A Fleet to Do What?

September 14, 2017

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There has been a lot of talk about building a fleet of 350 or more ships to restore American strength in the world. This has naturally provoked debate over what kind of ships to build, but the discussion is missing something important. A clear description of what the newly expanded fleet will do, and some notion of the roles and missions that the fleet will fulfill, should shape the conversation about what to build. Earlier this year the acting secretary of the Navy made clear that any increase in funding would be directed toward adding a handful of ships to existing (“hot”) ship construction lines. More recently there have been indications that any increase in shipbuilding will have to wait until at least 2018, probably 2019, and may be quite modest.  Reactions to both developments have revolved around considerations of cost and acquisition risk, as well as the protection of the Navy’s industrial base. While these are reasonable criteria for judging a shipbuilding plan, they are not sufficient. The future fleet must respond to the emerging international security environment and trends in the behavior and capabilities of American competitors and enemies.

Control of the sea is not a guaranteed birthright of the United States, but is a critical element of the current global order. If the United States wishes to maintain the global order and keep the seas as global commons supporting the global order, the U.S. Navy must be prepared to change and adapt to the new environment, both in a contested peace and in an active war, as well as in the uncertain environment in between. While the United States took its position for granted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, our competitors did not stay still. America faces revisionist powers including a growing China and a reviving Russia, followed by North Korea, Iran, and Islamic terrorism. They and others are using the concepts and technologies that the United States developed to win the Cold War and employing them in their own way to thwart Washington’s efforts. It is time for the United States to adapt or lose its place in the world.

When we take into account trends in the security environment, including moves by America’s competitors, it appears that while a larger fleet would have great utility, just restoring what we once had may not serve the country well and might be a wasted opportunity. Instead of building more of the same, the U.S. Navy should invest its increased budget in the next generation of platforms.  If it keeps building more of the same, it enables competitors who have built their militaries specifically to neutralize the U.S. Navy’s legacy force structure in both contested peace and active hostilities.  Competitors have taken advantage of the discontinuity in how U.S. forces must act in peacetime and active hostilities. The new fleet architecture should include the addition of corvettes, manned optional missile boats, and aerial and undersea drones, all with associated tenders to make them globally deployable. These would augment, not replace, existing platforms, and a sustained but modest increase of 9 percent in funding would enable the future Navy to adapt to the modern environment.

From a purely domestic perspective, there are merits to increasing the construction of existing ship designs. Expanding the construction of current designs would decrease technical risk; by eschewing the new technologies affecting the current and future maritime environment, programs can avoid the potential for technical failures or delays such as occurred with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System on USS Ford. Ron O’Rourke testified that building additional numbers of ships already in production via block buys and economic order quantities could gain the potential for 5 to 10 percent savings per platform.  Further, these would add jobs to existing shipyards. However, according to Dr. Eric Labs, taking this approach would take over 18 years to achieve a fleet of 355 ships, as the United States would be investing the marginal increases in spending on some of the most expensive ships in the world.

Long before these pronouncements for a larger Navy were made, Congress asked what kind of fleet the country would need in the new century. Congress placed a requirement for studies of the Future Fleet Architectures (FFA) in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA required three different views: one from the Department of the Navy, one from a Federal Funded Research and Development Center, and one from a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research center. The Navy staff, led by its Assessment Division (OPNAV N81), completed the first, MITRE Corporation completed the second, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) completed the third. When on active duty, I participated in the Navy staff study, representing the Office of Net Assessment.

Some, like Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley, advocate investing more in current shipyards and legacy platforms instead of building the next-generation fleet described in the FFA studies. Recent essays by retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix and attorney Robert C. O’Brien advocate for the development of 350 ships as quickly as possible, including bringing ships out of mothballs to achieve it. In both of these cases the fleet envisioned is an extension of the existing one in a fleet architecture that has been around since the Battle of Midway. The U.S. Navy is in danger of missing the opportunity to adapt due to its success at the Battle of Midway. Hendrix and O’Brien note:

By winning the Battle of Midway 75 years ago, the United States ensured that no hostile power would command the seas for the three generations that have followed. Freedom of navigation through the world’s oceans ensured by the United States Navy has led to unprecedented economic growth for the entire world.

