Big opportunities for automation in a reduced-manpower Navy

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 15 April 2014. U.S. military campaigns in South Asia are winding down, which is translating into noticeable reductions in numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. The fiscal 2015 Pentagon budget calls for a reduction 36,700 active-duty military personnel next year to bring the total force down to about 1.31 million.

After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 15 April 2014. U.S. military campaigns in South Asia are winding down, which is translating into noticeable reductions in numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. The fiscal 2015 Pentagon budget calls for a reduction 36,700 active-duty military personnel next year to bring the total force down to about 1.31 million.

Personnel reductions are coming in a era when military ships, aircraft, and ground systems are becoming increasingly complex, and require increased amounts of training for those who will operate them. Might this all mean future opportunities in military electronics and ship automation technologies?

The U.S. Navy is getting off relatively easy -- for now, anyway. The 2015 military budget calls for only a few hundred sailors to be removed from the military payroll, bringing the service's manpower to 323,600 next year. The Army, by contrast, is losing 20,000 soldiers. Long-term trends, however, most likely will bring down Navy personnel numbers even further.

Related: Blog: Navy's newest destroyers evolve to fill traditional battleship roles

In addition, Navy leaders propose laying up 11 Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers for long-term technology upgrades. It's not clear when those ships will be back on the line, but it's an open question if there will be enough sailors to man the ships when they return -- or perhaps not enough sailors to man them in their current configurations.

A Ticonderoga-class cruiser, which is responsible for air defense, anti-submarine warfare, escort, and other duties, takes 364 officers and sailors to run. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which takes on a similar role, takes 382 officers and sailors. All of them have to be trained and ready, and that represents a sizable investment in salaries, health care, training, dependent housing, and other personnel expenses.

(story continues below)

With the Pentagon's budget trending down the way it is, those manning costs may be more than the Navy can bear in the future. Might the Navy take up the slack with electronics and automation that can run and maintain some of those shipboard subsystems with reduced crew levels?

The Navy's newest ship is the Zumwalt-class destroyer -- a misnomer is there ever was one. The ship is a giant, larger even than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers. It's 600 feet long, is built around the Advanced Gun System (AGS), and is designed for precision shore bombardment.

Related: Navy steps out on MODERNIZATION

It has some of the latest and most complex technologies on board, and its stealthy shape makes it look like an ordinary fishing boat on radar. One would think something like this would need a lot of sailors, right? Well think again, because this vessel will take less than 150 officers and sailors to run. That's the kind of manning levels that Navy submarines have; it's unheard of in a surface warship.

(story continues below)

Automation will be the key to keeping the Zumwalt destroyer in fighting trim. At the same time, however, tight budgets are forcing Navy leaders to limit the Zumwalt class to three vessels. So what's to become of the ship's advanced technology?

It's not much of a stretch to think that some of the Zumwalt's automation might be applied to other Navy warships, as personnel costs rise and manning levels shrink.

Related: Navy eyes artificial intelligence to automate decision making on ships, sensors, and weapons

Now think again about those 11 Ticonderoga-class cruisers that are getting laid up for long-term maintenance and upgrades. What better opportunity might the Navy have for making the most of a lean budget than by packing those cruisers with unprecedented levels of automation?

It certainly will be interesting to see what those Ticonderogas look like years down the line when they return to the fleet.

More in Computers