For More U.S. Firepower – Arm Non-Combat Ships With Missiles

The U.S. desperately needs more firepower to combat the growing Chinese threat in the Pacific. To be specific, as I wrote in an earlier piece, “The U.S. Needs Lots More Missiles” – both offensive and defensive – to counter China – and Russia as well.

One novel solution, that isn’t new – arm Naval logistics and support ships with Mk 41 Vertical Launching Systems (VLS) capable of launching a variety of missiles. As reported by Craig Hooper at Forbes, Congressman Elaine Luria, a former Navy captain, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, recently asked about putting VLS into the cargo ships operated by the Military Sealift Command.

Hooper notes  that Luria may be on to something:

Adding 64 VLS cells to each of America’s 14 Lewis and Clark class dry cargo/ammunition ships [called T-AKEs]… would bring 896 VLS cells to the fleet, cheaply. And, given that the 14 T-AKEs and 17 fuel-distributing oilers …generally operate at sea for six months or more… adding missiles on these otherwise unarmed platforms puts substantial firepower forward. 

However, VLS requires a substantial amount of inner hull space and internal reworking of ships. So, as interesting as this concept is, The Drive reported last year that BAE Systems has developed a more novel and realistic way to expand the Navy’s missile force. Their idea would:

…give any ship with some deck space Mark 41 vertical launch system (VLS)-like capability without having to make huge alterations to the guts of the ship…Dubbed aptly the Adaptive Deck Launcher (ADL), the system provides four cells positioned at an angle that can accommodate the same all-up missile canisters used by standard Mark 41 vertical launch systems like those found on the U.S. Navy’s cruisers and destroyers, as well as many allied surface combatants.

The Drive adds that this system could be added to ‘Gator Navy’ amphibious transport docks and dock landing ships, and the Navy’s new Expeditionary Mobile Bases giving them all standoff land-attack, anti-ship and air defense missiles. The Navy could even deploy these ADLs to non “shooter” ships as part of its evolving ‘distributed lethality’ concept.

Both sources describe myriad challenges to implementing either missile system concept on traditionally non-combat ships. These range from technical and tactical to cultural, logistical and operational. Most of these non-combatant ships would need to add combat crews, or at least missile teams, and most would need to rely on sensors and targeting systems from nearby warships to be effective missile platforms.

New tactics and operational schemes would need to be developed to integrate these support ships with the combat fleet. Lots of new training would be needed. The process would not be as fast or easy as some proponents might believe. However, unclassified studies seem to show that the concept is sound.

“Arming the Combat Logistics Fleet comes with some big operational challenges that the now-somnolent Military Sealift Command may prefer to avoid grappling with,” says Hooper. A cultural shake-up would be required.

But this could still prove to be a cost-effective way to multiply and distribute the Navy’s missile firepower at a relatively low cost. Congress is right to ask the question. Now it’s time for the Navy to seriously consider the idea.

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Paul Crespo

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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