The existing U.S. fleet organization is based on an assumption of supremacy against any adversary. Beginning in the 1990s, the nation used the post–Cold War calm to shrink the service. The Navy was expanded after 9/11, but with a focus on combating terrorism and projecting precision power onto land, not on winning a maritime conflict against a great power adversary. Today, however, the United States no longer can take maritime global superiority for granted. All corners of the Navy are awakening to the threats posed by China and Russia, and the service’s latest strategic moves reflect this. The new, less predictable ship-deployment scheme (coined “dynamic force employment”) and the return of Fleet Problem naval exercises after a 75-year hiatus will help to change the mind-set of a Navy that has become predictable, overconfident, and reliant on local, isolated warfighting tactics.1
And yet, dynamic force employment and Fleet Problems, while excellent developments, do not go far enough. The former reintroduces unpredictability to Navy operations, but it does not provide the concentration of forces the fleet would need in a great power war. As Navy Lieutenant Joseph Hanacek aptly noted in a recent Proceedings article, “In pursuit of its sailing direction to operate forward [the fleet has] confused presence with deterrence.”2 To meet the challenge presented by China’s rapidly growing and improving People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the U.S. Navy will need to learn how to fight in an environment with a degraded or nonexistent information technology (IT) network, build expertise in large fleet maneuvers, and reposition vulnerable forward-deployed forces back to more protected home waters.
Never Trust the Network
Today’s fleet is trained in network-centric warfare—a philosophy of combat that relies on uninterrupted, secure communication with headquarters, scouts, and other units. While sophisticated IT networks do enable precise over-the-horizon targeting of adversary forces, in a maritime conflict against a peer adversary it must be assumed that U.S. fleet networks will be challenged and degraded, at a minimum. Afloat Navy IT networks rely on digital traffic through a series of advanced but exposed nodes, including satellites and ground-based computer systems. Both of these are vulnerable.
In 2007, China tested an antisatellite weapon, destroying one of its own weather satellites at an altitude of about 800 km.3 As for computer systems, it is widely reported that China proved its ability to penetrate and compromise a highly classified U.S. IT network when it exposed a CIA ring operating in China in the late 2000s.4 In recent years, China repeatedly has proved adept at operating in the space and cyber domains. All its missile launch platforms, not only those used in its 2007 antisatellite weapon test, have improved. China’s cyber warfare units, such as the infamous “Advanced Persistent Threat 1” (a nickname for People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398), generally are blamed for repeated breaches of U.S. and allied networks.5
From Network-Centric to Network-Optional
In the latest edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, retired Captain Wayne P. Hughes and retired Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier propose “network-optional warfare” as an alternative operational construct to network-centric warfare. The U.S. Navy would acknowledge that its afloat IT network will degrade quickly in conflict, and that the fleet still will need to function, even without any digital communication capability.6 In a situation where the network is destroyed or rendered untrustworthy, concentration of forces at sea becomes the most reliable way for a squadron of ships to operate and retain the firepower advantage needed in modern salvo-based fleet warfare.
Training to this network-optional standard is vital. The British failure at the 1916 Battle of Jutland is an example of what happens when a fleet that expects a working communication network is forced to operate without it. Unable to coordinate movements in the confusion of battle, the numerically superior British Grand Fleet quickly found itself dispersed and unable to close with and trap the German High Seas Fleet, while the lighter battle-cruiser squadrons that did engage the German Navy were severely mauled without support.7
Concentration has additional tactical benefits beyond allowing persistent combined fires. While such a tactic may simplify the enemy’s scouting problem, it enables cooperative efforts in damage control, the overlap of air defense umbrellas of multiple ships, and the squadron-wide sharing of tasks. For example, instead of a single ship defending against every threat, the cruiser with the latest Aegis system upgrade could focus on air defense for the entire squadron, while a guided-missile destroyer with a less capable Aegis system could deploy its towed-array sonar against the undersea threat.
The Navy should consider shifting to concentrated fleet operations now, before war becomes imminent. While access to afloat IT networks is convenient and ensured in peacetime, practicing today to deploy as a combat fleet—what former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift called “the Navy’s essential warfighting element”—will have immediate benefits.8 This change not only will give crews and staffs time to build shiphandling experience and tactical confidence, but also will signal to peer adversaries the Navy’s willingness to undertake significant change in preparation for combat. To cover the same territory while operating regularly in larger squadron formations, however, the Navy either will need more ships or must urgently revisit how its fleet is homeported and deployed around the world. Given that the nation cannot afford a shipbuilding boom anytime soon, the latter imperative is the only realistic option.
Recalling the Legions
Starting in 1904, the British Admiralty led by Sir John Fisher faced a familiar problem: Despite being the largest, most renowned navy in the world, the Royal Navy was spread too thin to counter the growing German battle fleet. Forced to defend colonies in every part of the world, the service was not strong in any distinct geographic area. As with today’s U.S. Navy, a rapid expansion was not a viable solution. Britain’s fleet was reaching the upper limit of what the nation’s manpower and economy could support.
