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Congress slows the US Navy’s roll toward a robot-ship future

December 13, 2019
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s newfound zeal for unmanned surface vessels has been met by skepticism in Congress.

Congress’ long-delayed National Defense Authorization Act came back from negotiations among lawmakers with limits on the Navy’s plan for unmanned surface vessels, with authorizers halving the obtainable number of large unmanned surface vehicles, or LUSV, the service requested.

The service asked for two of the LUSVs, with plans to buy eight more over the five-year projection known as the Future Years Defense Program, or FYDP. The NDAA also allows the Navy to buy two medium unmanned surface vessels, which the Navy envisions as autonomous sensor platforms for functions such as anti-submarine warfare.

The drive toward integrating unmanned surface vehicles in the force, which Navy officials suggested could make up a significant portion of the future fleet’s force structure, was kicked off in earnest with the rollout of the 2020 budget. Senior Navy officials have talked about the LUSV as a kind of external missile magazine that can autonomously navigate to and integrate with the force, then shoot its missiles and return for reload, keeping the big manned surface combatants in the fight and fielded longer.

But the Defense Department likely drew unwanted attention to the program by using investments in this kind of unmanned technology as part of the justification for canceling the refueling of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, meaning the ship would’ve been decommissioned with half its intended 50-year hull life remaining, according to a source familiar with the authorizers’ thinking on the issue.

“The linkage with the Truman refueling shined a spotlight on the USVs,” the source said. “It’s important to remember that in 2019 there were zero LUSVs in the budget. Then in 2020 there were 10 at a cost of $3 billion over the FYDP. That kind of ramp-up will attract attention in any budget.

“In view of uncertain LUSV concepts of operations, requirements, technical maturity — including many [first-of-a-kind capabilities] — the contrast between a proven aircraft carrier and its air wing and unproven unmanned surface vessels is stark.”

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The idea of using the Truman savings to invest in unmanned technology was encouraged by the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and it was supported by both former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and later by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

The plan died in a wave of bipartisan skepticism and was ultimately put to bed by a tweet from the president, which was followed by the resignation of CAPE director Bob Daigle.

Congressional skepticism toward investments in unmanned tech appears unlikely to dissipate with a new budget cycle.

The carrier Harry S. Truman transits the Atlantic Ocean. The Truman was on the Pentagon’s chopping block to pay for investments in unmanned technology, but that didn’t fly in Congress. (MC3 Maxwell Higgins/U.S. Navy)

Slow and steady

Navy leaders have maintained that they need a critical mass of the unmanned surface vessels to make rapid progress on things such as concepts of operations and integrating new technologies. The LUSV is intended to be adapted from a commercial design using relatively mature autonomous technology, things that the Defense Department has worked with for some time now.

But leaders have acknowledged congressional skepticism in public comments. In October, the Navy’s top requirements officer told an audience at the Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that the platform will be difficult to develop.

“I don’t want to be Pollyannaish about this: It’s going to be hard work,” said Vice Adm. Jim Kilby, the deputy chief of naval operations for war-fighting requirements and capabilities. “And when we brief this, we go right to the upper right hand corner of the difficulty spectrum.

“So we have been working with the acquisition community to roll out a test and competence program so we can get something to the war fighter that they’re confident they can use.”

What Congress wants to see is more gradual development and proof of concept before it commits more funding, Kilby told reporters after his remarks.

“What I think they are interested in is ‘Block I will have the following capabilities and we’re going to test them in the following manner, and you can see the results of that test,’ ” Kilby said. “Then we are going to move on to Block II and Block III. They’re interested in us having a ramp-up and build confidence, achieve those capabilities and they can follow that.

“Let’s talk about that first instantiation: Maybe that’s going from point A to point B, follow [the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea], not hit anything, follow the rules of the road. Well, that serves a number of purposes from a deception standpoint. And if those platforms can do that, then maybe I can add capability as I prove out that concept.”

Kilby pointed to the Surface Development Squadron, saying that its tasking is to develop an experimentation regime that can help the Navy hone in on both the requirements and the concept of operations for the new drone ships. The Navy recently transferred control of the Sea Hunter drone ship to the Surface Development Squadron.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to inspire confidence in Congress that we know what we’re doing, and we are executing to plan,” Kilby said.

