Captain R. Robinson Harris on Flexible Naval Forces and 21st Century Con-ops


Captain Robinson  Harris, US Navy (Retired),  now  from Lockheed Martin MS2,  is a well-known naval analyst and  provides an insightful analysis on the interaction between 21st century concepts of operations and ship-building and ship design.  Harris underscores the central role of modularity, connectivity and interoperability in enhancing the impact of maritime forces on operations in the littoral and their ability to work with civilian and military elements.  Harris underscores that “to build the ships necessary to execute 21st century con-ops, flexibility is central to the shipbuilding enterprise.  The emergence and refinement of Open Architecture, Modularity, Interoperability, and Unmanned Systems will ensure that our Navies will be able to provide maximum return on the nation’s investment in every platform and further ensure our Navies’ ability to execute the demands of 21st century con-ops.”

Flex Ship

With limited resources but growing global demands, what principles should guide the building of US and allied naval force structures? How can we get best value from legacy forces and the new naval systems, which will build in the years ahead?

Earlier this year Dr. Lauren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Washington, DC, characterized President Obama’s advisors’ thinking regarding guiding principles for the military as follows: “…toward greater agility, reach, and versatility.”  Restated in a single word, this means that forces must be highly flexible.  Given likely budget constraints, this means the Navy must realize maximum return from every platform in the inventory.  US and allied Navies’ ships must possess the flexibility to perform the diverse missions known today as well as the unknown missions that most likely will materialize over the 30+ year service life of the ship.

The key characteristics critical to ensure a highly flexible force are the following:

  • Size
  • Modularity
  • Open Architecture or “OA”
  • Interoperability, and
  • Unmanned Vehicles

Size:  The First Fundamental

USS Freedom During Sea Trial

Arguably flexibility starts with the size of the platform, and size is one of the properties of a ship that is relatively hard to change once the design is set and the ship is constructed.  Size is important for several reasons, and principal among them are the environment in which a ship will operate and the missions/roles it will execute.

For example, in the case of the Canadian Navy, its ships will operate routinely in the unforgiving northern latitudes and that, in turn, will call for a steel hull.  Quite independent of Arctic ice, routine non-Arctic operations will expose Canadian Navy ships to high sea states.  And, as a rule of thumb to which there are few exceptions, the larger the ship (length, beam, displacement) the more capable and survivable it will be both for structural integrity and the functionality of the crew.  Accordingly, Canadian Navy ships must be large enough for “blue water’ operations to include anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare (including swarm boat defense), anti-aircraft warfare, counter-mine warfare, and protection of the maritime commons.

Similarly, because the Canadian Navy likely will be limited by budget constraints in the number of ships in the fleet, the same ships will be called upon to perform non-warfighting missions that may include humanitarian assistance and disaster relieve where ship size and volume also are important.  In addition to size, vessel arrangement also is important as it affects mission flexibility for helo operations, the launch and recovery of small boats, etc.  Also, an unobstructed top side arrangement for cold climates is an important factor for the Canadian Navy.   Moreover, over the likely 30+ year service life, unexpected missions/roles are likely to present themselves.  Thus in nutshell, the larger the ship the more flexible and productive it is likely to be.

The flexibility to accommodate disparate missions, today’s “known’s” and tomorrow’s “unknown’s,” is an especially important issue for small navies in ship design. This factor drove the German and Danish Navies to adopt modularity concepts which will be addressed below.

Modularity:  The Second Key to Flexibility

The term “modularity” is applied to systems that result from the integration of separately constructed modules.  Within naval ship construction techniques, perhaps the best known of the modular construction approaches is that used by Blohn+VossGmbH in the production of the MEKO frigates.  The MEKO modular construction approach allows sections of the ship to be removed and replaced.  That said, it is interesting to note that although MEKO naval ships are modular in design, there is little evidence that modularity is actually being used in the operation and support of the vessels.  This is probably explained by the fact that the “module” to be replaced is an entire section of ship, such as the radio room or a gun mount and magazine (see the graphic below).  The complexity and cost of such a modification is not insignificant and probably explains the fact that navies have not taken advantage of MEKO modularity.

