Bringing Congress to the (Wargaming) Table for a Bigger and Better Navy
Battle Force 2045 may sound like the latest computer simulation of a Sino-American conflict, but if the Pentagon gets its way, it may just be the best way to prevent one. Unveiled last week by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the first details of the department’s long-awaited naval force structure assessment, dubbed Battle Force 2045, are emerging less than a month before the November election. Given the timing, some might fairly question the plan’s shelf life given potential administration turnover. But Esper’s plan carries the logic of strategy and the possibility of bipartisan support. While there is room to debate the specifics, whoever is in charge of the Pentagon on Jan. 21 should emulate the plan’s emphasis on growing the naval force structure. Realizing this vision, however, will require bringing Congress to the table as never before. And I mean an actual table: the wargaming table.
Battle Force 2045 calls for a fleet of 500 manned and unmanned ships, including 355 traditional battle force ships prior to 2035. The Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan similarly called for 355 ships by 2034, but Esper has introduced a different fleet composition. Controversially, his plan calls for eight to 11 nuclear aircraft carriers, down from the current requirement of 12 (and the congressionally mandated floor of 11), while adding up to six “light carriers” derived from America-class amphibious ships. Using savings established in part through the carrier reductions, the plan calls for 60 to 70 small surface combatants (up from 52 in the previous plan), more but smaller amphibious ships for the Marine Corps, and a fleet of 140 to 240 unmanned and optionally manned surface and subsurface vessels.
Envisioned additions to the attack submarine force perhaps attracted the most attention. This plan sees the force growing from 51 today to between 70 and 80 by 2045. As Esper put it during his remarks, “If we do nothing else, we must begin building three Virginia-class attack submarines per year.” This commitment is critical, especially because under current plans the Navy would shrink down to 44 attack submarines over the next five years and the administration’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request only called for one attack submarine this year. In light of Esper’s new goal of three per year, seapower advocates should redouble their efforts to support the two Virginia-class submarines authorized in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act instead of the single submarine in the Senate’s version.
Such seapower advocacy should be bipartisan. Despite their many disagreements, both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have pledged to bring U.S. troops home from the Middle East and shift resources to the Indo-Pacific, which means that increasing the size of the Army is unlikely to be a priority in either a second Trump term or a first Biden term. Just as Trump’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy prioritize the Indo-Pacific and set China as the pacing threat, the official Democratic party platform describes the United States as a “Pacific power” and the coming century as a “Pacific Century.” A bipartisan team at the Center for a New American Security, led by Biden advisor Ely Ratner, wrote in a comprehensive report that “the gap has closed considerably over the last two decades and, absent urgent change, the regional balance may tip in China’s favor by the late 2020s or early 2030s. In certain scenarios, the military balance may already disadvantage the United States.” Likewise, Michèle Flournoy, often spoken of as a strong candidate for secretary of defense in a Biden administration, warned in Foreign Affairs of the growing capability and aggressiveness of the People’s Liberation Army and echoed the core goal of the Trump National Defense Strategy: reestablishing credible deterrence of China by “prevent[ing] the success of any act of military aggression by Beijing, either by denying the [People’s Liberation Army’s] ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest.”
Of course, right now this is just rhetoric and there are many details that need to be clarified. For example, Congress still does not yet have the key documents that describe the plan in detail, known as the Future Naval Force Structure Assessment and the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan. These documents describe the specific fleet composition that the Navy needs and its procurement plan for buying that fleet over the coming decades, respectively. Once those documents are in hand, Congress will have questions regarding the large surface combatant force structure — a notable absence from Esper’s remarks — the proposed carrier reductions and accompanying analysis, plans for amphibious, combat logistics force, and unmanned ships, as well as the ship classes the Navy may have to retire.
The biggest unanswered question is how the Pentagon will pay for the larger fleet envisioned in Battle Force 2045. While Esper argued he would look across the department — including the combatant commands and defense agencies — for savings he could reinvest to bring the shipbuilding account up from 11 to 13 percent of the Navy budget, Pentagon “efficiencies” are easy to reference but often hard to realize. If these efficiencies come out of the Navy budget or out of reduced operations in Indo-Pacific Command, they could prove counterproductive. And as noted seapower expert Bryan McGrath has cautioned, this much larger fleet will demand a much larger supporting infrastructure, including personnel, training, and sustainment. It is therefore likely that the Navy will need additional resources outside its shipbuilding account.
Ideally, we would fund shipbuilding increases with a higher defense topline driven by strategic demands. Yet Esper was right to acknowledge that we live in a “cost-constrained” environment. Particularly in light of emergency spending throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the chances of a large defense plus-up are slim to none, regardless of who wins in November — a point that John Kroger makes in a thoughtful critique of Esper’s plan. Kroger argues that Esper should have oriented his review around the best fleet the Navy could buy under a flat budget, and not the best fleet the Navy could buy, period. Yet this is defeatism, plain and simple.
The case for maritime superiority is buttressed by both geography and strategy. A Sino-American conflict, as the name of a once-popular Pentagon concept implied, would be an Air-Sea Battle. While airpower has a critical role to play in the Indo-Pacific, it is not a panacea. Airpower enthusiasts like retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula have recently compared bomber firepower favorably to that of carrier strike groups. This analysis has two issues: First, it rests on a shaky comparison between maximum bomber payload and the sortie rate of the USS George H.W. Bush’s air wing during Operation Inherent Resolve that was well below its maximum potential — let alone the firepower brought to bear by the surface ships and submarines of its strike group. Second, and more importantly, bombers, even when forward-deployed to locations like Guam, “commute to work.” They play a critical role in wartime and can be used effectively to signal in peacetime, but their presence in contested areas is ultimately transitory, making it less impactful to friends and foes alike. The strategically unique role played by seapower is persistent forward presence in contested seas, much like a police officer walking a beat in a high-crime neighborhood.
