First Prize—Arleigh Burke Essay Contest Sponsored by Northrop Grumman
Global War on Terrorism are relatively minimal. While sending masters-at-arms to relieve the Army and Marines as prison guards provides an immediate and important contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such activities are minor tasks. They ought not to distract from focusing on preparing the Navy for the decade after next. In the future, as in the past, maritime dominance through overwhelming capability and long-term presence remain the Navy"s primary mission.
The Navy's contributions against the insurrection in Iraq and to the nation-building in Afghanistan are limited and lost in the higher drama of the actions on the ground. Although the Navy contributes by maintaining security at sea, forward basing platforms, and logistical and medical support for the Marines, these activities, no matter how well executed, do not command much attention in relation to the more dramatic events in the headlines. The resulting ignorance of the Navy's importance bruises its institutional ego. While vexing, sitting on the sidelines offers the opportunity to examine the future without having to concentrate solely on day-to-day operations and their attendant political and economic crises.
The very real problems confronting the Navy appear discouraging: a small shipbuilding program, inadequate operational budgets, and a high tempo of operations. In the world of the present and immediate future, the tasks allotted to the Navy may appear to be, in Roger Barnett's words "Piracy, smuggling, drug running . . . ," and constabulary duties. In the eyes of most naval officers, these are functions for the Coast Guard, not for a Navy whose philosophy is rooted in Alfred Thayer Mahan's writings and whose traditions are based on the heroic actions of John Paul Jones and David G. Farragut. Yet the Navy's straitened circumstances have come about because the Cold War was won in no large measure through its efforts. There is no evident peer enemy, so ". . . we are dealing with the problems of our own success."1
In these circumstances, and acknowledging that fewer resources will be available in the future than have been in the past, a major issue to be decided is whether the Next Fleet is to perform as a constabulary, a defensive force to protect the borders and air space of the United States, or, as Mahan believed, an offensive force to ensure America maintains the maritime dominance we have enjoyed since 1944. These choices are not exclusive of each other and are not entirely within the hands of the Navy to select.
Complicating these tradeoffs between constabulary duties, access capabilities, and maritime dominance is the inevitability that, at least in the near future, the Navy will be smaller than it has been. Additionally, because the future is only dimly perceived, the general perspective will be to assume the future will look more like the immediate past than a more accurate but unremembered history. Experience shows that most planners overvalue the present and undervalue the future.
Balancing current requirements with future needs requires an intellectual investment in addressing whether to engage around the edges in the present war or to prepare for the future and if the latter, how far in the future? Current activities can easily occupy the attention of all decision makers, while much of what is out of sight in a dimly-perceived future is just as easily ignored.
These are not esoteric or philosophical questions: the answers have an impact on both the immediate and long term. Since the Navy is about the sea and to go to sea requires ships, the outcomes of these efforts address what sort of ships the Navy should build. Addressing the Fleet of 2025 cannot be delayed. New ships, especially those with significantly changed characteristics, require ten years or more from conception to deployment. As one historian of submarine construction notes, "A slide depicting 'SSN-1' was displayed well before there was any boat authorized."2
In regard to the Navy's long-term utility and armaments, some facts should not be lost in the natural concentration on short-term and highly public events of the day:
- The world is still dominated by the oceans. While cyberspace has shrunk the world in terms of communications, physical participation anywhere remains subject to the tyranny of distance.
- Globalization makes oceanic transport more important than ever. Most states and more non-governmental entities than ever are concerned with secure and reliable paths at sea.
- No military service will ever be able to do everything everyone wants. The only organization concerned with long-term functions and missions is the service itself. Choosing how to address these is a major function of the service, and little help can or should be expected from others.
- Maritime supremacy remains the Navy's overriding goal. Most of the facets of this condition, unappreciated by any others, must be judged by the service's internal compass.