Modularity also refers to the creation of interchangeable components or parts of complex systems linked together to perform desired tasks or missions through a set of common standards and interfaces.  An example of modularity that has transformed global business is the standard 20 foot ISO cargo container that can be carried by truck, rail, ship, and aircraft. The platform that carries the ISO container and the actual container are agnostic regarding the contents of the container.

By specifying “common standards and interfaces,” modularity provides Navies with potential benefits in terms of mission flexibility, upgradability, and overall cost. The benefits of “going modular” range from ease of refreshing technology to decreased total ownership cost, and increased operational readiness.

The most successful example of naval ship capability modularity is the Danish STANFLEX concept, now over 20 years old, present in four classes of ships, and  including the following mission areas:  AAW, ASuW, CMW, ASW, SIGINT/ELINT, oceanographic research, and pollution abatement.  With approximately 90 containers deployed on more than 20 ships, the Danish STANFLEX system provides a multiplier effect that significantly increases the effective size—and flexibility—of the Danish fleet.

A similar modular concept was specified for the U. S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program.  RDML Don Loren said it well several years ago:

“Its (LCS) modular design will allow for mission modules to be replaced without putting the ship in dry dock, cutting holes in the side of the ship, or running lengths of cables, and piping throughout the ship…this plug and play process will facilitate incremental upgrading of installed systems, but will also enable complete change out of entire systems.  Such an approach will reduce the risk of investing in new technology by not jeopardizing an entire acquisition program on the success or failure of a single technology or developmental capability.”

Aircraft carriers have employed modularity for years.  In the case of aircraft carriers, the module that is replaced or upgraded is the air wing, i.e., the aircraft.    The U. S. Navy’s aircraft carrier KITTY HAWK replaced its fighter air wing with Army and Marine helos for “Operation Enduring Freedom” (post 9-11 strike in Afghanistan).   Modularity enables aircraft carriers to remain relevant and flexible for 50 years!  The same is true for the MK 41 Vertical Launching system installed in 23 classes of surface combatants in 12 navies.  The MK 41 VLS allows navies to change the weapons load out in surface combatants based on changing operational requirements.  For example, for one deployment a ship might load mostly ASW weapons while for a different deployment it could load mostly AAW weapons—the MK 41 VLS doesn’t care!  MK 41 VLS is the “ISO Container” the world’s surface combatants.

Open Architecture:  A Third Key to Flexibility

During a ship’s typical 30+ year service life, there will be about ten generations of electronic advances applicable for certain C4I and combat systems and several advances in its HM&E (Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical) equipment (possibly more given the increased need for fuel efficiency and the pace of commercial technology).   OA facilitates upgrading a ship’s capability by using commonly available, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) computing hardware and open system software, thereby allowing more rapid and affordable updates to the combat system.   Combat capability can be upgraded without having to rebuild the entire system.  OA also means that the system can accept upgrades from a broader range of suppliers, thereby increasing competition and reducing costs.

VADM McCullough, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Integration of Capabilities and Resources (N8), recently declared,

“If you want to rapidly upgrade combat capability, you have to disaggregate the hardware and software, and we realized that. We are doing the mid-life on Aegis ships and we don’t want to have to do another mid life three-quarters of the way through the service life of the ship because it cost, again, a huge amount of money.” [1]

OA also pays dividends on the front end, i.e., when ships are being designed.  As RADM Michael Frick, Vice Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), observed,

“If we start with the development of a system today, whether it’s a combat system, missile processor, it doesn’t matter what you talk about, by the time you go through the development, two, three, four, five years, whatever it is, technology has shifted.  The parts you had originally looked to build into it become obsolete for the most part so now you have to look at how do you bring in the new parts.” [2]

OA provides the ability to plug in new technology where a program official may have started with the thought of using an older technology.

