Skip to main content

The Future of Navy Combat Systems

Bryan McGrath

Word from the Navy in 2017 was that the Future Surface Combatant program will lay out a vision that includes manned surface ships—both small and large; unmanned surface ships, and a new concept of command and control that ties it all together. I’ve thought a lot about this final element of the vision—the command and control, both at the unit level and more importantly, across formations, fleets, and forces. The problem is, I’m a history/political science type, and so when I opine on systems engineering matters, I run the risk of sounding too simplistic on the one hand, and being utterly wrong on the other. Yet, I persist.

When it comes to the command and control of warfighting capability, the surface force has long existed within a series of interlocking dualities. Included are organic vs. inorganic information and targeting, the top secret/compartmented Ship’s Signals Exploitation Space (SSES) vs. the Combat Information Center (CIC), real-time vs. non-real time data, platform vs. network, intelligence vs. fire control, and hardkill vs. softkill. For years, these dualities have been taken as a fact of life in ship and combat system design, resulting in a situation in which oodles of actionable information exists in various places both on the ship and off, but it is insufficiently attributed and fused to be useful to the warfighter. Worse, to the extent that fusion does occur, it most often happens at human speed inside the brains of watch-standers, while the threat evolves to make greater use of capabilities that move at machine speed.

These dualities are not a bug in the system, they are a feature. They are a feature born of two very different approaches to systems engineering and related perceptions of the latency and quality of service with which information must be treated. For years, the combat system was the purview of those who rightly noted that closing fire control loops levied incredible demands on a system, demands that greatly exceeded those that guided systems engineering requirements of networks providing off-board intelligence at higher levels of security. These distinctions no longer are useful, and they will hold the Navy back in the face of emerging threats. These dualities must begin to disappear into a system of converged command, control, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (Converged C2ISR&T). This requires a system that combines the capabilities traditionally hidden “behind the green door” in SSES (Top Secret, Compartmented) with the more conventional capabilities associated with CIC (General Service, or “GENSER”). This system must provide the ship with a set of applications to provide end-to-end functionality when cut off from the larger network, and when plugged in, those same applications will ride in the network to ensure all participants are sharing the same information.

Whether operating in a surface action group, a strike group, or across a fleet, participating platforms—not just surface ships, but certainly starting with them—will employ common applications to a common data set shared by the network, to reach a set of common conclusions. To those familiar with the operating principles of the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), this may sound very familiar. But what I am suggesting is applying these principles to kinetics and non-kinetics alike, and underpinning the entire system with battle management aids that provide warfighters with the optimal manner for employing the combat system they are a part of (eventually leveraging artificial intelligence), with that system being flexible enough to encompass platform functions and those of battle management across a larger formation.

By networking the sum total of information available without crippling concern for the classification of its discovery—and then managing the battle with systems that learn at machine speed—the humans involved would be able to manage both the effectiveness of their actions—destroying the other guy’s stuff at a rate much faster than he can destroy ours—AND the efficiency of their actions—for instance husbanding hard-kill interceptors while more thoughtfully employing passive and active decoys and other electronic warfare techniques.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let us use the example of over the horizon targeting for antiship missiles. In the old days, we had the Tomahawk antiship missile, which gave us a missile capable of attacking surface ships at a couple of hundred miles range. The problem was, we didn’t have the ISR&T to reliably close the fire control loop, and so we moved away from the Tomahawk. As time went on and ISR—organic, aerial, and space-based—all began to improve, we found that there was a serious gap between the battlespace that we could effectively monitor—which was considerable—and the battle space that we could effectively target in the absence of a long-range surface-to-surface weapon. With the work done recently to dramatically extend the range at which our missiles can kill other ships (see maritime strike Tomahawk, long-range antiship missile [LRASM] and SM-6), we’re getting to the point where our weapons and our ISR are better aligned. But since so much of that targeting comes from sources that are not integrated into the combat system, if information does make its way into an engagement plan, it is done manually and at human speed. Think about the other target pairings in which precise, off-board intelligence could greatly increase the probability of kill, and you begin to understand the need to break down the barriers between traditional combat systems and the systems that provide multi-intelligence fusion.

Why then, is all this important? It is because this system of systems is not going to engineer itself, and doing so begins with considering current requirements that are unmet by existing solutions and then thinking about future requirements that can only be met by such a system.

The problem is, the requirements (and the solution) exist within many stake-holding organizations in the Navy bureaucracy. The director of surface warfare (N96) has some influence in deriving traditional combat systems requirements, however his portfolio does not include requirements for the networks that these capabilities must ride on, or the requirements for the multi-intelligence networks that operate in the highly classified world essential to providing “traditional” combat systems with precise targeting. These requirements are shared on the OPNAV staff between N9 and N2/N6, and they levy a mandate for those organizations to work together to ensure a coherent requirement is produced.

On the acquisition side, there are also two organizations primarily involved—PEO IWS, which handles most of the traditional combat systems functions, and PEO C4I, whihc honchoes the multi-intelligence fusion side of the house. These organizational dualities must also begin to converge if we are going to move methodically forward to field this set of capabilities.

There are tough problems to be solved to make this work, and industry has a role to play. To enable this agile, digital, distributed framework integrating improved traditional and non-traditional ISR and sensor data with the analytics to enhance kinetic, non-kinetic, electronic warfare and cyber capabilities, we are going to have to figure out how to do multilevel security within a common computing environment. We can’t rely on physical separation and bulkheads anymore—we’re going to have to protect sources and methods within the machines and make sure the information makes its way where it is needed at the speed it is needed. Some in industry specialize in traditional combat systems and sensors; some specialize in compartmented, multi-INT fusion. The Navy needs to talk with industry. Industry must talk more to each other, and hard decisions about who does what best will have to be made before sensible partnering arrangements can be forged.

We are on the verge of something big here, something as big as the tremor caused in the early 80s by the introduction of the AEGIS weapon system. I assure readers, I am not only not the only person pushing in this direction as this briefing from SPAWAR PMW 150 indicates. Smart people in the Navy appear to understand the way forward. Hurry please

Related Articles

Taiwan is Key to U.S. Power in Pacific

Seth Cropsey

Contemporary Chinese rulers sometimes breathe the same strategic air as their distinguished forebear...

Continue Reading

Quantum Computing: How to Address the National Security Risk

Arthur Herman & Idalia Friedson

Imagine a computer solving the mathematical problems that today’s fastest supercomputers can’t begin to unlock, in less than a blink of an eye...

View PDF