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The U.S. Navy of 2030

More generally, if we have to keep up with potential attackers in our ship systems, our ships will continue to get more expensive. We need some way of regaining the initiative. Otherwise we end up with a very few, very valuable ships, and there is always some way to sink a large ship.

Electromagnetic Railgun Prototype

Engineers at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, prepare to test the Office of Naval Research-funded electromagnetic railgun prototype launcher that was recently installed at a test facility in Dahlgren, Va. The test shots began a monthlong series of full-energy tests to evaluate the first of two industry-built launchers and help bring the Navy a step closer to producing a next-generation, long-range weapon for surface ships. The new launcher brings advanced material and high-power technologies in a system that now resembles a large-caliber gun. Railguns and other weapons considered exotic today may provide powerful new capabilities for surface ships, possibly equipping them for new missions. U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

The obvious way out is to multiply our fleet using robots. We already do that to some extent; the new littoral combat ship (LCS) is conceived as a base for unmanned systems. Robots on carriers are another step in the same direction. We may end up with larger ships operating, in effect, as aircraft carriers for unmanned devices. Right now the LCS delivers only one such system at a time, but we may come to see that as an unfortunate step. If that seems odd, remember that in the 1920s, there was considerable debate over the appropriate size of aircraft carriers. That was not a debate over whether there should be carriers, or whether airplanes were worthwhile, but rather over carrier tactics and coordination. It turned out that larger carriers with more aircraft on board were better than a larger number of smaller carriers (with, incidentally, a larger total number of aircraft).

Extension by robots is likely to apply across the board. We are finding submarines more and more expensive, but we also find their stealthiness more and more valuable. Right now a submarine snooping off a hostile coast covers a limited area, and she must come inshore to do her job. The same snooping job might be done by several robots. They could not possibly analyze what they collected, but they can bring it back to the submarine where the valuable people aboard can do the job.

It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. Navy of 2030 will not be looking everywhere for leverage to make the best use of its valuable humans. Incidentally, supporting fleets of robots will require larger, not smaller, submarines, both to maintain those robots and to make full use of whatever they collect (or to command them in any other missions).

The other big new technologies are probably a revolution in materials, led by advances on the very small (nano) level; and a revolution in our understanding of biology. It seems unlikely that the latter will directly affect naval operations, but the first one certainly will. At the least, it will mean lighter and stronger materials, which may also be easier to maintain. It will be increasingly possible to design materials for specific purposes. That may make it much easier to make ships more survivable. In case this seems weird and futuristic, remember that we are beginning to read stories about ultra-hard concrete, a fruit of exactly this revolution, which the Iranians hope will protect their nuclear sites from big U.S. bunker-busting bombs.

USS Texas (SSN 775)

Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Corey Stabenow inspects the deck of the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775) after surfacing in the vicinity of the North Pole. The stealth of submarines has become even more valuable in the 21st century, but leveraging their capabilities with a squadron of on-board robots may mean that submarines grow larger in the future to support unmanned underwater vehicle operations. U.S. Navy photo

The materials revolution may well also mean more powerful explosives; in the past, we have sometimes been promised 10 times the power per pound. New kinds of weapons, such as rail guns, also promise a much bigger bang per unit size or weight than we have had in the past, possibly even the potential for surface ships to take over some of the missions that now require aircraft. At the least, much more powerful explosives should make it possible for stealthy aircraft to carry many more weapons on board, hence to deal with many more targets per sortie. That would make a particular difference in a carrier-borne long-endurance robot aircraft.

It seems reasonable to imagine that fuel will not become impossibly expensive, simply because it is so difficult to imagine that any problem of oil shortage will not be solved. There is just too much money and too much social pressure involved. We’ll still be driving cars and flying airplanes in 2030, though they may not be powered by gasoline and the current form of jet fuel. If the Navy has to become more nuclear, that may well mean more nuclear power ashore making burnable fuel for use at sea, because nuclear power at sea, in a very compact package, has proven so expensive.

So the 2030 Navy is likely to look a lot like the 2012 Navy – superficially. If that seems disappointing, compare the U.S. Navy of, say, 1922, with that of 1940 – a period most of us would certainly consider revolutionary, with things moving a lot faster than they have in recent years. The two navies didn’t look too different.

For example, both were built around a battle line with a few carriers (in 1922, USS Langley  [CV 1] was nearly ready and USS Lexington [CV 2] and USS Saratoga [CV 3] were being converted). Both fleets included submarines, although in 1940 the U.S. Navy had extraordinary submarines with enormous range. Looking at a standard reference book (say, a Jane’s) of the time, you don’t see much difference. But there had actually been enormous changes. For example, the U.S. Navy of 1940 had a very capable air arm, which had hardly existed in 1922. The U.S. Navy of 1940 had developed new ways of fighting, including the beginnings of the amphibious warfare that was so important in the coming war.

The most visible change between now and 2030 is likely to be the rise of the robots, followed by the rise of the relatively new mission of ballistic missile defense.

This article was first published in Defense: Spring 2012 Edition.

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