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Nuclear deterrent still the US Navy’s top priority, no matter the consequences, top officer says

December 13, 2019
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s new top officer is doubling down on the service’s commitment to field the new generation of nuke-launching submarines.

Adm. Michael Gilday, who assumed office as the chief of naval operations in August, visited General Dynamics Electric Boat in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on Tuesday. He reiterated in a release alongside the visit that the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine remains the Navy’s top priority.

“The Navy’s first acquisition priority is recapitalizing our Strategic Nuclear Deterrent — Electric Boat is helping us do just that,” Gilday said. “Together, we will continue to drive affordability, technology development, and integration efforts to support Columbia’s fleet introduction on time or earlier.”

The service has been driving toward fielding the Columbia’s lead ship by 2031, in time for its first scheduled deployment. Construction of the first boat will begin in October 2020, though the Navy has been working on components and design for years.

Two generations of submariner CNOs have emphasized Columbia as the service’s top priority. Gilday has made clear that having a surface warfare officer in charge has not changed the service’s focus.

In comments at a recent forum, Gilday said that everything the Navy is trying to do to reinvent its force structure around a more distributed concept of operations — fighting more spread out instead of aggregated around an aircraft carrier — would have to be worked around the Columbia class, which will take up a major part of the service’s shipbuilding account in the years to come.

“It’s unavoidable,” Gilday said, referring to the cost of Columbia. “If you go back to the ’80s when we were building Ohio, it was about 35 percent of the shipbuilding budget. Columbia will be about 38-40 percent of the shipbuilding budget.

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“The seaborne leg of the triad is absolutely critical. By the time we get the Columbia into the water, the Ohio class is going to be about 40 years old. And so we have to replace that strategic leg, and it has to come out of our budget right now. Those are the facts.”

The U.S. Navy is trying to revamp its concept of operations away from clumping ships around aircraft carriers. (MC3 Zachary Pearson/U.S. Navy)

The latest assessment puts the cost of the 12 planned Columbia-class subs at $109 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Having nearly 40 percent of the shipbuilding budget dominated by one program will impact the force, which will force the Navy to get creative, the CNO said.

“I have to account for that at the same time as I’m trying to make precise investments in other platforms,” he explained. “Some of them will look like what we are buying today, like [destroyer] DDG Flight IIIs, but there is also an unmanned aspect to this. And I do remain fairly agnostic as to what that looks like, but I know we need to change the way we are thinking.”

Renewed push for 355

While the 12-ship Columbia-class project is set to eat at 40 percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for the foreseeable future, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly has renewed calls to field a 355-ship fleet.

The 355-ship goal, the result of a 2016 force-structure assessment, was written into national policy and was a stated goal of President Donald Trump.

“[Three hundred and fifty-five ships] is stated as national policy,” Modly told an audience at the USNI Defense Forum on Dec. 5. “It was also the president’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?”

“We ought to be lobbying for that and making a case for it and arguing in the halls of the Pentagon for a bigger share of the budget if that’s what is required,” Modly added. “But we have to come to a very clear determination as to what [355 ships] means, and all the equipment we need to support that.” In a memo, he said he wants the force to produce a force-structure assessment to get the service there within a decade.

Modly went on to say that the Navy’s new Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, while will incorporate Marine Corps requirements, should be presented to him no later than Jan. 15, 2020. The Navy plans to look at less expensive platforms to reach its force-structure goals, which will likely include unmanned systems. But Congress has shown some reluctance to buy into the concept because of the sheer number of unknowns attached to fielding large and medium-sized unmanned surface vessels.

The newly released National Defense Authorization Act halved the number of large unmanned surface vessels requested by the service, and skepticism from lawmakers toward the Navy’s concepts appears unlikely to abate by the next budget cycle.

That means the 10 large unmanned surface vessels, or LUSV, the Navy programmed over the next five years seem unlikely to materialize at that rate. The Navy envisions the LUSV as an autonomous external missile magazine to augment the larger manned surface combatants.

But the drive to field less expensive systems to execute a more distributed concept of operations in large areas such as the Asia-Pacific region is being pushed at the highest levels of the government. In his comments at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, Trump’s national security adviser said the military must rethink how it buys its equipment.

