war on the rocks

Replacing the Boomers & Naval Soul-Searching: II

October 30, 2013

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert has termed the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) replacement program “the top priority program for the Navy.” But, as I explained in an earlier article, at a cost estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to surpass $100 billion over the next two decades, a new fleet of “boomers” threatens to eviscerate the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding account.  In response, Navy has requested a $60 billion top-up from the Congress to help pay for the service’s contribution to strategic nuclear deterrence. But in this age of sequestration and budgetary austerity, the Navy’s plea for special dispensation could very well fall on deaf ears. Without the extra funds, the Navy may be forced to reduce the rest of its fleet to as few as 200 ships.

Yet it is not just the internal battle over SSBN funding that threatens the Navy. Separate from the competition over shipbuilding funds, the technical revolution in anti-ship missiles and sensors – much of it based on land — is disrupting long-standing patterns of naval operations. The rapid proliferation and declining relative costs of increasingly long-range anti-ship missiles and sensors  is an increasingly dire hazard to much of the traditional Navy. This shift should result in substantial adaptation by the Navy, a period of sorting out that could drag on for years. It may also be an unspoken reason why Greenert has given funding priority to the “boomers” while the rest of the Navy figures out how to cope with the missile threat.

British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson once remarked, “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” In Nelson’s day during the Napoleonic Wars, larger and more stable coastal guns held the advantage over a ship’s guns, but out to a range of no more than a kilometer or two. Today’s “fort,” a continental adversary possessing modern precision missiles and the sensors and command system to direct them, can threaten warships as far as 2,000 kilometers from shore. China’s now-famous DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, with a reported range of up to 1,500 kilometers, is the most dramatic (if not most dangerous) example of the modern “fort.” Even more ominous are the squadrons of maritime strike fighters capable of launching scores of long-range, high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles, in volumes that threaten to overwhelm the most modern fleet defenses. Although still a limited problem today, a decade from now potential adversaries like China will very likely possess this long-range access-denial capability. And the declining relative costs of missiles and sensors will ease their proliferation to a widening set of players.

The long-standing design of the Navy needs to adapt to the changing maritime threat environment. The part of the Navy responsible for sea control, forward presence, and power projection increasingly finds itself too vulnerable for certain tasks and over-engineered for others.

The chart below describes the paradoxical potential outcomes, using starkly-defined archetypes to simplify the descriptions. The vertical axis denotes adversaries that are “highly capable” (possessing both land-based anti-ship missile forces along with “blue water” navies) and “low capability” adversaries that are not so endowed. The horizontal axis divides the ocean into the zone within the range of land-based “anti-navy” missile forces (2,000 kilometers) and the waters beyond that range. The resulting four quadrants display the four scenarios the U.S. Navy would face under this model.

 

Within 2,000 km of continent Beyond 2,000 km of continent
Low capability opponent I. Navy power projection forces (carrier and amphibious strike groups) still useful, but probably over-engineered. II. Navy uncontested, but also over-engineered.
High capablility opponent III. Sea control and power projection contested or denied. A challenge for Navy aircraft carriers and amphibious ships. IV. Fleet versus fleet actions during wartime. Submarines expected to dominate surface forces.

 

Case I describes the maritime environment the U.S. Navy has become used to since World War II, the last time it defeated a peer navy. Since then, the Navy’s power projection forces, its aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, have operated without a challenge from adversary naval, air, or missile forces (the Soviet “reconnaissance strike complex” of the 1980s was a momentary exception).  As a result, the Navy could execute persistent, large-scale naval air campaigns over Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, as well as numerous smaller operations.

The question for the Navy and Marine Corps is to what extent the future proliferation of anti-ship missiles capabilities will increasingly confine Case I to an ever-smaller set of low-capability opponents. Should that be the trend over the next two decades, the Navy may be hard-pressed to justify its acquisition of costly power projection forces (such as aircraft carrier strike groups) that can be safely employed against only the most feeble enemies.

