Submarines, light aircraft carriers, robotic ships .. the US Navy details its upcoming format

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What was until now only a supported hypothesis has now taken on the stature of a long-term project. Indeed, Mark Esper, the American Secretary of Defense, detailed yesterday during a speech, the forecast format of the US Navy in the 25 years to come up. As said previously, the objective will be to reach, by 2045, a format of 500 combat ships while respecting the objective of 355 buildings in 2030, in order to contain the rise of Chinese power. But far from being a simple homothetic extension of the current format, this new format, largely constrained by its budget and its human volume, also leads a profound upheaval in the architecture of the US Navy in the years to come.

Let's start by listing the points detailed by Mark Esper in his speech:

  • Between 70 and 80 attack submarines (52 today)
  • 8 to 11 super aircraft carriers (11 today)
  • up to 6 light aircraft carriers (0 today)
  • 140 to 240 autonomous or semi-autonomous surface ships and robotic submarines (0 today)
  • 70 to 90 logistics ships of all types (50 today)
  • 60 to 70 smaller combat ships (24/35 today)
  • Strengthening the fleet of aerial drones for hunting, in-flight refueling, advanced air watch, electronic warfare (and probably maritime patrol) missions

On the other hand, there was no question of the evolution of the fleet of large combat ships (cruisers, destroyers, heavy frigates) nor of the assault fleet.

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Two carriers South China Sea 2020 Defense News | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | Military naval constructions
The US Navy still considers supercarriers to be the key ship for power projection of its naval posture

As we see, the US Navy wants, above all, to strengthen its attack submarine component to contain Chinese and possibly Russian military power. And it was predictable. Indeed, American nuclear attack submarines are both very efficient, well beyond their Chinese and even Russian counterparts, very discreet, capable of a wide range of offensive, defensive and intelligence missions, and relatively light on personnel, the crew of a Virginia class SSN being almost 3 times smaller than that of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer.

However, as Mark Esper clarified in his speech, the American Navy has no intention of doing without its super aircraft carriers, which remain, according to the Defense Secretary, the heart of America's projected naval power. On the other hand, and as we have discussed several times, it seems that the total number of super aircraft carriers will be reduced, for the benefit of a few light aircraft carriers which would be based on America class LHAs, devoid of catapults and stopping strands, and which would use a fleet of F35B short and vertical take-off aircraft, whose function would be to intervene where the presence of a Ford-class aircraft carrier is not required. News which, by the way, will probably reassure customers of the American aircraft, after the announcement of the probable reduction of the Marine Corps fleet.

F35B on USS America Defense News | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | Military naval constructions
The F35B could well join the inventory of the US Navy if it were to actually equip itself with light aircraft carriers derived from the America class LHAs

The heart of the evolution of the US Navy will lie in the implementation of a large fleet of fully robotic surface ships and combat submarines, crewed or not. The objective is naturally to increase the number of ships without having to increase the number of sailors, and therefore to contain this growth within a constant or slightly changing budget. It is true that robotic ships, like aerial drones, have many advantages, first of all, that of not depending on the presence of a crew, which saves a lot of space in the ship, and not having to take into consideration human issues, such as food, family distance, promiscuity on board, etc.

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On the other hand, for many experienced sailors, the hypothesis of implementing fully autonomous ships on the high seas in the long term is more of a technological fantasy than reality. Indeed, even today, driving a ship at sea requires a great deal of human intervention, a significant part of which consists of repairing malfunctions or incidents on board. However, if it is possible to deport mission control, sensors and possible weapon systems to a center on land, the repairs of the numerous breakdowns which do not fail to occur on a complex system such as a combat ship , cannot be automated.

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The bulk of the increase in the US fleet will be represented by surface ships or automated submarines without crew, or with only a reduced optional crew.

