American sea power is clearly coming to a crossroads. Demand for naval forces is rising as U.S. ground troops withdraw from the Middle East and maritime competitions heat up in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. Federal budgets are tightening while the Navy is becoming increasingly expensive to build and maintain. With this widening gap between resources and demands, the United States may have to fundamentally change what it expects from sea power. Some missions or platforms may be left behind to protect the nation’s most vital maritime capabilities. A new national strategy may be needed to sustainably pursue America’s security interests. The challenge facing national leaders is whether this new direction will result from a series of ad hoc decisions or be guided by careful assessment of what America will really need from its naval forces.
From an international perspective, 2011 is a good time for just such a discussion. Twenty years after its end, the Cold War’s coiled spring of superpower tension, alliance competition, and political brinksmanship has finally unwound. Since 1989, dozens of regional wars boiled over, freed by the removal of superpower rivalry and its threat of nuclear escalation. Transnational terrorists arose, empowered and enraged by the same economic and social forces that helped dismantle the Soviet Union. And the United States tried to take advantage of its fleeting “unipolar moment” to remake a part of the world in its own liberal democratic image. The dust is now clearing from these effects of the Soviet Union’s demise, leaving America with an opportunity to make choices for the world ahead.
The role of sea power is clearly one of those choices. The Center for Naval Analyses’ (CNA) Tipping Point study provides a framework to consider what the United States might want from sea power in the future—and the limits on what its Navy will be able to deliver.1 Since World War I, sea power for America has meant a global Navy. But federal budgets are flattening, and a legitimate concern is whether the Fleet can continue to be global and provide needed sea power, or whether the Navy is nearing a tipping point after which it can no longer protect the nation’s interests.
The CNA study explores that concern by considering different naval operating patterns in the context of tomorrow’s security challenges. It then evaluates how well the projected size and mix of the Navy can meet the demands for ships and aircraft created by these operating patterns.
At its heart, the study asks how we should plan to use the future Fleet. This question and its answers are not academic. New ships or aircraft take 10–20 years to design and build and will spend up to 50 years in service. America’s choices for sea power today will create constraints or opportunities for future Presidents and combatant commanders.
Sea Power’s Growing Importance—and Risk
The ability to protect and control the maritime commons gives unparalleled influence and underpins global systems of trade and commerce. For a number of reasons, today we take this freedom for granted—but that is changing. For example, the increasing effectiveness and reach of piracy and proliferation of long-range and sophisticated antiship weapons show us more emphasis on sea power will be needed to continue protecting the commons.
Meanwhile, sea power is becoming more important to American strategy. Over the next decade, the United States wants to reduce its footprint ashore in the Middle East while maintaining the ability to attack terrorists in places like Yemen, deter adversaries such as Iran, and support new partners in Iraq and Afghanistan. And influencing outcomes in the Pacific and Indian oceans requires a credible naval capability to defend our forces and allies and project power against aggressors.
Events over the past decade, however, didn’t help prepare the Navy for its rising importance, as U.S. attention and resources were devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that time annual Navy budgets grew from $118–$147 billion, but this largesse did not translate into a larger or newer Fleet.2 It went instead to cover rising operating and personnel costs. Spending for operations and maintenance increased by about 20 percent since 2000, in part because of growing global commitments to fight terrorism and support troops in the Middle East.
Personnel costs rose over the past decade, even though the Navy shrank by 15 percent. And while the procurement budget has stayed steady, the price of each new ship or aircraft is 3 to 10 times more than its predecessor.3 Today, the Navy cannot afford to buy 15 or more ships each year, as it did during the Reagan administration when half were large surface combatants or submarines.4 It can afford to buy about ten, and half of those are small combatants or support ships.5
As a result, the Feet is now at 286 ships, down from 344 in 1998.6 The demands, though, have not eased. The Navy has maintained a little more than 100 ships deployed overseas continuously since that time. With a shrinking Fleet, this means each ship works longer and harder with less-frequent maintenance—a predictable result being today’s much-publicized problems in surface-ship condition.7 Another result is that the number of ships under way around the United States for homeland defense and training dropped from an average of 60 in 1998 to 20 today. There is no more “surge” left in the Fleet. Combatant commander requests go unanswered more frequently, and each new material problem ripples through the schedules of dozens of ships as the Fleet scrambles to support the most urgent overseas demands.
