Operating in an Age of Austerity

By Lieutenant Commander Wolf Melbourne, U.S. Navy

An examination of the last age of austerity between World Wars I and II reveals an operating concept that is an excellent candidate for adoption today. Constrained by arms treaties and economic depression, the Navy of the interwar period employed a hybrid surge-and-experimentation model that maintained combat credibility in the present and sustained it for the future. In that age of limited resources, emerging disruptive technology, and untested doctrine and war plans, the interwar Navy produced and sustained not just a combat-credible Fleet, it produced a Fleet in World War II that was victorious in the greatest naval conflict ever fought.

Bureaucracies such as the U.S. Navy are designed “by their very nature” to resist change. 2 Adopting a new operating concept will be an arduous task that carries risk. However, failing to adapt to today’s age of austerity is far riskier. The U.S. Navy successfully faced similar austerity challenges during the interwar period and demonstrated its adaptability by taking bold, difficult, and ultimately successful actions. Today’s Navy can and must do so as well.

An Unsustainable Concept

Since 2001 Fleet size has decreased by nearly one fifth. 3 Instead of any commensurate decrease in operations, the Navy remains doggedly committed to the regional-hub operating concept by maintaining roughly the same number of ships forward deployed over the time period. 4 While rationalized through guiding principles such as “warfighting first” and “operate forward,” the reality is that the U.S. Navy’s operating concept has become an unsustainable façade for “doing more with less.”

Several recent studies conclude that over the past decade, the Navy’s operating concept has resulted in a range of harmful effects, from allowing material readiness to be “well below acceptable levels to support reliable, sustained operations at sea” to a hollow Fleet able to do “all things, but none of them well.” 5 While doing more with less has allowed the Navy to fulfill the daily forward-presence commitments of NOC10, it is taking great risks with credible combat power should a major-power conflict arise today as well as how it is sustained for the future.

Degraded Surge Capacity

In the event of a major war at sea, NOC10 advertises a surge capacity of five aircraft carriers being in the battle space within 30 days and an additional carrier arriving within 90 days. 6 It is this high level of credible combat power being brought to bear in a relatively short time frame that produces a deterrent effect. This surge capacity, however, was originally predicated on a 12-carrier Fleet. In 2007 operational aircraft carriers were reduced to 11 and then down to 10 in 2013 when the USS Enterprise (formerly CVN-65) retired before the commissioning of her replacement in 2016.

While the Navy expects to increase carrier levels back to 11, it is hardly a certainty. The downward pressure on Fleet size, aircraft carriers in particular, may not be reversed. In fact, it may get worse. A recent “budget wargame” by four major defense think tanks led to a consensus that cutting aircraft carriers offered the “least unacceptable option” to survive expected defense cuts. 7 With increasing pressure to reduce costs as part of budget reductions and fiscal competition with other programs such as the next generation of ballistic-missile submarines, it is not unrealistic to project further reductions to the expensive carrier fleet.

The reality of what such reductions mean to surge capacity was exposed with the 2013 sequestration cuts to the defense budget. That year Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert warned that only three carriers were available to respond to a major crisis. 8 This is a critical point as it explicitly exposes the negative consequences of maintaining the current operating concept at a time when austerity is taking hold. The CNO essentially said the Fleet could only maintain scheduled forward-presence operations and was incapable of meeting the surge requirements needed in wartime.

The deleterious effect that reducing 30-day surge capacity from five to three has on deterrence and combat-credible power should be a wake-up call to make a change in operating concepts. The reason the Navy remains wedded to the costly regional-hub concept remains unclear. Judging by the most recent shipbuilding plan, it may be a belief this new age of austerity is temporary or can be outlasted. In its latest report on the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cited the service’s overly optimistic estimates for budgets and costs for new ship construction. 9 This occurred despite previous CBO reports that forecast consistent declines in defense spending through 2024. 10 Naval leaders may also think they can work through smaller budgets by tinkering on the margins of deployment and maintenance cycles. However, recent efforts to optimize and stabilize those cycles will do little to stem the downward pressure on Fleet size and thus will not measurably improve surge capacity to the levels needed for major wars at sea. The U.S. Navy needs an operating concept that addresses this glaring shortfall and reflects the reality of smaller budgets and Fleet size.

