Finding Our Balance at Sea

By Milan Vego

Because of their size and relatively low maneuverability, large surface combatants can be highly vulnerable to concentrated attacks from from the surface, subsurface, and air. The enemy is also more likely to make greater efforts to destroy or neutralize these ships. The littorals, particularly narrow seas, pose the greatest challenge for a blue-water navy because it is here that it operates within effective range of the enemy's weapons.

Growing Plans but Shrinking Budgets

The Navy's battle force declined from the Cold War peak of 568 ships at the end of Fiscal Year 1987 to 280 ships as of 5 June 2008. 1 Since 2000, plans for the future fleet varied in terms of total number and force composition. In a February 2006 report to Congress, Acting Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter stated that 313 ships and 3,800 aircraft were necessary to meet all demands and face the most advanced technological challenges. This force level would be reached in FY 12. 2

Specifically, the new plan envisaged the following battle force: 11 aircraft carriers, 69 guided-missile destroyers, 19 guided-missile cruisers, 55 littoral combat ships (LCSs), 48 SSNs, 4 guided-missile submarines, 14 ballistic-missile submarines, 31 amphibious ships, 12 future maritime prepositioning force ships, and 50 logistics and support ships. 3 Yet the Navy will not be able reach its goal of 313 ships over the long term.

The size of the Fleet will increase from today's 276 to a peak of 326 ships in 2020, and then decline to 293 before rising again to 309 at the end of the 30-year period. 4 The Navy's littoral-warfare capabilities are expected to improve somewhat with the LCS. In 2004 the service anticipated having 13 LCSs in service or under contract by 2009, with a pending request for 6 more by 2010. But only 4 have been built or are under contract.

Recently the decision was made to choose only one of the currently developed two designs for the construction of the remaining 51 LCSs. The winner will receive a contract for up to 10 ships to be built through 2014. 5 But the LCS, even if designed as the true littoral combatant, will not by itself solve the Navy's problem of improving drastically its capabilities for fighting in the littorals.

Large Numbers or Small?

The Navy's battle force is too small to carry out successfully its numerous, diverse missions. Large combatants and attack submarines are very expensive to build and maintain. This affects the total number of such ships that the Navy can afford. Another major impediment to increasing force size is the widely held belief among high officials that in the information age, how many ships we have is not as important as their combat power, based on new information technologies.

Network-centric warfare advocates believe relatively small, rapidly deployable forces can accomplish missions that would otherwise require a big, massed force. In their view, power comes from information, access, and speed, whereas in the industrial era it came from mass. 6

But the traditional element of combat power, specifically raw firepower and mobility, is generally much easier to quantify and assess than is the effect of knowledge. In a networked force, all the gains in combat potential and power can be considerably diminished and even eliminated by micromanagement and excessive centralization of the command-and-control process.

The view that the number of platforms is not as important today as it was in the past is based largely on misplaced confidence in the powers of technology. 7 It also ignores the ever-important factors of geography and distance. A ship or submarine cannot be at two widely separated areas at the same time. A properly balanced battle force composed of large surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines as well as small surface combatants and advanced conventional submarines is far more effective, because it can be tailored for conducting diverse missions across the range of conflict and in all environments.

Experience conclusively shows that a much larger fleet has decisively impacted ultimate victory. In all the wars fought in the 20th century, the U.S. Navy had to embark on large construction programs for destroyers, destroyer escorts, and frigates-just the type of ships the Navy lacks today in its inventories. Small surface combatants were the workhorses of the service in both world wars and Korea. In Vietnam, the service extensively used destroyers and destroyer escorts to patrol the coast. It also had to build a rather large riverine force.

The problem of inadequate numerical strength is compounded with the Navy's relentless quest, bordering on obsession, to increase combat efficiency at the detriment of combat effectiveness. The new surface combatants and submarines are given multiple missions, and in some cases a new task has higher priority than the original one. But each new mission reduces the crew's overall combat effectiveness. Similarly, single- or dual-purpose ships are more effective than multipurpose ones, and large, multipurpose ships are not more flexible or adaptable than smaller, more focused ones. Finally, single-purpose vessels can be modernized more quickly. 8

Realistic Battle Force

The Navy should reverse its longstanding firm belief in the inherent value of larger platforms and initiate a major crash program to create a battle force composed of fewer highly capable, expensive platforms complemented with a relatively large littoral combat force. The LCS construction program should be reduced, possibly to no more than half a dozen ships. The remainder of the planned force of 55 LCSs should be complemented by acquiring 1,200- to 1,500-ton multipurpose corvettes, plus a modest number of 400- to 500-ton multipurpose fast-attack craft.

Small surface combatants are low cost, but also are less capable than their larger counterparts. They require small crews and can be built relatively quickly, in larger numbers. Most important, they can be used for tasks for which cruisers or destroyers either are too vulnerable or represent a waste of resources and time.

Multipurpose corvettes and fast-attack craft are much better suited than cruisers, destroyers, or even frigates for counterterrorism patrols, sanctions enforcement, counter-piracy, and counter-smuggling (narcotics, weapons, and humans), as well as for chokepoint patrols and surveillance. They can also be used to protect U.S. and friendly shipping in times of crisis, or to screen carrier and expeditionary strige groups and other large surface combatants during transits through straits.

In high-intensity conflicts at sea, they can be used for anti-combat craft defense, antisubmarine warfare, escort of friendly shipping, attacks on enemy shipping, mine-laying, and providing support to special operations. Small surface combatants also release large surface combatants for larger-scale missions such as land attack, providing distant support to ESGs and tactical ballistic-missile defense in their forward-deployed areas.

