Our super-carrier fleet has shrunk from 14 to essentially 10 over the course of a quarter-century. Nuclear carriers, the centerpiece of today’s fleet, can only be in one place at one time. Fewer carriers means less forward deployed presence. Jerry has favored a fleet of more numerous and affordable "Fords" over pricier "Ferraris" for years now, and it is his vision that more closely matches the direction of future war at sea - distributed operations and swarming.
Defining the New Swarm
First, some history is order. In some respects, the aircraft carrier was the platform that originally brought swarming to modern naval warfare - though one could look back somewhat further to the triremes of antiquity for tactics that somewhat resemble swarming. In World War II, dozens of U.S. and Japanese fleet carriers operated across the Western Pacific, carrying hundreds of aircraft that swarmed to attack and defend enemy surface ships and island bases. Future swarming will occur at both the tactical and operational levels. Though with projected force structure, surging three, maybe four carriers at any time to a given theater is going to be a challenge. Discounting casualties (a big assumption), maintaining them forward deployed over the course of a protracted naval campaign would be virtually impossible. So how will tomorrow's smaller fleet be able to project power - both ashore and at sea across battle areas spanning millions of square miles in a major war?
Despite our best attempts, future enemies and conflict drivers are difficult to predict. But it is likely that increasingly affordable and numerous autonomous systems will make swarming a common tactic in the future, employed by both state and non-state maritime powers. I strongly recommend Paul Scharre's work to understand the nature of military swarms and how they might be employed. What follows are some thoughts on how swarms might work in the naval milieu.
A swarm is designed to overwhelm targeting systems and magazine capacity with its size. Unlike the Japanese kamikazes, low cost, unmanned autonomous platforms will alleviate any qualms about mass human casualties on the side of the swarmers.
By employing distributed maritime operations, a single surface platform with embarked unmanned vehicles can operate over a wider area than one without. Using a multi-tiered hub-and-spoke concept, a large surface ship should be capable of simultaneously operating dozens of air, surface, and sub-surface vessels. So while a traditional surface ship might operate a boat or two and the same number of helicopters, using unmanned vehicles, that same platform can deploy numerous sensors and weapons at a considerable distance from the ship across all maritime domains.
|Herd. Defend. Distract. Attack.|
Though high in quality, today's fleet is smaller in quantity than needed for future distributed operations. Although a "thousand ship" multi-national navy has possible utility in peacetime, what happens in time of war, when partners go wobbly? I have advocated for distributed operations at sea to include distributed firepower for about five years now. So it warmed my heart to see surface warfare leadership take an interest in distributed lethality in a recent Proceedings article and in subsequent public comments.
Non-traditional naval platforms
Ever since J.F.C. Fuller, in 1918, the foundational concept of maneuver doctrine for the 20th century is not to fight the enemy bit by bit, but to find his headquarters and put a pistol shot into the brain. Fuller talks about finding and killing the enemy headquarters, putting a deep penetration armored unit behind the frontline looking for the enemy headquarters to kill it. That is on what blitzkrieg is based on, it’s what Russian maneuver warfare is based on, it is a fundamental guiding idea for Liddell Hart or Guderian. The scary thing that Black Hawk down tells you is that because of how these guys operate-- with tactics completely emergent within a self synchronizing swarm-- there is actually no headquarters in the Western sense. The guy I sat with, a Somali brigade commander, didn’t have a bunch of guys with radios in a command and control center. What he had, it was walkie talkie and a larger truck than everybody else, carrying a reserve of fighters and ammo. He just listened on the radio and drove around the battlefield to where the fighting was heaviest. He didn’t need to give an order for the attack because the self-synchronizing tactical system didn’t require that. The scary thing that Black Hawk Down tells you is that if the Rangers were able to capture Aidid, it might not have any effect at all. They were going after a headquarters that didn’t exist.
|A small sample of the largest surrogate fleet in the world...|
Unmanned vehicles operating at the edge of the battlespace will require new concepts in afloat logistics. Moored undersea docking stations to recharge the batteries of long range UUVs should be designed for air or surface deployment. Unmanned air vehicles flying from surface ships will also support vertical resupply of distributed sea and ground elements operating hundreds of miles from their motherships. This concept has been demonstrated successfully ashore with the K-MAX rotary wing vehicle which flew more than 17,000 sorties in Afghanistan, delivering over four million pounds of supplies to Marines in remote forward operating bases. Even small patrol vessels operating alone and unafraid could be partially refueled by air, using blivets (from drones, of course) or conceivably, a reverse helicopter in-flight refueling (HIFR) system from the V-22. Moreover, surface ships with shallower drafts, such as the FF and JHSV can pull into more austere and remote ports for upkeep than their deep draft counter-parts.
The Future is Clear as Mud
By the 2020s, most diseases will go away as nanobots become smarter than current medical technology. Normal human eating can be replaced by nanosystems. The Turing test begins to be passable. Self-driving cars begin to take over the roads, and people won’t be allowed to drive on highways.
By the 2030s, virtual reality will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind/consciousness by the end of the decade.
By the 2040s, non-biological intelligence will be a billion times more capable than biological intelligence (a.k.a. us). Nanotech foglets will be able to make food out of thin air and create any object in physical world at a whim.
By 2045, we will multiply our intelligence a billionfold by linking wirelessly from our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud.
If Kurzweil is even partially accurate, nanobots will eventually become naval weapons in their own right. Dispersed from the air prior to hostilities, they will float dormant like plankton in shipping lanes until they recognize an enemy ship. They will then swarm the vessel’s seawater intakes, disable engines, sensors, and perhaps even crew. Airborne nano-bots floating in the trade winds will be attracted to electromagnetic emissions and disable radar array faces.