The Chief of Naval Operations on Wednesday said he approved of the U.S. ratifying the law of the Sea Treaty as a measure to help counter Chinese action in the South China Sea and also noted the railgun is a counterexample of how the Navy should not perform rapid prototyping of new technologies.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a “pretty good document” that gives states a “tremendous template” to manage resource disputes, particularly those in the Arctic, in a peaceful manner, Adm. John Richardson said at the Atlantic Council.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson, the 31st CNO. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird)

“I would advocate for ratifying that treaty. We behave, pretty much, in accordance with the rules of behavior that underpin that treaty already. And it would be good to be a signatory to that treaty, just lends a little bit of authority, I guess, to what we say,” Richardson continued.

The CNO favored ratification of UNCLOS in the larger context of dealing with growing naval capabilities of Russia and China as the Defense Department looks at near-peer competitors as the growing long-term strategic threat.

He also said the U.S. should be clearer about adhering to the international order that exists and benefits both the U.S. and Chinese economies. Richardson reiterated that he talked to his Chinese counterpart, Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong, about operationalizing the concept to minimize miscalculation on interactions on the high seas.

The CNO met with his counterpart and other Chinese military officials during a trip to China last month (Defense Daily, Jan. 14).

While the U.S. maintains a large presence in the western Pacific, as Chinese naval capabilities grow there will only be more chances for their navies to meet.

Richardson said relations down to a tactical and frontline commander level must be made biased toward making it easy to not cause conflict when U.S. and Chinese military vessels come across one another. This means not throwing barriers in front of each other or conducting risky blocking maneuvers, including not just the People’s Liberation Army (NAVY) (PLA(N)), but also China’s Coast Guard and maritime militia.

The CNO said he can see a possible future where if a naval vessel is not “squawking” on the automatic identification system (AIS) consistent with how it is acting, depending on where the ship is, there may be a reason to challenge its actions.

Separately, when discussing rapid prototyping, Richardson admitted the long-awaited naval railgun program “is kind of the case study that would say this is how innovation maybe shouldn’t happen.”

“It’s been around I think for about 15 years, maybe 20, so rapid doesn’t come to mind when you’re talking about timeframes like that,” he said.

The Navy’s Electromagnetic Railgun Innovative Naval prototype began in 2005 and seeks to launch a projectile up to 100 nautical miles. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) in 2017 said they hoped the program would reach a 10-round-per-minute firing rate with 32 megajoules of energy by FY2019 (Defense Daily, July 20, 2017).

However, Richardson noted the Navy has learned a lot about the engineering to build a railgun system that can handle that much electromagnetic energy. “So we’re going to continue after this. We’re going to install this thing, we’re going to continue to develop it, test it. It’s too great a weapons system, so it’s going somewhere.”

He added that separate from the railgun itself the Navy has incidentally learned to make other useful things, comparing the hypervelocity projectile (HVP) to a post-it note. “It wasn’t invented to be a post-in note, but heck, that’s what we use it for now.”

The electromagnetic railgun on display at the Naval Future Forces Science and Technology Expo in 2015. (Photo: Defense Daily)

Similarly, the HVP was conceived to be used on the railgun but “is actually a pretty near thing in and of itself” that is usable in almost every major U.S. navy gun. The HVP was developed by BAE Systems.

“So it can be out into the fleet very very quickly, independent of the railgun. So this effort is sort of breeding all sorts of advances, we just need to get the clock sped up with respect to the railgun,” Richardson said.

Overall, the CNO sees rapid prototyping as fundamentally a human resources issue. He said the Navy needs to find personnel who are smart and capable but also “motivated with a sense of urgency, that understand the stakes at play, and are biased towards getting things done rather than biased toward not and slowing things down.”

The CNO cited the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based unmanned tanker aircraft, the new future frigate (FFG(X)), and directed energy programs as the types of things the Navy is developing as fast as possible.

The MQ-25 was conceptualized in 2017 and 2018 and is expected to be integrated into the carrier air wing with an Initial Operating Capability by 2024. In August, the Navy said it expected to eventually procure 72 MQ-25s after the four test aircraft are completed (Defense Daily, Aug. 31).

The Navy is currently competing the FFG(X) and expects to have a final request for proposals by the end of FY 2019 and award a construction contract in FY 2020 with the goal of purchasing 20 ships total (Defense Daily, Nov. 29).

Last year five shipbuilders won contracts to mature their designs: Austal USAHuntington Ingalls Industries [HII], Lockheed Martin [LMT], Fincantieri Marinette Marine, and General Dynamics [GD] Bath Iron Works (Defense Daily, Feb. 16, 2018).

Last year the Navy awarded Lockheed Martin a $150 million contract to develop the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) directed energy system, with the goal of having one integrated on to a DDG-51 destroyer (Defense Daily, Feb. 2, 2018).

Relatedly, last year the Navy said the new San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, USS Portland (LPD-27), will host a new laser demonstrator weapon developed by the ONR (Defense Daily, Jan. 10, 2018).

The new laser weapon is a next-generation follow-on to an earlier 30-kilowatt Laser Weapons System (LaWS) previously tested on the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)).