Why is the Navy pushing so hard for the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV)? That’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. I know the Navy has an obsession with minimal manning due to personnel costs but, even so, the push for unmanned ships was puzzling. Well, Defense News website has made the reasons clear to me and I’d like to share the reasons and my analysis with you. There are two main reasons:
- VLS Cells
Let’s look closer at each reason.
Manning – Reduced manning expense has long been the Holy Grail of Navy leadership in an utterly misguided attempt to reduce operating costs and, ultimately, shift that budget money to new ship construction. The ironic aspect of this drive is that it’s completely unnecessary and the problem, itself, has been deceitfully, almost fraudulently, presented. The Navy would have us believe that the main portion of a ship’s operating cost is manning and that it is unaffordable. As we’ve demonstrated, this is pure nonsense (see, “The Manning Myth”) and yet it drives the Navy towards unmanned vessels despite no Concept of Operations, no analysis of alternatives, no fleet exercises to prove the validity of the concept, and no public wargaming to support the concept.
VLS Cells – While not officially stated in this way, the Navy is, quite literally, replacing 22 Ticonderogas containing 122 VLS cells each with 20 Constellation frigates containing 16-32 VLS cells each in the near future. Yes, a cruiser (large surface combatant) is supposedly coming sometime down the road but that will be many years from now, if ever, and it has already been described by Navy spokesmen as, potentially, a family of assets rather than an actual, single cruiser size ship so that suggests even more small, unmanned vessels as the Ticonderoga replacement. In any event, we’ll soon be retiring Ticonderogas, Burkes, and SSGNs and the only replacement surface warship program currently active is the Constellation class frigate. So, soak that in: the Constellation frigate is the replacement for the Ticonderoga. Let’s say it again because I know some of you are going to have a hard time accepting it so here it is again:
The Constellation frigate is the replacement for the Ticonderoga.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what former Navy destroyer captain and noted naval analyst Bryan McGrath had to say,
… on the horizon there is a situation where we’ll be trading guided missile submarines, cruisers and destroyers for Constellation-class frigates. (1)
Let’s do the math. We have 22 Ticonderogas with 122 VLS cells retiring for a total loss of 2,684 cells. We have 20 replacement frigates with - let’s be generous and use the higher number – 32 VLS cells for a total replacement of 640 cells. That’s a net loss of 2,044 VLS cells from the fleet.
It gets stunningly worse when one factors in the imminent retirement of the Burkes and SSGNs. By the early 2030’s, the Navy will have retired 22 Ticonderogas, 21 Burkes, 4 SSGNs for a total loss of around 5,500 VLS cells and the only replacement on the books is the Constellation class frigate.(1)
What is the Navy’s solution to this looming, gaping VLS cell shortage? Why, it’s the LUSV which the Navy envisions as being, essentially, a missile barge.
The LUSV is supposed to be the Navy’s answer to a troubling problem: How does the service quickly and cheaply field hundreds of new missile tubes to make up for dozens of large-capacity ships due to retire over the coming years? (1)
The idea of the LUSV is that unmanned vessels will be cheap enough to be procured in large enough quantities to fill that 2,044 VLS cell gap. The problem, however, is that the LUSV will not only be replacing VLS cells, it will be replacing the associated sensors, targeting, and fire control systems that are also on the Ticonderogas and Burkes and are necessary for the missiles to function. The desperate hope is that the Navy’s fantasy-based regional network of sensors can take the place of the retiring Ticonderoga’s sensors and fire control systems and support the unmanned vessels. However, if the enemy can disrupt our data sharing networks (a distinct possibility, as we’ve discussed many times), the LUSV VLS cells will be useless as they will lack any form of organic sensing, targeting, or fire control.
We see, then, that the LUSV missile barge is the salvation that the Navy is grasping at to overcome sustained and stunningly bad force structure planning over the last two decades.
Unfortunately, the Navy’s problems are not limited to the technical aspects of the LUSV. The Navy also has to contend with a very suspicious Congress. Congress is most definitely not on board with the Navy’s plan. After multiple stunning acquisition disasters (LCS, Zumwalt, Ford, and others), Congress has lost faith in the Navy’s integrity and ability to execute an acquisition program. Regarding the LUSV,
… Congress is not convinced the Navy did the proper analysis prior to launching into a technically risky, 2,000-ton robot ship.
Before going any further, the Navy must conduct a full study examining alternative approaches for fielding missiles downrange.
The LUSV has become a flashpoint for a larger problem: After two decades of high-profile problems with programs such as the littoral combat ship and the Ford-class carrier, Congress’s faith in the Navy to make significant technical leaps without close supervision has all but evaporated … Furthermore, it is unclear that, even if the Navy managed to make the LUSV related technologies work, it would be the right answer for the missile tube problem. (1)
Demonstrating that doubt, Congress slashed funding for the LUSV and placed severe constraints on the program, such as prohibiting the addition of VLS cells to any unmanned ship design. Congress has also taken note of the Navy’s habitual failure to examine alternatives and has mandated that the Navy conduct a yearlong analysis of alternatives, as noted in the quote above.
In the 2021 appropriations and policy bills, lawmakers eviscerated funding for the Navy’s Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) development program and laid in stringent requirements for the Navy to work out nearly every component of the new vessel before moving forward with an acquisition program. In all, lawmakers slashed more than $370 million from the $464 million the Pentagon requested. (1)
ComNavOps is not alone in questioning the operating concept (CONOPS) for unmanned vessels.
… sources both inside and outside the service, as well as analysts who spoke on the record, agreed the Navy has not come up with a convincing concept of operations for the ship. (1)
So, we now understand the rationale behind the Navy’s bizarre and obsessive push towards unmanned vessels despite all their attendant flaws, lack of validity, and high programmatic risk. It cannot be stressed enough that the VLS cell shortfall is not a problem that suddenly manifested itself overnight, without warning. The problem is a force structure issue and has been obvious for close to two decades. The Navy clearly knew the retirement schedules and what that would mean for VLS cell counts. This is a scathing indictment of Navy leadership over the last two decades.
The LUSV is a very high risk program. Setting aside any ship-specific technical issues, the heart of the concept is the assumption of a 100% reliable, uninterruptible, unshakeable, real time data, sensor, and fire control network. It is this that the Navy should be focused on, not the unmanned ships. Until this fantasy network can be proven to work and work in the face of all manner of jamming, disruption, cyber attacks, spoofing, etc. there is no point pursuing LUSV missile barges. Without the network, the missile barges will be just barges.
(1)Defense News website, “Unclear on unmanned: The US Navy’s plans for robot ships are on the rocks”, Part 1, David B. Larter, 10-Jan-2020,