The Navy’s pursuit of the stealthy F-35C Joint Strike Fighter for its aircraft carriers poses a similar contradiction. The Navy’s justification for this stealthy strike aircraft assumes an adversary with a highly-capable air defense system, but one simultaneously lacking a land-based anti-ship missile capability that would keep the F-35C’s carrier base at bay, a capability no more difficult to acquire than an air defense system. In lean budget times, the Navy may have a difficult time explaining such examples of over-engineering for Case I scenarios.

In Case II, low-capability adversaries are assumed to lack the capacity to challenge the Navy in deep blue water.

Case III is the “anti-access” challenge likely to be presented by China by next decade, and likely others as missile and sensor technology proliferates. As Case III becomes increasingly common, first in East Asia and later in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and elsewhere, the maritime environment to which the Navy has been accustomed since 1950 will be a fading memory. Against highly capable missile adversaries, clever and aggressive Navy carrier strike group commanders with well-trained crews might sneak into missile zones for a one-off raid. But the Case I practice where the Navy moved aircraft carriers into “Yankee Station” for months or years of bombing ashore will not be possible in Case III. Marine Corps amphibious operations would similarly be restricted.

Navy officials hope that future advanced missile defenses, such as electromagnetic rail guns and free-electron lasers, will thwart the looming missile threat and thus convert much of Case III back to Case I. But these efforts are currently still in the laboratory, will require new ship designs, and if they pan out, won’t be ready for the fleet until the second half of the next decade. During this time, new generations of adversary missiles will arrive, creating new risks for current missile defense plans.

Case IV describes deep ocean naval operations beyond the range of most shore-based missiles. In modern fleet versus fleet engagements in deep blue water, attack submarines are expected to dominate surface ships. This was not generally the case during World War II because submarines of that era were slow and underpowered compared to surface ships. By contrast, today’s nuclear-powered attack submarines are fast, stealthy, and well-armed. The one occasion to date when a nuclear-powered attack submarine fired on an adversary was decisive. At the outbreak of the Falklands crisis in 1982, the British nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror was ordered to sprint the length of the Atlantic and then patrol west of the islands. The submarine soon dispatched the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano with two guided torpedoes; the Argentine navy retreated to port and played no further role in the conflict.

The U.S. Navy will not face a peer navy in the deep ocean for many years. With such a hypothetical engagement so far into the future, it is risky to speculate how it might play out. Based on current trends, surface ships would seem most at risk compared to submarines and aircraft. Indeed, the Navy’s preferred approach for this hypothetical engagement might be to have satellites and land-based long-range patrol aircraft – such as the P-8 Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton – find adversary surface ships and then direct submarines for an attack. Under this theory, aircraft carriers and supporting surface warships would play a secondary role and may even be directed to avoid an engagement in which they would be vulnerable and of little use.

* * *

From this, the current design of the Navy looks to be a mismatch for the future. As the missile and sensor revolution continues to advance, the Navy’s power projection forces, which constitute its biggest investment, will be forced into matchups with only low-end adversaries. Meanwhile, the Navy’s surface forces will either be over-engineered or have a secondary role for the Navy’s other cases and tasks.

Many in the Navy community have called for reforms to the Navy’s design. For example, Wayne Hughes, a retired Navy captain and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has proposed a “New Navy Fighting Machine” based on a much larger number of smaller, cheaper, single-mission ships. Hughes asserts that this design is a better match for both the high-end and low-end adversaries the U.S. and its allies will face in the future. Robert Rubel, another retired Navy captain and Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, has also called for a shake-up in the Navy’s doctrine and acquisition plans.

Which brings us back to Greenert’s decision to make the new SSBN fleet the top shipbuilding priority. The SSBN requirement, deemed essential for both existential national security and the Navy’s continuing participation in that top-level mission, is one Navy program Greenert can be sure of. By contrast, the missile and sensor revolution, ongoing technological change, and questions about future adversaries have resulted in great uncertainty about how the Navy will go about providing a forward presence, controlling the seas, and projecting power ashore. Greenert has placed the Navy’s money on new SSBNs – an easy call for him. For the rest of the Navy, the future is too cloudy to make the same confident pledge.

 

Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.

 

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery