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The U.S. Navy of 2030

In the past, small numbers of ships often exerted enormous leverage. One reason that was possible was because once the ships had moved beyond the horizon, those on shore could not know where they were. They had to spread out their own forces to deal with many possible points of attack. The Marines developed a technique for over-the-horizon amphibious assault to exploit just this uncertainty. Now the sea sanctuary, in the sense of sanctuary from being seen, seems to be disappearing. There are more and more ways to see what is happening offshore. Sometimes it seems that the only exception is what happens under the sea (and there have long been those who say that this sanctuary, too, will vanish). Certainly more and more computing power should mean that whoever wields it can get more and more out of sensors in the sea. Probably by 2030 we would have to accept that ships are visible, identifiable, and trackable within a few hundred or a few thousand miles offshore of anyone willing to make the effort to do so – unless, of course, we try to upset that surveillance.

That is not exactly a new problem. During the Cold War, both we and the Soviets made enormous efforts to track each other’s fleet. The U.S. Navy learned to exploit weaknesses in the Soviet system, and it seems reasonable to imagine that we can learn to deal with similar systems erected by anyone else. It seems likely that, as in the past, ships at sea will be identified mainly by their electronic emissions, and the Cold War lesson was that a U.S. fleet could be made to seem to vanish if we learned how to turn off our radios. The Soviets understood the problem, and developed active radar satellites. Fooling them would have been somewhat more difficult, but hardly impossible.

U.S. Navy Counter-piracy Operation

The visit, board, search, and seizure team from the guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) approaches a Yemeni dhow. Halsey was the flagship for Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force conducting counter-piracy operations in the Southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Somali Basin, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean. Protecting world trade to maintain its prosperity will continue to be a necessity for the Navy of 2030, including protecting that trade from the threat of pirates. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Krishna M. Jackson

Beyond surveillance is attack: It often seems that whatever can be seen can be hit. That is not quite true. Whatever can be seen can be attacked. It is up to us whether we can deal with the incoming weapon before it destroys us. Most modern warships are not terribly survivable, or at least are unlikely to be able to keep fighting once hit. If you go back in time, that was not at all true; it was assumed that ships would be hit and that they could remain in action. The U.S. Navy has made considerable efforts to reverse the trend to flimsiness, which is one reason USS Cole survived the attack at Aden. More compact (and more rugged) computers can contribute to this effort. The Navy of 2030 is much more likely to be survivable, but that will boost the cost of ships. Automation is already helping, and by 2030, it may have gone much further. Without automation, survival depends heavily on how much of a crew survives an attack, and attempts to cut crews also make ships less survivable.

Robot devices offer new possibilities in decoying an enemy’s ocean surveillance system. Long-range unmanned aerial vehicles offer the further possibility of deploying decoys far from any ships the enemy system can see. Robot decoys (and countersurveillance in general) become more and more important as the number of ships in the fleet shrinks.

U.S. Navy Sea Hawk Remote-controlled 5-meter Rigid-hull Inflatable Boat

A U.S. Navy combative maritime vessel pulls up alongside a U.S. Navy Sea Hawk remote-controlled 5-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat to troubleshoot problems that arose during Trident Warrior 2012 (TW12) Spiral 1. TW12 Spiral 1 was part of a U.S. Fleet Forces Command project to experiment with advanced maritime initiatives in an operational environment to improve capabilities available to the fleet. Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) could take on a variety of missions in a future navy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Williamson

Another way to look ahead is to identify which technologies are in early enough stages that limited effort brings enormous returns. For anything else, 2030 is likely to look a lot like 2012.

Technology seems to run along an S-shaped curve. At the bottom of the S, every little advance takes enormous effort. Then the basic problems are solved, at least well enough that the technology takes off. Then it begins to run out of steam.

For example, it took about 10 years for airplanes to advance to the point where they were reasonably reliable and could carry loads. Had World War I broken out in, say, 1906, airplanes probably would not have had the slightest influence; they were just too primitive, and too far from “takeoff.” In fact, World War I broke out just as airplanes hit the point at which limited effort brought considerable payoff. By 1918, there were many thousands of airplanes in service, and they were influencing the outcome. Despite the lack of money, progress after 1918 was swift. However, by the latter part of World War II, most of what could be achieved with propellers had been achieved. It took a different kind of airplane, the jet, to begin a new cycle.

If you went back to the 1920s, the obvious candidates for major technological leaps forward were airplanes and tracked vehicles – and internal combustion engines. The big developments that made World War II so different from World War I came out of those candidates, things like carrier aviation and successful amphibious warfare, and a much faster pace of land warfare. What are the modern equivalents?

It seems that we are still in the fast-rising phase of computer development. It may not really matter that they are still becoming faster; it may be a great deal more important that they are becoming smaller and cheaper all the time. Smaller and cheaper is why smartphones exist. Smartphones in turn seem to be showing us the flip side of the computer revolution. The laws of physics limit bandwidth, so the more we are linked together, ultimately the more slowly information will be passed among us. That is what you experience when your smartphone takes forever (or so it seems) to get onto a website.

Robots are a different proposition. The smarter they are, the more autonomous they can become, in which case they need less and less bandwidth to talk with their masters. We are already using a lot of robots, and in 2030, we will probably be using a lot more. The ongoing computer improvement may also overthrow attempts at stealth, though perhaps not as soon as 2030.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...