“Spending $13 billion on one vessel, then accepting delivery with elevators that don’t work and are unusable is not acceptable,” O’Brien told the audience, referring to the troubled aircraft carrier Ford.

“The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy are clear: We must be ready for an era of prolonged peacetime competition with peer and near-peer rivals like Russia and China. … The highest-end and most expensive platform is not always the best solution.”

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Adm. Davidson, Indo-Pacific commander: ‘We’re not asking people to choose between us and China’

December 12, 2019
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WASHINGTON — China’s Belt and Road Initiative of lending money to countries wanting to improve their infrastructure has been a shrewd tactic of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. But allies are growing wise to the strings that are attached: political, economic or military pressure as well as risks to sovereignty.

Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke to Defense News earlier this month in an exclusive interview during the Reagan National Defense Forum about China’s tactics and the role of the United States in supporting regional allies.

What’s the latest on where the whole-of-government strategy stands for the Indo-Pacific region?

There’s been a discussion with the region about what “free and open” means. I would say that there’s been a general convergence from other countries around this idea. Japan had a very similar vision, Australia as well. New Zealand announced in the summer of ’17 a vision. I would say that India’s Act East Policy is somewhat integrated with it, and then [Association of Southeast Asian Nations’] ASEAN’s free and open and inclusive vision, led by Indonesia during the course of this past summer, has been a part of this as well.

And the principles that we talk about it — free from coercion, free to exercise your economic choice, free to exercise your sovereignty, choose your security partners and all of this — is resonating across the region. And more and more we’re getting reflections back about the open aspect of it all, open airs and seaways. We’re garnering good support from Vietnam for example. Vocal support from one of the ASEAN’s with our operations in the South China Sea for open airways and seaways. We’ve been able to get allies and partners to conduct operations in the South China Sea, exercise with us, exercise with each other and others, during the course of the last year and a half.

And the idea that we need open and transparent agreements, protection, intellectual property rights — these are things that are not just coming from the United States anymore. They’re coming from across the region.

China is not respecting the nature of those agreements or policies. How disruptive is that?

This is where I think the economics and the mutual security concerns that the region has, as well as the depth of the relationship that they enjoy with the United States, is so important. And our values compete really, really well. To the point that when some of this pernicious activity happens from China, whether it’s unviable, corrupt, or “One Belt One Road” kind of developmental initiatives, people in the region are starting to reject them — renegotiate things that they don’t think are viable; call us, particularly if there’s a direct security component related to it.

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Tuvalu, a little Island nation with $40 million in gross domestic product, rejected a $400 million offer from China to build some artificial levies and features to help them deal with climate change because they thought it was a threat to their sovereignty. It tells you that the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the rules-based order that has lifted many of these nations out of poverty over the last 70 years, resonates with people. They want the freedom to choose to be with the United States. And they know darn well that we’re not trying to restrict their trade because our own economic posture with China is deeply intertwined.

You mentioned China is using its economy to grab influence throughout the region. When these countries come to the United States, how does it counter what China is essentially putting forward, which includes financial incentives for these countries?

People in the region will frequently cite that China’s their No. 1 trading partner. There’s no doubt about it. They do recognize that the United States is actually the No. 1 when it comes to foreign direct investment in many of these other countries, on an order of magnitude of 10 times of what China puts into these other countries. And I’ve heard in my travels that trade is like dating and direct investment is like marriage, and our partners and allies in the region respect that.

The other aspect is a free enterprise capitalist approach. They know that approach over the last 70 years has lifted billions out of poverty and others into prosperity across Southeast Asia, Asia and indeed China. I think the passage of the [the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development] Act last year is an important vehicle that helps release that private enterprise and capital investment. That is one of those things that’ll take us on that way.

Are there attempts by the U.S. to ask allies in the region to trim connections to China, to reduce reliance on China?

We’re not asking people to choose between us and China. Do our allies and partners seek out our assistance for advice on security issues, diplomatic issues? The code of conduct in the South China Sea, for example, is one. Yeah, they certainly do because they want to be able to go into these things eyes wide open. It’s part of the principles of free and open — they want open and transparent agreements, and they solicit our advice to make sure that happens. That’s not necessarily going to prevent us from them having a discussion with China about a code of conduct, but we can certainly help approach it in a way that helps them preserve their sovereignty, and really international law, going forward.

