The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Self-Delusions of American Naval Power


Hans Christian Andersen crafted the parable of the emperor’s new clothes to teach children how pomposity and collective denial can produce stupidity and how childlike honesty can cut through it all. The tale centers on a credulous emperor and a circle of courtiers and subjects who were willing to play along with the delusion – a situation now mirrored not only in the Pentagon, but also in the White House and Congress. And the U.S. Navy is caught in in this web of pomposity and collective denial on two fronts. The first involves the Navy’s Fleet Response Program (FRP) and the second is the inconsistency between the Unified Command Plan (UCP) and the Navy’s operating environment – the world’s oceans. These issues might not sound sexy, but they are crucial to understand. Both are related and the net result is an over-extended Navy, bereft of a command-and-control apparatus congruent with its operating environment.

The underlying delusion is that the U.S. Navy can maintain its function of supporting the global order with a reduced force of around 280 ships without becoming a hollow force, and that it can do so in light of the force distribution and maneuver inefficiencies imposed by the current UCP. To this I say, like the child in Andersen’s fable, the emperor has no clothes. The Navy cannot fulfill its mission under the stated restrictions. The Navy cannot remain a globally relevant force under the conditions that are emerging unless significant changes are made to the size and makeup of the force and a way is found to overcome the anachronisms embedded in the UCP.  Without addressing these issues, as a 2010 Center for Naval Analyses study pointed out, the Navy will have to gradually constrict its operations, accept a hollow force or both. Now, it falls to the Navy itself to admit to these problems so it can go about fixing them.

Problem One: Geography versus Law

Ships have freely transited the world’s oceans since 1945 principally as a result of the U.S.-led liberalization of international trade, and secured by the global power projection of the U.S. Navy, enabled by its command of the sea. Concerted U.S. economic and naval power established the ground rules of the postwar global order and worked to preserve it. The Navy had to patrol the Eurasian littoral to help contain the Soviet Union and maintain such stability as was possible in order for the global economic system to heal and grow. Concomitantly, Congress, in order to promote unified action among the armed forces, established in 1947 a globe-girdling structure of combatant commands. Up to the end of the Cold War, this structure did not unduly interfere with the Navy’s ability to maneuver in consonance with the global strategy of containment. The officers in charge of the Pacific and Atlantic commands were always admirals, so the Navy essentially enjoyed a kind of global unified command that was congruent with its operational environment.

After the Cold War, things changed. The Navy started shrinking from its 1980s high of 566 ships, eventually reaching today’s level of fewer than 280.  Concurrently, the Navy adopted a new “strategy” entitled “…From the Sea,” which shifted its focus from fighting for control of the ocean to projecting power ashore. This shift in focus made naval strategy a regional or local matter rather than a global one. As a consequence, Navy justifications for the two-ocean joint command structure evaporated and pressures from the Army and Air Force to draw area of responsibility (AOR) boundaries in the water won out, with Atlantic Command disappearing entirely by 1999 and large chunks of the world ocean being doled out to land-focused commanders in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. This was not a problem as long as there was no enemy that required the U.S. Navy to maneuver on a hemispheric or global level and the Navy had sufficient force structure to be able to “fair-share” forces to the various combatant commander claimants. After 9/11, these two conditions no longer held due to the trans-regional nature of the al Qaeda threat and the extraordinary force requirements of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rise of a robust Chinese navy only exacerbated the problem. The Navy, however, continues to operate (or at least talk) as if these conditions have not changed and thus has not lobbied for an adjustment to the UCP, probably out of fear of being labeled un-joint. If scarce naval forces are to be used strategically (i.e. efficiently), then they must be under the control of a single commander.

Problem Two: Conservation of Mass and Energy

Basic physics holds that the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant. You can convert one to the other, but you cannot create something out of nothing. There is an analogous situation when it comes to how much presence and readiness you can squeeze out of a given number of ships. Globalization has neither shrunk nor flattened the earth from the perspective of naval operations: ships must be either here or there and they require time to transit between stations. Indeed, it takes roughly the same amount of time for a modern Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to transit from San Diego to Yokosuka as it did for a World War II Essex-class.  Therefore, the number of carries on forward station is easily determined by the stark math of cruise lengths and intervals. For example, it requires 12 carriers just to maintain constant presence on three stations, assuming a normal rhythm of six-month cruises at 18-month intervals for maintenance and work-up training. Under peacetime circumstances, when the on-station carriers can handle emergent crises by themselves, the Navy’s carrier force is like the chain on a chainsaw: stretched tight, but with just a little give.

The problems start when you need a surge, as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the law of conservation of mass and energy demands one or more compensatory actions: gap carrier forward presence somewhere, extend cruises, defer maintenance, or curtail training.  There is no magic way out of this.  In the 1990s, the Navy settled on a station-keeping plan in which the variable was the amount of carrier presence forward, with the number of carriers and the length of maintenance and training cycles more or less constant.  In those circumstances, with constant budget pressure, the inter-deployment readiness cycle (IDRC) developed the “bathtub:” the post-cruise period in which the carrier and its air wing were stripped of airframes, parts and operating budget to support those units getting close to their deployment dates.  Progressive “efficiencies” in the procurement of parts and supplies meant that carriers were not deployment-ready until just prior to their scheduled deployment date, thereby eliminating the capacity to surge.

Enter the Fleet Response Plan (FRP). When he became Chief of Naval Operations in 2000, Admiral Vern Clark was determined to fix the readiness problem that beset the Navy. To do so, he redirected significant funds to fleet logistics and infrastructure. The heart of the plan was to generate more forces available to surge. However, no matter how much money was invested in parts and operating funds, mass and energy still had to be conserved. To do so, the idea was to take up slack on the deployed side.  Instead of station-keeping, carrier groups would adopt a “random” deployment scheme in which a deployed group would cruise around among the unified commands’ AORs in a fashion that would not be predictable by potential adversaries.  This would, in theory, require fewer deployed carriers, while permitting more carrier groups to stand ready to deploy in case of trouble.  For awhile, the combination of the new deployment scheme and injects of readiness funds did the trick. Then a combination of instability in the Eurasian littoral resulting in additional demands for forces, the decommissioning of USS Enterprise and delays in commissioning USS Ford, and ever-shrinking budgets all served to undo the FRP.  In the past few years, deployments have been extended, maintenance deferred and turnaround times reduced. Hard use and deferred maintenance have resulted in nasty surprises during shipyard inspections that have doubled the projected maintenance downtime of several carriers recently. Mass and energy needing to be conserved, the Navy has elected to deploy carriers with only a fraction of the normal workup and training time. Yet, Navy leadership continues to assert that a properly executed sequel to the FRP, the Optimized Fleet Response Program (O-FRP), will smooth out the problems and get the carrier deployment mess cleaned up. Just look at the emperor’s new clothes!

Another element of denial involves the increased capability of modern naval forces.  Some critics assert that the Navy is down to the smallest number of ships since before World War I and this compromises its capability to uphold U.S. strategic interests. President Obama and others respond that this argument is invalid because modern ships have more capability than earlier classes. This constitutes fawning over imaginary clothes on two counts. First, there is the old problem of geography, speed, and transit. Modern ships might fire farther, but do not move faster than their WWI forebears. Secondly, regardless of the sophistication of modern ship defenses, we cannot expect to engage in naval combat with no losses. The more combat power is packed into a single vessel, the greater the percentage of overall force combat power is lost if it is put out of action. Even when we design a ship to accommodate more and bigger weapons systems, its defensive power does not increase in proportion to its offensive power. And there is a knee in the curve above which it becomes a “high value unit” that other ships must defend. Thus the overhead cost for “excess” offensive power in a single unit starts to mushroom.  This is the aircraft carrier.  It is indeed uniquely capable, but it cannot tolerate much risk except under the direst strategic stakes. So besides not being able to be in two places at once, a smaller, high value unit-centric navy is not as risk-tolerant as a more numerous, distributed-lethality navy.

Stitching Up Some Actual New Clothes

Getting beyond the little child’s observation that the emperor had no clothes, we should make some other candid statements.  First, the Navy will not return to the days when it had 15 aircraft carriers on its rolls.  In fact, it will be lucky to maintain 11.  The number 15 was underpinned by the assumption that the aircraft carrier is the centerpiece of U.S. naval force projection at sea, over the littorals, and ashore.  This assumption is increasingly invalid.  There are now large areas of the Eurasian littoral that are simply too dangerous for carriers to operate in the mode of “gunboat diplomacy” or engaging in conventional warfare. Moreover, even setting aside the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier itself, modern anti-aircraft systems are making the skies more threatening for the air wings that comprise the carriers’ power (stealth or no stealth). Since Desert Storm, Tomahawk cruise missiles have taken over much of the deep strike mission from carrier-based aircraft, and new technologies such as the rail gun may encroach even further into their mission portfolio. Thus, the question becomes: how many carriers are really needed forward in order to support U.S. strategic interests?  Sequestration forces the Navy to make a hard choice because the increasing cost of carriers and their aircraft represents an increasingly severe tradeoff with other kinds of forces. So, just when the strategic utility of carriers is starting to fray at the edges, they require increasing commitment in terms of budget share.

Second, there is no magic shortcut to ship maintenance. The sea is a harsh environment for machinery, and while strides have been made in design and materials to improve maintainability, maintenance must still be done and it takes time to do properly. Quality crew training takes time as well. Some efficiencies might be found on the margins, but especially for the complex operations of a carrier battle group, time is needed for progressive and iterative training drills to generate a battle group that is “on the step.” Thus maintenance and training ought to be considered constants in the deployment equation, not variables. This leaves as the only variables the number of carriers forward, duration of cruises, and number of carriers ready for surge.  There are no magical clothes that can cover over this bare fact.

