America wants a bigger navy of smaller ships to compete with China’s fleet
THE SEA HUNTER is a sleek grey trimaran that cuts through the water at 27 knots, capable of sailing from San Diego to Tokyo, and back again, on a single tank of diesel—all by itself. The ship is an “autonomous unmanned surface vehicle”—a fancy name for a sailing drone—operated by America’s navy. The air conditioning on board is for the benefit of computers, rather than humans. The design pays little heed to habitability. “I'm on a ship that looks like a Klingon bird of prey,” remarked Robert Work, America’s then deputy secretary of defence, when visiting the ship in 2016. Earlier this month Sea Hunter spent time with the USS Russell, a more traditional destroyer, practising “manned-unmanned teaming”. The idea is that such double acts are the future of naval warfare.
In a report published this month, the Pentagon acknowledged a grim milestone: China’s navy, having churned out warships like sausages, has become the world’s largest (see chart). America had held that crown since the second world war. The balance of military power in the Pacific is more than an abstraction. Tensions between America and China have been growing in recent months. On September 19th the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released a video, titled “Gods of War—Attack!”, depicting Chinese nuclear-capable bombers mounting a simulated attack on an American airbase on the island of Guam (though the video undercut its anti-American message by borrowing footage from several Hollywood films).
Though America’s warships tend to be heftier than their Chinese counterparts, the total tonnage of warships launched by the PLA Navy between 2015 and 2019 exceeded that of America over the same period by almost half, estimates Thomas Shugart, a former submarine officer (though he cautions that naval power depends on a range of other factors, from the number of missile tubes to the range of weapons). Mr Shugart notes that the last time any country engaged in such a dramatic and rapid buildup was Ronald Reagan’s drive for a 600-ship navy in the 1980s. Meanwhile, America’s navy has made blunder after blunder. John Kroger, the navy’s chief learning officer until earlier this year, says that its last three major surface-warship programmes “have been disasters”.
In a speech in Santa Monica to the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, on September 16th, Mark Esper, the American defence secretary, explained how he intended to solve the problem, outlining ambitious plans for a revamped navy. The starting point was more ships, if not quite as many as Reagan envisaged. America currently has 296. Mr Esper promised to expand the fleet to more than 355 (a figure mandated by Congress, and five more than China’s current tally). As a statement of intent, he pointed to the fact that in April the navy granted a $795m contract for the first in a new class of frigate (“it's like a yacht with missiles on it” was Donald Trump’s assessment), with the option to buy nine more for a total of $5.6bn. That was its first major shipbuilding programme in more than a decade.
But fleet size isn’t everything. Though there would be more ships, said Mr Esper, they would have to be smaller and nimbler. The fleet would have to grow more “distributed”, in other words capable of spreading out more widely to survive China’s copious missiles, and attacking from a greater variety of positions. And the very nature of the ships would have to change. In the past, America’s shipbuilding targets have featured only traditional warships—complete with sailors. Mr Esper’s goal includes unmanned vessels like the Sea Hunter.
Sailor-less ships have the advantage of being smaller (and so harder to spot on radar), and cheaper to build and operate. They are also what military types call “attritable”, which means that in a war they could be sunk in large numbers without the backlash that would follow heavy human casualties. “When people use unmanned systems in wargames, they do employ them differently than they would a manned platform,” says Jeremy Sepinsky of the Centre for Naval Analyses, a navy-sponsored think-tank. “If I lose it, I’m losing a much less expensive ship, and I’m not losing American lives,” noted Rear-Admiral Robert Gaucher, an officer in America’s Pacific Fleet, on September 8th.
In its most recent budget request to Congress, America’s navy asked for around $580m for developing several varieties of unmanned (and “optionally manned”) ships, including a 1,000-2,000-ton model that is several hundred feet long and capable of carrying missiles. The first prototypes are due next year. In testimony to Congress in June, Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute, a think-tank that is advising the navy, said that a quarter of America’s fleet should ideally be unmanned by 2045.
The navy is still experimenting with the tactics to accompany this shift. Rear-Admiral Gaucher says that next year the Pacific Fleet will conduct an exercise dedicated to that question. Mr Esper said that unmanned ships would “perform a variety of warfighting functions”, including supplying other ships and laying mines, but also “delivering lethal fires”. That is controversial, because an unmanned ship which can blow things up must be either remote-controlled, and therefore vulnerable to having its communications jammed, or autonomous, with the authority to make life-and-death decisions on its own.
Some question whether this goes far enough. Though Mr Esper blamed America’s military woes on the two-decade distraction of the “war on terror” and budget cuts imposed by Congress, Paul Scharre, a former Pentagon official, now at the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank, says that the real problem is that the department has “over-invested in legacy, wasting assets, like short-range warplanes”.
Mark Montgomery, a retired rear-admiral, points out that for all the talk of autonomous platforms, the navy’s next carrier-based fighter jet, currently known as the F/A-XX, will continue to have a pilot. That bulks up its design, shortens its range (or reduces payload) and makes it less useful for risky missions. There may be little point in having ships without sailors if they require support from planes with pilots. Mr Montgomery says that the navy should have unmanned options for every plane on a carrier’s deck, including those used for combat, electronic warfare and early warning. Currently, less than 2% of the navy’s aircraft are unmanned.
A more dispersed fleet of smaller ships (which cannot travel as far as larger ones) will also need more places to operate from. “We would need countries like Singapore, the Philippines and maybe Vietnam to host these smaller platforms,” says Eric Sayers, a former staffer on the Senate armed services committee. “That is a challenging diplomatic question.”
The other problem is money. In his prepared remarks, Mr Esper said that the shipbuilding budget would have to grow from 11% of the navy’s spending to 13%, “the same levels…committed during the Reagan era”. Perhaps in a fit of fiscal sobriety, those numbers were struck from the final speech because, the Pentagon explained, a decision had not yet been reached.
Congress is reluctant to provide fresh funds until the navy proves the utility of unmanned platforms. The new plans would therefore probably require scooping at least several billion dollars out of other bits of the navy’s budget, at a time when crewing ships is already proving hard. It would be more realistic to slice fat from the army, “the service with the least skin in the China game”, suggests Mr Montgomery. But Mr Esper, a former soldier and secretary of the army, and Mark Milley, the country’s top officer, a former army chief, may balk at that.
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