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

January 28, 2019 9:37 AM
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 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.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox