Since the position of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) was created almost 100 years ago, 30 individuals have held the top spot in the Navy. Perhaps no single position in the U.S. military has proven so influential, not only with respect to the evolution of U.S. seapower but also the growth and transformation of America’s strategic position. Admirals such as Hughes, King, Nimitz, Burke, Moorer, Zumwalt, Trost, Mullen, Clark and Roughead provided the vision and leadership necessary to the creation of the modern Navy with its massive nuclear powered aircraft carriers and air wings, ballistic missile and attack submarines, multi-mission cruisers and destroyers, amphibious warships and supply vessels.
The current CNO, Admiral Jonathan Greenert is another in this long line of visionary leaders. In both word and deed, he is pushing not only his service but the entire U.S. military to think anew about the future of warfare and the kinds of programs and technologies needed for the challenges of this new century. Along with General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Admiral Greenert has championed the concept of AirSea Battle which seeks to develop integrated cross-service operations. He has argued for reconceptualizing the way the Pentagon thinks about force development in the digital age, stressing the importance of balancing investments in platforms with that devoted to new kinds of payloads.
Admiral Greenert has a vision of a future Navy that is based on exploiting a range of new technologies and capabilities. This vision was summarized in a single sentence in the speech he gave this week at the christening of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The Ford is a revolution in aircraft carrier design and capabilities with an advanced nuclear power plant that will generate enormous amounts of energy, an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, a new radar suite, extensive automation and an innovative arresting gear system. In describing the role of the new Ford-class CVNs, Admiral Greenert provided his listeners with a vision of the future for his service, saying, “She will carry unmanned aircraft, joint strike fighters, and she will deploy lasers.” (Emphasis mine.)
Admiral Greenert has pushed the Navy to invest in carrier-based unmanned aerial systems (UASs) to extend both the reach and duration of naval air operations. UASs are a natural complement to the improved sortie generation capability inherent in the Ford class. They also open up a path towards a new carrier air wing that exploits the unique advantages of both manned and unmanned systems. Swarms of advanced UASs can counter prospective adversaries’ investments in integrated air defenses.
To this innovation Admiral Greenert now wants to add lasers. Ships such as the Ford and the Flight III variant of the Arleigh Burke destroyer will possess massive electric power generation capabilities that can serve as a nearly inexhaustible source of energy for naval lasers. This means that the Navy has in its hands the means to utterly upend the current anti-access threat to its forward deployed forces. Laser weapons will bend or even break the currently unfavorable cost exchange ratio between Navy defensive capabilities and hostile anti-ship missiles. With operational laser weapons deployed, the Navy can change both its defensive engagement doctrine and its weapons loadouts, enabling its destroyers and cruisers to carry more offensive missiles in their vertical launch tubes.
Under Admiral Greenert’s direction, the Navy created a program of record for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike system. The same needs to be done for naval lasers. At present, the laser program is an R&D activity. Before he leaves office in 18 months or so, Admiral Greenert can cement his legacy as a visionary and innovator by seeing his service transform its investment in lasers into a program of record.
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