What Do We Want from a Global Navy?
With the U.S. Navy at its operational limits and its core of destroyers, tactical aircraft, and submarines shrinking, each procurement decision significantly affects what the future Navy can accomplish. Providing direction to these investment choices requires an understanding of both what America will need from sea power, and what the country will be able to support. With the long lead time and multi-decade service lives of ships and aircraft, changing course in Fleet architecture in response to new demands will be very difficult. This challenge will be exacerbated if options to buy different platforms are foreclosed by a lack of industrial capacity or procurement funds.
To help explore the future demands for American sea power, the CNA study assumed America would need its Navy to remain globally influential. By analyzing historical “global navies,” the study translated this need into three main requirements: dominance, readiness, and influence.
A dominant naval force must be compared with its potential adversaries and challengers. For centuries, this meant the capability to exert sea control when and where needed, to sustain operations in these areas indefinitely, to support and influence operations on land, and to ensure freedom of movement for the nation’s military forces.
A global navy is a ready navy. Both its deployed and surge forces are trained, manned, and adequately equipped. They are deployed globally so they can be ready to quickly respond to crises. They also have the capacity to call in forces from other global deployments to areas of instability or to serve as a home fleet that can surge forward for major operations. Deployments by a global navy are routine for shows of force to deter and reassure or to express interest and resolve. Presence and readiness make global naval forces routine responders to humanitarian crises and disasters.
A global navy is influential. It exerts international leadership in peacetime and in war. It provides a framework for coalition operations. It is a visible force for reassuring allies and partners that a global navy’s government is committed to them and that it has resolved to place its military forces in harm’s way in their support. It is a force flexible enough to exert influence at any point over the range of operations, from a show of force to deter a regional threat to the imposition of a blockade, or the use of naval power to project force and dominate an adversary.
While a global navy’s multimission ships, aircraft, and people are trained and equipped for major combat operations, most of the time they exert influence through a range of less stressing activities such as exercises and maritime security operations. A global navy performs those missions routinely to reassure allies, engage new partners, and tangibly express its nation’s interest.
Maritime forces have advantages over land and air forces in influencing events abroad because of their inherent flexibility, their visibility without heavy footprints ashore, their self-sustainability, and their routine interactions with other maritime forces. A global navy is an instrument of a global power interested in political stability and economic activity around the world.
The U.S. Version of a Global Navy
For six decades the U.S. Navy has translated the need for maritime dominance, readiness, and influence into the forward presence and combat credibility of naval forces. Forward presence enhances America’s ability to promptly influence or respond to events abroad and visibly signals U.S. interests. The capabilities and characteristics of deployed naval forces provide a wide range of options to U.S. leaders for action in several dimensions of national power, not just military operations.
The combat credibility of U.S. naval forces is a consistent element of maritime strategy as well. Credibility derives from capabilities such as surface and antisubmarine warfare from ships, submarines, and aircraft; precision strike from the sea; and sustained amphibious operations. The Navy enhances the credibility of these capabilities through superior capacity, strategic and tactical mobility, kinetic and non-kinetic options, tailorable force packaging, long-term sustainability, defense in depth, and the ability to command and control across a range of operations and international partners.
Forward presence and combat credibility are set in motion by the U.S. Navy through the ongoing deployment of aircraft carriers and amphibious forces for influence ashore, surface ships and submarines for sea control, and aircraft and submarines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Logistics ships and a network of overseas bases and access agreements allow these forces to be sustained indefinitely.
