The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act decrees a 355-ship Navy. That the Navy has so far been unable to produce a viable plan in accordance with the law suggests that there are only two ways to obtain the number: spend more money or revolutionize the way the Navy plans for the future.
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic caused great damage to our national economy and record levels of deficit spending, the prospects for future defense budgets were not bullish. Now, cuts in defense spending seem inevitable. And annual cost growth of about 5 percent for everything from people to precision weapons will force cuts to the size of the force unless addressed.
To get to 355 ships, the Navy will need a revolution. The last one occurred half a century ago in 1970 when then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bud Zumwalt imposed Project 60 on the service. Those days were in some ways very different and yet familiar to today.
The U.S. Navy then consisted of about 900 ships—many of them antiquated World War II relics. The Soviet Navy was modernizing. Admiral Zumwalt feared that in a war, his Navy had less than a 50/50 chance of winning.
To recapitalize, Zumwalt slashed the size of the navy by more than a third to build modern warships and weapons. He also exploited technology with new weapons and command, control, and surveillance systems. But today’s Navy faces two (near peer) competitors, not one: Russia and China.
In this competition, the 2018 National Defense Strategy says that the Department of Defense’s “enduring mission is to provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter war . . . . Should deterrence fail, the Joint Force is prepared to win.”
The current concept is for the Navy and Marine Corps, with the other services, to penetrate antiaccess/area-denial defenses (A2AD) of China and Russia. The strategy to achieve those aims and win such a war won, however, is not so clear.
China has stand-off missiles with ranges that exceed the combat radius of U.S. Navy aircraft and even Tomahawk cruise missiles. Russian (and former Soviet) doctrine blurs lines between nuclear and conventional weapons. Moscow plans to employ both if war comes. A naval surface fleet is thus quite vulnerable. The advent of hypersonic weapons adds to this vulnerability. Fixed land bases, such as Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa, likewise fall into this category.
What needs to be done? First, a heavy emphasis must be on the deterrent side of the strategy. A strategy to deter, contain, defend, and engage is more relevant as neither China nor Russia is anxious or inclined to start a hot war (though both nations play skillfully in grey zone conflict).
Against that background, naval roles and missions can be more precisely defined. In the Pacific, deterrence should aim to convince China it can be held within the first island chain. A sea denial strategy would convince China it cannot achieve sea control even within the first island chain, nor could it achieve territorial aims on Taiwan, in the Philippines, or in the Ryukyus. Drawing from World War II campaign lessons, the U.S. and its allies could attack the periphery and the Belt and Road Initiative investments China has made beyond the first island chain. But the first objective must be to convince China it will fail if it tries to expand its maritime frontier.
In Europe, NATO’s strategy should be to put in place a “porcupine defense”—capabilities that would stall, disrupt, and inflict heavy losses on any direct Russian military attack. Massive numbers of drones; missiles; deception techniques and decoys; information and electronic warfare; guerrilla-type reserve forces; large improvised explosive devises; and other low-cost technologies aimed at disrupting and stopping Russian forces form the heart of this strategy. The ability to threaten Russia’s Baltic and Black Sea fleets is an integral part of a porcupine defense.
The U.S. Navy can recapitalize by cancelling the last two Ford-class carriers and the littoral combat ships, and forgetting about the future large surface combatant. New types of smaller, less-expensive, yet lethal warships—from twin hulled SWATH to 1500-ton missile combatants and diesel submarines—should be pursued along with extensive use of unmanned air, surface, and undersea vehicles and deception/decoy systems to confound any adversary. This will enable distributed operations that could bottle up the People’s Liberation Army–Navy at the first island chain and contribute to a porcupine defense of Europe.
In a strategy weighted to deterrence, the Marine Corps becomes more essential. In Europe, its deployability means it can support allies quickly. In the Pacific, in can become the targeting arm for naval forces and the means to seize and hold Chinese Belt and Road outposts. And the aircraft carrier fleet can be held back to form a defensive umbrella around the second island chain, well removed from long-range Chinese weapons.
The antibodies opposing this revolution are fierce. The Navy’s surface, submarine, and aviation “unions” will contest sweeping change. The defense industrial base, and the congressional delegations that thrive on defense contracts in their districts, will not be happy with a transition to smaller, less costly systems.
As noted, the annual real cost growth of DoD contracts and everything else has averaged about 5 percent since the 1980s—significantly above inflation in the general economy. So, absent a revolution in how the Pentagon buys military capabilities, the force will shrink in size and readiness—especially with the coming budget squeeze. The only questions are when and by how much. Once this decline starts, critics will pounce on the Pentagon demanding to know why and how, after spending trillions on defense, this happened?
Added to these challenges are a new acting Navy Secretary; a still relatively new Chief of Naval Operations; the uncertainties of an election year, and the unknown long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation, the economy, and the federal budget.
Even before COVID-19, the Navy had not put forth a viable path to a 355-ship fleet. Getting to that goal by spending more is now off the table. The only path now is to completely revamp its force structure plans. A 2020 version of Project 60 is urgently needed. Does Admiral Gilday have the vision Admiral Zumwalt had? And if he does, will the White House, Congress, DoD, and the rest of the Navy listen?