What was until now only a supported hypothesis has now taken on the stature of a long-term project. Indeed, Mark Esper, the US 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 achieve, by 2045, a format of 500 combat ships while respecting the objective of 355 buildings by 2030, in order to contain the rise in Chinese power. But far from being a simple homothetic extension of the current format, this new format, largely constrained by its budget and human volume, also involves 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 surface ships and autonomous or semi-autonomous robotic submarines (0 today)
- 70 to 90 logistics vessels 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 either of the evolution of the fleet of large combat ships (Cruisers, Destroyers, Heavy Frigates) or of the assault fleet.
As we can see, the US Navy wants, above all, to strengthen its submarine attack 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 low on personnel, the crew of an ANS of the Virginia class being almost 3 times smaller than that of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer.
However, as Mark Esper made clear in his speech, the US Navy has no intention of doing without its super aircraft carriers, which remain, according to the Secretary of Defense, the heart of the projected US naval power. On the other hand, and as we had discussed it 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 stopper strands, and which would use a fleet of F35B short vertical take-off planes, 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 decrease in the Marine Corps fleet.
The heart of the evolution of the US Navy will lie in the implementation of a large fleet of fully robotic surface ships and combatant submarines, with or without a crew. 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 slowly changing budget. It is true that robotic ships have, like aerial drones, many finery, first of which, that of not depending on the presence of a crew, which saves a lot of space in the ship, and not having to take human issues into consideration, such as food, family estrangement, overcrowding on board, etc.
On the other hand, for many experienced sailors, the hypothesis of implementing fully autonomous vessels on the high seas over the long term is more a technological fantasy than reality. Indeed, even today, the operation of a ship at sea requires a great number of human interventions, a significant part of which consists in repairing malfunctions or incidents on board. However, if it is possible to deport mission control, sensors and possible weapon systems to an onshore center, repairs to the many failures that do not fail to intervene on a complex system such as a combat ship , cannot be automated.
And where an aerial drone performs missions lasting several tens of hours allowing regular maintenance and repairs, a ship at sea for several tens of days, or even several months, will not be able to return to port at the slightest damage, except to considerably alter the very notion of projected naval power. We can therefore imagine that these automated ships will be called upon to evolve only as part of a deployment around a main ship, capable, if necessary, of dispatching personnel to perform the required maintenance missions. In this case, surface ships and robotic submarines would act as deported 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 of increased risk of conflicts 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 Combattant” in the text) certainly corresponds to the emergence of a new class of light frigates or heavy corvettes, ships measuring around 4000 tons and intended for anti-submarine warfare, escorting and densifying 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, maneuvering and discreet than destroyers, in fact constitute excellent ASM wrestling platforms, especially if it is a question of taking advantage of conventional submarines deemed 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 Ship of the Independence and Freedom classes, but given the very low operational capacities of these two ships, it is likely that their future in the US Navy will be quickly cut short.
One cannot fail to notice that the list provided by Mark Esper does not detail the format of the large combatant surface units, yet the heart of a modern naval power. If we use average values for all the categories discussed by the US 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 vessels will be heavy frigates from the FFG / X program, which will limit the number of destroyers and cruisers to just 50 units, a drop of over 40% from the current format. Considering that it will take 1 anti-aircraft cruiser per large naval unit (aircraft carriers and light aircraft carriers), one 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 classify the Smaller surface combatants as frigates.
It appears from this new format that it should indeed 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 personnel, the reductions in staffing in terms of combatant surface units and aircraft carriers sufficient to offset human needs for the new submarines, logistics vessels, 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 while seeking all the budgetary reserves as envisaged by Mark Esper. In addition to severe budgetary constraints, this format will also require significant technological advances, particularly in the area of automation. To these constraints will be added industrial and political pressures, in particular from shipyards specializing in large naval units and from the states that host them, which could see their order book melt.
It is understandable that this announcement made by Mark Esper serves as much to give substance to the necessary evolutions of the US Navy, and this a few weeks before the presidential elections, as to take the temperature of the reactions which such an implementation could generate. It is therefore understandable why the ranges presented are so important, thus making it possible to move the sliders to find a budgetary and political balance when necessary. In particular, the implicit threat on the large surface units and the fleet of super aircraft carriers can give rise to evolutions if the budgets follow, so as to simultaneously respect the objective of 500 combat ships, and the political and economic goals dear to members of Congress. For now, neither President Trump, nor candidate Biden, are planning to increase US defense funding. By posing the alternatives in a quantified way, Mark Esper is probably hoping to force fate and obtain the necessary extensions to stand up to the Chinese naval power in the making.