For more than seven decades the fleet has operated in similar patterns, centered around the aircraft carrier, with its large signatures, as the main striking arm of the fleet. The elements of the fleet have grown in size but shrunk dramatically in number. The modern super carrier USS Ford weighs in at 100,000 tons and costs $12.8 billion (plus $4.7 billion of research and development) as compared to the Yorktown-class fleet carriers at the Battle of Midway, which weighed about 25,500 tons. At the end of World War II, the United States had 6,768 ships, including support vessels. By the end of the Reagan era the U.S  had 453 commissioned warships with a goal of 600 ships. Today the fleet has 457 ships, of which 235 are commissioned warships and 11 are aircraft carriers. Many of the ships in the current fleet were built in the Reagan era and are approaching or have passed their expected service life and will have to be replaced. The capabilities of these fewer ships have increased significantly as they incorporated precision strike regime weapons in a network (the Russians call it a reconnaissance strike complex). There is a danger that the Navy has become trapped by its success like the British were after Trafalgar, and will soon discover that victory is not inevitable but must be fought for.

Meanwhile, our competitors have not stood still. After the Cold War, the United States took an intellectual and construction holiday, but the Chinese and the Russians built up their own forces designed to defeat ours. The Russian fleet is a ghost of its former self, but poses new challenges with new submarines and corvettes that have demonstrated dangers and reach in regions of U.S. interest. Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) order of battle is expected to exceed that of the U.S. Navy before 2020. But numbers are not the only measure. Both China and Russia have taken the reconnaissance strike complex concept and adapted it for their own purposes. The Chinese in particular have developed their own reconnaissance strike complex, centered around land based bombers, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles to target the large signature aircraft carriers. Those same forces are also designed to target airfields. They employ these in a concept known as “counter-intervention” doctrine, forcing the American power projection platforms of airfields and aircraft carriers to operate at ranges that attenuate their effectiveness or risk destruction (most people know this as Anti-Access/Area Denial or A2/AD). The proliferation of these precision strike regime weapons continues as China and Russia sell them to others, such as Iran. Eventually such weapons arrive in the hands of non-state actors such as Hizballah and Houthi rebels. This trend will continue making the littoral environment deadly as the power of smaller vessels and shore batteries greatly increase. China is expanding the reach of their reconnaissance strike complex by building artificial islands and emplacing airfields, weapons, and sensors upon them.

China and Russia have been employing a new approach to gain effective control over nearby regions such as the South China Sea and the Black Sea. They conduct non-war military activities in regions they desire to establish within their spheres of influence. They conduct endeavors just below a threshold that would cause the United States and others to declare war. These activities occur near their actual territory, meaning they can be present and combine them with rhetoric to indicate these seas are not global commons but their “sovereign territory.” These are the contested peacetime equivalents of Corbett’s establishment of “command of the sea.” To counter this, the U.S. Navy conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations, a peacetime equivalent of Corbett’s “contesting command of the sea.” But with so few ships and the entire world to patrol, the U.S. Navy is simply not present, with an average gap between ships in the South China Sea between 95­­-105 days and up to 164 days. If the United States wish to defend the current global order, it must have a force that can be present and “exercise command of the sea,” which in peacetime means conducting maritime security operations in regions we state are high seas, regardless of claims to the contrary. These operations include boarding vessels suspected to be involved in terrorism, carrying proliferation technologies and other contraband, human trafficking, or other illicit activities which undermine the global order.

But it is the discontinuity between contested peacetime operations and active conflict that our current force architecture is unable to straddle. In peacetime, our forces must be active and visible, conducting maritime security operations to establish norms and defend the current global order, reassure our allies, and deter revisionist powers. In open conflict, our small number of large signature platforms require movement into the large deep blue sea along with deception operations for their survival in the face of hostile reconnaissance strike complexes. In times of crisis, future leaders face the choice of being present and visible to demonstrate resolve while risking the destruction of their forces, or backing down and losing the influence and power that comes from command of the sea. In many cases, future leaders may very well be self-deterred, backing down to avoid the risk of losing a considerable portion of the fleet should our competitors call our bluff.