So, how might the mantle of naval power actually be measured and sewn? First, we ought to acknowledge that extending cruises beyond six or seven months or increasing the number of cruises per tour risks having sailors walk out the door after their first or second enlistments.  The same goes for aircrew, especially as the airlines replace the corps of Baby Boomer pilots. This forces cruise length and frequency to be set constant as a matter of policy. The number of available surge carriers can vary, but a world that contains rising, well-armed competitors in multiple regions as well as a highly unstable Middle East suggests that the United States might have to fight in two places at once, and possibly more, while still being able to deter adversaries elsewhere. This increases the strategic value of surge-ready carriers in port. In the end, this leaves only the number of carriers forward as the relevant variable.

If forward carriers are the only adjustable variable, there is only one operational conclusion: the U.S. Navy ought to conduct more of its day-to-day forward presence operations with forces other than carrier strike groups.  Less obvious are the carriers’ replacements, but one part of the answer has been already established: a greater number of smaller ships with distributed lethality and survivability. This would make life harder for countries like China that want to stiff-arm a U.S. presence in the littoral by acquiring “carrier killer” ballistic missiles. Conversely, by side-stepping some of the emergent anti-access/area denial threats, the U.S. Navy would become more risk tolerant and be of more utility to the President during a crisis.

The disaggregation of forward presence forces into “flotillas” offers the opportunity for greater tailoring to local conditions.  Following Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s conception of “payloads over platforms” as well as measures such as modularity and containerization of weapons (putting missiles in shipping containers as self-contained launchers) would allow the Navy to present an ever-shifting force design to potential adversaries, making programmatic response difficult and thus enhancing conventional deterrence over the long term. Having less chance of winning a “battle of the first salvo” due to built-in U.S. tactical stability, adversaries might be less willing to risk a first shot. An aggregation of smaller ships makes it easier to swap out crews instead of ships, providing some flexibility in personnel tempo. Maintenance might be performed in-theater, and in any case, smaller vessels are generally easier and cheaper to maintain. The containerization of missiles would also allow a variety of ship classes to become threats to opposing forces, thus complicating their planning and doctrine.

Regional flotillas (even if they included some rather large ships such as destroyers, amphibious ships, and logistics force ships) open the door for the reinstitution of an effective Fleet Response Program. There should always be aircraft carriers prowling around the Eurasian littoral, but freed from the burden of station-keeping, the Navy’s carrier force can once again live comfortably with the conservation of mass and energy equation. The number of deployed carriers becomes a true variable, as does the number of surge-capable groups.

However, there remain the constraints of the Unified Command Plan. The regional COCOMs will have to accept flotillas as the basis of their naval power for deterrence and response. The deployed carriers will have to be operated strategically on a hemispheric or global basis, meaning that they cannot just be fair-shared by the forward COCOMs. This is not that much different from the way Special Operations Command handles its forces. A centralized naval strategy planning office must be established.  If this office is to function coherently, the Navy will need to develop a true strategy, not just a public relations document, and then populate the office with personnel that actually know something about global naval strategy, not just hot-runners on their way to operational command and flag rank.

Finally, the really hard fact: because of a distracted and profoundly divided Congress, there is a strong likelihood that the steady decline of defense budgets will continue for the foreseeable future. In addition to this decline in available funding and the accompanying decrease in overall purchasing power, it is difficult to see how the existing distribution of funding among the services within those same budgets will be shifted in any significant way. Therefore, the U.S. Navy cannot afford 11 aircraft carrier groups and maintain a balanced fleet.

This number is embedded in statute but even now the Navy has sought a waiver from Congress to go down to 10 to cover the gap between the decommissioning of the Enterprise and the commissioning of the Ford. If carriers did not have to maintain station, even fewer than 10 might suffice. In any case, the Navy would need the money saved to build up its regional flotillas. This is a difficult step for the Navy to take. Carriers are a highly theological issue for the Navy, and one that stirs profound emotions. Additionally, there is only one yard that builds nuclear carriers, so slowing procurement would further escalate costs and “skipping” a carrier might end production wholesale. One possibility is to mothball older Nimitz-class ships instead of running them through expensive refuelings, but keep building Fords. The exact formula is beyond the scope of this article, but the combination of shrinking mission portfolio, increasing vulnerabilities, increasing cost and constant COCOM demands make the current situation clearly untenable. New, more appropriate ways of using the carriers that are congruent with the emerging strategic and operational environment will naturally yield a different number.

Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.”  This quote has been much invoked in the wake of the Budget Control Act that established sequestration.  However, the refusal to face bare facts turns thinking into spin – as any naval “strategy” incompatible with the law of conservation of mass and energy can only be described. As even a child could tell you, it’s delusional to praise the emperor’s new clothes when it’s plain to see he’s not wearing any.


Robert C. (Barney) Rubel is a retired Navy Captain who flew A-7s and F-18s. He served as Chairman of Wargaming Department and Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julie Matyascik