On taking office as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday said: “We will question our assumptions. We will think differently about the competition we are now in.” Among the assumptions the Navy needs to question is whether its current posture is adequate for great power competition. Based on just two criteria, the answer is no:
- The U.S. Navy is smaller than China’s, never mind the combined fleets of Russia and China.
- The U.S. Navy is less capably armed. Chinese platforms almost all carry supersonic antiship missiles.2 Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is reliant on subsonic antiship missiles, 5-inch guns, and torpedoes.
The Navy needs to change course, with a focus on strategic deterrence, sea control, sea denial, and power projection.
Strategic Deterrence. The nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) remains the most secure and reliable deterrent to a nuclear strike against the United States. Consequently, construction of the Columbia-class SSBNs must remain the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) top priority. But the first Columbia is not slated to go on patrol until fiscal year 2031, and history is not on her side: Her predecessor, the USS Ohio (then-SSBN-726), “was delivered to the navy about two-and-a-half years behind her original schedule and cost about $1.2 billion, 50 percent more than estimated.”3 If anything, additional funds and manpower need to be redirected to ensure the Columbias go to sea in time to relieve the aging Ohio class.
Sea Control. The Navy’s next priority should be new air-, ship-, and sub-launched antiair, antiship, and antisubmarine weapons—as well as advanced autonomous unmanned vehicles—designed against the most challenging enemies. In addition, the Navy needs to prioritize undersea infrastructure that is essential to wartime command and control and the global economy, such as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System and seabed information cables.4
Sea Denial. Because Russian and Chinese forces possess area-denial capabilities, U.S. submarines and aircraft must be prepared to penetrate their seas and airspace to inflict costs on land targets, shipping, aircraft, and information systems.
Power Projection. High-end warfare requires the Navy to embrace deep-strike missions against robust air defenses and communications jamming. The Navy must ensure that strike weaponry does not rely on external navigation inputs and possesses sufficient autonomous logic to execute missions without requiring guidance.
The role of carrier air wings (CVWs) also requires scrutiny. A potential great power war will not be a replay of the epic carrier battles of World War II. CVWs may still conduct some ground-strike missions, but they mostly will focus on air defense of surface ships and maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft (MPRAs), as well as targeting enemy MPRAs. In their place, “missiles are becoming the principal strike weapon of all the world’s armed forces. Navy fleet design should pivot on that assumption, especially when hypersonics begin to proliferate.”5 The Navy needs to prioritize the next generation of long-range, high-speed strike missiles, while repurposing the CVW for different (but still crucial) missions.
It is time to break from the global presence of the Cold War until fleet size can again support it. The Navy must withdraw from many areas it has sailed over the past seven decades and maintain a selective presence where it really matters.
And where it really matters is the western Pacific. The Navy’s focus needs to be on China, which possesses the world’s largest navy and global strategic ambitions. Most of the U.S. fleet should relocate to the West Coast to support high-end combat operations in the Pacific without a transatlantic or Panama Canal crossing. This includes all aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, as well as most surface and naval air units. Most missions in European or Central Command could be achieved by U.S. Air Force or allied strike aircraft. Although the Russian threat in the North Atlantic remains, it is primarily an antisubmarine warfare threat that could be met with a surge force of destroyers, MPRAs, submarines, and NATO allies.
Selective presence not only will concentrate the fleet as a credible deterrent to China, but also will allow the Pacific Fleet commander to better execute the reinvigorated Fleet Problems to test new high-end warfighting concepts and train the fleet for war.
General Curtis LeMay, who took over Strategic Air Command in the late 1940s, recalled: “We had to operate every day as if we were at war, so if the whistle actually blew we would be doing the same things that we were doing yesterday with the same people and the same methods.”6 This is the approach required of the Navy in great power competition.
Being at war every day demands operational readiness. The Navy must prioritize maintenance facilities and warfighting training—which means more people, funding, and infrastructure. Maintenance facilities need a mix of permanent skilled labor and uniformed technicians who can keep availabilities and repairs on schedule. Schools should have enough simulators and experienced operators to provide emergent training without affecting other units’ training.
A wartime mentality also means eliminating the optimized fleet response plan, which, as one critic has pointed out, “optimiz[es] the wrong metric . . . ‘deployable,’ not ‘combat ready.’”7
Finally, ships and aircraft need far more time dedicated to at-sea and in-flight training, which means that limitations on fuel, ammunition, and sea time need to be lifted. When eight lieutenants at the 2019 Tailhook conference declared they were not ready for a peer fight, a commentator noted a key point: “Above all, U.S. aviators need more flight hours. Just as athletes hone their tactical acumen through constant practice and self-critique, airmen need sufficient resources and time to undertake ‘repetition after repetition after repetition’—and flourish in action.”8
By increasing manning and providing adequate time for training, all of which selective presence should support, the Navy should be able to more rapidly repair material issues, improve combat readiness, and send relatively more aircraft into the air and more ships to sea. It should aim to maintain at least 50 percent of the fleet in high readiness for immediate combat operations, with the ability to rapidly surge the other half.
There is a tremendous roadblock to any new direction the Navy may go: lack of funding and resources. For the past three decades, U.S. elected representatives have mostly chosen to cut or restrain the defense budget. So, while the Navy must change course, it must do so with the budget it has. It needs to make hard decisions that will free sailors to support maintenance and training and free money to support new platforms and payloads optimized for high-end combat—as well as support day-to-day operations.
First, the Navy should eliminate or reduce the following personnel communities that do not contribute to warfighting:
- Foreign Area Officers
- Human Resources
- Public Affairs Officers
- Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs)
These communities execute functions that could be done by unrestricted line (URL) officers or government civilians—or even eliminated. In the case of the JAG corps, the Navy can revert to URL “battle” JAGs, who earn law degrees then cycle between legal billets and warfighting assignments, including command.9
In addition, the Navy should shift the unrestricted line community of Naval Special Warfare back to its pre-2001 footprint. SEAL end-strength grew during the war on terror, but great power competition will likely not require the same number of special operators.
Finally, the Navy should decommission platforms that either are consuming too much maintenance time and money or are not built for high-end combat. The Navy already is trying to decommission some of these ships, but Congress and the Office of Management and Budget have disagreed.10 At a minimum, the Navy should stop operating these platforms and maintain them pierside or in hangars with skeleton crews:
- Ohio-class SSGNs
- Ticonderoga-class cruisers at or reaching the end of their 35-year service lives
- Littoral combat ships
- Riverine patrol boats
- Airframes with more flight hours or pressurization cycles than the original manufacturer specification
Billets assigned to these platforms should be reallocated to plus-up newer platforms, training commands, and maintenance facilities.
The Time Is Now
To be a credible deterrent, the Navy must refocus on core missions, selectively deploy its forces, and maintain wartime readiness. This will require a significant reorganization of the fleet and its personnel, all without any expectation of more funding. Difficult choices need to be made, and the time to make them is now.
1. ADM Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations Change of Office, 22 August 2019.
2. The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century (Suitland, MD: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015), 16–17, 19–22.
3. Francis Duncan, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy: The Discipline of Technology (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 50.
4. Bill Glenney, “The Deep Ocean: Seabed Warfare and the Defense of Undersea Infrastructure, Pt. 1,” Center for International Maritime Security, 4 February 2019.
5. CAPT Robert Rubel, USN (Ret.), “The Future of Aircraft Carriers: Consider the Air Wing, Not the Platform,” Center for International Maritime Security, 3 December 2019.
6. GEN Curtis LeMay, USAF, quoted in Melvin G. Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946–62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 102.
7. CAPT Dale Rielage, USN, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 4 (May 2018).
8. James R. Holmes, “Eight Lieutenants Deliver a Tough Message,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 10 (October 2019).
9. Amanda Kraus, Karan Schriver, and Ann D. Parcell, “Warfighting First: Implications for Talent Management and Personnel System Reform,” CNA, March 2016, 83–84.
10. David Larter, “Once Again, the U.S. Navy Looks to Scrap Its Largest Combatants to Save Money,” Breaking Defense, 18 March 2019; “U.S. Navy Proposes Decommissioning First 4 LCS More than a Decade Early,” Defense News, 24 December 2019.