The 100-Ship Navy
Naval officers pray at the altar of “more ships.” We demand more of them, fantasize about new ways to use them, and assume that the fleet will only grow. In the navalist faith, the post-Cold War period — which saw the fleet fall to an all-time low of 279 ships in 2007 — was an aberration, but happily the “return to great-power rivalry” has obliterated such shortsightedness.
The navalists have reasons to cheer. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act calls for 355 ships by 2030, an increase of 18 percent from today’s 299. The Navy’s FY2021 five-year shipbuilding plan funds another 42. Novel realms are demanding the Navy’s attention. Retreating sea ice in the Arctic, for instance, has fueled new competition with Russia. At the same time, near peers have modernized their navies with highly capable surface and subsurface platforms. For the navalists, the fleet’s strain under these growing responsibilities is not a reason to reduce commitments, but simply to add more ships.
The authors, too, are committed navalists, having served on destroyers, cruisers, amphibious assault ships, and aircraft carriers across several theaters. But prudence demands considering whether the prevailing optimism about an ever-growing Navy is warranted. What if shifts in public opinion on the use of military power, along with budgetary constraints, forced a drastic reduction in the number of authorized ships? How might the Navy, anticipating this, limit its ambitions in the Pacific and the Middle East, two theaters that have absorbed so much attention since 1990? A United States with a diminished Navy would likely prioritize homeland defense and offshore balancing, but we ask which of the present mission sets might still be preserved even in such a constrained scenario.
Finally, given narrowed mission sets, what would a 100-ship Navy look like? This is an unlikely scenario but serves as a useful thought experiment. The number “100” is intentionally restrictive; it tests what trade-offs are possible if assumptions about future force levels are not just slightly wrong, but catastrophically so. And when it comes to imagining a future where defense dollars are scarcer, ship quantities are easier to grasp — for policymakers and practitioners alike — than labyrinthine defense appropriation categories, all operating on different timelines.
We conclude that a bare-bones mission set would require preserving nuclear deterrent forces and multimission surface combatants at the expense of carrier-based strike and expeditionary capabilities. Finally, we offer two recommendations to forestall the day when such trade-offs could be necessary: increasing land-based strategic intercept capabilities and deepening maritime partnerships.
Generational Gaps and Budget Priorities
There is no shortage of commentary on America’s growing polarization and partisanship. Some of these divides are generational, reflecting a changing electorate. Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) now outnumber baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), and in the 2016 and 2018 elections, the youngest Americans voted in greater numbers than their elders.
These younger Americans’ foreign policy preferences bode poorly for military spending. For instance, a 2020 poll found that among millennials and Generation Z (Americans born after 1996), only about 14 percent believe America is “exceptional.” That proportion is two to three times higher among their elders. Faith in American exceptionalism has underpinned decades of consensus in the U.S. foreign policy community on the wisdom of America’s overseas security commitments.
Meanwhile, at least half the members of the silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) believe that the rise of China and political instability in the Middle East are serious threats to the United States. For millennials, those numbers are 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively. By contrast, 62 percent of millennials consider climate change a grave threat. Millennials are also the least likely generation to support deploying American troops if South Korea, Taiwan, or a NATO ally were invaded. The new voters, Generation Z, also care more about climate change than most other threats. At the same time, they are both less confident in the military and more supportive of redistributive economic policies.
Shifting political priorities may be insufficient to reduce military acquisitions, which are notorious for the institutional inertia they generate. But budgetary constraints could add to the pressure to shrink force levels. This year’s federal deficit is $1.98 trillion (so far), the largest as a percentage of GDP since World War II. Deficits have led to spiraling debt. The last federal surplus was in 2001; besides a drop from 2011 to 2015, the debt has increased ever since. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the debt would reach $31 trillion (98 percent of GDP) by 2030, about triple the debt-to-GDP ratio of the year 2000.
As debt increases, pressure will mount to rein in deficits. Raising taxes could help, but spending cuts will likely remain necessary. Given the priorities of the electorate’s newest members, it is reasonable to suggest that between mandatory spending (set by statute, mostly comprising entitlement programs) and discretionary spending (set in annual appropriations bills, including defense spending), the latter will be relatively easier to cut.
Within defense spending, the Navy’s ship construction budget is an attractive target. For FY2020, it stands at $24 billion, the largest procurement line item across the military branches. Within the Navy’s budget, operations and personnel costs dwarf ship construction at $68 and $52 billion, respectively. Since force reductions decrease operational costs and personnel costs like military pay are a political third rail, cutting ships could be advantageous both from a cost-saving and political angle. If this were to happen, how could the U.S. Navy pare back missions in its most resource-intensive overseas theaters of operation?