Instead, the Admiralty “recalled the legions,” ordering the scattered fleet home for refit and incorporation into the Home Fleet. Only three premier “flying squadrons” were left abroad as rapid response forces.9 This recall did expose the colonies and allies, letting German raiders, such as SMS Emden, and submarines attack British shipping and harass rear areas throughout World War I. However, it also allowed for the crucial fleet concentration required to pin the German High Seas Fleet in its local waters, conduct an effective blockade against the Triple Entente, and give the Royal Navy a chance of winning the Battle of Jutland.
For a U.S. Navy that is once again turning its attention to great power conflict, the British Admiralty’s problem sounds familiar. Like the pre–World War I Royal Navy, the U.S. fleet is spread globally. It is trying to maintain a presence with allies and partners to deter adversaries and be responsive to U.S. warfighting needs ashore in the Middle East and Africa. And in a situation paralleling that of the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy is doing this while struggling to reorient itself against a rapidly improving PLAN and an increasingly aggressive Russian Navy. The Navy’s current scattered deployment structure suffices in peacetime, where the largest threat is terrorist small boats or a close pass from a Russian or Chinese reconnaissance plane. In a world of peer warfare, however, it leaves the Sixth and Seventh Fleets too weak, with reinforcements too far away.
Scattered and unreinforced, U.S. forward-deployed naval forces are at risk of imitating the Asiatic Fleet in the opening months of World War II—a flotilla destined to die by bits and pieces, unable to do more than slow an enemy’s advance. Like the Asiatic Fleet, Seventh Fleet is too weak to survive for long in combat against a PLAN fighting from its coastal waters—the situation recalls British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s adage that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.”10 Within the first Pacific island chain, the PLAN is aided by shorter supply lines, impressive coastal defenses, and small-boat squadrons. Unlike the Asiatic Fleet, however, the U.S. Navy cannot recapitalize quickly should it lose the Seventh Fleet. If the Navy is serious about focusing on war with peer navies, it should recall forward forces to less exposed areas—such as San Diego and Hawaii—and begin operating in concentrated warfighting formations.
Short-term political costs will be involved with such a restructuring. Some allied governments initially will resist forward-deployed U.S. forces withdrawing from overseas bases, citing fears of a more permanent U.S. withdrawal from the region. Japan, in particular, may feel uneasy about the relocation of ships from Sasebo and Yokosuka. To reassure Japan, and to take advantage of the existing infrastructure, those bases should be retained as maintenance and logistics hubs. The United States should take great pains to reassure Japan that it will honor its treaty obligations.
But the U.S. fleet’s bases in Japan all sit within easy range of advanced Chinese missiles. This is why their use as homeports is too great a risk for anything more than a few destroyer or littoral combat ship squadrons—the modern equivalent of the Royal Navy’s “flying squadrons.” The U.S. presence should be substantial enough to maintain engagement with allies and partners and stall an enemy attack while the U.S.-based fleet musters for counterattack, yet small enough that its loss will not cripple the Navy for a significant length of time.
A Wartime Philosophy
Fleet Tactics best summarizes the current situation: “The fleet that cannot reliably attack . . . must mass for effective defense.”11 The U.S. Navy may be politically restrained from firing the first shot in a conflict with a peer adversary. For this reason alone, concentrating for defense is the best way to protect the fleet through the early stages of a potential war with China or Russia. Once war begins, squadrons of concentrated naval forces will be more proficient at coordinated fire, ship-to-ship cooperation, and operating in a network-optional environment after Chinese antisatellite and cyber attacks.
Without the ship numbers of the Cold War, the Navy can mass warfighting fleets only by repositioning vulnerable forward-deployed forces. The political cost will be painful in the short term, but beginning this redeployment in peacetime is the only way to ensure confidence and expertise in fleet tactics should war break out. Furthermore, today’s token forward presence has an ever-diminishing deterrent effect against a growing and improving PLAN. The political price of recalling forward-deployed forces can be counteracted in the long term by projecting an image of a more powerful fleet battle formation. Allies and partners will be more reassured by occasional visits from an entire U.S. battle squadron than by regular visits from a single ship. The sooner the United States convinces its allies and partners that the former is more effective, the sooner the U.S. Navy can reorganize to win a high-end war at sea.
1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge” (Washington, DC: 2018), 5; ADM Scott Swift, USN, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018).
2. LT Joseph Hanacek, USN, “Presence Is Not Deterrence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 4 (April 2018).
3. Wilson Wong and James G. Fergusson, Military Space Power: A Guide to the Issues (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 92–94.
4. Zach Dorfman, “Botched CIA Communications System Helped Blow Cover of Chinese Agents,” Foreign Policy, 15 August 2018.
5. “APT1: Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units,” Mandiant Intelligence Center, 19 February 2013.
6. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes and RADM Robert P. Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 290.
7. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), 578–901.
8. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018).
9. Nicholas A. Lambert, “Transformation and Technology in the Fisher Era: The Impact of the Communications Revolution,” Journal of Strategic Studies 27, no. 2 (June 2004), 284.
10. Hughes and Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 17.
11. Hughes and Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 283.