Just as significant is where these forces are and in what numbers. Since the 1950s, global U.S. Navy presence has consisted of combat capability in two hubs (the Western Pacific [WESTPAC] and the Mediterranean throughout the Cold War and WESTPAC and the North Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf since Desert Storm). Successive presidential administrations saw these areas as home to long-standing U.S. political and economic interests, allies in need of reassurance, and adversaries and competitors to be deterred. To back up these forward-deployed forces, the Navy has maintained the capacity and flexibility to surge additional forces from the continental United States and other parts of the globe to address emerging conflicts and crises. Independent deployers outside the two hubs have been used for engagement activities and exercises in South America, Africa, and Europe.
Since the Korean War, the Navy has ranged from more than 1,000 to fewer than 300 ships, but the importance of forward presence and combat credibility to the Navy’s strategy has been a constant. To be forward is to be ready, and to be combat-credible is to be dominant and able to control escalation and de-escalation at any level of confrontation. The global reach and ambitions of the Navy also have never changed—to be absent is to be without influence.
How Will We Exert Sea Power in the Future?
The deployment patterns of the CNA study represent ways in which navies have arrayed their fleets in the past and provide a lens through which we can examine the security needs of the future. For the U.S. Navy, these deployment models should be evaluated in terms of how well they address American security and national interests, whether they are sustainable economically or politically, and whether they reflect the expectation future leaders will have about the need for a global navy.
The emerging environment includes a wide range of challenges. Strong states such as China compete with America politically and could challenge the United States militarily. Regional aggressors such as Iran or North Korea routinely threaten their neighbors and could become future U.S. adversaries. The war against Islamic radical terrorism will likely continue for years. Poorly governed areas and weak states will continue to sustain groups that threaten local and regional security. The global air, maritime, and cyber commons are under threat from capabilities such as proliferating antiship and surface-to-air missiles, precision-guided mortars and rockets, modern submarines, computer-network attack, and electronic warfare.
America will expect the Navy to exert maritime dominance and influence in the face of these challenges. This will include shows of force to deter regional challengers, ballistic-missile defense and exercises with allies and partners for reassurance, and maritime security to protect commerce. The Navy also will be expected to evacuate non-combatants from failing states, counter piracy and terrorism, and interdict or attack weapon proliferators. Allies will continue to look to the United States for training, partnership, and leadership of coalition operations, while the U.S. governmental agencies will want the Navy to provide effective platforms for their initiatives.
The Navy’s ability to meet those demands and expectations will be constrained in several ways, but most important, in the financial dimension. Discretionary federal budgets will have to shrink—unless revenues can substantially increase—to address growing deficits and non-discretionary social spending. This will limit the options for maintaining Fleet capacity or adjusting its mix toward the higher end of large surface combatants, fifth-generation fighters, and submarines.
Is There a ‘Tipping Point?’
Obviously there is no exact point at which a navy ceases to be globally influential or at which it can no longer address the nation’s interests. But if history is any guide, we will know it when we see it. In particular, a global navy must continue to deter adversaries, stop aggression, and reassure allies—the last requirement possibly being the most crucial. A global navy also must be able to foster and maintain partnerships with other countries and protect the global commons from diffuse threats such as piracy or terrorism. These demands require a Fleet with credible combat capability able to intervene at the locations where these interests intersect. When the U.S. Navy can no longer do so, it will indeed be at a “tipping point.”
The deployment models presented in the CNA study and the accompanying articles here provide a range of options for delivering the characteristics of a global navy. These different models create a range of demands for capability and capacity from the future Fleet. As a result, each model has a different level of sustainability, given the Navy’s stagnant procurement budgets and constrained maintenance funds. One thing is clear; today’s deployment model will have to change to accommodate fewer large combatants and submarines and the Fleet’s growing maintenance needs.
The Navy can either choose to muddle through the challenge created by financial constraints and sea power’s growing importance, or it can establish priorities for Fleet structure. While muddling through can be an effective approach in business, the long-term nature of naval investments and the unforgiving nature of the security environment demand something more deliberate. While no one expects any one of the Tipping Point’s deployment models to be chosen by a future President, they do provide a way to consider what America will need from the future Navy. Most important, the CNA study highlights decisions needed today and in the next few years for the Navy to provide the dominance, readiness, and influence expected of American sea power.
