A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired a warning shot across the bow of the US Navy, questioning its “need” to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. He justified this on the basis of 1) “the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys”, 2) “the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries”, and 3) the huge costs involved, e.g. a Ford-class carrier with full air wing “would represent potentially $15 to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk”. Though his statements had to take political sensitivities into account, Gates is eminently correct. Not only is such a large force a questionable asset for a fiscally overstretched superpower, but the aircraft carrier is fast becoming to the 21st century what the battleship was to the 20th. This is part and parcel of the biggest paradigm shift in naval warfare since the coming of fossil-fueled ironclads, a paradigm shift that I intend to popularize as the Revolution in Naval Warfare (RNW).
Much has already been written about the dangers to the West’s big surface fleets emanating from the global proliferation of supercavitating torpedoe and hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile technology. I’m not going to recap the debate – see these “classic” articles by David Crane and the War Nerd. Instead, what I’m going to do here is to look “over the horizon” at the impact of three major, ongoing developments on the future of naval warfare: railguns, battle lasers, and naval platforms.
Two weeks ago, a Russian company announced a Club-K cruise missile packet that could be hidden within a 40ft shipping container and rolled out in the Western press as a “carrier killer”*. At least according to its marketing pitch, any railroad wagon, any truck, any container ship could now be constituted into “effective counter measures [against] state terrorism”. This is a good example of the mating of advanced military technology with asymmetric tactics that is a major point of concern for Pentagon planners, who not only have to content with technologically mediocre nations like Iran acquiring a credible deterrent against US aeronaval intervention within the next decade, but also face many other problems such as checking the defense “death spiral”, the prospect of stagnant or shrinking military budgets, and the rising Chinese naval challenge.
Enter the railgun! In a recent demonstration, General Atomics unveiled the “Blitzer” intended “for ship defense against anti-ship cruise missiles and small boat swarms”. Although twice faster than conventional naval gun systems the current Phalanx close-in weapons system, I’m not sure that it will be all that game-changing for ship defense. After all, the new cruise missiles proliferating around the world don’t travel in straight lines, e.g. see the specs for the Sizzler cruise missile:
The 3M54E reaches its target in a most challenging manner. At 20 km from the target, the 3M54E’s supersonic solid rocket-powered third-stage terminal ‘dart’ separates from the missile, descends to 3 to 5 metres above sea level and accelerates to a supersonic speed of Mach 2.9 in a zigzagging terminal run to hit its target.
As a defensive system, the railgun might be able to take out one or two of these. But if you have half a dozen or more such missiles coming at a CSG, from different directions, it is almost certainly going to get hit. And of course the means for delivering them are also proliferating – quiet diesel subs, drones, fast attack boats, etc. However, their real potential is as a long-range gun platform. From Stratfor:
First, the projectile travels much faster than a conventional round. The muzzle velocity of an EMRG is around Mach 7, compared to just above Mach 2 for the current U.S. naval guns. (EMRGs are likely to appear first on U.S. Navy warships because of their size and power requirements.) This increase in speed also dramatically increases range and lethality. Current naval guns are limited to a range of about 20 nautical miles (though near-term improvements might double that), whereas current projections place the range of EMRGs at around 250 nautical miles. And a projectile that hits its target at speeds around Mach 5 can be extremely destructive just from kinetic energy alone — dramatically reducing the size of the explosive warhead (or perhaps even making it unnecessary in some cases).
Second, the ammunition required is much smaller and much safer to handle and store. In a conventional gun, the shell casing and the propellant account for the bulk of the round’s size and weight. Because an EMRG round does not need to contain a propellant, and because it does not necessarily need an explosive warhead to detonate when it reaches its target, ammunition could be on the order of one-tenth the size of comparable conventional ammunition.
In short, EMRGs offer order-of-magnitude improvements in range and lethality while reducing the size, weight and hazardous nature of ammunition to a similar degree.