Reducing Ambitions in Two Theaters
In U.S. Central Command, the primary missions for U.S. naval forces have been protecting the seaborne transport of hydrocarbons, providing expeditionary support for Iraq and Afghanistan, striking adversaries with ship- and submarine-launched cruise missiles and carrier-based aircraft, deterring Iran, and defending allies from Iranian ballistic missiles.
Some of these missions are already diminishing in importance. During the first Gulf War, the United States was a net energy importer; today it is a net producer, with oil imports at their lowest level since the 1980s. Natural gas, which the United States has in abundant supply, will comprise most growth in hydrocarbon usage in the coming decades, and worldwide demand for oil will likely start declining by 2030. The transport of hydrocarbons through the Persian Gulf will remain important, but its disruption may not require the instantaneous response that justifies today’s forward presence.
The urgency of U.S. contributions to missile defense and deterrence has also fallen as regional partners’ capabilities grow. Israel has fielded the Arrow 3 missile system, capable of exo-atmospheric engagement of ballistic missiles. It already has nuclear and conventional deterrent capacity, deliverable by ballistic missile and strike aircraft. Saudi Arabia will soon acquire high-altitude intercept capability with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The kingdom has also upgraded its air force and embarked upon domestic ballistic missile production to supplement existing inventory.
The growth of Israeli and Saudi organic capacity in strike and missile defense reduces the demand for on-station U.S. Navy guided missile submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. This could permit the Navy to retire aging platforms or redeploy others to different theaters. Strike capacity will remain possible with the U.S. Air Force’s “Global Strike” capability, which already provides the bulk of coverage. Finally, given Americans’ evaporating interest in Middle Eastern escapades, maintaining local expeditionary capability (with amphibious warfare ships) is a declining priority.
In U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the objective is ensuring a stable balance of power that dissuades China from making revisionist territorial claims. To this end, ships conduct freedom-of-navigation operations, ballistic missile defense of allies and U.S. territories, and theater security cooperation. Relying on dispositions like the carrier strike group and amphibious readiness group, these activities aim to reassure partners of U.S. commitments.
The challenge is that China’s attempts to outmaneuver U.S.-led partnerships often summon nonmilitary instruments of national power, such as tactically oriented trade agreements exemplified by its Belt and Road Initiative. Many of these economic agreements carry security implications. Beijing undermines local states’ diplomatic ties with Taiwan, eroding their incentive to aid Taiwan militarily and limiting U.S. capacity to use these states as staging areas for the same purpose. Kiribati, for instance, the site of the Battle of Tarawa, severed diplomatic relations with Taipei prior to joining the Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s drive for “reunification” with Taiwan threatens the regional balance of power not just because of Taiwan’s strategic location but because Japan and South Korea consider Washington-Taipei relations a barometer of U.S. credibility. If Japan began to question the U.S. security commitment, Tokyo might finally adopt a more muscular defense posture. A militarized Japan would upset already-fraught Seoul-Tokyo relations, and a South Korean counter-buildup could destabilize the Korean peninsula.
But survey data indicate that U.S. military intervention on behalf of Taiwan is highly politically unpopular. So how could the United States prevent Chinese aggression against Taiwan if U.S. amphibious warfare ships, with their ability to provide air and ground support, were withdrawn from the region? The key will be raising the costs of a Chinese invasion.
First, this means increasing Taiwan’s self-defenses on its west coast. Next, the U.S. Navy could shift away from “big deck”-centric operations, since China has already prepared for that fight. Rather than aspiring to the increasingly difficult mission of sea control, which relies on multiple carrier strike groups or amphibious readiness groups deployed simultaneously, the Navy could flip the script. Shifting to denial capabilities provided by multimission surface action groups, subsurface forces, and unmanned technologies could help make it prohibitively expensive for Chinese forces to cross the strait.
Ballistic missile defense of Japan, Guam, and the homeland would remain a core mission area due to the persistent North Korean threat. A redeployment of ballistic missile ships from Central Command, as described previously, could help meet this need in addition to augmenting Japanese capacity through its Kongo-class destroyer. Secondary missions like maritime security, humanitarian response, and protection of shipping can shift to regional partners like India and Australia, whose capacity-building efforts the United States must continue to support.
The Road to 100
If shifting public attitudes forced the Navy to limit its ambitions to immediate natural security priorities, the following might be possible: in Central Command, reducing ballistic missile defense and deterrent strike forces while retaining minimal multimission surface combatant capability for response to oil-shipment disruptions; and in Indo-Pacific Command, meeting ballistic missile defense requirements with redeployed assets from Central Command while replacing sea-control capabilities with sea-denial ones. Given these reimagined missions, we consider the impact of simultaneously freezing essential capabilities in place, eliminating the platforms underlying the most politically unpopular mission sets, and proportionally shrinking the remaining force.
