The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems said Wednesday he thinks the upcoming Force Structure Assessment (FSA) will focus on smaller surface combatants as the service looks to build up to a 355-ship Navy.

“I certainly don’t see that [FSA fleet] number going down, but it is going to be more reflective of the DMO [Distributed Maritime Operations] construct and it includes not just the battle force ships, but the logistics ships, the trainers, the maritime operations centers, everything that we pull together to keep this machine running,” Vice Adm. William Merz said during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Vice Admiral William R. Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems (OPNAV N9). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

“What we think is going to happen with this FSA is there will be more emphasis on the smaller surface combatants, mostly because the frigate looks like it’s coming along very well and it’s going to be more lethal than we had planned,” Merz said.

Merz explained the likely outcome by comparing it to how Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, director of surface warfare (N96), talks about how the Navy has too many large surface combatants and needs to get more balanced.

“When you look at the lethality of the frigate, yeah that makes sense. So we’ll see how the FSA handles the lethality of that – and then how does that bleed over into the other accounts,” Merz said.

He noted the FSA process takes all the demands of the combatant commands (COCOMs), puts them in a blender of the models, spits out a result, and then a team of warfighters evaluates the results versus what the COCOMs want. Merz said the Navy balances the result off the COCOMs, independent study teams, a red team, “and then by the end of the year we’ll have a new FSA.”

Merz revealed there will also be “a hard look at the logistics side” because while some logistics ships count as battle force ships some do not. He said the FSA will make an opinion on the non-battle force logistics vessels as well because it does not limit itself to those strict definitions.

The FSA will also take into account the evolution of the air wing, the length of the air wing, the range of the air wing on carriers and amphibious vessels, and how the Navy will cover its responsibilities.

Merz underscored that “there’s always some surprises when the FSA comes out and that’s why we…grade the Navy’s homework” by putting it against red teams and external organizations.

He noted in the 2016 FSA the Navy had five external organizations examine the work and while they had different opinions they converged with the FSA “and they all agreed that the Navy had to be bigger.”

Merz also commented on President Trump’s decision to reverse the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) retirement.

He admitted “surrendering the overhaul of Truman was a very hard decision for us. It doesn’t really affect how quickly we would have gotten to 12 carriers because she would have retired before we got there anyway. But it certainly would have resulted in carrying more risk along the way if these other investments didn’t pay off.”

The other investments are newer advanced technologies like directed energy weapons, artificial intelligence, and particularly unmanned vehicles (Defense Daily, March 13).

Merz argued every study by both the Defense Department and outside organizations indicated the Navy needs to retain carriers and build new unmanned capabilities. “So my job as the warfare systems is to balance those so we have the most lethal Navy we can have, both near term and long term. I really can’t surrender either one. So there was a bit of betting on the come.”

While the Navy intentionally put the Truman decision before Congress early so they had a year or more to reverse it, Merz argued the Navy’s explanation “sends a strong signal to industry how serious your Navy is about moving out on these other technologies and they were always designed to complement the force, not replace the force.”

However, “in the world of hard decisions, you have to surrender some near-term stuff to get after the future and if you bet correctly it’ll all come together at the right time across the spectrum,” Merz added.

Now that Trump reversed the decision Merz admitted “we are now in the throes of how are we going afford this, how are we going to get it back in the program.”

He said the Navy will be looking for help so they do not have to “surrender these other capabilities we surrendered that overhaul for in the first place so we can get after this more comprehensive, more distributed, more lethal and in some cases even more attritable force.”