CNC routers, CNC welding machines, and 3D printers, could produce the bulk of each attritable vessel. Such facilities could even produce complete knockdown kits for metal-hulled MUSVs, or partial kits for the innards of composite-hulled vessels. The hulls of the latter, like Sea Hunter and Sea Hunter II, could be produced by any maritime, automotive, or aerospace company with the space to store a large mold and the competence to pop out the composite hull forms on demand. Facilities with appropriate workforce and machinery would assemble these widely sourced components into major subassemblies for larger MUSVs, ready for final assembly in the shipyard. These facilities would likewise assemble vessels on the smaller end of the MUSV range, up to about 70 feet and 40 tons, for direct transport to a launch site and subsequent deployment.

All of this would require a large number of small- and medium-sized manufacturers to participate in a responsive and agile defense logistics supply chain. Few would use such words to describe the defense logistics supply chain today; improving it will take foresight, investment, naval initiative, and congressional action.

A Vincent-Trammel Act for the 21st Century

Industry has long lamented how hard it is to work with the Department of Defense. Many small companies vote with their feet after a few failed attempts, forgoing the DoD’s labyrinthine processes, extensive contracting requirements, and uncertain – if sometimes substantial – cash flows. A dwindling number of prime contractors act as a lucrative boundary layer between the byzantine defense acquisition requirements and the subcontractors, who find their niche exotic technology far easier to understand than defense contracting. Building a broader shipbuilding industrial base will require creative incentives and even fiduciary seduction to break through this status quo.

Inspired by the Department of Transportation’s very modest Small Shipyard Grants program, the proposed Distributed Manufacturing for Seapower Grants program would offer partial grants, competitively bid, to small companies for the purchase of advanced manufacturing machinery. However, this industrial equipment subsidy would also come with a contractual catch to integrate the manufacturer into the defense supply chain, or even – if required – compel production on the subsidized equipment. Some portion of the equipment subsidy would be recouped through an initially reduced contractual profit margin, reflecting the government’s capital financing investment, after which a higher profit margin would apply.

As with any contract, the incentives would be critical for success. This scheme would incentivize small manufacturers to join the defense industrial base with an initial contract and the means to perform it, while also establishing the relationship and familiarity to the larger process that can produce many items beyond the parts and pieces of modest vessels such as the MUSV.

The challenges of defense logistics are less about producing a part and more about the rest of the supply chain. Punching out a widget is just the beginning.

Creating Responsive Supply Chains

The Navy can help start improving the industrial base now by drafting modest vessel designs that incorporate manufacturing speed and ease of production as key performance parameters, and then contract a few of each model as a means to mature the design. The program office would also establish supply chain management targets and constraints for production optimization, such as required vessel deployment location, shipping costs, required installation date, manufacturing base health, item cost, and net time to build.

After receiving congressional budget appropriation for producing a given vessel, the program office would send requisitions for specified parts, subassembly production, and final vessel assembly to an automated clearinghouse, where these jobs would be offered to the capable manufacturers. Those manufacturers would bid on each job. If no one bids for a given job, the program office could compel manufacturing but pay a higher profit margin for the option. The winning bid may not be the lowest nominal bid because it should be the lowest total cost to government, to include considerations of production speed and shipping costs. All of these considerations would be continually integrated into the optimization model through machine learning.

Inspired by the Military Sealift Command’s turbo activation drills, the program office would hold component production drills and then stockpile the resultant knock-down kits near shipyards within vessel self-deployment range of likely trouble spots. The systems and internal components of a composite-hulled vessel – the engines, steering gear, sensors, electronics, etc. – would be assembled into compact kits, ready for the hulls to come out of molds and join them at the assembly site. Turbo activation for final vessel assembly from these pre-assembled kits would demonstrate the ability to churn out vessels at an incredible pace, and also help further refine the production process. In wartime, this process would be exercised in earnest to meet the furious pace of naval attrition.