Insufficient Experimentation

Less visible than what a shrinking Fleet has done to surge capacity is how it is also impacting its ability to invest in the future with effective experimentation. Doing more with less means a growing portion of the Fleet is forward deployed and preoccupied with the requirements of current operations, while a smaller part is available in port for long-term investments in combat credibility, such as exercising and validating emerging technology and its associated doctrine. 11 With less and less of the Fleet in homeport, this myopia with current operations is threatening the experimentation that spurs innovation and prepares the Fleet for future conflict.

In their study of military innovation during the interwar period, professors Williamson Murray and Allan Millett identified a number of areas where today’s militaries can encourage innovation. Among their recommendations is the need to critically examine operational tempo in relation to exercises to move beyond the rote validation of current doctrine and processes. 12 Today’s operating concept flies in the face of this advice, as operational tempo increases and effective exercises decrease.

At a time when technology is rapidly evolving and doctrinal concepts such as Joint Operational Access and the Air-Sea Battle have yet to mature, it is well past time the Navy truly commits to effective experimentation and innovation to properly integrate these new ideas, concepts, and technology. Failing to do so risks the future combat credibility of the Fleet. An operating concept must be developed that can both provide combat credibility today and sustain it for the future.

A Sustainable Concept . . . for Today and Tomorrow

The difficulties faced by the U.S. Navy today are not unique to its history. During the interwar period, the Navy faced similar, and arguably tougher, resource challenges from arms-limitation treaties and economic depression. This was also a period of evolving technology and doctrine in areas such as aviation and amphibious operations that challenged strongly held habits about how to properly employ the naval force. Like today, threats emanating from the Western Pacific dominated operational planning and thought. A similarity with the past, however, is not enough on its own to make a case for adoption. It is what the interwar period’s operating concept was able to accomplish when faced with these similar challenges that demonstrates why it is the best fit for today.

The Navy prepared the Fleet for the defeat of Japan in an era of austerity by combining two distinct models—a surge model that provided a cost-effective method for maintaining combat credibility in the present and experimentation that produced innovation the Fleet needed to sustain that combat credibility until it was called on. The combination of these two models provided a mutually supportive interaction that successfully maintained and sustained combat credibility through the austerity of the interwar period.

The Surge Fleet Model

With a smaller Fleet and reduced budgets, the interwar Navy needed to find cost-effective ways to maintain combat credibility. In 1922 the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets were combined into a unified Battle Fleet. Kept largely in home waters with relatively short underway periods, this unified fleet significantly reduced operational and maintenance costs. Even though it cost less, it remained combat-credible because it was organized into a concentrated force that aligned with its most likely scenario for war—a large-scale naval battle with Japan in the Pacific Ocean.

The benefits of a unified fleet are applicable to today. In addition to the savings from reduced operations and maintenance costs, a surge fleet freed from the requirements to maintain a rotation of CSGs in regional hubs would be able to operate with fewer carriers. With new aircraft carriers costing $13 billion and annual expenses of $300 million per platform, a reduction of the carrier fleet would provide sufficient savings to properly account for today’s budgetary environment and provide fiscal space for other programs. 13

Counterintuitively, even with the overall number of aircraft carriers reduced, a unified fleet would increase combat credibility, because it would properly align with the potential threats faced today. The father of the regional hub-operating concept, Samuel Huntington, argued that in the Cold War, the Fleet did not need to concentrate because the Soviet navy was dispersed and would not seek a decisive fleet action. 14 As such, the more effective operating concept for that period was one that disaggregated the Fleet and allowed the Navy to bottle up the Soviet fleet in multiple regions while concurrently providing the force required to project power ashore. 15 The United States no longer faces the threat of the globally dispersed Soviet fleet. Instead, it faces regionally concentrated threats in the form of China, Iran, and North Korea. A unified Fleet capable of quickly surging to conflicts in these regions would provide far more combat credibility than the current disaggregated one that lacks the surge capacity needed to effectively concentrate.

