The U.S. Navy’s Self-Imposed Blockade


The U.S. Navy is confined to a narrow intellectual roadstead, effectively corralled in its thinking and investment decisions by the three horsemen of budget constraints, bureaucratic sclerosis, and constricting congressional mandates. The current received wisdom of the institution judges that inadequate resources for shipbuilding, coupled with a ponderous acquisition process and regulatory constraints, such as the requirement to maintain 11 aircraft carriers, means it is not possible to build a new ship or redesign our fleet architecture — or even think about doing so. The “smart” thinking is that the only way forward is to simply repeat improved versions of existing platforms — destroyers, littoral combat ships, aircraft carriers — and perhaps even rename and re-categorize a few. Regrettably, our adversaries are not similarly encumbered in their thinking, and this simple systemic asymmetry between our calcified bureaucracy and their capacity for innovation means we are effectively ceding the field, or ocean, to future adversaries. It is “baked in” that we will lose the next big naval contest if we maintain our current heading.

Given the seriousness of the circumstances, we should be working overtime to change this disastrous course and start thinking again about fleet and ship design, even if today’s resources don’t allow full implementation of the new fleet architecture and the ships we may envision. There is a benefit to having a plan, even if current circumstances militate against its full implementation.

The rules of the game are changing, and we ignore this paradigm shift at our peril. In the next naval engagement, we don’t want a future carrier strike group commander exclaiming, a la Beatty, “…there seems to be something wrong with our bloody carriers today.” Arguably, our current approach to fleet architecture is as blinkered as that of the Edwardian Royal Navy as it coped with the transition from sail to steam and from a period of extended peace to protracted war. Certainly, the emergence of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems is every bit as revolutionary as the introduction of steam propulsion, and we should expect unmanned systems to change the influence of geography and the geometry of tactical engagements as fundamentally as during the transition from sail to steam. We are re-entering an age of persistent presence — enabled by unmanned systems — like we have not experienced since the days of sail when ships could keep station to the extent food and water supplies permitted.

Persistence will shrink distances, expand time horizons, change logistical support requirements, and reshape tactical engagements. The impact on ship design will be significant. If shore-based systems can easily extend to the deep ocean, if intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems become ubiquitous, if unmanned aircraft can self-deploy great distances and remain on station for extended periods in large numbers due to decreasing unit costs, if wave gliders are always on and under the sea, what type of ships should we be building? Is it possible that ships designed for an era when these capabilities did not exist, through some serendipity, could still be the most appropriate?

The British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger wrote, “If there is a single lesson which can be drawn from the study of warships and their weapons, it is that the only useful measure of quality is fitness for purpose.” So, taking the aircraft carrier as an example, what is its purpose?   Primarily and obviously, its purpose is to carry aircraft, and since this is the most fundamental function, the nature of the aircraft it carries is the principal driver of this platform’s design. Few would argue that the new Ford-class carrier is not an engineering marvel, unrivaled in its ability to launch and recover manned tactical aircraft, but how useful will this be if such aircraft are no longer the measure of naval power?

The authors of a recent Hudson Institute report, Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict, answered this question quite definitively, if perhaps unintentionally. In the report, Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and Tim Walton argue that if we replace the current carrier air wing with a new one, the Ford will perform admirably in future high-end conflicts. This is a bit like arguing the bus carrying a high school football team will be instrumental in winning the Super Bowl if we simply replace the high school players with the New England Patriots.

To make the carrier relevant to the high-end fight, the authors recommend an array of new aircraft, the expense of which would make the cost of the $15-billion carrier pale in comparison. The authors explain that the addition of a new carrier air wing, improved electronic signature control capabilities, additional combat logistics force ships, and a more resilient shipbuilding infrastructure would render the new Ford carrier highly effective in a conflict with China. Perhaps we should have understood this better before funding the Nimitz replacement. We would have seen that the cost of the carrier and a fundamentally new carrier air wing was not fiscally achievable. If we were thinking more clearly about future threats and how we need to evolve the fleet, we could have seen this coming. Muddling through will no longer do — technological and geopolitical change are simply too great to merely embellish existing ships with new payloads.

Payloads drive ship design. Dreadnoughts and later battleships increased in size and protective armament to carry ever-larger guns and survive their impact. The aircraft carrier has become progressively bigger to accommodate larger, more capable manned aircraft. When the utility of battleships was being challenged by aircraft carriers in the 30’s and then by missile ships in the 80’s, there were vocal constituencies arguing for their retention. They had a strong argument, laying out the storied history of the big ship, pointing out the accuracy and power of the guns, and explaining that we simply needed to continue improving large guns. Lost to these advocates was the relative advantage offered by aircraft and then guided missiles. It was not that the battleship had become a less impressive ship in real terms, it was that it had simply declined relative to the capabilities offered by ever-improving aircraft and missiles.