Railgun-fired projectiles will be almost as destructive as a cruise missile (remember that kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared), and far, far more difficult to intercept (because of their smaller size and sheer speed). With some tweaking, it will be possible to make the projectiles guided or “smart”. Finally, you can pack an ammunition load aboard that is practically unlimited (for comparison, the Sovremenny class destroyer only packs eight Moskit anti-ship missiles). Future ships armed with two long-range railguns can fire off a barrage of very fast, lethal projectiles once every few seconds once they receive the coordinates of a hostile target. The USN’s next-generation destroyer, the Zumwalt-class, is being designed with a view to hosting railguns and free-electron lasers (FEL).
This technology is expected to mature by 2015-2020, and become widely fielded a decade later as is the typical pattern. However, as with all advances in military technology, this will also spur changes in other platforms and doctrine. Here are three immediate consequences that come to mind:
1) Imagine a railgun on a submarine. Prowling silently underwater, it gets information on the coordinates of a target up to 300km away, e.g. by satellite comms or sub-launched reconaissance drones. It then erects its railgun above the waterline, fires off a barrage of guided projectiles for several minutes, and then submerge again. If it operates in a “wolfpack” with other subs, these things will be able to rapidly decimate even the most formidable enemy surface warship formations, not to mention utterly shut down commercial shipping routes. Navies will be forced to go underwater, become stealthier, or just faster (e.g. ekranoplans).
2) Needless to say, this will also force navies to become more dispersed, so that many vessels can’t be detected and targeted at the same time. In other words, naval warfare will follow the same trends as those observed on land.
3) A big problem will be power supply and management. One possible solution is to use space-based solar power, which can be beamed down whenever said vessel is on the water surface. The major challenge will be in protecting this source of power. See my article on Future War for more.
The second game changing technology I want to talk about are developments in free-electron laser (FEL) weapons. Back in 2009, American experimentalists hit the “100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for ‘weapons grade’ power levels for high-energy lasers”. And in March 2010, Boeing unveiled a preliminary design for a FEL, “which will operate by forcing a stream of high-energy electrons through a series of magnetic fields, creating a weapons-grade blast of laser light”. Their prospective development timetable is similar to that for railguns and they require the same, all-electric ship platform. So by the 2020’s, it is not inconceivable that there could be several US Navy warships armed with these potent beasts**.
[Source: Battle laser awesomeness].
The function of these “battle lasers” will be to zap incoming cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. This will provide a very potent “point defense” around the FEL-equipped warship, within the limits of horizon visibility. However, these ships will still be vulnerable to railgun projectiles, which are far smaller, faster, and more numerous than a missile attack on a similar scale.
As I noted above, the proliferation of hypersonic cruise missiles, and platforms like quiet diesel-electric subs, speedboats, and UAV’s, is going to provide medium-level nations like Iran with a potent deterrent against American aeronaval intervention. A dozen modern cruise missiles with their platforms cost about 10mn $, a single oil super-tanker costs 100-200mn $. One hundred advanced cruise missiles and their platforms cost about 100mn $, a carrier strike group costs around 20bn $. Today’s economics overwhemingly favor the asymmetrical side, provided it can gets its hands on the goodies.
Perhaps the most important impact of battle lasers is that they are going to turn this economic logic on its head. Because they operate at the speed of light, a battle laser can be trained on incoming missiles almost constantly. Therefore, an array of weaponized FEL’s with a good target optimization algorithm can theoretically defend from all but the most intense missile barrages. These capabilities will no doubt be employed to great effect by the gunboat racketeers of the future, the Great Powers engaged in a last scramble for energy and mineral resources in the coming age of scarcity industrialism. The defense advantages acquired by middle Powers like Iran or Venezuela in the 2000’s-2010’s will begin to rapidly erode in the 2030’s.
Deeper, Quieter, Faster
The Revolution in Naval Warfare will occur in tandem with the wider Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), with its emphasis on interconnections, informatization, and Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconaissance (ISR). Not only will navies acquire potent new physical capabilities (railguns, battle lasers), but they will also be enmeshed far deeper into the military environment that also encompasses air, land, and space.
