The Navy Must Rediscover its Roots and Recommit to Small Combatants

Notes to the New CNO Series

By Victor Sussman

The U.S. Navy faces myriad challenges in a dynamic multipolar world, yet risks a sclerotic response to threats. This is most apparent in the surface force where a predilection for high-end multi-mission platforms risks an unbalanced fleet unable to meet threats across the spectrum of conflict. To rectify this, the Navy must recommit to the vital role of small ships in meeting its obligations.

A commitment to smaller combatants offers benefits for naval operations, the supporting industrial base, and for leadership development. Small ships enable the consistent presence that can deter escalation. As J.C. Wylie states in Military Strategy, “The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun.” High-end combatants cannot be omnipresent and effective, and they are not risk-worthy enough to be forward postured in tense crises. A numerically larger low-end force plays a critical role in durable presence, developing relationships with regional partners, and deterrence of adversaries.

Construction of less exquisite platforms in greater numbers would reinvigorate an industrial base that has pursued consolidation to survive in the face of inconsistent demand. A reliable need for smaller ships will encourage the growth of smaller yards and suppliers, foster competition, and revive interest in the skilled trades and expertise needed to design and build ships.

A focus on smaller ships facilitates the development of command skills and judgement. Smaller ships increase opportunities for taking command earlier in career paths. Developing capable leaders before the O-5 level furnishes them with the skills and judgement needed to succeed in larger complex billets and provides the Navy with a deeper bench of talent. Benefits also propagate down the chain by creating more opportunities for junior officers to gain proficiency and have meaningful shipboard roles, reducing the problem of too many JOs on one ship.

To begin this transformation, two courses of action are suggested. First, split the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC) into two PEOs: one focused on small surface combatants (PEO SSC) and one focused on unmanned vessels (PEO USV). Unmanned systems offer immense potential, but lower technical readiness than small ships. Separate PEOs will have the focus to deliver better solutions for their areas of responsibility.

Second, N96 should establish an office to promote small combatants on the OPNAV staff and to Congress, as they often lack the advocates common to higher-end ships. As such, the SSC N96 office would focus on key but underserved areas including constabulary operations, gray zone competition, irregular warfare, and mine warfare. Additionally, such an office should work closely with the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for these warfare areas, and the numbered fleet commands to familiarize the value of small combatants in achieving objectives in their areas of operation. Finally, such an office should partner closely with both the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard to define requirements and identify opportunities for savings through joint development or multi-service partnerships to procure the force the Navy needs to meet tomorrow’s threats without delay.

Victor Sussman is a senior research scientist specializing in catalyst R&D at a Fortune 500 chemical company, and holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota. He is interested in the technology and tactics that will enable the sea services to succeed in the 21st century. He has previously written for the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and is glad to make his first contribution to CIMSEC.

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Uhlmann (DD-687) underway at sea, in the 1960s. (U.S. Navy photo)

9 thoughts on “The Navy Must Rediscover its Roots and Recommit to Small Combatants”

    1. Thanks for the link – I had not seen that and it is indeed quite interesting! I am curious why you opted for the 105 mm vs. something more common to the fleet today (such as the 57 mm).

      Additionally – has the LMACC program considered NSM vs. LRASM? While I’d love to see the surface-based LRASM take off, it seems like that isn’t likely in the near term.

      I do worry a _little_ about the lightly manned piece, as I think that experiment yielded mixed results with LCS. (While LCS has supporters and detractors, I think it’s biggest challenge has been perceptions (some deserved some not) that were a consequence of how the program developed vs. what it might actually achieve.)

      Ultimately, I have high hopes for USVs more generally and they’re showing promise – but for a more traditional small combatant, I wonder if a more conservative approach to crewing is warranted, if only as a risk mitigation measure.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting – I always appreciate the chance to exchange ideas and learn!

      1. I’m sorry for the delayed reply and glad you found the article interesting. To answer your first question, the 105 was selected because it provides area land attack capabilities at the lowest possible cost and weight. The 57mm gun you brought up is many times heavier and more expensive, and in the land attack role it suffers from shorter range and is less effective against many targets due to its much smaller shell. Furthermore, while the 105 mm howitzer may not be commonly used as a naval weapon, it is widely fielded among ground forces including the US Army. This provides tremendous cost savings since we’ll be able to draw on existing stockpiles and use advanced rounds developed for ground forces. The downside is that the howitzer is largely incapable of engaging boats and aircraft, but the various missile systems provide much greater lethality against those threats, once again at significantly reduced weight, while electronic warfare is ideal for smaller drones. When taken together, the result is a lighter, more lethal, and more affordable armament package which uses the strengths of each system to compensate for the limitations of the others.

        Regarding NSM vs. LRASM, that is simply a matter of performance. While NSM is an excellent weapon, it is still a light anti-ship missile at the end of the day. LRASM is a much bigger missile, and that size gives it longer range, a much larger warhead, and several additional advanced features, making it more capable for any platform able to accommodate it. That said, if the Navy refuses to procure surface-launched LRASM, downgrading to the smaller NSM is easy.

        Finally, we agree with your concerns regarding crew counts and autonomy. Dr. Gallup was heavily involved in the development and testing of Sea Hunter, and that experience led him to conclude that while the USV technologies have a lot of utility, we’re decades from being able to trust them on their own. Thus, LMACC was designed to fill that gap, and while his work determined 15 crew would be enough, we designed the ship to accommodate 31 which is in line with the increase in size and complexity over the Cyclone’s 28. Thus, if our crew count estimate is too low, we have the capacity to fully crew the ship in line with legacy practices, fully retiring that risk.

        1. Not to worry – I am just getting back to the comments here myself!

          Appreciate your thoughts on the 105 vs. the 57. My thought was that the smaller platforms might be more prone to encountering swarms of USVs or FIACs where the 57 mm would have an advantage, and wasn’t thinking of the land attack role.

          Agree on NSM vs. LRASM – I hope that growing the inventory of LRASM ends up back on the table, but for the time being, NSM may be where it’s at – good to know the flexibility is there.

    1. Concur – and thanks for sharing! I agree, some point of commonality with USCG assets could help address the gap on small combatants, and I remember reading your piece when it came out. One good turn deserves another – looks like this concept may be gaining some traction: and

    2. I played around with what an OPC based corvette might look like using the other VARD concepts that they have based on it. Key being to get the weight down and speed up. I’ve kind have started to think we’d be better off wrapping FFG up early and building a version of the Italian PPA instead. Complimenting that would be Flt IV Burke designed to be cheaper. PPA hacks out below the FFG and Flt IV Burke hacks away at the FFG from above.

      1. Great analysis, thanks for doing this! I think the speed is acceptable – not perfect, but acceptable. Can we trade in the 57mm gun for an 8-cell VLS launcher for VLA and quad-packs of NSSM?

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