Containers, Motherships and Multimission Modules

Last month, the Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship, the USS Freedom, began its inaugural deployment to the Caribbean Sea and South America. Designed to address the Navy’s capability gap in the “green water” near the world’s land masses, or littorals, the LCS represents a change in naval design philosophy from mission-specific ships to a multi-function concept that has begun to pervade the service from top to bottom.

With its interchangeable modules – large boxes resembling rail cars tailored for specialized missions ranging from minehunting to reconnaissance – the LCS is a Swiss Army knife by design. But how this emerging multimission ethic comes together with broader, coherent formulations of naval doctrine, policy and even tactics is unclear.

While the LCS was designed from the ground up in a plug-and-play fashion, the multimission ethic has infected the larger Navy as well. Indeed, Robert Work, Navy undersecretary and spokesman for the service’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, has described all of the Navy’s ships, from the LCS to the aircraft carriers, as boxes or capability containers able to individually deploy and act as motherships for wider congregations of vessels and aircraft, manned and unmanned.

The new, descriptive vocabulary carries hints of industry and the information age. It is scalable and tailorable to the environment; the ships aggregate, disaggregate and perform distributed operations. There is little of the chest-beating, “wooden ships and iron men” philosophical core of naval heritage here. It is more about networking than naval gunfire, more about sea bases than sinking battleships.

If John Paul Jones were alive today, he would indeed proclaim, “I have not yet begun to creatively adapt.”

It is unclear yet whether Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Navy’s 19th-century high priest of seapower, is rolling over in his grave. Noticeably absent in the boxes concept, after all, is talk of Mahanian capital ship battles and blue-water sea control.

What is clear is that the Navy is using the multimission mantra to address two existential issues. The first is relevance. Overshadowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy continues to argue the importance of the world’s littoral regions and maritime strategy in general, especially in the context of a rising, resource-hungry China.

The second issue is one of capacity. Hampered both by the 1990s drawdown in defense funds and a striking inability to control shipbuilding costs in the last decade, the Navy operates with an inventory of approximately 285 ships, well below the 600-ship target of the 1980s and a mere shadow of the 6,700 ships it had when World War II ended.

Indeed, the LCS itself is as notorious for its cost overruns – from a planned $220 million per ship to approximately $600 million at last count – as it is famous for its new design. That’s a big problem: Quantity, after all, has a quality all its own.

But if a multifunction ship mitigates the concern about quantity, the broader vision of how these boxes might work together in a new and distinct fashion has not been laid out. Somewhere in the gray area between grand maritime strategy and shipbuilding lies an emerging concept of how the Navy organizes itself and how it views itself as a fleet on the seas, especially for the low end of conflict, the uninspiring realm of piracy, drug trafficking, maritime security and disaster response.

The Navy is addressing the high end of conflict, more conventional warfare involving a near peer, with its fledgling Air-Sea Battle Doctrine, a joint effort with the Air Force. There is, however, no comparable Littoral Battle Doctrine. Naval tradition dies hard, and the Navy still deploys the majority of its assets in large, concentrated strike groups centered around major capital ships such as aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships.

The boxes concept suggests something different is afoot, something borrowing from years of obsession with net-centric warfare. It suggests the LCS is not just an overpriced frigate, as its critics have claimed, but the harbinger of a new, modular vision for 21st-century seapower. It suggests that all these floating boxes are somehow more than just a sum of their parts.

The Freedom itself, ostensibly deploying two years earlier than planned because of “urgent combatant commander needs,” is headed to the warm waters of U.S. Southern Command. Perhaps its maiden deployment is as much about publicity as it is about war fighting.

But behind all the gala fanfare lies something more fundamental that bears watching. Like the proverbial iceberg, the emerging boxes concept has only just begun to breach the surface. It may be something profound, and it may be something only passing. Whatever it is, the Navy would do well to substitute solid doctrine and detailed vision for hints, allusions and the rare quote from an interview.

Without it, the boxes concept risks remaining perpetually adrift.