Preparing for 2035: The Navy’s Role in Shaping the Future

On 15 October 2036, the USS ZUMWALT (DDG-1000) glides through the Philippines Sea on the twentieth anniversary of its commissioning. Nearby, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-80) launches both the F-35C and the unmanned F-47C to jointly conduct bombing raids on the Navy’s Western Pacific bombing range. Both ships, along with the entire ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group, are headed toward the South China Sea to participate in the annual US-India-Singapore naval exercise called DRAGON FURY. Below the surface, the USS MONTANA (SSN-794) deploys the unmanned underwater vehicle called SEA-EYE to assist in trailing a Russian Dolgorukiy class SSBN as it leaves port headed to its strategic patrol areas.

This scene is not too difficult to believe in 2017. It is a future consistent with the norms of today with similar, albeit more advanced, platforms conducting 2017 style operations. But what if the norms of today are only a distant memory in 2036? How does the Navy prepare for that potential reality?

...what if the norms of today are only a distant memory...

Naval leaders can prepare by understanding global trends and determining if the Navy is on the correct path to meet the challenges of the future. The Atlantic Council’s recent report, Global Risks 2035: The Search for a New Normal, outlines global trends using analytical data. Global Risks describes a world destined for additional conflict, a world order not dominated by the West, and a global security environment that requires enlightened leadership to safely navigate future crises.

Will the Navy be ready? Is there opportunity for the service to assist national leadership in changing the predicted outcome? Below are several recommendations for how the Navy can address some of the challenges discussed in Global Risks.

Large Scale War is Possible & Must Be Deterred

Global Risks states, “In 2012, a large-scale US/NATO conflict with Russia or China was close to unthinkable. Now, the post-Cold War security order has broken down, and the consequences are immense, potentially threatening globalization.”[i] The Navy has already seen these countries assert themselves through Russia’s flybys in the Black Sea and China’s shadowing of warships in the South China Sea. Russia in the recent past has invaded sovereign countries and China is building islands to increase its territorial claims. These provocations may continue as the Navy operates forward, however, they should not be viewed as a predestined path to greater conflict. Rather, the Navy must embrace its role as the military service best positioned to prevent greater levels of conflict through deterrence. Additionally, it must be prepared to win a future conflict if deterrence fails.

From Atlantic Council's "Global Risks 2035: The Search for a New Normal"

How can planners determine which acquisition programs to fund and technology to champion in order to build the fleet of 2035 capable of deterring and winning these future conflicts? Admiral Harry Harris, Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, said of the recently commissioned USS ZUMWALT, “If Batman had a ship, it would be the USS ZUMWALT.”[ii] If the ship was good enough for Batman, would it not be wise to ask how many of these platforms should be built to replace current surface warships? This type of quantitative analysis which looks at how many of the next generation submarine, ship, or aircraft are needed does not always ensure the fleet as a whole is prepared for a future conflict.

A better process determines what attributes the Navy desires from its future fleet. Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), used a similar concept in 2015 by stating personnel should have the attributes of integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness. He wanted to expand on the Navy’s core values by allowing these attributes to serve as guiding criteria for decisions and actions by leaders up and down the chain of command.[iii]

This methodology is well suited to determine what platforms the Navy should purchase. If leadership agrees on the attributes and modifies them as the world changes, an acquisition program can be funded based on its ability to fulfill all or some of the attributes. This forces collaboration between the Navy’s resource sponsors and should lead to building a fleet capable of meeting the challenges today and in the future.

Based on the information available in 2017, the following are ten proposed attributes that must be present in the Navy of 2035-45.

  • Attribute 1: Maintain a Survivable Nuclear Weapons Delivery Platform
  • Attribute 2: Platforms Support the Carrier Strike Group (CSG)
  • Attribute 3: Platforms Support the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)
  • Attribute 4: Aviation Platforms are Advanced, Multi-mission, Manned and Unmanned Aircraft
  • Attribute 5: Undersea Platforms Utilize Both Manned Submarines and Unmanned Netted Sensors
  • Attribute 6: Maintain a Special Operations Force
  • Attribute 7: Platforms Employ Precision Kinetic Firepower from a Distance Greater than the Adversary
  • Attribute 8: Platforms Leverage Technology to Minimize Personnel
  • Attribute 9: Platforms are Secure from Cyber Threats
  • Attribute 10: Platforms are Maintained with High-End Technologies