In particular, today’s navies will become far more “visible” (to enemy satellites, drones, and other sensors), even while the danger of being spotted will become much more immediately dangerous (due to the danger of a concentrated railgun barrage from up to 400km away). The natural response is that naval platforms will have to become deeper, quieter, faster, nimbler. Below I outline six possible future trends, ranging from the certain (1, 2), to the somewhat probable (3-5), to the entirely speculative (6).
1) The obvious solution is to implement stealth technology on ships to reduce RCS, visibility, and noise. This is already widely implemented in modern navies and will only develop further, as shown in the angular planes of the prospective Zumwalt-class below.
[Source: Zumwalt-class destroyers have an advanced stealth design].
… China has mastered quiet air-independent propulsion (AIP) power plants for its new Type 041 Yuan-class boats. AIP extends underwater endurance from a few days to one month, and enables submarines to sprint underwater—greatly increasing their attack radius. Reportedly quieter than the US fast attack Los Angeles-class boats, the elusive AIP diesel electrics are equipped with wake-honing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. In one incident in October 2006, an ultra-quiet Song–class AIP submarine surfaced inside the protective screen of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
3) Let’s get more speculative. Usually, projectiles stop dead in the water mere moments after impact (unless they have some kind of supercavitation mechanism). So what’s the best way for future warships to protect themselves in an exposed and dangerous environment? Go under the sea.
[Source: “The Russians have been pondering a “dive boat” that would be essentially a surface warship but with a simple and inexpensive ability to sail under the water at a shallow depth”].
Now while full-fledged submarines is pretty expensive, constructing shallow-submersible boats is much easier. Even the narcos do it to smuggle drugs into the US. By the 2030’s, there will appear submersible warships armed with a railgun for long-range engagement, battle lasers for point defense and internal pods with room for a dozen drones to serve as its “eyes and eyes” around a wide radius. I propose we call these prospective ships “Dragons”, just because the name sounds so cool.
4) Deeper and faster, but a lot noisier? Supercavitation, in which a bubble of gas is created around a moving underwater object to reduce drag and enable high speeds. The most famous current example is Russia’s Shkval torpedo, whose speed of 200 knots per hour was until recently unequaled by anything in NATO’s arsenal (the Germans developed a similar torpedo in 2004). One issue of current concern is that the Iranians have reverse engineered the Russian technology to create their Hoot torpedo, which could potentially wreck havoc on Gulf shipping if there is a war. One proposed defense against supercavitating torpedos is to create sonic pulses to disrupt the air bubbles and destabilize the approaching torpedo.
[Behold the supercavitating submarine].
But supercavitation does not necessarily have to be limited to small things like underwater firearms and torpedos. DARPA, the Pentagon’s mad science division, has been toying with using the principle to build a 100-foot sub capable of traveling up to 100 knots per hour, around four times faster than normal subs. They are unlikely to be of much direct military use because they are too small and very noisy, but they might prove useful for providing logistical support.
5) How about just much, much faster? Enter the ekranoplan (less inspiringly known as a “ground effect vehicle”). This beast is a Soviet chimera with the sea-hovering effects of a hovercraft and the speed of a conventional plane, with compressed air under the winds providing the lift.
[Soviet ekranoplan flying above the Caspian Sea in the 1960’s].
It can (and was) armed with six Moskit cruise missiles. Though it has many promising military applications, interest in developing them waned with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, its time may come again. It is very fast, an excellent transportation vehicle, and can carry large amounts of missiles and other ordnance. Flying low, just above the water, it is largely invulnerable to radar detection. With its speed and armaments, it could interdict supply routes and launch cruise missiles off the coast of a hostile Power. It is possible to imagine the ekranoplan being profitably used in surprise amphibious operations such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Innovative militaries are already inspired by biological life forms and translate them into military applications. This isn’t surprising. Nature has had billions of years to evolve designs very well adapted to specific purposes, such as avoiding detection, navigating, minimizing energy loss, etc. Already we are seeing robotic snakes, tiny robotic “insects”, even “smart dust“. Now project forwards by a few decades, a time during which we’ll see tremendous progress in biotechnology and bio/machine interfaces.