With a demonstrated competence in rapidly producing, assembling, and deploying these vessels, the Navy could forego the anticipatory construction of a large fleet of wasting assets, which eat up operations and maintenance funds as they slowly degrade pierside.

Policy Engineering and Distributed Political Operations

Shipbuilding has an understandable association with maritime states, which can limit its political appeal for certain landlocked constituencies. Although the proposed expansion in the defense shipbuilding industrial base has a strategic logic founded in resiliency, competition, and flexibility, the investments and skilled jobs accompanying this expansion far beyond the usual maritime districts would also broaden the congressional shipbuilding caucus. Witness how the F-35 program spread economic benefits throughout 45 of the 50 states, gathering predictably broad congressional support. The LCS program did one better, in defiance of all programmatic logic, by never even down-selecting to a single seaframe. The LCS program’s budgetary-political logic, on the other hand, was airtight: All else being equal, an industrial base that is widely distributed will receive better budgetary consideration, particularly if it has concentrations in certain key districts.

With a growing bipartisan consensus that the nation needs a larger Navy to meet growing global security challenges, the time to act is now.

Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer who recently served as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He earned a master of systems analysis degree from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master of naval and maritime science degree from the Chilean Naval War College. He has also published with the U.S. Naval Institute and War on the Rocks.

Featured Image: September 16, 1989 – The guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) enters the Kennebec River after being launched down the ways at the Bath Iron Works shipyard. (U.S. National Archives, photo by PH2 James Saylor)

Taking Notes from Narcos: Semisubmersible Unmanned Ships for Great Power Competition

By Collin Fox

In September 2018, the Panamanian Aeronaval Service (SENAN) captured a fairly crude low-profile vessel (LPV). It was their first of several; just a few months ago they tracked and captured a more sophisticated semisubmersible LPV carrying five tons of cocaine. Despite these occasional successes, most LPVs go undetected on their slow but profitable transits. They barely peek above the waves and practically disappear into a very big ocean, reminiscent of so many other covert craft. Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have evolved these covert vessels over decades in response to the steadily improving reconnaissance capabilities of a determined adversary. They have developed a type of vessel that is simple, affordable, attritable, low-observable, long-range, and can be built with relative ease in crude jungle shipyards. But what does losing the War on Drugs have to do with winning great power competition?

China has developed considerable surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in its near seas, akin to what the United States has long enjoyed in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to detect and monitor illegal drug trafficking. The United States Navy now faces the oddly similar challenge of operating in a contested maritime environment against a powerful competitor armed with a robust reconnaissance-strike complex. The cartels could relate. The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept for countering China in the Western Pacific hinges on Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels (MUSVs) to perform ISR and EW roles, but in order to be effective, these vessels must be as covert and ubiquitous as drug trafficking semisubmersibles. By taking a few notes from the narcos, the United States Navy can develop a class of hard-to-detect semisubmersible MUSV that will be combat-effective in the high-end fight.

How Will the MUSV Support the Fleet? 

“The crux of successful command is to know when to commit available attack potential to attack effectively first. Modern naval battle will be fast, destructive, and decisive. More often than not the result will be decided before the first shot is fired.”

That incisive summary ends the chapter on modern tactics in the third edition of the essential Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations by the late CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier (ret.). A persistent, connected, and widely distributed scouting force allows the commander to see the battlespace more clearly than the enemy, enabling that first effective attack that is so vital for winning a modern naval battle. Unfortunately, the Navy’s top-heavy fleet architecture lacks scouting ships that commanders can confidently deploy hundreds of miles inside a threat envelope. The carrier air wing lacks the range and persistence for this task, while both satellites and most shore-based ISR aircraft lack survivability in such a heavily contested battlespace.

This capability gap gives some context to the Navy’s budget justification for MUSVs, which outlines several elements: 

    • MUSV will be a key enabler of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept, which includes being able to forward deploy (alone or in teams/swarms), team with individual manned combatants or augment battle groups. Fielding of MUSV will provide the Navy increased capability and necessary capacity at lower procurement and sustainment costs, reduced risk to sailors and increased readiness by offloading missions from manned combatants.

