What is the naval equivalent of the F-35?

The F-35 “Lightning II” is a ‘5th generation’ fighter.  It has capabilities that will theoretically allow Canadian air power to counter and defeat all potential threats for a period of decades while reducing attrition and sustainment requirements.  (A set of briefing slides entitled “Canada’s Next Generation Fighter Capability” can be found on the CFPS website at ‘Events’ under the date 25 November 2010.)

The F-35 relies of ‘low observability’ characteristics to achieve tactical stealth.  It will also have advanced sensors and weapons to gather vast amounts of data and to attack targets with precision.  The question raised here is not whether the F-35 is the correct combat aircraft for Canada, but “What does its acquisition mean for the other services of the CF, especially for the navy?”

The centrality of air power to naval combat processes has been a fact practically since the first days of human flight.  It enables a wide range of operations in all three of the roles of sea power – not just military operations.  At times, naval leaders have been slow to recognize the importance of air power and to incorporate it into fleet capabilities.  Likewise, the history of cooperation between sea going forces and land-based air forces has been poor at times, better at others.  What will the advent of the F-35 mean for the future of Canadian sea power?  What capabilities should the next ‘generation’ of warships embody to take best advantage of the new fighter?

The key issue for the future of Canadian joint operations will be the ‘enabling concept’ about how air, land and sea power will work together in combat.  With a 5th generation combat aircraft in the inventory, will the navy have matching capabilities that will enable simultaneous and complementary tactical activities?  Or, will the navy be required to wait while air operations ‘shape the battlespace’ and subsequently attempt naval tasks that will contribute to the accomplishment of the joint aim?

Let us assume that the strategic vision holds the enabling concept of simultaneous activities by the three military services to be central to how the CF will operate in the future.  If that is the case, what capabilities will the future generation of Canadian warship need to possess so that our sailors can operate with the same degree of confidence against future potential adversaries as our fighter aircrews?

In effect, we are asking what will the next generation of surface (and possibly sub-surface) warship look like and what will it be able to do?  If we use the F-35 as template, we can make a few estimates about general characteristics.  The F-35 has sacrificed a lot in the way of range, speed, capacity and endurance for the sake of stealth.  It has even given up on some system redundancy by opting for a single-engine design rather than a twin-engine layout.  What would a current naval commander say if he or she was told that the future surface combatant would be smaller, slower, carry less fuel and munitions and have only one main engine all for the sake of achieving tactical stealthiness?  I can imagine that the general response would be negative, but upon reflection, one could conjure a context or two where such characteristics would be advantageous.  The problem is that the discussion has not taken place about where or when such circumstances might exist and what strategic imperatives could force us to seek to adopt these as general characteristics.

One key consequence of employing fleet combatants with characteristics of these types is the increased importance of operational logistics.  Any move to reduce the size and endurance of a combatant will inevitably mean that more will be required to support sustain and supply operating units at sea.  A serious look at volumetric ‘bottlenecks’ will be required to ensure that the lack of a particular commodity will not limit the ability of the entire force.  The commodity in question may even seem inconsequential now, but in the light of the situation could spell the difference between success and failure.  But, without properly examining the strategic imperatives of the future security environment, the operational setting of various missions, or the tactical activities that result from them, it will be impossible to properly plan for the logistical needs of the future.

What about the tactical capabilities of a future warship comparable to the F-35?  Smaller size and lower speed will certainly place a higher premium on stealthiness.  Being smaller may mean more manoeuvrability, which will compliment stealth, but new weapons and sensors will arise that negate or reduce the advantage of such characteristics.  The next generation of offensive and defensive weapons systems include some very potent options for improving offensive and defensive capabilities.

Offensively, electro-magnetic ‘rail guns’ are being tested by the USN.  They can deliver very accurate ‘gun fire’ to ranges of more than 200 nautical miles.  Because there is no conventional propellant and the ‘shell’ derives its explosive power from the kinetic energy of its mass and almost Mach-8 speed, more rounds can be stored than previously without the hazards normally associated with ammunitions.  The big requirement is for electrical power and ‘all-electric ships’ could be the answer. The Zumwalt-class DDX ‘next-generation’ destroyer was a very large and expensive ship; a scaled down version will be needed for those of more modest means.  Accuracy, range and hitting power are all desirable characteristics but the demand for space will obviously conflict with the concept for smaller, stealthier warships.

Likewise, reports are surfacing that defensive systems are in testing by the USN that employ ‘solid state lasers’, with the next step being much more powerful ‘free electron lasers’. In April of this year the Office of Naval Research (ONR) conducted a test of a 15-kilowatt weapon against an inflatable motorboat a mile away as both ships moved through the sea.  The result was a first-shot ‘kill’ achieved with pinpoint accuracy.  Rear-Admiral Nevin Carr, Director of ONR said, “I never thought we'd see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.”  The kinds of 10- to 20-kw solid-state lasers being tested now can operate within the existing power levels and cooling capacities associated with today’s warships.  But, the type of a weapon that could disable enemy vessels or incoming missiles will require “at least 100 kilowatts of power.”  The ultimate free electron laser, a weapon able weapon to “work across multiple wavelengths, compensating for debris in
the sea air, and to cut through 2,000 feet of steel per second once it gets up to megawatt class.” Clearly, the electrical power requirements will also be huge for defensive firepower.  How does this conform to the size trend indicated by the F-35?

If the navy is to keep pace with the air force and advance to an equivalent of a 5th generation fighter, an entirely new type of warship will be required.  The demands of a new generation of technology make smaller ships an unlikely option.  Size and power, at least within the current physical constraints, seem to go together.  To be capable of simultaneous and complimentary tactical activities, the navy will be looking for an array of new weapons and sensors that will elevate its tactical capabilities to the front-rank of navies.  It also indicates larger, rather than smaller, warships.  But, the cost will be astronomical and the adoption of their characteristics as a general formula for the entire fleet will be impractical.

If a decision has been taken that the navy will be enabled by precursor air operations, a less capable and less expensive type of warship can be acquired.  Commensurate with this decision is a joint imperative for the navy to remain defensive while air operations are conducted to secure the conditions necessary before the navy can enter the fray.  This will impose a defensive style of action that is foreign to the normally offensive way of naval warfare.  It will also eliminate Canada as a contributor to the formations capable of front-line operations.  This could raise the importance of submarines in Canadian naval force structure to a new level of prominence.  Once again, this will be an entirely new breed of submarine but the ship procurement strategy is conspicuously void of any mention of them.

For my part, I seriously doubt whether any of these discussions have taken place amongst the senior leadership of the CF, but I sincerely hope that the naval ‘brain trust’ is pondering them very carefully.