The Experimentation Model

Between 1922 and 1940 the U.S. Navy conducted a series of experimental Fleet maneuvers, known as the Fleet Problems, that according to Murray and Millett were “literally the sine qua non of successful military innovation in peacetime.” 16 The Fleet Problems provided a realistic warlike environment for the training, testing, and studying of technology, doctrine, and war plans. 17 Operating over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the Fleet was divided into two sides that would go to “war” against each other in scenarios largely derived from existing war plans and using the emerging technology of the era. As the two sides operated against each other, new technology, doctrine, and plans were exposed to the realities of war. Important lessons were learned and became a part of subsequent iterations. This rigorous experimentation resulted in better technology, better doctrine, and better war plans.

The Fleet Problems’ high levels of experimentation provided a way for the Navy to properly integrate emerging technology, such as carrier aviation, and determine the most effective ways to doctrinally employ it. Carriers moved from being merely a scouting element for the battleship to the central component of an autonomous task force, capable of delivering extraordinary levels of combat power. 18 Similar advances in amphibious technology and doctrine were also produced from the Fleet Problems. This “dialectic” between emerging technology and updated doctrine was enormously successful. 19 Experimenting with and validating emerging technology and doctrine such as the Joint Strike Fighter, Air-Sea Battle, and cyber-warfare in such a rigorous manner is just as necessary today.

In the interwar period it took the warlike conditions of the Fleet Problems to illuminate the benefits of one operational plan to defeat Japan over the other. 20 Without the Fleet Problems those lessons would more likely have been learned in the subsequent war with greater risk to success and almost assuredly greater casualties. Today’s war plans could also take advantage of a renewed set of Fleet Problems. Too often plans today are exercised with only a token portion of the Fleet, with notional forces making up the difference. Very rarely are genuine force-on-force-type exercises conducted that can accurately reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a plan. Facing a living, breathing and, more important, a thinking opponent in a renewed series of Fleet Problems will provide an arena whereby commanders can rigorously test decision-making and emerging doctrine, while gaining a level of experience that cannot be replicated outside actual combat.

This type of experimentation could become the catalyst for sustaining the Fleet’s combat credibility. The hybrid surge-experimentation operating concept creates a mutually supportive interaction. The large unified Fleet, while providing a combat-credible deterrent force capable of quickly surging to a conflict, also provides the means by which effective experimentation can occur. This creates and sustains the Fleet’s combat credibility over time. Even in an age of austerity this cost-effective and self-sustaining cycle can provide the continuous innovation necessary to maintain combat credibility in the present and sustain it for the future.

Counterarguments to Change

Implementing the interwar operating concept would mean significantly reducing the U.S. Navy’s persistent forward presence in multiple regions of the world. It can be argued that doing so would mean abandoning forward presence and the deterrent capability that it produces. However, converting to the interwar operating concept does not mean the Navy abandons forward presence altogether. Unifying the Fleet would only mean ending the institutional habit of principally using CSGs for that mission. Freed from this obligation, other portions of the Fleet, namely the amphibious force, submarines, and surface action groups, can be relied on to meet forward-presence requirements. Additionally, the U.S. Navy should begin to rely on the navies of allies and partners, on which it has already spent an enormous amount of time and resources building capacity, to assume part of the forward-presence mission.

Some risk is involved in reducing the number of persistently forward-deployed forces. Moving to a surge Fleet would mean forgoing some ability to deter and influence events around the world in a timely manner. Expanding the forward-deployed naval force in those areas where the risk of conflict is great, such as the Western Pacific or the Indian Ocean, could mitigate some of this risk. Adding to an already strong forward presence in Japan, the basing in the Pacific of a large and powerful unified fleet consisting of multiple carriers will provide substantial risk mitigation as well as an altogether new kind of deterrence against potential adversaries in that region.

The argument over forward presence and deterrent loss obfuscates the larger problem of diminishing combat credibility and the growing risk from reduced surge capacity. While a unified Fleet may incur some reduction in deterrent capability, far more risk is currently being taken with surge capacity should deterrence fail and a major conflict arise. It is better to have a smaller, more combat-credible Fleet than a large one with a dubious level of combat credibility.