Maintaining a survivable nuclear weapons delivery platform must be the first priority or attribute on any proposal that discusses what the Navy should look like in 2035. Other nation’s nuclear weapons are the only existential threat to the U.S. and therefore there must be a deterrent to prevent their use. U.S. nuclear weapons are employed through a nuclear triad consisting of the Air Force’s strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The triad ensures no enemy could eliminate all means of the U.S. to deliver its arsenal of nuclear weapons. These weapon systems provided the deterrence that ensured the Cold War never ignited into full-scale conflict between the superpowers of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The global trends do not indicate a world on a path to eliminate nuclear weapons and therefore the nation will need a deterrent to war in the future.[iv]

Maintaining a survivable nuclear weapons delivery platform must be the first priority or attribute on any proposal that discusses what the Navy should look like in 2035.

The Navy plans to replace the 14 OHIO-Class SSBNs with 12 COLUMBIA-Class SSBNs, which can execute the current SLBM strategic deterrence mission. This program will cost the Navy $97 billion, but these submarines will remain a part of the nuclear arsenal well into the 2070s.[v] Because the SSBN is undetectable by adversaries and under the New START treaty accounts for 70% of the nuclear warheads, the Navy must ensure the COLUMBIA-Class SSBNs are built as the survivable nuclear weapons delivery platform.

Columbia class ballistic missile submarine concept sketch.

Columbia class ballistic missile submarine concept sketch.

The Navy uses submarines to deter against the existential threat of nuclear weapons. It also deters conflict through conventional means. Arguably, the most visible deterrent in the U.S. military’s conventional arsenal is an aircraft carrier (CVN) entering a region with the other ships in the CSG. Today, the U.S. has ten CVNs with the first of the follow-on FORD-Class CVNs nearing completion. The supporting ships in the CSG bring to the theater precision munitions able to reach into the territory of other countries, while enabling the CVN to conduct flight operations. Because Global Risks predicts an increasingly unstable world, the Navy will need a means to project its power from the sea. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reiterated this when he said, “The value of naval force ... is presence.”[vi] Future CSGs and Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG), discussed below, will provide this presence.

The ships and aircraft making up today’s ARG allow the deployment of Marine Corps forces from the sea around the world to respond to conflicts and conduct humanitarian operations. The ability of the ARG to place ground forces ashore while the CSG ensures air superiority and freedom of the seas make these two components of conventional military power essential in a future Navy. Today’s major competitors look for ways to deny the Navy’s ability to operate near shore. The “beach head” of the future that must be claimed will require an amphibious force with greater reach and more stealth to safely deploy those forces from the larger sea-based portion of the ARG. The Navy should work with the Marine Corps to build a lighter land force capable of fitting into manned and unmanned aviation platforms and smaller ships. This will enhance their range from the larger “mother ships” of the ARG and allow the nation’s marine ground forces to accomplish a variety of required missions from large-scale warfare to smaller counter-insurgency operations.

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. | U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. | U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt

The aircraft operated from a future CSG or ARG must be advanced manned and unmanned platforms. Continued investment in the F-35B and F-35C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is prudent as near peer competitors like China develop their own advanced aircraft. The Navy should also develop an unmanned version of the JSF that can operate by teaming with manned F-35s. These platforms should be able to conduct multiple missions in order to prevent the Navy from having to field different types of aircraft for specific requirements. Finally, the Navy should also work to develop unmanned auxiliary aircraft like the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System to service the JSF.

The CSG and ARG make an outstanding team, but there will be areas of the world and missions ill suited for surface platforms. Submarines, however, have the ability to clandestinely operate in environments impenetrable by surface platforms and are best suited to counter an adversary’s undersea forces. To maintain undersea dominance in the future, the Navy should leverage technologies that work with the manned submarine. These sensors should communicate with each other and the submarine to create an undersea sensor network to track other submarines and ships.

Similar to the submarine force, the SEAL community conducts a variety of specialized missions around the globe only able to be accomplished by a small elite team of special operators. While many of their operations are classified, it is known that this force killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and rescued M/V Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. SEALs will be instrumental in the future and are small enough to adapt to accomplish their evolving mission sets.

Designing, building, and outfitting the Navy of 2035 will not be inexpensive...

