As the U.S. loses the race to build new warships, one solution is to turn each warship into the command ship of a battle group comprised of lethal drones
A quick look at the number of new warships being built by China and the U.S. will give caution to anyone who says China will not be in a position to invade Taiwan and take on the U.S. Navy before 2027. China is currently building eight new warships per year, while the U.S. is struggling to build one every two years. That’s why China is already racing toward fielding a total of 400 warships in the coming years, while the U.S. number is dropping toward 290 and all indications are that this total will keep on dropping for the next few years. The reason for this drop in U.S. warship numbers is because the U.S. is experiencing a shortage of industrial capacity to build its complex new warships, while many of its aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers are reaching retirement age.
This scarcity of shipbuilding capacity is creating a long-term shortage of U.S. warships that is expected to get worse until 2027, and this period of weakness in naval capacity is called the Davidson Window. It’s called a “window” because it is supposed to close around the year 2027, meaning that the slow process of building warships in the U.S. would have accelerated and caught up by then. The fact that this window is now open and would close in the future, might pressure China’s president Xi to launch an invasion of Taiwan by 2027 — thereby possibly causing a regional or perhaps even a global war.
Another dilemma for the U.S. is that its shrinking number of warships is supposed to patrol the whole planet, while China can focus all its warships around nearby Taiwan if it decides to invade the island nation. If a war over Taiwan does break out, the U.S. would have to move many warships toward the northwestern Pacific and be heavily dependent on their NATO allies to fill in the global patrols.
Adding to that, another worrisome issue with the U.S.’s current lack of building capacity is that if a large-scale war does break out, the U.S. would require a lot of time to increase production to replace the warships that would get damaged and destroyed in naval battles. During World War II, the U.S. was able to quickly accelerate its ship-production capacity and build warships faster than Japan, ending the war with a huge navy that overwhelmed Japan’s navy by a large factor.
The saving grace for the U.S. would be that it could be able to outbuild China in wartime if it could blockade China from getting raw materials like metals and thereby strangle its shipbuilding capacity. In this regard, the U.S. might use the same tactics of blockades and the use of sea mines that it used so very effectively against Japan in World War II.
Analysts are currently ranking naval strength not so much on the number of ships that a navy has, but on the sum total of vertical launch system (VLS) cells that each navy can field on its warships. These VLS cells are designed to quickly launch specific guided missiles, ranging from large anti-ship missiles to smaller ground-attack and anti-air missiles. As the U.S. has larger warships with more VLS cells, it is closer to China in this key metric, but it is still lagging in total VLS cells — and that lag is also increasing.
To find a way to fix the growing shortage of VLS platforms, Lieutenant Kyle Cregge of the U.S. Navy compiled analyst reports to write an article for the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) that proposes a revolutionary new idea called “Every Ship a SAG.” The idea is that every one of the U.S.’s rare crewed warships should be turned into a Surface Action Group (SAG). Normally, a SAG would consist of multiple crewed warships with different specialized capabilities sailing together and engaging the enemy as a combined unit.
The concept of “Every Ship a SAG” is to turn every Navy warship into the command ship of its own force of missile-carrying drone ships. And rather than use sophisticated and expensive drone ships, the idea is to use simpler cargo drone ships and strap containers filled with VLS cells on top of their cargo decks. Add some equipment needed to manage the launches of the missiles, and then you can use the powerful Aegis radar and control systems of the crewed warship to launch and guide these missiles to their targets.
The plan calls for shipbuilders to scale up the size of large drone ships, called large uncrewed surface vessels (LUSVs), to turn them into small surface combatants that carry slap-on containers with multiple VLS cells that can quickly fire anti-ship, anti-air and land-attack missiles.
The current strategy for using drone warships, called “Unmanned Forward,” is to place them ahead of crewed warships so that the crewed ships can hang back and stay out of the enemy’s strike range while the drones engage the enemy and absorb incoming missiles. The “Every Ship a SAG” strategy would cluster a number of drone ships around one crewed command ship to form a SAG that would then venture into the enemy’s strike range together with similar SAGs.
The idea is that when teams of these manned-unmanned SAGs work together, they would be more lethal than a crewed surface action group operating alone. Currently LUSVs that are being developed by the U.S. Navy are equipped with small bridges that can be crewed by small teams of humans to add “human backup” control and decision-making if anything goes wrong during intense battles.
If the U.S. Navy does approve this plan to fill the growing gaps in its warship arsenal, we could soon see lone U.S. Navy destroyers surrounded by their “slave” missile drone ships operating independently all across the planet.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler R. Fraser, Public Domain