With a looming operational gap in its submarine force structure, the Navy will look to leverage its burgeoning unmanned underwater vehicles to help mitigate that gap, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead said yesterday. 

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies-sponsored symposium on the future of naval forces, Roughead said some of the “greatest operational breakthroughs” during his time as CNO have come in the field of UUVs. 

With advancements in propulsion and communication applications in UUV technology,  Roughead said those future vehicles will be a tremendous force multiplier for the underwater fleet. Ultimately, more advanced UUV platforms could “absorb some of that [submarine] force structure” which is expected to dwindle in the 2030 time frame. 

The sea service’s current shipbuilding plan has the Navy hitting a base fleet size of 313 ships over the next few years, with that number reaching closer to 325 in 2020, according to acquisition officials. That buildup will likely top out by the 2020 time frame, when at that time acquisition will taper off from that 325-ship high, due to scheduled retirements of legacy ships and the introduction of the SSBN(X) submarine program. 

With the pending cycle of sub retirements tied to that overall legacy ship retirement path, coupled with the Ohio-class replacement effort, the sea service will have a sub force of 39 boats by 2030, Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley told members of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee last month. 

“That’s of deep concern to us. And so when we look at what that potentially means…[it] means that we have to stay right on top of the maintenance plan” for the sub fleet, in particular the Virginia-class boats, he said at the time. 

To that end, the Navy needs to extend the lifespan of its current fleet of tactical and nuclear submarines, or face a fleet shortfall within the next 20 years. Along with life extension efforts, UUV development will have a key role in keeping the sub force afloat, Roughead said. 

Roughead’s emphasis on unmanned platforms in the Navy’s future force comes at a time when the sea service is looking to drastically reduce the number of sailors and officers in its ranks. The biggest challenge facing the Navy, according to Roughead, is the force reduction cuts service personnel officials are looking to lay into the force. 

By the end of this year, the Navy plans to cut over 3,000 enlisted personnel, along with a number of officers and non-commissioned officers, as a way to address looming budgetary pressures on the sea service. 

“We have to live within our means,” Roughead said of the impending force reduction. However, the effort “must be done responsibly” so that emerging warfighting areas, such as cyber warfare and information dominance, and traditional combat capabilities are not left undermanned.