While these conditions are clear, their consequences are subject to debate among naval officers and those associated with the Navy. There are a number of reasons more energy needs to be focused on the design and construction of ships to be built in the next two decades than has been devoted in the recent past. Resources will be slim. Administrations are not likely to focus on maritime warfare. Ships built will have exceedingly long service lives. While ship designs have always looked ahead, present construction envisions lifetimes that begin to approach those of the 18th century; 45 years is not unrealistic. The long-range vision associated with this time span is not a characteristic easily developed or casually exercised.
The Fleet of 2025
Entering the decision process focused on characteristics of ships needed in 2025 requires acknowledging that the existing Navy is the one that will serve for the next ten years. Though present force size may be viewed as inadequate for the missions assigned, large numbers of new ships will not be authorized to swell this force. While individual officers will decry this situation, and the profession will bemoan the lack of command opportunity and at times an overreaching operational tempo, a perceived shortage of ships should not diminish the emphasis on long-term improvements rather than short-term gains. In reality, there are few short-term missions, threats, or undertakings that cannot be met with the forces presently at hand.
New construction, especially because the ships will be few in number, should stress the design and development of long-term service vessels for the Fleet of 2025. This challenge is not new. After World War I, with the Navy shrinking drastically from its pre-war stature, and with battleship numbers frozen by arms-limitation treaties, the General Board, the Ship Characteristics Board, and naval architects worked assiduously to balance size and features of other classes with missions and costs. Small numbers of ships were built in a series of classes of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines-three to five ships being typical of a class whose construction stretched over a number of years. In the main, each ship class improved on the last with incremental but steady improvement in functionality and effectiveness while the process laid the groundwork for the naval expansion of World War II.
A program for new construction faces a number of hurdles not within the power of the Navy's leadership to influence significantly. First and most immediate is the economic consequences for the shipbuilders as a result of the political process, a process led chiefly by congressional representatives of the shipbuilding states. While often adding resources and ships that were not part of the administration's proposals, these political influences are not always helpful because they are not concerned with the balance between modernization and force size or in effectively allocating resources.
While efficient use of resources is an immediate and necessary goal, maintenance of the industrial base will be important in retaining the capability to expand the building rate should future circumstances demand. Some resources will have to be spent inefficiently to maintain the industrial base for the Next Fleet. Deciding what to retain and then defending those expenditures will be difficult but necessary.
The Department of Defense budgeting system actually hinders balancing these political influences. Presently a proposal for a major acquisition must describe the program's full cost. This leads to the predilection to forecast large numbers of end products to disperse the startup costs over a broad base and make unit costs more palatable.
This phenomenon is evident in every aircraft procurement but less so in ship construction where each hull is separately authorized and funded. Nevertheless, the same sins exist and the inevitable shortfall requires diversion of resources from other programs or supplemental requests to Congress. These conditions of procurement have existed since the introduction of the Planned Programming and Budgeting System and are likely to remain. Former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark's proposal to fund lead units of the littoral combat ship (LCS) using research-and-development funds was an innovative attempt to work around some of these obstructions. Modification of the current rules governing shipbuilding for lead-ship costing and multi-year procurement could make a significant improvement in efficient new construction budgeting.
While these external forces exert much control over what and how new construction will be authorized and resourced, all new ship proposals originate within the Navy Department. The growth of the littoral combat ship from 1,500 to 3,500 tons demonstrates that even organizations at high levels in DoD have only a limited ability to prescribe the nature and design of ships. The impetus to create a new warship and improvements to the existing Fleet comes from within the service.
Admiral Robert Natter, then-commander, Fleet Forces Command, once boasted that the command developed the requirements for the LCS rather than the Navy staff. While this was an evident attempt to create the impression that the LCS design reflected the best current operational thinking, such a statement calls into question the appropriate roles of the office of the CNO, the Fleet, and the systems commands in each area of ship design.
The depth of vision and level of technical and economic expertise that exists in each of these entities is different. Unfortunately, the short-term focus (two-to-four years) of operational commands does not create the atmosphere in which to consider the development and deployment of a new ship class that takes ten years. Regeneration of the Ships Characteristics Boards promises the opportunity for intelligent tradeoffs at a high level of operational expertise, intellectual investment in the future, technical knowledge, and appreciation of resource constraints.
Some long-standing rationales that have gone into building the present Fleet need to be addressed in conducting the trade-offs and measuring the effectiveness of the Next Fleet. These discussions should not be held only in the secure conference rooms of the Pentagon and the Washington Navy Yard but widely throughout the Navy and in public forums such as Proceedings so the widest possible scope for intellectual contribution and consensus is created. As much as enlisting support in designing new ships, this process will include educating both those in and out of uniform. In those discussions, questioning doctrine and tradition take the front page.
The Future Force Mix
When few ships can be built, each represents a significant economic and military asset. Such investments should be made in the major ships that will carry the burden of maritime dominance for a long period of time, not in simpler vessels that can be constructed relatively quickly. The Fleet of 2025 will be the organization that guarantees peace and stability on the world's oceans. In designing that fleet's composition, it is worth remembering that the Royal Navy's battle fleet was responsible for the Pax Britannica, including enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine. England's gunboats were ancillary actors on that stage.
In selecting ship types to be constructed, the mantra of balanced forces may be overtaken by political events and technical developments. The future force mix has ramifications well beyond that of "balanced forces" originally formulated as a means of rationalizing a mixture of cruisers and destroyers to supplement the battle line. Over the six decades since the end of World War II, its relevance as a guideline for force distribution has gradually diminished.
Expecting small ships such as frigates and the LCS to be effective antisubmarine warfare (ASW) ships is an example of a once well-understood capability that is no longer realistic. With no slow convoys to guard, the mission is questionable on its face. At the same time, long-range torpedoes and subsurface-to-surface homing missiles make surface ship ASW particularly dangerous because technology has improved the submarine's advantages over surface ships by orders of magnitude. Similarly, as demonstrated in the 1982 Falklands Campaign, the battle worthiness of small ships has declined markedly with the advent of stand-off air-launched missiles.
Presence will remain a major mission for the Fleet of 2025. While small ships may perform valuable service in the coastal waters of their home states, small ships operating singly or in little groups are not a very formidable presence. Moreover, these small ships require a large logistic tail to get them to where they can perform their missions and to sustain them while there.
Long-duration deployments around the world will require ships of the Next Fleet to have the endurance for extended tours without strong logistic support. This propulsion capability will be important not just in routine deployments but in strategic speed. Long-haul endurance determines how much force can reach the scene of action, how soon, and how long it can stay. The initial investments to obtain vehicles of strategic mobility are not inexpensive. But strategic speed is more important than tactical speed in gaining and keeping momentum.
Ships of the Next Fleet must have the magazine capacities and high-quality sensors to defend themselves and others in company. These new ships need to be large enough and flexible enough to permit back-fitting new weapons and sensor systems. Finally, ships of the Next Fleet must be designed for long lifetimes including the room to keep maintenance easy, provide adequate habitability, and allow effective damage control.
Novelty in the ships of the Next Fleet is not as good a goal as continual improvement. In building the Next Fleet, continual improvement is a better goal than "great leaps forward." Much of the difficulty with the DD(X) program is its front load of major technical improvements. Historically, only one or two major improvements have been incorporated into a new design. These were tested at sea before incorporating other untested technology in a new hull.3
Beware the Littorals
Among the major opportunities for the Next Fleet is bypassing the shorelines entirely. Long-range missiles equipped with ever-more effective seekers are likely to make littoral waters dangerous for surface ships until the missiles are either expended or destroyed. Such considerations bring into question the utility of ships designed specifically for shallow waters and amphibious lift ships that have to close the coast to perform their missions. Vertical lift promises to allow establishing bases of operations 20 miles inland and then seizing the port or the beachead from the rear, mitigating the problem of dealing with mines and overcoming many of the challenges of shore-based defenses. Mines in the near-shore and surf zones are particularly difficult to defeat. Avoiding the location of the threat is not only more economical but much surer than trying to develop a technology to defeat it.
These considerations, i.e., avoiding rather than confronting near-shore defenses and mines in the shallow and surf zones, open the door to coming to grips with the needs of the Marines and their impact on naval vessels. Such logic also suggests that naval gunfire support for actions ashore has limited utility and the Marines would probably be better served with integral artillery.
Requirements for naval gunfire support for Marines have required a very capable gun on new surface warships. The space and weight of the gun and its ammunition drives the size of the ship and through that the nature and weight of the propulsion plant. Today the size of the DD(X) reflects a gun installation whose utility with other delivery systems depends on the likelihood that in the future Marines will operate within range of the 10-fathom curve. Going inland, as vertical envelopment advocates suggest, could obviate the naval gunfire support role and change the size and nature of this ship.
Other changes in the nature of the missions of the Marine Corps can have a dramatic impact on the composition of the Next Fleet. For example, if the Marines of 2025 continue to serve as an adjunct to the Army as a ground force ashore rather than an assault force from the sea, amphibious lift might well be replaced by pre-positioned force ships-a much less expensive and demanding requirement. Other changes in the size and capabilities of the Marine Corps may have similar ramifications for the Next Fleet. In evaluating plans for the Fleet of 2025, planners in both the Marine Corps and the Navy must always be conscious that control of the sea is the first requirement, the sine qua non, for employment of the Navy-Marine Corps team.
Finally, changing the assignment methodology for the leaders of the ship construction efforts can significantly affect building the Next Fleet. Technical expertise and stability of assignment will be important to rationalize many conflicting demands. Much of the success of naval aviation in World War II was due to the leadership of Admiral Moffett's almost 12-year tour as Chief of the Bureau of Naval Aviation. The success of the submarine engineering and missile programs reflects in large measure the long terms of the leaders and the stability of the organizations behind these programs.
Modern technology puts a premium on experience with the technology in the field. The selection of technically competent leaders and long tours in charge will be more important than any white papers or slick brochures stating the commander's intent.
Flexibility in an era of political and technological change may be the most important principle of all in determining the Next Fleet's composition. No war turns out to be what the originator foresaw. In the design of the ships for the decade after next, one key will be not what they will have on delivery but what can effectively and efficiently be added to them in their lifetimes.
The cornerstones of this Next Fleet are in place. That fleet's aircraft carrier and attack submarines are building now. Fleet ballistic-missile submarines will not require replacement for another decade or more and, because they will derive much of their characteristics from attack submarines being improved steadily through the period, are unlikely to require large investments in new technology. The Next Fleet's surface combatants, amphibious forces, and logistic train remain to be formulated.
Because threats and missions are less and less well defined as the future grows more distant, the utility of forces, units, and systems built for unique and specialized purposes is very likely to be overtaken by events. Since the future is dimly perceived, flexible, mobile forces with a wide range of capabilities are most valuable. These will not be clouds of tiny vessels without endurance or strategic speed but rather large, capable combatants and landing force ships with a variety of capabilities and sturdy endurance. The time to start designing those ships is now.
When the current war in Iraq is over or diminished, the functions and missions of the Navy will remain. These will center then as they have in the past on the mastery of the high seas, the protection of long lines of communication, and continued presence in areas of American interest. The Fleet to perform these missions in 20 years should be in the vision stage now.
Rear Admiral Holland has been a contributor to Proceedings since 1975. He was the editor in chief of the Naval Historical Foundation's book The Navy.
1. Thomas P. Barnett," Future Worth Creating," Principles of War Seminar, Washington, DC, 2 November 2005. back to article
2. Gary Weir, "Nautilus at Fifty," Third Annual Submarine History Seminar, Navy Memorial, Washington, DC, 13 April 2004. back to article
3. Vice Admiral William Rowden, USN (Ret), former Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, to the author. back to article