The Navy’s wartime capacity substantially consists of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which continue to be the pivot of the Navy’s fleet design. While they repeatedly have proved themselves strategically and operationally useful, carriers’ rising expense and scarcity versus need have gradually forced the Navy into a squeeze that has produced, among other things, gaps in training and material readiness.
The Navy has attempted to work its way out of the squeeze by finding efficiencies in training, maintenance, and ship scheduling. The real problem, however, is with fleet design, and any effective redesign will require a new underpinning logic.
A new decisive weapon
The Navy’s current fleet design revolves around the aircraft-delivered bomb. Accepted without challenge since Pearl Harbor, the logic of air attack underpinned construction of the “Big Blue Fleet” and formed the basis for the Cold War navy. However, with the rise of a contentious China and revanchist Russia, both armed with large stockpiles of high-performance anti-ship, antiaircraft, and other types of missiles, a new logic of naval warfighting may be required.
Almost 20 years ago, Captain Wayne Hughes updated his classic book, Fleet Tactics, to include missile combat. In it, he asserts, “It is easy to show that the world’s navies are in a new age in which antiship missiles are the most influential weapons shaping tactics.”1 If the missile has supplanted the aircraft-delivered bomb as the decisive weapon of the future, then future fleet design must be zero-based on the logic of missile combat.
As a strike leader in the fleet, I engaged in what we called “aviation backward planning.” We started with a target and “weaponeered” it, determining how many of what kinds of bombs and other weapons would be needed to achieve the required degree of damage. That number translated into how many aircraft would be needed to carry them. We then looked at enemy defenses and determined what kind of fighter and defense suppression support would be needed. That then allowed us to calculate tanking, and from all that, we could generate tactics, launch sequence plans, search-and-rescue plans, etc. That same “target-out” planning can be scaled to fleet design, with the logic of the decisive weapon being the pivot.
For example, how many of what kinds of missiles would be needed to sink or put out of action a Chinese Type 55 destroyer? How would we get that number of missiles to the target? How many of what kinds of ships would be needed? What kind of protection and support would they need? What type of logistics, repair, and construction infrastructure should underpin them? This expanding-circle logic would result in a particular fleet design. That design would have to be adjusted to accommodate regional particulars and other tasks the Navy must perform, but it would create a set of channel markers for judging the relative merit of new technologies and concepts. Only then could reasonable judgments be made on the utility of aircraft carriers and other kinds of ships.
Implications of a New Logic
Certain implications of the logic of anti-ship missiles as the decisive naval weapon must be explored. One is that some missiles—both ours and the enemy’s—will get through to their targets, despite robust defenses. The power of modern warheads suggests that just one hit could take even a major combatant out of action. If this is true, then logic says offensive missile power must be distributed if the fleet is not to suffer catastrophic degradation on the basis of a few hits.
But shifting to distributed operations as a defensive measure is only half the equation. Dispersal would seem to make offensive operations more difficult because of the need to coordinate missile salvos. If we begin fleet design with the idea that our missiles will be decisive in defeating an enemy fleet, then we can better judge whether dispersal is a good tactic and how much is needed.
A serious examination of the interdependent dynamics of offense and defense in a missile-centric campaign is prerequisite to figuring out what kinds of formations and distributions are most effective, and from that the Navy could determine what types of ships would be most appropriate. The recent shift in Marine Corps doctrine points the way to a more integrated joint approach to fleet design. The Army and Air Force are both capable of delivering missiles of various kinds. Missiles are more agnostic about launch platforms than are aircraft.
Of course, the Navy has accrued strategic functions beyond just fighting for command of the sea—strategic deterrence, forward presence, engaged troop support, and maritime security being a few—and these must be factored into any new fleet design. At first glance, these functions do not seem to be sufficiently related to war at sea to allow that logic to underpin the design of forces. Yet, that is precisely what has happened with respect to the aircraft-delivered bomb. Carriers, because of their centrality to the Navy’s fleet design, are used for many of these other strategic functions, creating the availability dilemmas the Navy is facing.
Adopting a missile-centric fleet design logic could well alter or at least ease the kind of “spillover” between core war-fighting and other strategic functions that now occurs. A missile-based warfighting force could be far cheaper than a carrier-centric one, allowing different types of ships to carry out these other functions. One emerging idea is the more extensive use of amphibious ships for some of the functions carriers now perform. This would be especially efficient if amphibs were fitted out with offensive missiles. Within currently projected budgets, the Navy could reach significantly higher numbers of ships much more quickly than if it persisted with the aviation-centric logic.
This is not to say aircraft carriers are obsolete and should be dropped from the roster. To the contrary, the aircraft carrier likely will retain its utility well into the future. The rationale for keeping them, what their uses are, and how many of what types should populate the fleet, however, should devolve from a fleet design logic that pivots on the centrality of missiles.
While missiles are likely to be the decisive weapon in any future war at sea, there is a companion logic that exerts its own pull on fleet design: the network. Especially if fleet dispersal is a logical consequence of missile combat, a functioning network will be necessary to achieve offensive coordination of firepower. In this regard, it is especially gratifying to see that the Chief of Naval Operations’ NavPlan makes the development of such a network a top priority.2
Effecting a Course Change
If the missile is the decisive weapon of the future, and if a functioning network is required to make it effective, then what kind of fleet is needed? That should be the going-in question in a new force structure assessment. Command of the sea is a necessary underpinning for U.S. grand strategy, whatever its future direction. We must be able to keep the seas open for commerce and close them as necessary to those who would use them for military aggression. If the United States, because of inappropriate fleet design logic, prices itself out of the ability to defend the system, the world is more likely to devolve into one of the possible adverse futures depicted in forecast after forecast by the U.S. intelligence community.
Radical change is difficult for any institution, because there inevitably will be winners and losers. Potential losers will fight for the status quo not because they are selfish or hidebound, but because they believe their contributions are critical for success. Disaster or defeat, such as that suffered at Pearl Harbor, is one way of “clearing the decks” but certainly not desirable. Compelling arguments based on clear logic are much to be preferred.
Today’s Navy has been so vested in aviation-centric fleet design for so long it does not understand that the aircraft-delivered bomb, a la the Dauntlesses that won so dramatically at Midway, continues to be its underpinning logic. If a new logic can be articulated and sold, couched in the language of winning a war at sea, the Navy might be better able to effect a course change that will allow it to navigate among the rocks and shoals of growing threats, increased costs, overtasking, and constrained budgets.
1. CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 149.
2. U.S. Navy, CNO NAVPLAN 2021, January 2021, 9.