Another counterargument to moving to the interwar operating concept is that the wars the Navy will most likely face will look more like those fought over the past decade rather than the large-scale wars at sea requiring a large concentrated force. While it is naïve to suggest the Navy will avoid involvement in these predominantly ground-centric conflicts, it is not unrealistic to suggest the Navy can forgo the heavy use of CSGs when they arise. Rarely, if at all, do CSGs provide a combat capability that makes the decisive difference in these conflicts. The air power required in these instances is more efficiently provided by ground-based aircraft. Strike missions and local sea-control missions can easily be conducted with carrier-less surface action groups. Should an operational requirement arise necessitating the use of sea-based air power, one-off uses of CSGs can be employed, provided they do not turn into long-term requirements.

It should be noted that this counterargument neglects the natural order of naval objectives. While supporting ground forces in a land fight may be the ultimate mission, it can only be met once the Fleet is able to control the sea. To suggest the primacy of support to ground forces at the expense of the means to effectively obtain sea control is shortsighted and irresponsibly risks both forces at sea and on the ground.

This discussion does not argue the transition from a regional hub to a surge-experimentation operating concept will be risk-free. It does argue that not adapting to austerity is far riskier. The words of President George Washington in his first inaugural address are as true today as they were in 1789—to be prepared for war is the best way to prevent its occurrence. Even in an age of austerity, sustaining the combat credibility of the Fleet must remain a paramount concern in an effective operating concept. Instead of preparing and adapting to this new age of austerity, the current operating concept is ignoring its realities and taking great risk with the Fleet.

An age of austerity need not be one of stagnation or decay. Austerity, counterintuitively, spurred the creativity and innovation that produced the Fleet needed to be victorious in World War II. 21 Such an environment committed the U.S. Navy to the Fleet concentration in peacetime that was necessary for the rigorous experimentation that sustained combat credibility for wartime. The interwar Navy successfully produced a flexible Fleet prepared for war. 22 Facing a new age of austerity, it is imperative that today’s Navy do so as well.

1. U.S. Navy Department, Naval Operations Concept 2010 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2010), 1.

2. Stephen P. Rosen, Winning the Next War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 2.

3. Daniel Whiteneck, Michael Price, Neil Jenkins, and CAPT Peter Swartz USN (Ret.), The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake? , (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, March 2010), 5.

4. Ibid.

5. Philip Ewing, “U.S. Navy’s Lean Manning Backlash,” Defense News , 21 June 2010, 40. www.defensenews.com/article/20100621/DEFFEAT04/6210307/U-S-Navy-s-Lean-M... .

6. U.S. Navy Department. Naval Operations Concept 2010 , 83.

7. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, “Cut Carriers to Save Subs, Cyber From Sequester, Thinktanks Say,” Breaking Defense , 5 February 2014, http://breakingdefense.com/2014/02/cut-carriers-to-save-subs-cyber-from-... .

8. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, Department of Defense press briefing, Department of Defense News Transcript, 19 July 2013, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5278 .

9. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2015 Shipbuilding Plan,” Washington, DC, December 2014. 3.

10. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014-2024, Washington, DC, August 2014. 18.

11. Whiteneck, The Navy at a Tipping Point , 7.

12. Williamson Murray and Allan R Millet,. Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 326-28.

13. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, “The Navy’s Carrier Crunch: Even Without Budget Cuts, Deployments Will Drop” Breaking Defense , 28 January 2014, http://breakingdefense.com/2014/01/the-navys-carrier-crunch-even-without... .

14. Samuel P. Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 80, no. 5 (May 1954) 490.

15. Ibid.

16. Murray and Millet, Military Innovation , 410.

17. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010), 2.

18. Ibid., 271.

19. Craig C. Felker, Testing American Sea Power (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007) 135.

20. Nofi, To Train the Fleet , 277.

21. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008) 163.

22. Nofi, To Train the Fleet , 271.

Lieutenant Commander Melbourne is an intelligence officer currently assigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership