Home » News & Analysis » Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships

Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS-2) on Dec. 8, 2016. US Navy Photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – Naval Surface Forces is continuing its push for an experimental squadron that would help figure out how to best leverage new platforms such as the Zumwalt-class destroyers and unmanned surface ships.

Vice Adm. Rich Brown, commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific, said earlier this month that he wanted to see “aggressive experimentation” in the surface fleet to support the Navy’s eye towards great power competition.

Part of this will be done through the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, which stood up in 2015 in San Diego to develop more sophisticated tactics for the surface fleet and conduct advanced training ahead of surface ship deployments.

“The work that our Warfare Tactics Instructors at SMWDC are doing is critical for instilling this warfighting edge in our crews. They are cultivating the culture of experimentation, tactics and procedures that the surface navy needs in an era of great power competition,” Brown said during a speech at the Surface Navy Association’s annual national symposium on Jan. 15.

“But we aren’t just experimenting at SMWDC. Our proposal for the Surface Development Squadron, or SURFDEVRON, fits squarely in this construct for experimentation,” he continued.
“We need this squadron to develop solutions to tough operational problems, accelerate new warfighting capabilities, and rapidly assist in the development and validation of tactics, techniques, and procedures. It will be a place to take calculated risks and see what works and what doesn’t work.”

The notion of a Surface Development Squadron is not new. It has appeared in Navy budget requests over the past few years, since the Surface Warfare Development Group (SWDG) was stood down in 2012. In February 2018, Navy officials referred to the standup of an “experimental squadron” that would look at how to best use the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV), the Zumwalt-class destroyer (DDG-1000), Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG-51) as a cohesive surface force. The officials last year cited a 2019 standup.

The SURFDEVRON that Brown referred to is still in the proposal phase and does not have a clear timeline for standing up. Brown’s spokesman, Cmdr. Patrick Evans, told USNI News that the proposal from Brown still has to be briefed to, reviewed by and approved by U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet, and then by the chief of naval operations, before the squadron could be stood up. There is no anticipated timeline for that, he said.

Aircraft CF-02, an F-35 Lightning II Carrier Variant attached to the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 completes a flyover of the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000). US Navy Photo

Brown’s predecessor, Tom Rowden, spoke of an experimental squadron that he said could fall under SMWDC, according to a Military.com article from 2017. In this instantiation of the squadron, though, it is unclear where it would fall in the chain of command. Multiple Navy offices could not comment on the specifics of the proposal that Brown has submitted for consideration.

Though the specifics have not been released, Brown told USNI News during the question and answer portion of his speech that the time was right to resume having a hotbed for experimentation in the surface force.

Noting the 2012 stand down of the Surface Warfare Development Group, Brown said, “I think now is the time, again, to have a Surface Development Squadron where we can take risk where it makes sense and go out there, try things and see if it works, and if it doesn’t then oh well, try something else. That’s my vision for the Surface Development Squadron.”

The submarine community has the Submarine Development Squadron organization, and aviators have the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron organization, and the surface community needs something, too, he said.

“Where do you experiment? How do you integrate [new manned and unmanned ships] into strike group operations?” he said.
“What better place to have the Surface Development Squadron than to do that.”

  • b2

    Hate to be cynical but this is another 0-6 billet and staff stood up at the expense of the real fleet… One can only hope they don’t run into each other developing their “innovations”.

    I say back to basics, traditions and leadership, to turn things around. Change for change sake and newspeak/social media haven’t solved any issues the US Navy faces…

    • Duane

      “Basics” might win a 20th century naval war .. but they won’t win a 21st century naval war.

      • NavySubNuke

        Failure to adequately perform the “basics” will lose every naval war no matter the century. Just ask PACOM how much easier a war fighting a war would be with two major surface combatants sidelined by collisions during routine transits.
        Do you really believe that had the war started the day after the McCain and Fitz collisions would the US have been in a better position to win by ignoring “basics” like ship handling?

        • Duane

          Sorry, your straw man argument holds no water. I don’t maintain that basics of ship handling are not necessary … but they are clearly insufficient to win a 21st century naval war. Heck, the “basics” weren’t even enough to win World War Two 75 years ago. We didn’t beat Japan by only managing to not run into merchant ships.

          An aircraft student pilot can get the “basics” of airmanship down in a handful of hours of dual instruction, sufficient to take off and land and do basic turns and such. But that command of the “basics” does not qualify that pilot to fly and fight a Super Hornet or an F-35 and defeat the enemy. That skill level takes another four or five years or more of intense study and instruction and practice to achieve.

          Same with ships – knowing how to drive a ship and not run into merchant ships is the kindergarten of naval warfighting. To win we need post-graduate level experts in 21st century warfighting tactics which are in the process of being developed now, such as through the experimental squadron described in this post.

          But of course, being the full time troll that you are you prefer argumentation and straw men over rational adult discussion, as always.

        • Rocco

          In layman’s terms what your saying had proper protocol been observed during the Berk’s DD’s they still would of been in the fight & lives not lost!! Nevertheless the damage to each ship!! However if it wasn’t stupid seamanship it eventually would be something else!

  • NavySubNuke

    Reminds me of the standup of DEVRON 5. It is funny to see how many parallels are developing between the Seawolf and Zumwalt class.
    I just hope we don’t regret trimming the Zum’s to 3 as much as we regret cutting the Seawolfs.

    • PolicyWonk

      When the Zumwalts were cut to a whopping three sea-frames, I had this feeling that we were seeing “deja-vu all over again”.

      The difference is that we had a clear mission for Seawolf along with a clear-eyed set of missions and capabilities, while the Zumwalts were supposed to be “land attack destroyers” designed with a lot of features and technologies that were seemingly opposed to each other. For example, the Zumwalts have a very stealthy sea-frame and superstructure, rendering them with an RCS akin to that of a lobster boat, that would be (in theory) used as a shore-bombardment ship in conjunction with a forced assault on a contested beach. But as a precursor to invasion, Zumwalt would have to cruise with an invasion fleet (or in the relative vicinity), which has a “yuge” RCS, while largely nullifies any advantage she might’ve otherwise had.

      If you’re going to invest in stealth, it seems relatively pointless to send very expensive stealthy ships along with ships with an RCS the size of the Empire State Building. What kinds of missions might Zumwalt be sent on that would take advantage of these features? It makes sense that she’d be sent out in conjunction with other stealthy platforms to cash in on these advantages – but those are pretty short in supply.

      Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the investment in the Zumwalts will garner subsequent classes of surface combatants leveraging those technologies and design techniques (etc.), following the Seawolf/Virginia example.

      • Curtis Conway

        The future Surface Combatant Fleet would be even smaller if the Zumwalts had not been truncated at three. No useful gun, and it’s not an AAW platform . . . yet. There would have been less money for Surface Combatants of any kind. Now lets see . . . high-end capability, huge cost that is still going on, and the platform is not out doing its job . . . yet. Want more of this do you?! How many programs does this describe, only the results are not what had been predicted/promised?! Such mindsets needs to work for the enemy.

        • PolicyWonk

          Well, the gun is a clear waste given the cost of shells, and its kind of scary that no one took a look at that before deciding to move forward with the project.

          There is some hope in the realm of directed energy weapons that could make use of the tremendous power generation capability of the Zumwalt, but this remains to be seen.

          Nonetheless, there will hopefully be something to salvage from this class of ships, and unlike LCS, at least they were designed as a military platform so we might get some good use out of them.

          You are correct w/r/t to the cost of these ships, as they were initially looking to order 32, which would’ve represented a lot of money, of which they might not have been approved even when Reagan was POTUS. The Zumwalt clearly joins the USS Ford and LCS programs as an acquisition disaster – for practical reasons.

          • Rocco

            Agreed on all your posts! However what we are witnessing is the beginning of the New generation on Naval Warfare like it or not it has to start somewhere!! Yes at taxpayers expense! Just like the beginning of the jet age in the late 40’s & early 50’s , how many failed experiments were invented?? Lots lol. There’s even books on them. Alot our in museums for all to see What’s old is new again!! Even with cars . The 1st Autonomous car was invented before the 1900 hundreds! We have to start somewhere.

          • Duane

            The Zumwalt’s mission changed (disappeared, actually – that of littoral land bombardment), so the gun became superfluous. The long range fires of the LRLAP are pretty much the very same long range fires that the Army and Marines are now concentrating on, and no more expensive to develop and deploy … but the Navy is now out of that business.

            LCS is of course the world’s finest most lethal and capable littoral warship, so you typical snarky comments in that regard are invalid as always.

          • publius_maximus_III

            Curious whether those angular housings covering the guns, presumably more of Zummie’s stealthy profile, are intended to be jettisoned over the side upon the command to open gun ports and load the 16-pounders? Once that happens at the sound of general quarters, I presume the enemy’s radar scopes light up very, very brightly with all sorts of interesting gun features to reflect it. Too late though, Charlie Chan: INCOMING!!!

          • publius_maximus_III

            Never mind, just saw a sketch of those guns in action. The front part of that rhomboid structure is stationary and hides/shields the gun barrel until needed. The back part swivels around like a normal gun turret. But be sure to elevate that barrel out of it’s “holster” before you do, or you’ll have one hey-ll of a mess on your hands. BTW, the bridge looks awfully low relative to the deck. Won’t all those windows get blown out from the concussion?

        • old guy

          I am very proud to say that I was one of the people who convinced the Navy to limit the class to the three keels, already laid. The motivation was not the choice of equipment or the difficulty of the low radar cross-section feature, but the hydrodynamic design failure of the hull, which led to the large scale model, CAPSIZING in the DTNSRDC turning basin. The test engineers labeled her, “OL’ FLOPOVER. Thereby hangs a tale.
          I’m certain that my old boss, “Bud” Zumwalt wishes that they hadn’t named the DD1000 after him.

  • Duane

    Good to see this kind of commitment to bringing the surface warriors into the 21st century. With experimentation will come learning, and from that learning development of tactics that take advantage of the capabilities we have, or shortly will have, to transform surface warfare.

    There is some interesting stuff posted over at CIMSEC dot org on Navy computerized wargaming using these new MDUSVs in a variety of roles, from scouting to surface warfare to anti-submarine warfare using new sensors and weapons as well as more conventional equipment. Looking at various combinations of manned and umanned vessels and aircraft to increase the probability of winning a naval engagement.

  • Nick

    Now looking like very expensive R&D ships, April 2018 GAO quoting unit cost of $8,164M each, understand Navy has cancelled shock trials as considers them too fragile to withstand the blast without extensive repairs. The SPY-4 volume search radar was cancelled years ago when costs went out of control.

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    Mike’s Rules (some of them, anyway)
    1. The purpose of any project is to keep project engineers employed.
    2. The single hardest decision a Project Executive has to make is when to stop designing.
    3. The second hardest thing for a project executive is to enforce the design freeze.
    4. Following 2 and 3, it is very hard to tell the customer/ end user no.
    5. Everything costa money.

    So, what do you do with ships that let the design teams run wild, cost too much and mostly don’t work? You change the mission, twice.

    Remember, if we knew what we were doing we wouldn’t call it Research.

    • Rocco

      Let’s keep research at bay! ! Especially if it leads to more stupid Autonomous systems!! Especially if it means no humans at all aboard ships!

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        AI is, at best, a complex algorithm. Autonomous systems are then by definition algorithm driven. If computer one can calculate various probabilities of success, computer two will ultimately be in sync. A human with a computer in support can get inside the OODA loop of the opponent.

        There must be a cognitive mind that does the statistically marginal, the logically inconsistent or the downright courageous..

        • I think that understanding of how AI’s work is rapidly becoming obsolete. The new self-learning neural networks offer the potential for AI’s that have all the creativity of a human, combined with the speed and precision of a computer.

          • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

            I respectfully disagree. Potential for AI is not the same as AI in the real world. Creativity is not well defined. Complex algorithms, very complex, sure. But algorithms just the same. Time will tell, but not in our lifetime.

    • Duane

      The assumptions behind all of your points are essentially faulty and not real world based, and reflect nothing more than kneejerk cynicism, to wit:

      1) The enemy threats are static and never change

      2) The capabilities available, technologically speaking, are static and never change

      3) Externalities, such as defense budgets, political environment, public opinion, etc. are static and never change

      4) Internalities (career or profit motives) are fully determinative of the processes we use to defend the United States and our national interests.;

      The truth is, everything changes constantly, and at ever increasing rates. And most of those persons and organizations involved in USA national defense are serious persons with appropriate motives.

      Consequently, program managers and defense leaders need to ensure the following:

      1) Ensure that the systems we design and build today are designed with modularity and the ability to constantly upgrade systems deployed on platforms (ships, aircraft, etc.). In other words, stop hardwiring platforms, as was the practice for all history prior to the 2000s

      2) Compress the product cycle timeframes, with an emphasis on rapid prototyping so that actual warriors can use the designs and provide rapid feedback.

      3) Define requirements much less specifically, so that the requirements are allowed to “breath” and evolve. Years long requirements setting is self-defeating.

      4) Allow specific design decisions to be tested and fail, to be superseded by improved or updated design decisions. Define success as the endpoint of an evolving process, and not as a single point do or die result.

      These factors are all what the Navy leadership is actually doing today, as a result of institutional learning. Of course, the old timers here at USNI and the “know nothingism” that is often prevalent in internet discussions cannot handle such a system, and so they endlessly rail at reality.

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        Duane, my friend. Please read more carefully. My points do not advocate the end to R&D, but raise a cautionary flag ; Do not let the acts of research and development become its own objective. The objective is viable, effective, affordable and Timely systems for the Fleet and Corps.

        We will fight the next wars with what we have at sea right now, not with what is in the lab bench three fiscal years down the road.

        Cliches for your consideration.
        Always keep the main thing the main thing.
        Perfect is the enemy of pretty good, especially if pretty good is better than anybody else’s.

        • Duane

          Thank you, Michael. It is of course extremely important that R&D be real world based, focused on actual defense needs, and not driven by internalities. No arguments there.

          R&D is by its very nature “out there” and therefore relatively risky … in the sense that developers could easily be “barking up the wrong tree”. But if we try to constrain R&D only to what the old timers (and I am one myself, without the slightest hesitance to call out old-timerism whenever it is nonproductive) think is important or useful to work on, then the old cliche (“The generals and admirals are always focused on fighting the last war, not the next war”) becomes truth.

          If 9 out of 10 defense R&D projects turn out to not result in a useful real world weapon, that is actually doing pretty good. In many businesses heavily dependent upon R&D for new products, the percentage of “failures” can actually be much higher than that. Thomas Edison was clear in talking about his thousands of R&D “failures” (which as a two word term is really an oxymoron) that yet resulted in his many useful inventions and products over the decades for which he is well known.

          “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

          • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

            Thus, “The hardest thing a project executive has to do is to stop designing.” How else do you bottom blow the losers?

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        I prefer curmudgeon to know nothing. And yes I am an old timer, class of ‘71.

    • old guy

      I sense the wry humor in your response, but there are many examples that refute your contentions. I can only comment on those of which I have personal knowlrdge. They are: The 688 and 733 classes of subs, the DDG-51 and the FFG-7 after their first flights.

  • Ed L

    Hmm. Cyberwarfare brings down GPS, degrades satellites, disrupts networks. Cyberwarfare could reduce and/or setback the battlefield 70 years.

    • Duane

      Dealing with the cyberwarfare component of naval warfare is very much part of the process of developing new 21st century naval tactics. How to survive and fight in a degraded cyber environment is critical, and requires tactics never needed in the 20th century or even the first decade of the 21st century. It is not just janming that we have to deal with, which is a 20th century tactic .. it is dealing with interception of our comms, spoofing of our comms, dealing with viruses and other forms of cyber attack, and of course, using similar tactics offensively too.

      That is why calls to “go back to the basics” as some commenters do below is entirely non-responsive to the 21st century battle environment. It does not even get us to first base, let alone hit any home runs.

      • Ed L

        Being able to fall back on the basics could save the day. I sail a lot on rivers and oceans. While we have the latest high tech gizmos on board we also still carry paper charts, compass, sextant and the associated books for a safe sail. My favor technique for sailing/motoring through fog is using a lead or a depth finder and compare it to the depths on the charts. An entertaining read is David Poyer latest three Dan Lenson books. They throw a lot of C5I problems in the storyline

        • Duane

          Back to the basics, such as navigating with a sextant and a compass, does not address the fact that all your weapons are electronically controlled, all of them, including guns, torpedoes, missiles, etc. Not to mention all of your sensors, and all of your comms. As much as the back to basics crew may wish, the old Mark 1 eyeball still cannot see through fog, or detect enemy aircraft or cruise missiles 10 miles or 100 miles or 300 miles out, and shoot them down.

          Back to the basics, like using signal flags, does not address the fact that to communicate with either widely separated nodes, or even nearby nodes under adverse weather (fog, storms, etc.) you cannot do it without the electronics. Or be able to predict accurately what your fellow nodes are likely to do under the present circumstances.