And where an aerial drone carries out missions lasting several dozen hours allowing regular maintenance and repairs, a ship at sea for several dozen days, or even several months, will not be able to return to port at the slightest damage, unless to considerably alter the very notion of projected naval power. We therefore imagine that these automated ships will only be required to operate as part of a deployment around a main ship, capable, if necessary, of dispatching personnel to carry out the required maintenance missions. In this case, the surface ships and robotic submarines would act as remote extensions of this main ship, like Loyal Wingmen combat drones ou Remote Carrier that will accompany combat aircraft in the future. It is probably with a view to this deployment of autonomous ships that the US Navy's logistics fleet will be strengthened, its role becoming more and more decisive in view of geopolitical developments, and in particular increasing risks of conflict in the Western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, at a great distance from US naval bases.

Finally, the increase in the number of “smaller” surface combatants (“smaller Surface Combatant” in the text) most certainly corresponds to the emergence of a new class of light frigates or heavy corvettes, ships measuring around 4000 tonnes and intended for anti-submarine warfare, escort and to densify the American naval presence on the oceans, in the spirit of what the Knox and OH Perry class frigates were in the 70s and 80. This type of ship, lighter, more maneuverable and discreet than destroyers, constitutes excellent ASW platforms, especially if it involves taking on conventional submarines known to be very discreet. like the Chinese Type 039 or the 636.3 Improved Kilo. For the moment this category is based on the Littoral Combat Ships of the Independence and Freedom classes, but given the very low operational capabilities of these two ships, it is likely that their future in the US Navy will be quickly cut short.

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One of the very serious threats that the US Navy must face today is represented by the Chinese Type 039B AIP submarines, which are known to be very discreet and reliable.

We cannot fail to notice that the list provided by Mark Esper does not detail the format of large surface combatant units, yet the heart of a modern naval power. If we use average values ​​for all the categories addressed by the American Secretary of Defense, we deduce that the fleet of cruisers, destroyers and frigates of the US navy will be reduced to 70 units, barely 14% of the fleet, compared to 87 today. In addition, 20 of these ships will be heavy frigates from the FFG / X program, which will limit the number of destroyers and cruisers to only 50 units, a drop of more than 40% compared to the current format. Considering that it will take 1 anti-aircraft cruiser per large naval unit (aircraft carriers and light aircraft carriers), we can imagine a fleet composed of 16 cruisers, 34 destroyers and 20 heavy frigates, which could well be recategorized Destroyers to the future, in order to allow Smaller surface fighters to be classified as frigates.

It appears from this new format that it should actually make it possible to significantly increase the naval power of the US Navy in the years to come, without it being necessary to increase the number of personnel or reduce staffing in terms of surface combatant units and aircraft carriers sufficient to offset the human requirements for the new submarines, logistics ships, frigates and light aircraft carriers that will enter service. On the other hand, it seems difficult to succeed in this exercise with a constant budget, even by seeking out all of the budgetary reserves as envisaged by Mark Esper. In addition to strong budgetary constraints, this format will also require significant technological advances, particularly in terms of automation. Added to these constraints will be industrial and political pressures, particularly from shipyards specializing in large naval units and from the states that host them, which could see their order books shrink.

Ticonderoga cruiser News Defense | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | Military naval constructions
The surface combatant fleet could well be the big loser from the new US Navy format, which would see the number of cruisers and destroyers decrease by almost 40%.

We understand that this announcement made by Mark Esper serves as much to give substance to the necessary developments in the US Navy, a few weeks before the presidential elections, as to take the temperature of the reactions that such an implementation could generate. We therefore understand why the ranges presented are so important, thus making it possible to move the cursors to find budgetary and political balance when necessary. In particular, the implicit threat to large surface units and the fleet of super aircraft carriers may give rise to developments provided that the budgets follow, so as to simultaneously respect the objective of 500 combat ships, and the political and economic objectives dear to members of Congress. For the moment, neither President Trump nor candidate Biden plans to increase American defense credits. By posing the alternatives in a quantified manner, Mark Esper probably hopes to force destiny and obtain the necessary extensions to stand up to the Chinese naval power in the making.

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