Naval chief: Sea service ready for combat

Naval chief: Sea service ready for combat

The Navy is poised to take on a greater load in future military operations thanks to changes made by the sea service in recent years, its top officer said Thursday.

During the early 2000s, the Navy had a much smaller role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, leading military experts — and some service officials — to wonder how the service would fit into future U.S. combat operations.

Several years later, the Navy’s slate of missions is becoming clear.

The sea service has spent years building up its tactical aviation fleet, enhancing its information operations abilities and moving toward unmanned craft that operate beneath the ocean’s surface, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations (CNO), said Thursday.

That should give the Navy a place in future operations, because the service’s aircraft carriers mean “we don’t have to ask permission” to use allies’ airfields, Roughead said.

An example of that came this spring, as naval aircraft operating from Navy ships helped set up and maintain a no-fly zone over Libya.

Leon Panetta, tapped to become the next Defense secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday that he “strongly believes the Navy has to project our force across the world.”

Roughead described a multi-plane fleet that the sea service has built during his tenure. That fleet will be in the commander in chief’s arsenal and made up of F-35s, F-18 fighters, E-18 electronic warfare planes, P-8 surveillance aircraft and two new versions of its Seahawk helicopters.

It also will feature several kinds of unmanned aircraft that can do surveillance and engage targets while taking off from and landing on naval vessels.

In the past, the Navy had been forced into operating unmanned aircraft like Predators that operate from airfields. But service brass didn’t like that because “that’s not our forte,” Roughead said during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Roughead also wants to push the technical envelope on developing unmanned craft that can operate underwater.

In an era when defense budgets are expected to remain flat or shrink, some lawmakers and defense analysts say it is unlikely the Navy will ever have the 313 ships it says are needed. The fleet is now at 285 ships, Roughead said Thursday.

Employing more crewless underwater drones is one way to help offset a smaller fleet, Roughead noted.

But those kinds of craft are years from being fielded, and much work remains on getting the technologies involved right. And that causes fears for Roughead, who says the military weapons acquisition community has become less willing to take risks and push the envelope on technology development.

“I can just imagine when [President John F.] Kennedy said, ‘By the end of the decade we’ll put a man on the moon,’ ” Roughead said. “Somebody said, ‘Ehh, we’ve got to get it through the JCIDS process first.’ ”

He was referring to the Pentagon’s cumbersome Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS), which many Defense officials, experts and lawmakers blame for the decades it can now take to field a new combat platform.

“I really do think we’re kind of losing that sense of ambition, adventure and reach that really characterized the great things that we did as a country,” the CNO said. “I see that in some of the newer technologies. … Some things are going to fail. But if you fail early, you learn and you move on.”

In the Pentagon, there has long been a push to take a new technology and make it a program of record with its very own budget line. No more, Roughead said, suggesting the sea service will seek ways to have weapon programs “move fast” by working around the military’s traditional acquisition system.