US naval factories must work around the clock to fulfill the promise

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The United States, while deeply involved in the Russo-Ukrainian war, has also garnered critical insights and lessons from it. The objective is clear – mitigate the perceived “Chinese threat.” As such, the U.S. military has been meticulously planning and preparing for a likely course of action. However, certain reports in the U.S. press and expert analyses suggest there may be an issue on the horizon. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Ken Calvert, a Republican Congressman from California, has voiced concern about the size of the U.S. Navy falling short in comparison to China’s navy. Consequently, the Pentagon has been exploring the use of unmanned boats to bridge this gap, a move that has sparked skepticism among specialists. Given the current production capabilities, experts are doubtful if the U.S. military can meet such an “ambitious goal.”

Falling behind China

Calvert has drawn attention to the substantial fleet of the Chinese navy, which, with around 400 ships, currently outnumbers the U.S. military’s 290. This striking disparity underscores the urgent need for the U.S. to increase its focus on the development of unmanned vessels. 

In contrast to conventional ships, unmanned boats are significantly less expensive and offer greater flexibility regarding deployment. Calvert has expressed the pressure and concerns brought about by the rapid growth of the Chinese navy and the simultaneous decline in the strength of the U.S. military. 

When evaluating the current state of the U.S. shipbuilding industry, it’s important to be aware that numerous shortcomings exist. Supply chains and inadequate manpower are notable barriers hampering the swift restoration of the U.S.’s global maritime strength, particularly in the realm of submarines.

40% unmanned boats

Photo by Aleksandr Freutel

U.S. Army Chief of Operations, Michael Gilday, has responded to Calvert’s assertion, unveiling the U.S. military’s ambitious plans for the future. He indicates a significant shift towards unmanned vessels in the U.S. Navy, with an estimated 40% of the fleet expected to be drone ships within the next decade. By 2045, Gilday anticipates the number to reach hundreds. 

However, such grandiose plans may appear overly optimistic when faced with harsh realities. Current public opinion deems the plan as lofty with little grounding in reality. Yet, one cannot dismiss the United States’ potential for innovation and its history of proving skeptics wrong. So, as we look forward, the prospect of a drone-dominated navy may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Anxious future

In a recent examination by the US Naval Institute, they addressed growing concerns within the context of increased hysteria around the perceived threat from China. Particularly worrying appears to be the potential strength and future prospect of the US Navy, accompanied by an even more uncertain future for unmanned naval forces. 

The article spotlighted the US Navy’s “Ghost Fleet” of unmanned warships which has consistently drawn considerable international attention. In recent years, the Mariner, Ranger, Sea Hawk, and Sea Hunter ships of this fleet have been especially conspicuous. These ships performed tests in the Western Pacific, ranging from Japan to Australia, intriguing global observers. 

On the surface, this fleet of unmanned naval ships plays a fundamentally important role in the US military’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, their involvement will only be expected to increase and become more significant in the future. 

However, media sources emphasize that the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk were initially part of experimental US defense research projects. A meager pair of these vessels has been constructed thus far, and their seaworthiness leaves much to be desired. With the ship hulls aging, one of the mid-sized Ghost Fleet unmanned ships is already due for decommissioning next year.

Photo by Tyler Fraser

2030 remains a mirage

Originally, the plan amongst the US military was a vision for the 2030s: commissioning large and medium-sized unmanned ships in succession. These would operate as maritime strike platforms, working collaboratively with their manned counterparts. 

However, to quote Chris Miller, the deputy chief of naval operations responsible for warfighting requirements and capabilities, this is more of a dream than an overnight reality. He emphasizes that we can’t simply awaken to find an unmanned navy decorating our shores one day. 

Essentially, the creation of this unmanned fleet is a long-term endeavor. It calls for commitment and unremitting efforts on a national level. The key factors to its realization — time, financial resources, and technology — are non-negotiable and irreplaceable.

The problem is not only money

Nonetheless, there remains an outstanding challenge in the strategy for combined operations between manned and unmanned ships. Apart from the Ghost Fleet, the US Navy has apparently not procured any additional unmanned vessels for testing or future planning. Given the already strained budget, the timeframe for when large-scale unmanned ships will be ready remains uncertain. 

Simultaneously, these sizeable unmanned warships find themselves in an uphill battle for research and development funds against new adversaries such as missile-guided destroyers, crewed fighter jets, and nuclear attack submarines. When resources are stretched thin, these mammoth projects often take precedence over large unmanned warships. Also, even when finances are available, there’s still the gnawing issue of military production capability to consider.

Photo by Alex Wilson

The defense industry is underpowered

Earlier this year, a high-ranking US Navy officer expressed his frustration at an annual meeting. He pointed out that the US defense industry is struggling to fulfill the demand of the US military for various sorts of missiles and weapons. He emphasized that the situation is even more challenging when it comes to extending support to Ukraine and other allied countries. 

The US Navy, at present, is heavily focused on enhancing its combat readiness levels. The ambition for their surface fleet is to maintain a minimum of 75 mission-ready vessels at all times. Regrettably, due to a lagging military production line, the Navy finds itself unable to fulfill these requirements promptly. The consequence is a disruption in strategic deployment plans. 

The report highlights an example of this shortfall. While the US Navy typically sources two submarines annually, the manufacturing facilities can only manage to produce around 1.2 submarines per year. This discrepancy has resulted in the delivery of merely six fast attack submarines in the past half-decade. 

Despite these hurdles, the future of the US Navy is still filled with potential. It’s hard to overlook the remarkable advancements in unmanned ship technology, and their determination to challenge China with these high-tech innovations merits respect.

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