1. Daniel Whiteneck and others, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 2010), http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/The%20Navy%20at%20a%20Tipping%20Point%20D0022262.A3.pdf.
2. In FY 10 inflation adjusted dollars, reference Department of Defense, “FY 2000 Budget Press Release,” Department of Defense, http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=12652., Department of Defense, “FY 2010 Budget Press Release,” Department of Defense, http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=1967.
3. Economist staff, “Defence Spending in a Time of Austerity,” The Economist, 26 August 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/16886851 .
4. Office of Technology Assessment, An Assessment of Maritime Trade and Technology, 1983, http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/disk3/1983/8302/830206.PDF.
5. Eric Labs, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2011 Shipbuilding Plan (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office,2010), http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11527/05-25-NavyShipbuilding.pdf .
6. NHHC staff, “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1917-,” Naval Historical Center, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm#2000 .
7. William McMichael, “New Command Targets Surface Ship Maintenance,” Army Times Publishing Company, http://www.navytimes.com/news/2010/11/navy-surface-maintenance-command-established-110810w/.
Dr. Whiteneck is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Engaging the “Two-Hub” Model
By Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, U.S. Navy
America’s most significant strategic challenges are restoring its economic strength, fostering its international relationships, and protecting the United States from terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction.1 A “two-hub” Navy focused on the Middle East and Western Pacific is the best deployment model to support these diverse and difficult goals. The critical elements in executing this model are the need to station more forces forward and increase our reliance on allies and partners in the areas outside the two hubs.
The first hub is the Middle East and Indian Ocean, and it supports our traditional geostrategic goals in the region and new and emerging partners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf states. Our relationship with these partners will remain a critical national-security interest, despite the fact that it will likely be supported by a shrinking U.S. land footprint in the region after 2015. Naval presence supports the continued drawdown of forces in Iraq and the eventual reduction of troops in Afghanistan by supplying quick-reaction forces and air support from the sea. As many international-relations experts have argued, naval forces can reduce the U.S. footprint while retaining credible combat power to reassure American partners and deter regional aggressors such as Iran.2 Compared with those of a continental power, naval forces do not generate significant concerns in other nations regarding territorial aspirations, whether they are rotated or stationed in a foreign country.3
This will be essential to making the two-hub model sustainable, which requires increased forward stationing of U.S. ships where appropriate to reduce their operational tempo and accommodate future Fleet reductions. In the Middle East, this would translate to patrol coastal and mine countermeasures ships in Bahrain, as they are today, replaced with littoral combat ships (LCSs) as they take on these missions in the next decade. The stationing of large surface combatants in the Middle East hub is not realistic, but to support this hub forces should be forward stationed in adjacent areas, such as the Mediterranean. Those forces can conduct strike operations into the Middle East within days and be on station within as little time as a week.
To augment and enhance this permanently stationed force, the two-hub model would also require the Navy to maintain at least 1.0 rotational carrier strike group (CSG) presence in the Middle East/Indian Ocean, including one or two nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and five guided-missile cruisers (CGs) or destroyers (DDGs). This CSG would be complemented with a deployed guided-missile submarine (SSGN) and a 1.0 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) presence with an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). Together, these forces provide U.S and partner troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a support-and-response capability while conducting continuous maritime-security operations throughout the region.
The two-hub model’s second focus area is the Pacific, a region of paramount economic, security, and alliance importance to America. With the Pacific being home to five U.S. treaty allies, two of America’s top four trading partners, and its most significant strategic competitor, the United States has maintained a long-standing naval presence in the region and is seen by East Asian countries as a critical security and economic partner. The United States balances the influence of China, which is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan and especially threatens those countries with competing maritime or territorial claims. In particular, the nations of Southeast Asia appreciate U.S. naval presence, with some in Australia and Singapore expressing a desire for U.S. ships to be based in their countries.4
As in the Middle East, forward stationing will be essential in the Pacific to sustain a two-hub forward presence in the face of financial and readiness pressures. Forward stationing will also foster relationships with host nations, as U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea have for more than six decades. In Singapore, an LCS squadron would be a natural fit, providing forward presence and rapid response for maritime security throughout Southeast Asia. To support a continuous 1.0 CSG presence under way in the Pacific, the forward-stationed CSG in Japan could be bolstered by a carrier (CVN) and some CG and DDG escorts supported from a more southerly location such as Australia. This will ensure a CSG is always available at sea when the other CVN is in a maintenance period, while the CVN and escorts in and around Australia can respond faster to the Indian Ocean or Middle East than a continental U.S.-based task force.