The manned carrier air wing is obviously the payload around which every aspect of the Ford was designed, and it should also be obvious it is the equivalent of the battleship’s 16-inch guns. In real terms, the carrier air wing is as impressive as ever, but in relative terms, compared to a fleet ISR and striking architecture of unmanned systems, it is becoming as antiquated as the big gun.

Not only can we not afford all the improvements identified by the Hudson report, we shouldn’t be calling for them when we can shift our emphasis to more capable and more affordable unmanned options. The new generation of Predators can self-deploy for 2,000 miles to a dirt strip and be refueled and rearmed by a half dozen personnel. Certainly we could develop small, minimally-manned ships designed to receive and launch similar unmanned aircraft at sea.

A fleet design untethered from the constraints of maintaining and operating large numbers of manned aircraft would allow for a cheaper and more distributed fleet with far greater redundancy and better signature control. We would no longer require 5,000 souls on one platform and could depopulate much of the tactical edge of surface warfare elements until anti-access and area denial threats are attacked and reduced.

Unmanned systems will be like oxygen or your American Express card in future battles: We won’t leave home without them. The Navy must recognize the impact of these new payloads and modify the platforms that carry them and the composition of the fleet that comprises the larger system of capabilities.

The Navy must consider the implications of a rapidly changing threat environment. The increasing ranges of A2/AD systems mean threats normally associated with the littoral now apply to the deep blue. Ships fighting forts has never been a good idea, but this new dynamic eliminates the option of avoiding such a contest. The growing persistence of unmanned ISR systems in all domains means we must assume we are always under surveillance and therefore must always endeavor to minimize the visual and electromagnetic cues that allow us to be detected (signature control) while seeking to detect and exploit the adversary’s. Only by managing signatures across all spectrums and thereby enhancing survivability can naval forces contend with the unlimited magazine capacities of shore-based sea and air attack systems. Combining precision lethality with unmanned persistence will change engagement geometry in ways currently unexplored. The combination of ubiquitous ISR and small platforms capable of effectively engaging large platforms will shift the calculus for platform size and numbers within the overall fleet design.

Given this revolution in threat capabilities, the Navy must first and foremost start believing that change is possible. Re-designating and re-naming existing ships is not progress. The Navy must increase experimentation with unmanned surface, subsurface, and air systems and explore a fleet architecture comprised of small, medium, and large carriers to transport them. Without substantial increases in funding, the Ford class carrier is not affordable. We should stop building CVNs after CVN 79, USS Kennedy, which is currently under construction. Procuring just the platforms is already crushing the ship account, and the necessary new payloads to make carriers viable in high-end conflict are cost prohibitive. It will be important for Navy leadership to pay more attention to voices like Wayne Hughes and Jeff Kline at the Naval Postgraduate School, Commander Phil Pournelle in OSD Net Assessment, and Jerry Hendrix of Center for New American Security on the challenges of missile-era defense and the need for more smaller platforms — while not overdoing the flotilla (many small ships) component. A new Center for New American Security (CNAS) study, Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation, offers solid recommendations for improving the utility of existing carriers by adjusting the mix of the carrier air wing. Such considerations are fine as an interim solution, but a more thorough transformation is essential. Modest adjustments to the air wing are like adding missiles to the Wisconsin and Iowa battleships. This upgrade gave the battleships more utility, but it still could not prevent them from being a hugely costly and inefficient way to deliver firepower. As loitering munitions look more like unmanned aerial systems, a new carrier payload could be procured for substantially cheaper than the unmanned options posited in the CNAS report.

A symmetric, head-to-head, precision-guided munitions duel will not effectively deter potential adversaries like China that have rapidly evolving A2/AD capabilities with vastly greater capacities than any fleet could achieve. We must have layered capabilities from the littoral to the deep ocean, to include submarines (manned/unmanned), arsenal ships, and at sea forward arming and refueling platforms, all working as elements of a naval system where platforms in all domains work in a much more integrated fashion than is done today. Expeditionary land bases, small temporarily established facilities on islands and atolls, will provide additional intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control, fires, and logistics capabilities to the fleet. Small, expeditionary bases can provide substantial benefits to an unmanned systems-based fleet. To complement this naval system, all surface combatants will require robust interfaces to the air, surface, and subsurface, characteristics provided by today’s amphibious ships, whose flight decks can accommodate unmanned air vehicles and whose well-decks can provide access for surface and subsurface unmanned systems.

The U.S. Navy is still, by far, the best navy in the world, but the long-term trends are less promising. The Gordian knot of systemic burdens holding back innovation must be cut if the Navy is to maintain its ascendency. The world is changing, and the Navy must cast off its intellectual anchors, lift its self-imposed blockade, and steam to new intellectual and conceptual horizons and a new fleet design.


Noel Williams is a maritime strategy and policy consultant in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery