The U.S. Navy surface fleet must steer away from depending on defensive missiles and must move toward becoming more offensively lethal, says the admiral in charge of those ships.

“The surface force must greatly improve its offensive lethality,” says Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of the Naval Surface Force and U.S. Pacific Naval Surface Force.

“We must move beyond the missile as a defensive system,” he says in his “Vision for the 2026 Surface Fleet” report, which was released earlier this month in advance of the Surface Navy Association Conference and Symposium being held Jan. 14-16 in Arlington, Va.

“The cost per engagement ratio vs. adversary weapons limits the capacity our nation can afford and missiles take up a lot of space, limiting the number of weapons that can be carried by ships,” Copeman says.

“Our weapons development and purchasing trajectory must rebalance in favor of energy-based weapons for defense that will affordably deliver the capability and capacity required to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations through the coming decades.”

At the same time, Copeman says, the Navy must focus more on offense. “In recent decades, our surface combatant weapon systems have become predominantly defensive,” he says.

Copeman notes the recent “sailing directions” by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, “state clearly that we must deliver ‘credible capability for deterrence, sea control and power projection,’ so our current defensive posture must change.

“The Navy will not be able to fight its way into denied environments and maintain open sea lines of communication without the Surface Force being able to take the fight to the enemy in environments where air assets are not available or are unable to effectively or persistently operate,” Copeman says.

In a world where computing power doubles every 18 months, he says, “our primary anti-surface and antisubmarine weapons today are based on technology that is far older than most of the sailors that operate them.”

Unfortunately, the acquisition system is not flexible enough to meet today’s technological realities, says Copeman.

“The system currently in place evolved to be accountable, not agile,” he says. “The success in making the acquisition accountable has come at the cost of diminishing the surface fleet’s ability to successfully conduct prompt and sustained combat operations in a rapidly evolving world.

“Weapons that could dramatically improve the lethality of the surface force are available in the near term, and, with the right support, I believe the surface Navy could quickly and significantly improve the anti-surface and antisubmarine lethality of our ships in short order, without compromising accountability, and while reducing variance within our ship classes,” Copeman says.

“All of the ships we build, from the Littoral Combat Ships, to DDG-1000, to our multi-purpose amphibious assault ships, must absolutely be built to win in major combat operations,” he says. “At the same time, we must recognize as we buy, build and plan to operate our ships that the great majority of their operations over expected service life will be in [more routine] operations.”