We have the opportunity to address these challenges and modify our future fleet architectures to operate in the modern environment. The chief of naval operations has called for a

Navy [that] must be able to operate in the blue sea outside the range of shore attack, where there is primarily fleet-on-fleet action,… be effective in the intermediate seas, where long range shore based missiles contribute to the threat, and in the littoral zones where the variety and density of fires is more intense.

Legacy aircraft carriers and perhaps larger numbers of new light nuclear-powered carriers can operate out in the blue sea. Destroyers, with much smaller signatures, unleashed from the aircraft carrier, can be effective in the intermediate seas. With the ability to reload missiles at sea, they will be the new strike platform of choice.  In the littoral zones, corvettes such as the American built Ambassador Class and manned optional missile boats such as the Juliet Marine Ghost, M80 Stiletto, or the Minuteman; all of which to one degree or another are effectively invisible to reconnaissance strike complexes built to locate large signature aircraft carriers. Large numbers of these smaller platforms in flotillas will conduct maritime security operations in a contested peace, and sea control operations in war. In addition, submarines and autonomous undersea vehicles would provide clandestine scouting in contested peacetime and anti-surface operations in war.

Flotillas of corvettes, missile boats, and/or undersea vehicles would represent the epitome of distributed lethality. The flotillas would provide scouting to and be supported by the destroyers in the intermediate region.  Both would be supported by aircraft from the carriers operating further out. Aircraft like the E-2D would provide critical elevated sensor capabilities, while fighter and drone sweeps supported by the MQ-25A Stingray refueling drones would deny enemy maritime patrol aircraft the luxury of time to locate the flotillas.  Drones, such as DARPA’s TERN, launched from destroyers and tenders would build robust local reconnaissance strike complexes to knit the force together, removing dependencies on satellites and shore based communications centers. The key is that all these platforms can effectively operate in their respective zones, in both contested peace and wartime operations, removing the discontinuity arising from the modern precision strike regime environment and our current force structure.

Such a force can be achieved at a modest increase of 9 percent in annual funding for shipbuilding, maintenance, personnel, and other items assuming we change the mix of platforms we will build. It will require continuing construction of current ships designs such as Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt-class destroyers and Virginia-class submarines at current levels. Increases in funding should go to flotillas of corvettes, missile boats, and autonomous undersea vehicles to augment these ships. All will need some form of mothership to enable global deployment. The future of submarines will include diesel electric submarines, but they will be unmanned. The future of carrier aviation will be in larger numbers of smaller platforms and a reconfigured airwing. Most of these platforms exist currently, reducing technical risk in their development and deployment.  However, achieving such an architecture will require sustained funding and initial investments in prototypes of the new platforms today.

By 2030, the future fleet should include eight legacy Nimitz and Ford class CVNs, four Charles de Gaulle-like CVNLs, eight America-class LHAs, 80 Burke-class DDGs, seven Zumwalt-class DDGs, six Aegis Ashore stations (four in the Pacific in addition to two in Europe), 26 legacy Littoral Combat Ships, 244 missile boats (PHM), 32 Virginia-class submarines (SSN), 47 Seahunter USVs, 64 large AUVs, 11 new concept LSTs  in lieu of the LXR, seven tenders for unmanned platforms (ADX), 41 Missile boat tenders (APGs), and at least four VLS missile reload support vessels (CHAMPS AOEs).

Building a fleet to meet an arbitrary number would not serve the country well, nor would restoring what we once had. Instead the Navy should be building a fleet designed for the future, teaming manned and unmanned platforms together and moving away from a small number of large ships. Employing flotillas of manned, unmanned, and man optional platforms, we can build a more robust fleet capable of operating in the new deadly environment which today marks a contested peace and, in the future, possibly a hot war. The platforms must be netted together using modern autonomous air platforms and not dependent on satellite and other networks which may not be available. The Navy must adapt to the new environment and jump ahead of competitors, lest in complacency the United States loses the heritage of the open seas its predecessors fought to give it.


Phillip Pournelle served as a surface warfare officer on cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and a high-speed vessel during 26 years of service in the U. S. Navy before retiring as a Commander.  He is an operations analyst with a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.  His last five years of service in uniform were as a Military Advisor to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment.  He is currently a senior director for wargaming and analysis at the Long Term Strategy Group (LTSG) in Washington, D.C.

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