Defense Media Network

The U.S. Navy of 2030

We already know that money is getting tighter. People are more and more expensive. How many does a navy really need? For armies, there is a definite lower limit. An army needs people to occupy territory. For it, success is not measured simply in how many of the enemy it kills or captures. Success is convincing an enemy to surrender, and that is probably more a matter of perception than anything else. The army has to be there in numbers to show that it means business (and even then it may fail). For a navy, however, success is gauged in terms of defending shipping (or sea resources) or in attacking enemy territory, usually by bombardment.


The X-47B flew its first flight in “cruise” configuration (landing gear up) on Sept 30, 2011, marking an important milestone in its flight test program. The X-47B UCAS is intended to prove unmanned combat air vehicles can operate autonomously from a carrier. UCAVs that are able to take off, refuel, operate in swarms far from the carrier, and land aboard on mission completion would constitute a tremendous leap forward in naval aviation capability. Northrop Grumman photo by Christian Turner

It is sometimes suggested that the surface of the sea will become so dangerous that we will have to abandon it: The Navy of 2030 should consist entirely of submarines. If the point of the Navy is not to be sunk, there is some merit there. But if the point of the Navy is to secure our use of the sea, there is little point in preserving our warships if all the shipping is wiped out. We are compelled to keep building surface ships. They are probably going to keep getting more expensive, because they will probably have to be able to beat off increasingly effective air and missile attacks. Right now our air defense systems, particularly Aegis, are so good that our aircraft carriers can concentrate on attack rather than defense. That is good, because right now surface ships cannot deliver anything remotely like the volume of fire offered by the carriers.

Unfortunately, carriers are very expensive in terms of manpower. One possibility, which would become viable sometime in the late 2010s or early 2020s, would be to replace manned aircraft with robots. That in itself saves few people, because a robot airplane is no less complicated, hence no easier to maintain, than a manned one. However, if the new airplane is robotic enough, it does not need a pilot, even a remote one. It follows a programmed path, and a human intervenes when it deviates or when some other change is needed.

This change is profound. A pilot, whether in the airplane or on the ground, has to train constantly to remain proficient. Airplanes have to be bought so that all pilots can fly all the time. The robot flies only when it is needed. In effect it is a reusable missile. Many fewer robots have to be bought, and the maintenance load is dramatically smaller. The total cost of a fleet of robots (including lifetime costs) might be half that of equivalent manned aircraft – without any loss at all in the ability to deliver ordnance. That is aside from some new tactics that become possible, because the robot does not become tired in the air, and does not therefore have to return to the ship to eat and to sleep. We are already seeing this last factor when we orbit unmanned aircraft for long periods in order to catch key terrorists.

RQ-8A Fire Scout

An RQ-8A Fire Scout vertical takeoff and landing tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (VTUAV) system prepares for the first autonomous landing aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Nashville (LPD 13) in 2006. While Fire Scout deployed to Libya and is planned to equip the littoral combat ship, it may be that, like aircraft carriers, “bigger is better” with regard to “mother ships” for unmanned assets, be they aerial (UAV), submarine (UUV), or surface vehicles (USV). U.S. Navy photo by Kurt Lengfield

There also seems to be a revolution in what might be called counter-computer or counter-electronics weapons. For years, there have been attempts to develop electromagnetic-pulse weapons, which fire a bolt of energy at an enemy. That can certainly be done by a nuclear weapon, but the claim now is that the bolt can be created without a nuclear explosion, and that it can be focused over a relatively narrow area. Electronics can be protected against these pulses, but that is expensive, and it is rarely done. It happens that the main defense is to enclose the electronic devices in a metal cage – like a ship. If these weapons work as advertised, they may be the primary means of attack by 2030. Navies (if they are properly designed) may enjoy new advantages.

Imagine, for example, a war against China, in which the Chinese deploy powerful anti-ship weapons, such as their new ballistic missile, but also rely on command and control systems vulnerable to pulse attack (it is relatively difficult to protect an entire communications network against electromagnetic pulse). If stealth is still viable at that point, a stealthy airplane or missile might even the odds considerably by delivering pulse weapons to paralyze the Chinese anti-ship system.

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