Enhancing U.S. Navy Fleet Capabilities: Reshaping the Approach to Sustaining the Force


By Robbin Laird

Recently, the U.S. navy’s CNO Gilday underscored that fleet numbers are limited by the relatively limited defense industrial capacity in the United States.

A clear challenge is to rebuild and enhance the “arsenal of democracy.”

“We have an industrial capacity that’s limited. In other words, we can only get so many ships off the production line a year. My goal would be to optimize those production lines for destroyers, for frigates, for amphibious ships, for the light amphibious ships, for supply ships,”

He was talking not simply about major capital ships but across the board the support fleet or the sustainment side of the fleet as well.

There is no short to mid-term solution in terms of providing for an answer to the shortfall even with a ramping up the industrial base. 

This means that in addition to ramping up the industrial base or rethinking how to shape the industrial base which can deliver more platforms and payloads to the global U.S. Navy, innovative solutions need to be found in providing for expanded maritime crisis management and combat capabilities.

My colleague, Marcus Hellyer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and a leading expert on military systems in Australia, highlighted in a February 1, 2021, article how the U.S. Navy can deal with one of the key challenges facing the fleet, namely, the Chinese maritime build out.

This is how he puts it: “Whether under the name of mosaic warfare, distributed lethality, or some other term, they involve disaggregating capabilities such as weapons, sensors, processing power and communications systems into smaller vessels and vehicles, some manned, some unmanned.

“The individual components would be cheaper, but when linked into a resilient network or mesh enabled by artificial intelligence, together they would provide greater, more responsive lethality while being able to suffer attrition. Such concepts have made some progress towards reality, but overall have struggled to gain traction.”

My colleague Ed Timperlake and I have recently published our book which suggests a way ahead for the US Navy to expand its capabilities in the face of the shortage of hulls of various classes of capital ships.

We argued that re-working how the fleet operates as a fleet and with enhanced integrability with air and land forces, a distributed maritime force through a kill web con-ops can enhance its survivability at the same time ensuring the level of lethality required to deal with the fleets of adversary nations.

Some analysts confuse the new approach with an older approach labeled network centric warfare. But as we put it in the book: “The strategic context and thrust of the kill web focus is upon force distribution, scalability and integratability for a modular combat force. This is very different from network centric warfare for it is about shaping new concepts of operations, new ways to build multi-domain force packages and those forces are operating in a very different strategic context within which Cebrowski was living in.”

We focused in the book on ways to reshape con-ops of distributed forces and how modular task forces can be built.

This is how we put it: “At the strategic level, rather than the experience of the land wars where central control drilled down to the battalion level and geographic control, the focus is upon understanding the interactive multi-domain combat effects of distributed forces, With the deployment of multiple modular task forces to the point of strategic or tactical interest, the kill webs may reshape the entire battlespace. The centralized command, in turn, is focused on leveraging those evolving effects to shape combat or crisis management outcomes at the broader escalation management strategic level.”

And with the operation of such forces a key challenge then is how to sustain such forces at sea or how maritime forces can better integrate with air forces working agile combat employment or land forces providing weapons reach or supply capabilities which can be projected to the fleet.

In the book, we deal with a wide range of ways, the air, sea, and land forces can work in new and innovative ways to deliver distributed integrated force capabilities.

But in this series, I am going to focus on how in the short to midterm, the fleet can ramp up its capability to be sustained at sea, or to provide support to ground and air forces operating from mobile bases to ensure their effectiveness and solvability.

In other words, what can be acquired in the short to mid-term which allows the fleet to be better sustained when it is engaged in distributed maritime operations, and how can such a fleet further support joint force distribution as well, and how can the two efforts synergistically reinforce one another?

The importance of this re-focus cannot be understated. As we quoted Rear Admiral Meier in our book: “So, when we look at that Pacific fight, logistics is the key. I think as we look at the new concepts and we started to look at logistics, for the last 20-some years, we built a logistic posture that was peacetime and focused, just-in-time efficient. As the wing commander, I knew how many engines were located on what ship and what was available. We had just a correct number of supplies based on demand, which is rearward looking.

“But in the future, it’s going to be a different kind of usage. We’re going to operate 24 hours, seven offs, we’re going to operate a lot more sorties, but our posture is based on a peacetime demand signal. We have to get into more of a push logistics, more algorithms that predict when operations ramp up, the supply system is ramping up prior to that, and start moving those key components forward.

“We had to get the ability to have these algorithms to accurately predict to say, when I’m about to have the first day of the war and I’m going to launch these long weapons, I don’t need to wait until I fire the weapon to call back home to say, send more out here. They should be moving forward, even before I pull the trigger. So, the next day the resupply ship is pulling up, and I’m reloading. That’s the kind of mindset we need to be able to do. That’s kind of what we’re trying to get at operational logistics; is more of a forward looking instead of a rearward peacetime kind of a focus.”

How we do this in the face of ship hull shortages of the sort the CNO underscored?

Featured photo: Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday delivers testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the fiscal year 2023 defense budget request on May 12, 2022. US Navy Photo