The first consideration is what missions are both essential and beyond political reproach. Nuclear deterrence is a safe bet; even strict isolationists assume the United States will maintain secure second-strike capability. The nuclear industrial base must also be retained because it is among the most difficult sectors to rapidly scale in the event of full mobilization. Moreover, preserving nuclear vessels is advantageous because they do not depend on combat oilers, although carriers will still need to be supplied with aviation fuel. The ballistic missile submarines will thus remain untouched; per the 355-ship plan, their numbers will settle at 10 in 2037.
The second parameter is the cost-effectiveness of programs. Among the large surface combatants, the Navy will need to decommission the aging and maintenance-intensive Ticonderoga-class cruisers favored by Congress. In contrast, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are cost-effective, especially with multiyear procurement and block-buy options.
Third, proportions matter. Individual ships do not exist in a vacuum; they are organized into task-oriented groups, chiefly the carrier strike group. Perhaps the simplest way to reduce the Navy’s size is to reduce its number of carriers, which scales down the required number of escorts. Managing fleet size by proportional adjustment to a fixed number of capital ships is consistent with historical practice.
Because the carrier’s primary mission is power projection, reducing carriers to six would dovetail handily with the public’s declining taste for American presence abroad. The Navy can then reduce escort coverage with cruiser retirements and controlled replacement of older destroyers with the newer Flight III variants. Indeed, the carrier’s future role in U.S. Navy force structure, given advances in anti-access and area-denial technologies, is already under debate.
Similarly, expeditionary missions are increasingly unpopular. Amphibious warfare ships could be reduced to parity with the new number of aircraft carriers, allowing similar maintenance, training, and operational rotations while retaining limited forward-basing and joint forcible entry options. The Marine Corps itself has acknowledged the obsolescence of the requirement that previously determined the number of these ships.
Following these guidelines, we suggest a rough end strength of six carriers, 10 ballistic missile submarines, and 18 attack submarines to preserve the nuclear construction, maintenance, and training facilities on both coasts. Assigning three carriers per coast permits one each to be in maintenance, surge-capable training, and full mission status. Attack submarines will preserve sea-denial capabilities. Reducing amphibious warfare ships to parity with aircraft carriers and proportionally reducing the remaining ship classes yields the following fleet makeup:
Figure 1: Proposed 100-ship Navy based on mission priorities, political tenability, and scaled reduction. (Image by the authors, based on current projected force ratios)
This 100-ship Navy is an ugly scenario, and perhaps an unlikely one. But it is not unprecedented, even for a great maritime power. As late as 1960, the Royal Navy had almost 500 surface combatants. By the 1982 Falklands War, it had 115 ships, including three carriers with fixed-wing capability; by 2016, it had 89 ships, only 24 of which were surface combatants, with no fixed-wing-capable carriers. British admirals described their trade-offs in response to budget cuts as “mortgaging everything.”
To forestall a similar mortgage, we offer two policy recommendations based on the shifting winds of public opinion and the emerging U.S. partner capabilities outlined earlier.
First, increase allies’ land-based and sea-based strategic intercept capabilities. U.S. partnership with Israel on Arrow, with Saudi Arabia and South Korea on THAAD, and with Japan on Aegis (despite recent stumbles) are great examples. Policies in support of expanding partners’ maritime capacities would enjoy bipartisan support — both from the left, irked by exercises of U.S. military power, and from a right demanding that allies “do more.” It is essential that partners begin developing indigenous capabilities now, should future U.S. arms sales become politically unpopular among American voters, as may already be happening with Saudi Arabia and Taiwan.
Second, encourage U.S. partners in the Middle East and the Pacific to burden-share among themselves — especially those currently at odds with one another. Bipartisan majorities of Americans support alliances and partnership building. Increasing partners’ strike capabilities through cooperation with each other will reduce the need for U.S. on-station strike assets. Israel and the Arab states are already cooperating at unprecedented levels to balance against Iran, but the Israeli-Turkish partnership has deteriorated in recent years. In the Pacific, worsening Japanese-South Korean relations could have catastrophic implications for U.S. efforts to encourage allies to shoulder secondary naval missions.
We cannot predict what public foreign policy preferences, or the fiscal environment, will look like in the future. But given prevailing trends, navalists should interrupt their 355-ship dreams to consider a darker picture. Sharing some missions now is preferable to abdicating nearly all of them later.
Johnathan Falcone is an active-duty surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. He has interned at the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and worked as a financial analyst at an investment bank. He is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Yale University.
Anand Jantzen is a civilian defense acquisition professional and a former surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. He is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies program and holds engineering degrees from the University of Virginia and the United States Naval Academy.
Jonathan Panter is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. His research examines the origin of naval organizational practices. Prior to attending Columbia, he served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.
The authors’ opinions are their own, and do not reflect the official stance of their current or former employers or organizations.