All of the forces listed above will need weapons and associated weapon systems to combat their adversaries in the future. The actual design and functionality of these weapons will be debated, but regardless of their makeup increased range and accuracy will be vital in the future. Since the beginning of warfare, militaries have worked to obtain weapons with greater range than their adversary. To some, the range of the weapon is more important than the accuracy when it comes to deterring an adversary. The U.S. continues to value precision due to a desire to minimize civilian casualties. The U.S. should continue developing precision munitions whether that is in the form of missiles, bullets, or lasers with a greater reach than their adversaries. This will offer a competitive edge in conflict and a deterrent to hostilities beginning.

Designing, building, and outfitting the Navy of 2035 will not be inexpensive and will require the Navy to look for creative ways to save money. One area where there is potential cost savings is in the area of personnel. People are expensive, making up ~30% of the Navy’s budget, which is about the same amount spent on procurement of platforms.[vii] New ships like the FORD-Class CVN, ZUMWALT and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) maintain smaller crews than their predecessors by leveraging technology. Therefore, designing future platforms that minimize their reliance on personnel will ensure the Navy has budgetary dollars to spend on the necessary platforms and operations.

Capture of the Norse Corp live attack application.

Capture of the Norse Corp live attack application.

A recent U.S. cyber attack showed how everyday items like wireless routers and printers can be controlled by hackers to overwhelm service providers like Netflix and Twitter.[viii] The attack limited the functionality of entertainment platforms and did not endanger national security. However, imagine if malicious software was placed on the weapons system or maneuvering system of a LCS, and this software allowed someone to command it remotely. This scenario may seem unthinkable, but if the Navy does not ensure its new platforms are secure from a cyber threat, this scenario could become a reality.

Not only must the future fleet be secure from a cyber attack, it must also be supported logistically from afar at a low cost. Today, emergent plans to eliminate high value targets are transmitted electronically to a warship. The ship does not pull into a port to receive a disc or hard drive to execute the tasking. This year a critical component of the V-22 Osprey was “delivered” using a 3D printer and used on an operational aircraft.[ix] Similar advancements in 3D printing could be utilized to maintain the future fleet. This would enable transmitting “code” for a part that can be “made” while the platform remains operating.

Course corrections may be in order to build the Navy needed to deter, and if deterrence fails, win the future conflicts...

These attributes are a different concept for planning the future Navy. All sources of information, inside the Pentagon, in academia, and in the think tank community must be utilized to determine the future threats and these attributes should be reviewed each budget cycle. Course corrections may be in order to build the Navy needed to deter, and if deterrence fails, win the future conflicts predicted in Global Risks.

President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1902 during his second annual message to Congress, "A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty [sic] of peace."

Because Global Risks, does not paint an optimistic view of the world in 2035, this statement made over one hundred years ago rings true today and in the years to come. Therefore, the Navy must prepare to be this “guaranty of peace” in 2035 by building a fleet that addresses key future attributes. Addressing these areas allows the Navy to assist the nation in shaping the world of 2035 into a more optimistic vision than the one painted in Global Risks.

Will Wiley is the U.S. Navy Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Guided missile cruiser USS Gettysburg, top, and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, bottom, underway alongside the fast combat support ship USS Detroit during a replenishment at sea, 11 November 2003 | US Navy | Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Douglas M. Pearlman.


[i] Mathew J. Burrows, Global Risks 2035: The Search for a New Normal (Washington: Atlantic Council, 2016), ii.

[ii] “Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. remarks at USS ZUMWALT (DDG 1000) Commissioning, October 15, 2016,” U.S. Pacific Command website, accessed October 22, 2016,

[iii] “CNO Identifies 4 Core Attributes to Guide Navy Leaders, December 6, 2015,” U.S. Navy website, accessed October 24, 2016,

[iv] Burrows, Global Risks 2035, 37.

[v] Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Columbia Class (Ohio Replacement) Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service: 2016), 10.

[vi]John Grady, “SecNav Mabus Reflects On Time In The Pentagon,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 24, 2016, accessed October 26, 2016,

[vii] “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2016 Budget,” Secretary of the Navy website, accessed October 27, 2016,, 1-8.

[viii] Eli Blumenthal and Elizabeth Weise, “Hacked Home Devices Caused Massive Internet Outage,” USA Today website, accessed March 24, 2017, .

[ix] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr. “First Osprey Flight With Critical 3D Printed Part,” Breaking Defense, August 3, 2016, Accessed October 25, 2016,