What are the United States’ primary investments in countering what’s been described as a military surge by China?

Space force, space capabilities going forward, that’s one. Integrated air and missile defense. Fifth-gen fighters arriving in the region now — Japan, Korea. That’s another aspect. Getting into the business of long-range precision fires for the United States is a very important element of this. Trying to put life to all the service concepts, from multidomain operations to distributed maritime operations going forward — knit that together into a joint war-fighting construct that would be effective in the region. That’s all starting to come together.

Where would you like to see more investment if you could get Congress to provide the funding?

Well, certainly I would say that China is the strategic challenge to this nation for the 21st century. And what we’ve been focused on over the last 15, 18 years has been counterinsurgency and constabulary operations in Southwest Asia. And I talked about some of the capabilities that I thought we needed to get after, and those are the kinds of things that we need to continue to invest in, in order to take on this challenge.

Does the United States have enough funding for that at this point in time?

Well, we’re in the discussion about the ’21 budget right now. I have to see how that comes together.

What about the state of the naval fleet? Is the U.S. in a position to counter China by sea?

It’s been the position of the administration that 355 [ships] is the force structure that we should be aiming for going forward. I’m fully in support of that. I was quite pleased to see this contract signed here in the last two weeks for the Virginia-class Block V submarines going forward. It’s a key part of where our advantage remains large, and we want to continue to take advantage of that and the other capabilities the Navy’s producing.

Do you think the U.S. will ever get to 355?

It’s going to take resources to do it, but we’ve seen just in the last few weeks a reaffirmation by the acting secretary of the Navy that 355 is our objective.

Aircraft carriers have been a big topic of discussion lately. What will be the role of the aircraft carrier in five or 10 years? How about beyond that?

We need to continue to invest in the capability, which involves range. We need to continue to invest in the protection of those assets, which includes electronic measures, directed energy, modifications also to the air wing as well, some deception techniques, and so on. The large carrier has really served us well for World War II. It is going to for the extent of my lifetime, certainly, as well.

A U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan on Oct. 16, 2019, as it sails in the South China Sea on its way to Singapore. (Catherine Lai/AFP via Getty Images)

The Indo-Pacific region involves a lot of threats beyond China. What would you call the top threats in the region?

The most immediate challenge is going to remain North Korea. And until we get a final, fully verifiable denuclearized peninsula, it’s going to remain my most immediate concern. We’re watching developments here as we get to the end of the year and the very transparent threats that North Korea has been putting into the press. And it’s my responsibility for two things. One, to ensure the readiness of the forces. It’s something that the secretary of defense and I talked about this week here at the forum. And secondly, is to help facilitate this potential dialogue going forward, to allow the room for diplomacy where it needs to happen.

We also continue to see Russia act like a spoiler in the region. The challenges for us aren’t as profound as they are, I would say, in Eurasia and Eastern Europe, but we are seeing Russia advance their military operations in the region. They’ve flown bombers around Taiwan. They’ve flown bombers around Japan this year. They did a co-bomber flight with [China] in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. They sent a surface task group, basically from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Panama Canal, and it passed through the Hawaiian [exclusive economic zone]. So we’re seeing more of those challenges as well.

Adm. Phil Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, participates in an honors ceremony at the Brunei Ministry of Defence. (MC1 Robin W. Peak/U.S. Navy)

In general, NATO has primarily focused in recent years on Russia. Some members argue that NATO doesn’t make enough of an effort elsewhere in the world in terms of countering other threats. Is there enough of a cooperation with NATO in terms of the Indo-Pacific region?

You don’t see NATO formations out here, per se. What you see is elements of NATO. So the French, of course, are very engaged out here. They have interests in the Pacific. Indeed, you know French Polynesia and New Caledonia. They’ve got a commander in Tahiti, a two-star headquarters there. And the French have naval forces and air forces that operate in the region. The U.K. as well, is operating in the region during the course of last year, and I suspect that we’ll see more of them in the Indo-Pacific, too.

Certainly there’s room, I think, for NATO. You’ve heard the [U.S. defense] secretary today [Dec. 7] announce that NATO had agreed, at this most recent ministerial, that they would consider China as one of the things that they need to work on together. We’ll see where that takes us over time.

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