Admiral Frick adds,

“Part of the reason we have looked toward going to OA is that it allows you to delay naming the pieces that you want to plug in until the end game of the development/delivery so that you are actually bring in the newer piece of equipment…But if you can get to what is good enough to use today with the understanding that if you need to you can modify it later, you probably can do things quicker and less expensive and get fielded into the fleet a lot faster. “

OA will ensure that our ships are state of the art when they go into commission and can be upgraded in an affordable manner throughout their service life—and this will facilitate their flexibility—and longevity.

Interoperability:  A Fourth Key to Flexibility


Since no single Navy can expect to have sufficient resources simultaneously to perform multiple independent and different missions in the many needed locations, the need for collaboration and cooperation will be more important than ever— and this in turn demands interoperability, i.e., the ability for ships of different navies and coast guards to operate together and, especially, to be able to share information.

Further, as many nations have already discovered, this cooperation requires communications with shore facilities and non-traditional maritime partners whose communications systems and protocols are significantly different from those of traditional naval services. In addition to the basic need for traditional communications, we face the need for sharing of information in a usable and open manner for planned and unplanned events such as disaster assistance, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and border protection.

We must find ways that make it easier to share both classified and unclassified information more easily and affordably.  This is becoming especially apparent in the area of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) where the ability to share information across navies, coast guards, disparate maritime security forces, nations, and jurisdictions is critical to developing a comprehensive Common Operating Picture (COP).

Success in this environment will require the integration of diverse sorts of sensor feeds with attendant applications which exploit these new capabilities. Fortunately today’s technology allows this capability in an affordable manner and with processes for protecting and controlling access to the data.

Unmanned Vehicles:  A Fifth Key to Flexibility

As spelled out in the U. S. Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan, unmanned systems have the potential, and, in some cases, the demonstrated ability, to reduce risk to manned forces, to perform tasks which manned vehicles cannot, and to provide force multiplication, i.e., flexibility.

The use of unmanned vehicles in naval operations is not new.  World War II saw the first experimentation with Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs).  Canadians developed the COMOX torpedo concept in 1944 as a pre-Normandy invasion USV designed to lay smoke during the invasion—as a substitute for aircraft.  Following World War II, USVs were developed and used for purposes such as minesweeping and battle damage assessment (BDA).  In the late 1960s, a 23foot fiberglass hull was modified to operate a remotely controlled “chain drag” minesweeper in Viet Nam.  And officers of my generation remember that the U. S. Navy deployed, with mixed results, the unmanned aerial drone (DASH) from surface ships.  In the 1990s the Remote Mine Hunting Operational prototype was operated from USS CUSHING in the Persian Gulf.

Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) were considered the main workhorses of the mine clearing effort during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003.  Today, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program includes the requirement for the operation and support of remote-controlled sensors; and it is expected that each ship will be equipped with up to three  Fire Scout Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV’s), as well as two Remote Minehunting System USVs.

Unmanned platforms may become increasingly important in connection with overcoming the sea access denial.  Some believe that Naval Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) will be a critical component in ensuring that our aircraft carriers possess the needed stand off range (1,000-1,500 nm) to conduct strikes against an enemy with significant land-based reconnaissance/strike networks, conventional ballistic and/or cruise missiles.   Similarly, some believe that unmanned undersea platforms, including distributed sensor and weapons pods, will be a key component in countering undersea access denial threats.

Lastly, while endless pages are written about unmanned platforms, the reality of the U. S. Navy’s budget is that well over half of the budget is allotted to military personnel and sustainment.  And, increasingly complex ships exacerbate the problem in their demand for a crew with high technology skills.  Adding further to the picture, the Navy will have to compete with the private sector for that limited talent pool.  But, technology is a double edge sword.  That is, technology has the capability to reduce military personnel costs and unmanned vehicles are an important part of that technology.

In short, to build the ships necessary to execute 21st century con-ops, flexibility is central to the shipbuilding enterprise.  The emergence and refinement of Open Architecture, Modularity, Interoperability, and Unmanned Systems will ensure that our Navies will be able to provide maximum return on the nation’s investment in every platform and further ensure our Navies’ ability to execute the demands of 21st century con-ops.

[1] (Defense Daily – 7/13)

[2] (Geoff Fein, Defense Daily – 7/14)


***Posted December 7th, 2009