The next decades appear to be a remarkable period for the Canadian navy: the introduction of new classes of ships and the demands of operations on three diverse domestic coasts and within ever-broader international coalitions.

Captain (USN Ret’d) R. Robinson Harris, director of advanced concepts for Lockheed Martin, shared some considerations for the future fleet with associate editor Chris Thatcher. A 30-year veteran of the U.S. navy and a much-consulted strategist, Harris’s many advisory roles include the U.S. navy’s new strategic document, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.

What should be the most important consideration for a new ship?

Navy ships last a long time. In the United States, we expect a destroyer or frigate to last 30-35 years; we expect an aircraft carrier to last 50 years. And Canada gets more longevity out of its ships than we do out of ours. So whatever you buy or build is going to be around for a long time; it is important to design it with that in mind. And that leads to my thesis about the imperative for flexibility. As Yogi Berra used to say, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But if one were to predict about the new Joint Support Ship or the Surface Combatant, those ships will last 40 years plus, so building the maximum flexibility that you can into them is key. Furthermore, we don’t know what the strategic environment is going to be like in 40-50 years, which again speaks to the need for flexibility.

Is there a major driver in that future strategic environment?

It’s the uncertainty that is so important. There are those who believe counterinsurgency operations (COIN) like we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan are the way of the future; there are others who are just as adamant that there may be an emerging peer competitor who does not share the same values as we do in the West and may not be enamoured with the globalized economy, and may be more mercantilist in perspective. Therefore, we have to be prepared for the possibility of major interstate war. You have those two poles. But we don’t know. And that drives the imperative for flexibility.

Does a future fleet require specific capabilities for irregular warfare?

With irregular or hybrid warfare, I think the imperative is for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Take, for example, the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon: the problem that the Israelis faced was not a lack of platforms or weapons, it was intelligence of an order of magnitude that is different than what we have had in the past. The United States could have had all of its carrier strike groups and its expeditionary strike groups positioned off the coast off Lebanon that summer and it would have made almost no difference. The problem was that neither the Israelis nor we in the West were aware where in Lebanon Hezbollah had stockpiled weapons – the Katyusha rockets; any response that we might have had would have endangered lots of civilian lives. One of my colleagues, Colonel (USMC Ret’d) Frank Hoffman, who helped coin the term hybrid warfare, is of the opinion that Israeli-Hezbollah is a perfect example of hybrid warfare. Hezbollah was not just using crude IEDs; they were using quite sophisticated rockets and missiles – the missile with which they hit the Israeli corvette off the coast of Lebanon was anything but a crude weapon. Col Hoffman makes the point that warfare in the future is going to be a combination of crude weapons and very advanced weapons, many of which will be available to non-state actors. I think the importance of having really good ISR is critical and that drives me to the importance of unmanned vehicles – air, surface and subsurface. They are going to be important in terms of ensuring that we have the necessary type of ISR.

What then are the critical requirements for future fleets?

Modularity contributes to this notion of flexibility. Who knows what the missions will be in 20 years – humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), preventing the movement of contraband or anti-submarine warfare. But there is a large range of possibilities and modularity can ensure that you gain the maximum return from the investment you make in the ship. If the ship is of sufficient size, then it can serve as a HADR platform or be configured to conduct anti-submarine warfare or some other more conventional type of warfare. Size is really important, not only for the points I just made, but also because the Canadian navy will operate in the high latitudes with rough sea states. The Canadian navy would be well advised to build the largest ship that it can afford. The other keys are open architecture and interoperability. Interoperability with other navies is important, but it’s also critical within the Canadian navy itself, ensuring that new ships have commonality with the ships currently in the fleet.

In a Proceedings article, you referred to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a tipping point for the navy; do you see a similar tipping point in any of the proposed Canadian builds?

That’s a hard one. Flexibility is part and parcel of the LCS design, whether it’s the Lockheed Martin or Austal/General Dynamics sea frame. Regardless of what ship the Canadian navy decides to build, whether it is an LCS or something entirely different, ensuring that it is modular, interoperable, with open architecture and the ability to operate unmanned vehicles is really important. So the Joint Support Ship could almost be emblematic of that notion of flexibility. It is going to be large. But I think it will be completely compatible with modularity, open architecture and interoperability and the ability to operate unmanned vehicles.

Is the goal of using smaller crews for these new ships realistic?

I believe so. The LCS has been designed to operate with a 40-man core crew. That is a small crew for a ship the size of large corvette or frigate. Will the size of the LCS crew grow? In my candid opinion, the answer is yes. But will the crew be as large as current day frigates? I don’t think so. Automation has come a long way since we designed the Oliver Hazard Perry FFG class frigates in the late ‘60s.

Since most operations will involve coalitions, do you see a niche role Canada might excel at within that context?

The Canadian navy has been outstanding in anti-submarine warfare. I know from my participation in the Canadian strategy development group that that ability is held very dearly, and I don’t think Canada wants to give that up. I think all western navies would look to Canada to play an important role in anti-submarine warfare. But a role that I think is being given a great deal of prominence in the new navy strategy is sea control. We know how dependent the international economy is on maritime trade and the fibre optic cables resting on the floor of the ocean, so sea control is really important. I think the Canadian navy would like to carve out a niche for themselves in sea control and they are extremely well qualified to do that.

On the communications front, we seem to assume a rather “clean” electronic environment. Are some of our assumptions about our ability to actually get signals through a little ambitious?

That subject is discussed a lot – what happens if the satellites are not available to us? I know from other panels I sit on that there is a lot of research being conducted to enable us to communicate, to exchange data if that happens. That includes ways to overcome the lack of GPS if it were not available.

Are we approaching a point where allies will have to connect to U.S. communications systems such as FORCENet to participate in coalitions?

Unless we can talk with each other and exchange data readily, the results that we want to achieve are going to be minimized. If we can’t exchange data, ISR is going to be significantly sub-optimized. From my perspective, it would be nice if it were a U.S. system. But in the grand scheme of things we have to be able to exchange data. I think we’re getting there.

You’ve mentioned unmanned systems; do you see other significant technological advances on the horizon?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say energy. The Secretary of the Navy has a policy of making our navy much greener and energy efficient than it is today. There is a lot of discussion these days about energy efficiency both for the fleet and the aircraft we operate. That is going to happen. We’re also going to find ways to develop ISR that is much better than we have today. But another area that I think is going to prove very important over the next 20 years is directed energy. I know of a very high level study that suggests within the next 10 years the availability of directed energy weapons will become readily available to a number of nation states and non-state actors.

What will be the most dramatic difference between the fleets of today and the fleets of 2030?

I think it will probably be in the area of unmanned platforms. It goes back to my comment about ISR. Unless a ship has situational awareness – what is going on over the horizon – capability is really diminished. For a frigate to gain that situational awareness, it can’t keep a manned helicopter up for a long time but it can keep unmanned platforms up for a long time.

 An interview with R. Robinson Harris