Today’s forward-stationed four-ship ARG/MEU in Japan will remain a crucial asset. This will allow at least three ships and the MEU to be under way for ongoing counterpiracy and counterterrorism operations, and ready to react in the event of aggression by North Korea. Similarly, today’s three SSNs in Guam will remain invaluable for CSG support and additional missions, although they could regularly be augmented by additional SSNs or a maintenance facility if conditions require.
Except for the ongoing commitment to provide Aegis ballistic-missile defense at sea or ashore in the European Command area of responsibility, operations outside the two hubs will be only as needed for exercises or crisis response. In those areas, the lack of significant state threats allows episodic U.S. naval deployments to be a catalyst for allies and partners to provide day-to-day maritime security and building partner maritime capacity.
The United States will need to coordinate with its key naval allies and partners—select NATO countries, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, and Singapore at a minimum—to concentrate their efforts on maintaining and building long-range deployable units to both cover the areas outside the hubs and aggregrate with U.S naval forces when necessary to conduct deterrence operations in the hubs. In addition, these partners will need to maintain their ability to conduct maritime-security training operations in the areas outside the hubs to develop regional navies that can conduct their own maritime-security patrols.
While models such as the “surge” or “cruising” Navy could be less expensive and reduce budget deficits, they will not support our national-security objectives and won’t support our alliances and partnerships, which hinge on the dependable presence of credible American combat power. These relationships are also essential to strengthening the U.S. economy, which depends as much on export growth as deficit reduction.
The “status quo” Navy maintains forward presence for allies and partners by continuing today’s high operational tempo of about 100–105 ships deployed. This pace not only takes years of service life off ships and aircraft, it also costs more than $23 billion a year, of which about $5 billion will need to be supplemental funding. With a looming maintenance backlog in today’s surface fleet and the need to make do without supplemental money, the status quo is not an option, financially or logistically.
In this two-hub model, sacrifices will have to be made. The U.S. Navy will need to concentrate its efforts on building strike capability (CSGs, ARGs, SSGNs) and not build or replace lower-end systems. And we will need to invest in stationing forces forward in the vicinity of the two hubs. This long-term strategy will allow us to execute the nation’s national-security objectives both in 2015, as we reset from Iraq and Afghanistan, and in 2025, when our ability to recapitalize our existing Fleet will be limited.
The two-hub deployment model is the best option for a U.S. Navy and government facing severe budget pressures, an aging Fleet, and national imperatives to strengthen the economy and America’s relationships abroad and to guard against terrorist threats. It will require a strong commitment to maintaining our strike assets, forward-stationing units, working with our naval allies and partners, and a resistance to being drawn into ancillary conflicts.
1. Barack Obama, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: 2010), p. 52.
2. S. Walt, “Keeping the World Off Balance: Self Restraint and U.S. Foreign Policy,” SSRN Working Paper Series (Dec. 2000), http://ezproxy6.ndu.edu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1450831981&Fmt=7&clientId=3921&RQT=309&VName=PQD.; C. Layne, “America’s Middle East Grand Strategy After Iraq: The Moment for Offshore Balancing has Arrived,” Review of International Studies 35, no. 1 (Jan. 2009),p. 5, http://ezproxy6.ndu.edu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1706790641&Fmt=7&clientId=3921&RQT=309&VName=PQD.; John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, Company, 2001).
3. Jack S. Levy and William R. Thompson, “Balancing on Land and at Sea,” International Security 34, no. 5 (Summer 2010), pp. 7-43, http://ezproxy6.ndu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mth&AN=51999022&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
4. Greg Sheridan, “Best Place for a Larger US Base,” The Australian, sec. Commentary, 19 August 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/commentary/best-place-for-a-larger-us-base/story-e6frgd0x-1225907038866.
The Key to a Surge Navy
By Dr. Thomas Hone
The “surge” model developed by the Center for Naval Analyses has the bulk of U.S. Navy combat power—the Second, Third, and Fourth fleets—based in the United States, with three fleets positioned forward: the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, and the Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Sea-Persian Gulf. Of the three forward-deployed fleets, the Seventh would be by far the strongest, with forces similar to those in play today. In the CNA model, however, all three forward-deployed fleets would provide ballistic-missile defense for other U.S. forces and for friendly states.
The key to the success of the surge model is the Seventh Fleet. Before World War II, the Navy had nothing like the Seventh Fleet. Instead, the forward-deployed Asiatic Fleet, based in the Philippines, was a token force. As such, it could not deter war or protect the Philippines when Japan struck in December 1941.
Critics of surge say it is a case of too little, too late, and that therefore it will not deter conflict. But that criticism hides what may be the most important reason why the Navy wants to maintain two forward “hubs”—because the pressures of operating forward sharpen Sailors’ skills and simultaneously allow senior enlisted personnel and officers to learn which of their subordinates are best-suited to take responsibility and exercise command. That is why a strong, forward-deployed Seventh Fleet would be essential. It would be the constant proving ground of personnel, systems, and tactics. And it would guarantee that the Navy could surge effectively if necessary.
What would be the advantages of this surge model? Operations and infrastructure costs would be less than with the other models. Sailors and Marines would have more time with their families in the United States. And assuming a roughly constant level of expenditure on the Navy, there would be more funds for research and development, software upgrades, and modernization of existing units.
Except for the forward-deployed Seventh Fleet, the Navy would act as it did before World War II, when individual units, divisions of ships, task forces, and aircraft squadrons went to sea to exercise and to conduct tactical and operational experiments (called “fleet problems” then). Aegis ships based in the United States would rotate through assignments to the missile-defense stations, and individual ships, submarines, and aircraft squadrons would rotate through assignments in the Seventh Fleet.
This model has several important implications. First, Navy logistics would need to be able to respond relatively quickly to support any surge and to replace lost or damaged equipment. Second, there would have to be a highly trained naval reserve that could populate new units quickly and replace any Sailors lost or disabled during surge operations. Third, the Navy would have to change its current relationship with its industrial base. Both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy would have to complement the current acquisition process with one that would permit rapid acquisition of those items—like missiles—that would be quickly expended in a shooting match.
Fourth, a surge Navy would look different from today’s Navy. It would have more nuclear-powered submarines, for example, because those submarines are ideal surge units. They can move quickly and stealthily into a tense area or a region of conflict, and they can also carry large numbers of tactical missiles, as the guided-missile SSGNs do now. In 1982, the Royal Navy was a surge force. Its nuclear-powered attack submarines were the first major naval units to reach the Falklands after Argentine forces invaded the islands. The Royal Navy nuclear submarines blockaded Argentina’s navy and prevented Argentine surface ships from resupplying or evacuating ground units occupying the Falklands.
Fifth, a surge force would have to be able to counter anti-access and area-denial systems—at least long enough to allow Marines to achieve their objectives ashore. In 1982, the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines cut the water link between Argentina and Argentine military forces in the Falklands, but intrepid Argentine airmen flying from land bases almost decimated the British amphibious force. To forestall such a threat to U.S. amphibious forces, the Navy must field adequate defenses and find ways to mask its intentions and the location of its forces.
Finally, a surge Navy would have to show potential enemies of the United States that (a) it could surge—that it could reach the scene of a possible or actual conflict quickly, and (b) the U.S. Navy could apply force effectively once engaged. This is where the Seventh Fleet can play a critical role, routinely demonstrating the Navy’s combat capabilities, its ability to stay at sea for long periods, and its capacity to deploy significant forces. Keeping the Seventh Fleet forward deployed is the key.
Shrinking the Status-Quo Navy
By Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, U.S. Navy (Retired)
As of this writing, the U.S. Navy is 289 ships strong. The stated requirement, established several years ago by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen, is 313 ships. That means the Fleet the country has today satisfies 92 percent of the requirement for deployable battle-force ships, and by all accounts is able to meet the vast majority of the “demand signals” for naval forces that the combatant commanders levy on the Department of the Navy.
While not the ideal, the fact remains that today’s Navy—despite all the anxious commentary one reads about its size—is able to satisfy the demands of the nation and is able to accomplish what is expected of it. This is possible because Navy leadership over the decades has insisted on maintaining a Navy that was “balanced” in capability. The desire for balance has deep historic roots, dating to the era shortly after the end of World War I, when postwar reductions and naval arms-control agreements dramatically constrained the overall size of the Navy.
What exactly is a balanced Fleet? In my judgment, it is one that has the capability to:
• Command the sea where and when needed.
• Sustain credible overseas presence where required (over that last 60 years that has generally meant being in two different overseas theaters of operation).
• Ensure vital sea lanes are not interrupted (since the end of the Cold War this has been a lesser-included benefit that derives from overseas presence).
• Conduct precision attacks from the sea.
• Conduct sustained air operations from the sea.
• Conduct submarine operations, including sustained strategic-deterrent patrols.
• Conduct amphibious assaults.
• Execute transoceanic sealift to deploy the Army overseas.
• Conduct regional ballistic-missile defense from the sea.
Today’s U.S. Navy can do these things. What is of concern is whether the Navy will be able to do them in the future. According to the Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, by 2040 this will not be a problem: The Navy’s size will be somewhere between today’s’ 289 ship Fleet and the required 313. The trouble is, no one believes the 30-year plan. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) routinely castigates the Navy for submitting a plan based on unrealistic cost assumptions. When the Navy calculates building costs versus likely shipbuilding budgets in a very constrained budget environment, the CBO concludes that in 30 years there will be significant shortages based on today’s requirements in cruisers, destroyers, attack submarines, and amphibious ships.
If the CBO is right, and one assumes that no one is going to shovel lots of extra money at the Navy, that leads to a discussion of how best to manage the reduction in Fleet size so the Navy can continue to preserve the capabilities listed here. The argument is to deal with the reductions in tried and true Pentagon fashion: by incremental balanced reductions across the board (popularly referred to as salami-slicing). This is the best way to preserve a “balanced fleet,” because it hedges against an uncertain future. Such an approach rarely forecloses options, while other, more dramatic approaches could upset balance by gutting certain capabilities. Preserving options is essential when the future is uncertain.
The inability to predict the future is also relevant to the overall Navy “requirement.” Who knows what the demand signal from the combatant commanders will be 20 or 30 years from now? Does it make sense to project today’s demand signal for naval forces 30 years into the future and assert it will be the same?
In the Western Pacific, for example, will the threat of a North Korean invasion still create a demand for a deterrent presence? Perhaps. North Korea is our country’s longest-running “official” enemy at 60 years and counting, but trends on the peninsula suggest that this is unlikely. Similarly, rapprochement in the cross-Taiwan Strait relationship suggests that having to deter a Chinese attack for the next three decades is unlikely. Trends today strongly suggest that over the next few decades Taipei and Beijing will reach a political accommodation. On the other hand, providing a credible Seventh Fleet capability in the region to support friends and allies in the face of a nearly risen China is likely to persist for many decades.
The same sort of speculation about the future can be applied to the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility. Will Iran still be a problem? Will the Navy still be flying sorties to support forces in Afghanistan? The simple answer is that no one knows for certain, and as a result the best way to hedge against an unknowable future is not to make rash decisions about what sort of a Navy the country will need 30 years hence. The most sensible approach is to maintain a commitment to balanced naval capability when the apparently inevitable budget pressures force tough decisions, and “salami-slice” in order to preserve as much balance as possible.
An Influential ‘Shaping’ Navy
By Captain Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy
For most countries, the preeminent national interest is the survival of the state. But this is not true for the United States, which enshrines the protection of its national ideals as the primary mission of its government and its military. This trait has been more prominently evident in the post-World War II era than perhaps any other time in the nation’s history, as the concepts of individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and frictionless free trade on the global commons have defined the governing rules of the current international order.
As the system evolved, individuals, commercial entities, and governments have depended on the United States to act as the guarantor of a new liberalized form of international relations. With 90 percent of the world’s populations living within 100 miles of an ocean, two generations of nations around the world have witnessed this guarantee in the form of white-numbered gray-hulled ships flying the Stars and Stripes.
Globalization of Western norms has worked because the U.S. Navy was present to make it work. With 737 ships in 1948 declining to 496 at the end of the Vietnam War, and stabilizing at around 570 during the Reagan administration, the U.S. Navy was large enough to shape a global system of trade that heralded a movement toward greater human rights and self-determination.
American diplomatic outreach in the areas of economic assistance, augmenting partners’ defensive capacity, and rendering humanitarian assistance were intertwined with military missions in sea control, nuclear deterrence, and power projection. With the system maintained by overwhelming numbers of ships deployed forward, no other nation, aside from the now-defunct Soviet Union, seriously attempted to compete.
Unrecognized, naval presence became the most important but least appreciated mission of the U.S. Navy during the latter half of the 20th century. However, when concerns about mounting missile threats began to lure ship designers to emphasize sophisticated defensive technologies, the resulting individual platform costs rose disproportionately to the overall shipbuilding budget, resulting in a steadily decreasing Fleet size. Today, the U.S. Navy is 15 percent smaller than it was only a decade ago, and it is projected to continue that contraction. Consequently, it no longer has enough ships to patrol regions that had previously attracted U.S. interest.
As the United States disengaged from these gapped areas, various effects have been observed. One was an increase of chaos and disorder that fomented a rise in piracy off the coast of northeastern Africa and terrorism in the archipelagic waters south of the Philippines. Another effect has been an attempt to impose new rules displacing American free trade and free navigation by claiming sovereign rights over large swaths of ocean formerly accepted as international waters.
To counter those effects it is necessary to build smaller, less exquisite, and hence cheaper ships in such numbers as to allow the Navy to return and fulfill its traditional worldwide presence mission. Such a force can be populated by increasing the number of platforms already in the Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan, such as the Joint High-Speed Vessel, while restarting construction of coastal patrol vessels as suggested within the Quadrennial Defense Review. In addition, extending the LPD-17 construction line, perhaps with a less ambitious C4I suite, could provide a mother ship for riverine craft as well as unmanned air, sea, and subsurface vehicles.
Additional LPD-17s would also provide capacity to send more Marines and other elements of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command to sea where their ability to influence the strategic environment by performing low-end missions such as train/advise/assist, humanitarian relief, and building partnership capacity as well as mid- to high-end missions such as counterinsurgency and support in regional conflicts, make them and the Navy the most effective full-range engagement force in the world. Such a force can be purchased while still retaining a preponderant high-end capacity for surged power projection, allowing the United States to project its ideals as well as its strength.
The cooperative maritime strategy of 2009 enshrined the precept that preventing wars is at least as important as winning them. War and its attendant tragedies can be avoided by influencing local populations with a whole-of-government approach from sea-based platforms, mitigating the impact of disease, ignorance, and poverty. By returning our ship numbers to previous levels, the U.S. Navy can also ensure the survival of the rules it has worked 60 years to establish, thus ensuring free navigation and an open economy to maximize growth throughout the world. Finally, such a shaping naval force would uphold our nation’s highest national interest—the advancement of human rights and individual liberty—while still maintaining sufficient capacity to fight our nation’s wars and deter attacks against the homeland.
Captain Hendrix is a staff officer in the Pentagon and has written extensively for Proceedings and Naval History magazines.