I am suggesting nothing less than that biomechanical constructs, combining robotic endurance and controllability with biological flexibility and resilience, will enter the realm of possibility. By the 2040’s or 2050’s, we could see revolutionary naval platforms, as today’s wildest techno-fantasies may come to be realized. Once navies begin to graft biological substrates onto the metallic/composite hulks, the “Dragons” will come alive.
A Vision of RNW
This post is an expansion on the timeline from On Future War. In constructing this, I draw on many elements and assumptions from that “core article”.
2010’s: America’s development of next-generation weaponry is stalled due to budget constraints (already evident – see the cost-cutting pragmatism of Robert Gates), and eventually by the catabolic collapse of Pax Americana. Military R&D is usually the first thing to be cut when the military’s belts are tightened, especially in democracies. Other powers, most prominently China and Russia, will use this “window of opportunity” to close the technological gap. In particular, the Chinese Navy will become the world’s most powerful by 2020. Many middle-rank Powers will acquire assymetric, “area denial” weaponry (anti-ship missiles, supercavitating torpedoes, silent diesel submarines, UAV’s), which will check the major naval Powers from going on gunboat sprees to acquire resources.
2020’s: The world outside the Eurasian “Heartland” comes to be split into two major emporiums: China in East Asia, South-East Asia, and East Africa, and the US/Britain/France down the Atlantic and western Pacific. Though there is a rough technological parity, by and large, China has both the biggest and newer navy. The Eurasian region, dominated by a revamped Russia, will only be able to compete if it succeeds in reforming its MIC and modernizing its industrial base. The main thrust of its naval power projection will shift towards the (now melted or near-melted) Arctic Ocean, with its rich hydrocarbon deposits. Electromagnetic railguns and battle lasers maturate and installation begins on the newer, smarter all-electric ships now coming online.
2030’s: Unless there is a big war between the Great Powers, it is actually unlikely that ships will be made submersible or ekranoplans introduced. Too much foresight required for state institutions to muster. Yet there is at least one major sea change. With all these advanced, network-centric navies prowling the world’s oceans, the strength of the middle Powers – countries like Iran, Venezuela, (South Africa, etc), will begin to rapidly dissipate, as they lose the advantages they derived from the global proliferation of cheap anti-ship weapons during the 2000’s-10’s. As mentioned above, cruise missiles are no longer game changers when faced with laser point defenses. Effective use of railguns requires an array of advanced technologies, including superb ISR, and there capabilities are going to be limited to the largest and most technologically advanced blocs. If there is no major energy breakthrough by this period, and that coal and gas output is close to a terminal peak, there will unfold a series of resource wars in which Great Powers like China, the US, France, Brazil, Turkey, etc, will seek to takeover the last remaining high-EROEI energy sources in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Australia.
2040’s: Use your imagination. 😉
* In my opinion, this particular weapons system is more of a publicity stunt than anything serious. In particular, this is supposed to be a weapon whose main advantage is its covertness – why then advertise it on YouTube. Furthermore, it’s very expensive. The typical modern cruise missile costs costs 500,000$. The Russian containerized system has four cruise missiles inside what are essentially tubes and a corrugated metal box, but costs 15mn $. In other words, should they actually succeed in selling this to anyone, the Russian company will make something like 80% profits. Nations like Iran would be much better off just getting the cruise missiles separately and modding / concealing them on their own.
** I am making the assumption that American military R&D continues to be funded at similar levels as today. Because of the manifold challenges facing Pax Americana that have been discussed at length on this site, this assumption is actually very questionable. In my opinion, it is more likely that the US will “lose” the equivalent of a decade readjusting to its new non-superpower status, allowing Russia and China – who lag technologically by a decade or so – to catch up. The major powers actualize the railgun / laser Revolution in Naval Warfare simultaneously by the late 2020’s or early 2030’s.