          The Mark 1 human brain simply cannot compute fast enough to calculate the trajectory of a ballistic missile launch 800 miles out, and download the targeting data to a SM-3 and expect to get a hit.

          The Mark 1 human ear cannot hear an approaching sub underwater from 30 miles out, calculate a position, speed, and course, and direct countermeasures or evasive actions to avoid getting sunk by one of their torpedoes.

          So the real need in 21st century warfare is to figure out what the enemy can do to mess with your electronics, comms, and computers, devise effective defenses for same, and devise the tactics necessary to recover from any such degradation.

          It is unlikely that an enemy can completely take out all of one’s electronics, comms, and computers …. but it is highly likely they can find ways to degrade their performance. Knowing what to do, and how to do it, under degraded conditions, and still operate effectively both offensively and defensively, is what 21st century naval war tactics are largely concerned with.

          • Roger Tozer

            Well Said

        • old guy

          Your words reflact all of my recent ailing experiences in my nephews boat, the,”Andromeda La Dea” a yacht with every modern gadget. But the best we did sailng, was on chart and clock. I even got to plot a course through the Figis, and run it with a sextant and chronometer. A funny aside. We did most of the trip on diesels, but we finally got a bright breeze and the captain deployed the latest design, auto-reefing mainsail, which promptly tore its sheets and we were back on diesel.

  • Casey Cannon

    Yes, thank you. Where do I sign up?

    • publius_maximus_III

      Try https : // www . navy . com / careers / — without any spaces.

  • publius_maximus_III

    “How to best use the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV), the Zumwalt-class destroyer (DDG-1000), Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG-51) as a cohesive surface force” — I dub Thee “Starfish Wars.”

    • publius_maximus_III

      Pecking Order in Harm’s Way: I foresee the MDUSV’s operating very close in to shore, the LCS’s not far behind guiding them as well as clearing mines, the Zumwalt’s third in line with their stealthy profile for medium range shore defense clearing and possible AAW, and the DDG’s with their higher radar profiles running picket duty further off shore, watching for bad guys approaching from seaward while also lending their 5″ guns for shore bombardment.

    • old guy


      • publius_maximus_III

        No, Sir. I was being serious for a change… lots of new tech in that flotilla. Today’s sailor needs both sea legs and semiconductor grey matter.

  • old guy

    They are worrying about radar cross section while leaving a wake that could be as easily tracked from a satellite as a radio signal’ Tragic.

    • Ed L

      It’s always easier to find the wake than the ship. When we did modloc in the gators the LHA, LPH would maintain a nice slow speed of less than 5 knots off the coast. Our wake was nonexistent

      • old guy

        Exactly correct. I have seen satellite wake tracks. Looks like a plate of spaghetti. The only time we lost a ship was when they slowed to eliminate visible tracks and made a discontiuous maneuver, so we couldn’t reaquire them. However, above or below 40 degrees latitude you can track by biolumenescence. We do have some very low wake ships that are hard to track below 12 knots.

        • Adrian Ah

          In that case, the LCS shouldn’t have bothered with any stealth design. have you seen pics of the waterjet wakes? It’s huge compared to “normal” propulsion.

          • Duane

            LCS isn’t a stealth design. Not like the Zumwalt. And it only creates a large wake when traveling at very high speeds, which it will do only when chasing down high speed small craft in the littorals very close to shore.

          • old guy

            You just hit the Ball out of the park.

        • Duane

          The LCS only makes a large wake when it is cruising at very high speeds (upper 30s to 40s knots), which is a maneuver the LCS will use only occasionally, primarily when chasing down enemy high speed craft. Normal cruise speeds its wake is no larger than any other ship’s wake of similar displacement.

    • Duane

      Any satellite with optical imagery with sufficient resolution to detect a ship wake is necessarily in low earth orbit and thus not geostationary. Thus it cannot provide continuous tracking of any ship wake it can see. Making it useless for targeting. All it can do is say that it detected a ship at this position at that point in time.

      And besides, for purposes of stealth in continuous land bombardment – the original mission of the ship – the ship would necessarily steam only at very low speed, essentially just enough speed through the water to control its position and avoid excessive motion. Thus not making a visible or detectable wake anyway. Of course now it has a different mission in fire support of the fleet, so being stealthy is no longer a key performance capability anyway.

      Your incessant arguments against the Zum are not persuasive in the least.

  • disqus_CbFK3MPhJu

    is that first photo the kenyan navy?