The Quest for “Low Cost” Solutions by the US Navy

By Tim Martin

The toll of expending expensive surface fleet weapons to take out cheap Houthi drones, anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles in the Red Sea has pushed the US Navy to speed its exploration of cheaper alternatives and “disruptive capabilities” like Replicator drone swarms that the service hopes could do the job much more cheaply, according to one of the Navy’s most senior officials.

The navy “absolutely” needs to invest in cheaper equipment to down drones, said Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, director of surface warfare, during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday.

“We’re working towards that end, and we have some solutions that I can’t go into, but we are going to get after finding more cost-effective ways to address those lower-end threats,” he explained, later singling out the Pentagon’s new, secretive Replicator as one example of an initiative developing that “more cost-effective” technology.

In March, the Pentagon asked lawmakers for $1 billion over the next two years for the drone swarm program, aimed at producing thousands of low-cost, autonomous aircraft, and platforms to take down adversary drones. The DoD has since announced that the first tranche of Replicator systems will cover uncrewed surface vehicles (USV), uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and counter-uncrewed aerial systems (c-UAS) of “various sizes and payloads.”

Pyle suggested that the “demand signal” for integrated air and missile defense capabilities in the Red Sea had “never been stronger” and compared the severity of naval threats faced by US forces to those of the Second World War.

US Navy warships were deployed to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and later aerial and maritime attacks by Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea. In December the US launched Operation Prosperity Guardian with several allies to protect the shipping lanes.

Defending U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, Red Sea, and elsewhere require a range of systems from close-in weapons to anti-ballistic missiles.

Since its involvement began, the Navy has used some $1 billion-worth of munitions knocking threats out of the sky and out of the water, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told lawmakers in April.

Justifying that spending and the military power of the surface fleet, Pyle noted that all systems on board ships in the Red Sea are “performing exactly as advertised.”

He added, “We are doing great in terms of intercepting a lot of stuff, by numbers and diversity [of threat] … and yet this is not the big league.”

Despite the pace at which Navy weapons have been expended in the Red Sea over the past seven months, Pyle said that stocks remain “in a sustainable position.” But as more novel solutions to air defense are a way’s away, Navy discussions with industry to rebuild stocks have shifted to address “maximum sustainment rates” for in production systems.

The Navy also plans on re-certifying “older stocks” to regenerate capacity according to Pyle, though he did not elaborate.

Elsewhere in the talk, he said that the Navy’s long range strike capabilities should also be enhanced for future conflicts, or those similar to the Red Sea.

“Looking at a platform like DDG(X), we value larger missile launchers, the ability to get to [integrate] hypersonic weapons, that’s a longer term approach,” he added.

The next-generation destroyer program has been designed to replace Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers, though construction of a first ship is not expected to begin until 2032.

In September, the Navy revealed it is spending $14.5 billion on 10 Flight III Arleigh Burke vessels. Pyle said the service wants to grow the overall fleet of 74 ships “a little bit,” but “we want to grow” small surface combatants “the most.”

Pyle appeared unmoved when asked about a decision by the Missile Defense Agency to cut Navy funding for Raytheon Standard Missle-3 (SM-3) 1B missiles beyond fiscal 2025. “I think we have the inventory we need right now with where we’re going on the SM-3,” he explained.

On Standard Missile-6 (SM-6), Pyle noted that “great dialogue” has taken place between the Navy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Hill, and an “understanding” exists about what it will take for industry, once “properly resourced,” to reach a “maximum sustainment rate.” The “right funding” for SM-6 is also in place.

Following on from recent tests of the US Army’s PAC-3 MSE (Missile Segment Enhancement) “out West” in line with potential development and acquisition of a naval version of the weapon, the Navy is planning on a maritime-based test, though Pyle did not share where the test will take place or which ship will host the weapon.

“The beauty of that round is it’s been very effective over the years and they’re producing it in significant numbers,” he added.

Regarding anti surface warfare (ASW) capabilities, the Navy is “looking for improvements” on towed array sonars and weapons for Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and Lockheed Martin MH-60R helicopters, according to Pyle.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on May 15, 2024.