    • MUSV is defined as having a reconfigurable mission capability which is accomplished via modular payloads with an initial mission capability to support Battlespace Awareness through Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW).

    • MUSVs will support the Navy’s ability to produce, deploy and disburse ISR/EW capabilities in sufficient quantities and provide/improve distributed situational awareness in maritime Areas of Responsibility (AORs). MUSVs will be designed to be attritable assets if used in a peer or near-peer conflict. MUSVs will initially be capable of semi-autonomous operation, with operators in-the-loop or on-the-loop.

    • MUSVs will be capable of weeks-long deployments and trans-oceanic transits, and operate aggregated with Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs), as well as have the ability to deploy independently.

The Navy defines MUSVs as ranging from 12 to 50 meters (40 to 164 feet). This author has argued for a larger MUSV based on the Sentinel-class as a means of first developmentally maturing unmanned technology aboard an optionally manned vessel, before leveraging these “proven systems in a more capable, purpose-built platform.” A larger and optionally manned MUSV would also have more flexibility for weapons carriage and local release authority, but the more narrowly scoped ISR and EW missions envisioned for MUSVs in the budget justification suggest a stealthier and less expensive MUSV variant as well – something akin to the narco semisubmersibles, albeit with a very different payload.

Divergent Requirements Yield Diverse Designs

The Navy’s mission requirements for the MUSV pulls the design in two directions: toward vessels that are best suited for operations “aggregated with Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs)” on the one hand, and those that “forward deploy (alone or in teams/swarms)” on the other. However, two purpose-built classes of MUSVs, rather than one, could more effectively and more efficiently satisfy these divergent requirements.

Despite the evident trend toward consolidating single-mission platforms into fewer types with ever-broader mission sets, as exemplified by the F/A-18, the Navy’s portfolio of support ships, boats, and watercraft remains stubbornly diverse. Why? Compared to aircraft, submarines, or surface combatants, these vessels have more stable and better-understood design requirements, lower system complexity, and rely on mature technology, while also having shorter lifecycles and lower lifecycle costs. The industrial base that makes these small vessels has more competitors, more civilian industry crossover, lower non-recoverable engineering expenses, and lower barriers to entry. These systemic factors continue to produce a diverse array of boats with tightly focused missions. Riverine, special warfare, force protection, patrol, and utility missions each get at least one purpose-built boat whose form follows its function, rather than all sharing an exquisitely expensive multi-mission design that is capable of doing nothing specific especially well.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WMSL-755) crew members inspect a self-propelled semi-submersible on June 19, 2019, in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The systemic factors that apply to manned small vessels also largely apply to the design and production of comparably sized unmanned vessels. Just as the Navy can afford its diverse portfolio of manned vessels to perform their equally diverse mission sets, it can likewise afford more than one MUSV design in order to better achieve divergent MUSV mission sets. A relatively larger MUSV should perform escort missions and a smaller semisubmersible MUSV should perform penetrating ISR and EW missions. The distinct required capabilities placed within different planned operational environments yields unique vessel designs, where form follows function.

An MUSV optimized for SAG and CSG operations would need to have both speed and range, which would dictate more powerful main propulsion, a relatively longer waterline for a higher efficient hull speed, and greater displacement for greater fuel stores. These factors would produce a vessel at least as large as the Sea Hunter, whose configuration (132’ LOA and 145-ton displacement) reflect its high-endurance, moderate-speed mission of tracking and trailing conventional submarines. These relatively larger and faster vessels would certainly expand the SAG’s situational awareness, but mainly as pickets or loyal wingmen in an expanded defense-in-depth scheme. All else being equal, a larger and faster vessel with higher freeboard would be easier for the enemy to detect. It would also be more expensive. DMO needs many offensively-focused scouts deep inside the contested environment, feeding the commander critical information, confusing the enemy with electronic warfare, and thereby facilitating decisive attacks. Larger MUSVs optimized for SAG and CSG operations would lack the stealth and attritable numbers to effectively fill this role.

Smaller and semisubmersible MUSVs, on the other hand, would have both stealth and numbers. Operating well beyond the air defense umbrella of a SAG or CSG, this class of MUSVs would need to be stealthier in order to avoid detection. Not having to keep up with the SAG or CSG, though, it could afford to be much slower. Such a slower and necessarily stealthy vessel could and indeed should be smaller, making it less expensive and therefore more readily affordable to buy in the abundant quantities needed to enable DMO.

Designing a Semisubmersible MUSV

Craft-built narco LPVs are survivable and effective simply because they are very difficult to find, even when the searcher employs dedicated maritime patrol aircraft within a permissive operating environment. This is especially true for semisubmersible LPVs. They can certainly be built for long range, as shown by the recent capture of a transatlantic semisubmersible LPV in Spain. Low-observable doesn’t necessarily mean expensive radar absorbent materials and or an exotic shape; a hand-laid fiberglass deck with minimal freeboard works, too.

Spanish Guardia Civil refloating a captured narco submarine. (Lalo R Villar/AFP via Getty Images)

The defense industry could make a truly low-observable MUSV warship as an evolution from the crude, jungle-built semisubmersibles produced by drug cartels. Much of a typical semisubmersible LPV’s roughly $1-2M construction costs are a function of being hand-built at small, clandestine shipyards. By designing for simplicity while leveraging industrial fabrication and economies of scale, the Navy could create a far better vessel than the cartels and for less money. These relatively inexpensive vessels would become truly attritable or even expendable in conflict. A commander could distribute scores to hundreds of these hard-to-detect ISR and EW platforms throughout the contested environment to develop battlespace awareness, while also overwhelming the enemy’s ability to detect them.

Those few semisubmersible MUSVs detected by an adversary would remain difficult and sortie-intensive to track and neutralize. The most sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles would have a vanishingly low probability of kill (Pk) against a vessel with little more freeboard than a surfboard, while backscatter would challenge the accurate employment of laser-guided weapons. The target would demand precise and locally employed weapons. The enemy’s costs in sorties, weapons, manpower, and bandwidth for each laborious neutralization would be disproportionately higher than the costs of deploying that vessel. Neutralizing these detected vessels would have little impact on the fleet’s distributed ISR and EW capabilities, just as neutralizing drug-trafficking LPVs has done little if anything to change the price and availability of cocaine. This approach would impose significant costs on the enemy while affording significant advantages to the U.S. Navy.

A Common Objection Answered

The Navy’s budget justification addresses the concern that unmanned surface vessels would be more vulnerable to capture and exploitation than a manned vessel:

“MUSV C2, combat and/or weapon system integration will employ tamper proofing and security controls to prevent disclosure of data and electronic warfare defenses during autonomous operation. MUSVs will employ a Risk Management Framework (RMF) approach with physical, technical and administrative security controls. MUSVs will have hardware and software components to protect classified/sensitive functions, countermeasures designed to thwart adversary exploitation, classified data sanitation requirements, anti-tamper mechanisms to prevent disclosure of data and autonomous zeroization and electronic warfare defenses.”

These concerns and mitigations would apply to all classes of MUSVs, but as low freeboard vessels that are designed to operate nearly submerged, semisubmersible MUSVs would be that much easier to scuttle when unexpected guests step aboard. Cartels have used this tactic themselves to sink narco subs just prior to capture in a bid to destroy evidence and evade prosecution.   


This proposed class of semisubmersible MUSVs is no panacea, but it represents one important step toward operationalizing the unmanned force structure needed for DMO. If the U.S. Navy hopes for more success in implementing DMO than it has achieved in the War on Drugs, it needs to humbly study the successes of adversaries and creatively adapt their most successful innovations. Creating a semisubmersible MUSV that is simple, affordable, attritable, low-observable, and long-range will do just that.

Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College. The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: A low-profile vessel pictured in April 2019 (SENAN Panama)