The Navy's attack submarine force should be balanced by acquiring a relatively large number of 1,500- to 2,000-ton air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines. Because of their much smaller size, shallow draft, and higher maneuverability at lower speeds, they are more effective platforms than are nuclear-powered submarines for operations in confined and shallow waters. They generate lower noise and are difficult to detect and track using acoustic sensors designed for deep water. AIP subs can carry out a great variety of missions, ranging from covert surveillance and reconnaissance, delivering special-forces teams ashore, and mine reconnaissance and detection and avoidance to conducting strikes against the enemy's ports, naval bases, merchant shipping, and warships, as well as laying mines in enemy-controlled waters.

Multipurpose corvettes, fast-attack craft, and AIP submarines should be organized into littoral combat groups and deployed in selected areas. These groups would not operate independently, but would be fully integrated with the carrier and expeditionary strike groups. In a crisis or the outbreak of hostilities, carrier and land-based aircraft would provide cover and support.

Littoral Risks

For non-combat and combat ships alike, as well as for submarines and aircraft, it is difficult to differentiate between friend and foe in the littorals. Maritime traffic is dense, transit time for ships and submarines is short, and, because of the short distances, ships can change their areas of deployment within hours.

Warfare in the littorals has much in common with that conducted on the open ocean, but naval forces must be concentrated rather than dispersed. Combat actions encompass the entire theater and are likely much more decisive than in the past, because of long-range, highly precise, and more lethal weapons such as antiship cruise missiles, modern torpedoes, and other smart weapons.

Additionally, changes in tactical and operational situations are drastic and sudden, with combat taking place mostly at night or in bad visibility and surface actions fought at close range. The weaker side tries to inflict large losses by conducting missile and torpedo strikes from ambushing positions close to the coast and offshore islands.

In contrast to operating in the open ocean, naval forces in the littorals depend on cooperation with other services, in particular air forces. In many cases, a blue-water navy such as the United States' works closely with allied navies. This provides a better opportunity to balance the asymmetrical capabilities of each service.

Taking on More Responsibility

The missions of U.S. naval forces range from routine activities in peacetime to operations short of war and high-intensity conventional conflicts. Since 2001, the Navy has assumed more responsibilities for countering threats posed by ballistic missiles, human smuggling, drugs, illicit trafficking in conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction, transnational terrorism, and piracy. In the past two decades, the service has also increasingly deployed in support of peacekeeping and peace enforcement and provided humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

U.S. naval forces conduct diverse tasks in counterinsurgency campaigns, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the service's most important and enduring missions is to support U.S. foreign policy and strategy. The Navy contributes to deterrence by a forward deployment of its striking forces in selected ocean areas. Forward presence of U.S. naval forces greatly enhances stability and can deter hostile actions or facilitate the task of obtaining sea control in case hostilities break out.

But the main purpose of building and maintaining the Fleet is to support friendly ground forces in winning the nation's wars. As in the past, the Navy will play a major or even critical role in high-intensity conventional conflicts. Its principal missions will be to obtain, maintain, and exercise-or in some cases deny-control of the sea. It will exercise sea control by providing support to amphibious landings, attacking enemy forces and installations on the coast, and carrying out varied tasks to assist friendly ground forces operating in the coastal area. And our naval forces will attack enemies while defending and protecting U.S. and friendly maritime trade.

To accomplish all this and more that we cannot yet foresee, the Navy needs urgently to reconsider its traditional resistance to operating a credible force of small surface combatants and advanced conventional submarines. The larger and highly capable missile cruisers and destroyers should not be used for such tasks as counterterrorism patrols or counter-piracy. For a relatively modest investment in resources, the Navy can not only increase the number of ships in the active Fleet, but also close the gap in capabilities between the open-ocean and inshore waters.

A properly balanced U.S. Navy battle force offers a theater commander much greater flexibility and more options in the employment of maritime assets. It allows the Navy to become a force that is truly capable of conducting missions across the entire range of conflict at sea and in all the mediums-on the blue, gray, and green waters of the world.


1. Ronald O'Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 15 July 2009), p. 28.

2. The Navy's 2008 Shipbuilding Plan and Key Ship Programs, statement of J. Michael Gilmore, assistant director for National Security; and Eric J. Labs, senior analyst, before the Subcommittee on Empower and Expeditionary Forces Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 24 July 2007 (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, 2007), pp. 1??2.

3. Ibid., p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 5.

5. Christopher P. Cavas, "Will LCS Changes Fix Problems?" Defense News, 21 September 2009.

6. Paula R. Kaufman, "Sensors Emerge As More Crucial Weapons Than Shooters," IEEE Spectrum Online, 16 July 2003.

7. Jeremy J. Blackham and Gwyn Prins, "The Royal Navy at the Brink," R.U.S.I. Journal, no. 2 (April 2007), p. 12.

8. CAPT Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), et al., A New Fighting Machine: A Study of the Connections between Contemporary Policy, Strategy, Sea Power, Naval Operations, and the Composition of the United States Fleet, prepared for the director of Net Assessment Office of the Secretary of Defense (Monterrey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 1 June 2009), p. 2.

Dr. Vego is a professor of operations at the Naval War College. Before coming to United States in 1976, he served as commanding officer of torpedo boats and gunboats in the former Yugoslav Navy and as 2nd officer (deck) in the former West German merchant marine. He is the author of Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999 and 2nd ed., 2003) and many articles on littoral warfare.

Dr. Vego is Professor of Operations, Joint Military Operations Department, at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.

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