Loren Thompson, Forbes
11 January 2016
The Surface Navy Association is holding its 28th National Symposium near the nation's capital this week, and there is a lot to talk about. After 25 years of being able to take U.S. maritime superiority for granted, the Navy now faces what its top admiral, Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson, calls "a return to great power competition." Russia and China are rapidly expanding the scope of their naval operations while implementing anti-access/area denial strategies aimed at excluding American forces from nearby seas. Even smaller countries such as Iran are able to leverage new technologies to challenge U.S. use of strategic waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz.
The Navy has seen this threat coming for some time. At last year's symposium, the commander of naval surface forces, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, called for greatly increasing the firepower of destroyers, cruisers and other surface combatants so that they could operate in hunter-killer surface action groups under a new warfighting concept called "distributed lethality." The basic idea is that every warship will now be able to take the fight to the enemy, even when there isn't an aircraft carrier nearby. As Rear Admiral Peter Fanta put it at the 2015 symposium, from now on, "if it floats, it fights." That's a big shift from
the defensive missions many warships have been assigned since the Cold War ended.
Navy leaders don't plan to develop new warship designs to implement the offensive strategy, because they don't have the time or the money. Threats are emerging too quickly in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, and the Navy's shipbuilding budget is already overstretched by the need to begin replacing the nation's sea-based nuclear deterrent - 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines - in the coming decade. Even with military spending capped by legislation, the Congressional Budget Office foresees a return to trillion-dollar federal budget deficits by 2025. So the transformation of naval strategy will have to be accomplished using ship designs and technology that already exist today.
That will require some rigorous thinking about what is feasible and affordable. As Bryan Clark, a naval warfare expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, put it in a 2014 report, "The combination of rising threats and reduced resources places a premium on innovative thinking as the surface fleet works to sustain its ability to help ensure access for U.S. forces." Much of that innovative thinking in recent years has been about relatively exotic ways in which lethality can be enhanced, such as lasers and electromagnetic rail guns. Even the more down-to-earth experts tend to think of new missiles when they talk about enhancing the effects of naval weapons. But there is another option that deserves the Navy's attention: guns.
Every surface combatant in the current fleet is equipped with guns such as the Mk 45 five-inch naval gun system. After four decades of continuous evolution, the Mk 45 in its latest configuration is a technological marvel. It is highly automated, fires ten rounds per minute, and can address a wide range of threats from cruise missiles to fast surface craft. For all its improvements, though, the Mk 45 still fires dumb ammunition with limited range - about 13 nautical miles max (15 statute miles). So although its magazine contains hundreds of rounds, there are limits to what it will be able to achieve against tomorrow's threats.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The same new technologies that are forcing a change in naval surface warfare strategy are also being applied to ammunition by gun-maker BAE Systems , with spectacular results. Adapting technology that it developed for the advanced gun system on the Navy's Zumwalt-class land attack destroyer, BAE and subcontractor Lockheed Martin have come up with precision-guided gun projectiles that can fly four times further - up to 60 miles - and then hit within a few yards of intended targets. The rounds use GPS and inertial guidance to adjust their trajectory in transit, assuring high accuracy and minimal unintended damage to assets near targets.
The implications of this huge boost in performance are genuinely revolutionary, potentially making gunfire a much more potent contributor to naval surface warfare. For starters, using the precision-guided ammunition would enable warships to deal with a much broader array of threats at sea, in the air, and on shore. And the cost of doing so would fall precipitously: the Navy's current land-attack missile of choice, the Tomahawk cruise missile, sells for about $1.6 million per round. The new gun-fired precision projectiles would likely be priced at 2-3% of that. Talk about a cost-effective way of increasing lethality!
BAE Systems is developing two different munitions that can be used in this fashion. One is called the Multi-Service Standard Guided Projectile, and was successfully tested in 2013. A more advanced round is called the Hyper-Velocity Projectile, and may one day be used by electromagnetic rail guns as well as conventional guns. Neither round would have been feasible ten years ago because the technology did not exist to construct electronic components that could withstand the stresses of being fired at very high velocities (potentially several miles per second). But the technology has advanced steadily, enabling not only high accuracy but even retargeting in flight.
I should mention that BAE Systems and its key competitors in the precision munitions business all contribute to my think tank and/or are consulting clients - which is why I know as much about this subject as I do. Where BAE seems to have a significant edge, though, is in the breadth and duration of its experience with naval gun technology. Because it produces both the guns and the ammunition, there are unlikely to be any integration issues. As the biggest private provider of ship repair and modification services to the Navy, BAE presumably has a superior grasp of how the new ammunition technology can be introduced into existing warships at minimal cost and complexity.
Not that there's a lot of complexity involved - at least until rail guns are ready (BAE is likely to build those too). The new rounds are designed for use by a number of different guns already fielded with the joint force. Which is one reason why it's a safe bet that munitions like the Standard Guided Projectile and Hyper-Velocity Projectile will be ubiquitous across the force, including being used on all those five-inch guns in the surface fleet. The big question, though, is when. Obviously, a munition with a range of 60 miles can't reach all the targets a Tomahawk could, but having it available as an option on destroyers and cruisers would likely save billions of dollars in reduced outlays for missiles over time.
Those savings would then be available for other initiatives aimed at enhancing the offensive firepower of the fleet. Equipping the guns carried on surface combatants with guided projectiles capable of hitting remote targets with high accuracy (and high rates of fire) may be one of the most cost-effective ways of bolstering warship lethality in the near term. It would also improve the defenses of combatants that will increasingly be required to go in harm's way. For a little money the U.S. Navy can get a lot more lethality - and a little money may be all that's available in the tough fiscal environment the joint force currently faces.
Loren Thompson is the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates. Disclosure: The Lexington Institute receives funding from many of the nation's leading defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and United Technologies.