Making this case has never been more urgent. Maritime supremacists owe it to the Navy and the nation to make the case for the Navy to comprise a significantly larger share of the overall defense budget, even as the Air Force plays an important, if secondary, role. Seapower advocates should turn the basic question around from why the Navy deserves a larger share of the budget to why, as the United States winds down close to two decades of war in the Middle East, the Army deserves roughly the same share of the budget as it enjoyed when hundreds of thousands of American service members were on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meeting the demands of its strategy requires the Pentagon to better prioritize existing resources to meet the demands of its priority theater, however painfully. For years, seapower advocates have called on the department to break the roughly even distribution of defense resources across the Army, Navy, and Air Force. This proposal can no longer be confined to think tanks and op-eds. Pentagon leaders ought to make hard tradeoffs and be willing to accept cuts to ground forces in order to grow the naval force structure in the Indo-Pacific.
Such prioritization will likely require a presidential-level decision and direct presidential intervention. Yet even if the president makes Battle Force 2045 a priority, change on this scale will not be easy. The Pentagon — and the White House, where National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has made growing the Navy a personal priority — cannot count on Congress to simply fall in line. Naval advocates in the executive branch need to sell a simple vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch in order to get budgetary buy-in. This will require the Pentagon to step out of its comfort zone.
This should start with a three-day trip, a short congressional delegation. Regardless of who is president and secretary of defense in 2021, this delegation should occur as soon as possible next year, as it may well be the most important government trip that will occur in the next decade. Pentagon leadership should gather congressional defense leaders, interested members, authorizers, and appropriators in the Mecca of seapower and wargaming at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Over the course of 72 hours the department should walk Congress through a wargame that demonstrates the forces it needs, and how Battle Force 2045 will deny Chinese objectives in the Indo-Pacific generally and the first island chain specifically. The Pentagon needs to put it all out there: assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change, for legislators to understand and debate.
This idea of wargaming with Congress should have bipartisan support, if for no other reason than I stole it from Democrats. In an op-ed earlier this year with Gabrielle Chefitz, Flournoy argued that the Pentagon should invite members of Congress to observe its wargames in order to provide them with the context behind its budgetary proposals. This makes a lot of sense to me as a defense authorizer. The standard congressional hearings with the department are important, but are suboptimal forums for candid conversations, as neither members of Congress nor defense officials want to embarrass themselves on television and even classified discussions are frequently limited by time. A three-day wargame at Newport, on the other hand, would give members of Congress a rare glimpse behind the curtain of defense planning, allow members to ask stupid questions without generating negative press, and allow defense leaders to admit their intellectual or doctrinal blind spots without getting fired.
This does not need to be fancy. Congress just needs a map of the Indo-Pacific and a secure room filled with the Pentagon’s smartest people who can explain to members in simple terms the Chinese military threat, the blue force structure and capabilities needed to deter the People’s Liberation Army or defeat it in war should deterrence fail, and a clear understanding of what American allies bring to the fight. Defense officials should walk congressional leaders through how the current force structure in the Indo-Pacific is inadequate and how Battle Force 2045, in concert with the rest of the joint force, will turn an unfavorable military balance around and lead to victory. Armed with the analytical and tactical context behind the Future Naval Force Structure and the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan, congressional leaders would then be in a position, despite budgetary headwinds, to make tough choices and convince their colleagues and the public to go along with them.
Perhaps even more importantly, providing lawmakers with this kind of transparency would provide a much-needed jolt to the Pentagon. If you listen to veteran wargamers like RAND’s David Ochmanek, the results of most high-end war games are not pretty and have not been for some time. As he bluntly put it last year, “In our games, when we fight Russia and China, Blue gets its ass handed to it.” Presumably, Pentagon leaders would want to avoid bringing lawmakers to a wargame when they expect the blue team (the United States and its allies) to lose. If lawmakers saw their $750 billion military “get its ass handed to it” in real time, they might understandably have questions about how the Pentagon is spending taxpayer money. Having members present, consequently, would serve as a forcing function for the Pentagon to be honest with itself about the scale of the challenge ahead.
If currently programmed force structure, capabilities, and force posture are not getting the job done — even under Battle Force 2045 — Pentagon planners should add to current requirements until the blue forces start winning, or at least can impose costs to such an extent that the Chinese Communist Party’s calculus fundamentally changes. In this case, the looming prospect of congressional blowback could be a strong motivator for the department to explain why its proposed force structure, posture, and program are what is needed to deter China. The (not too) subtle message from Congress would be: “If you cannot explain to us how these elements combine to provide a favorable military balance sufficient to effect deterrence through denial, then your budgets will be under greater stress. So ‘help us help you.’”
Clearly, wargames could be rigged to put a positive outcome in front of lawmakers. Pentagon leaders should resist that temptation and trust in Congress to be able to confront the ground truth. Beyond the outcome of the game itself, the process would force Congress to ask first-order questions such as:
- Which scenarios are being used to wargame the China threat? Do games represent a worst-case scenario, or is the game being played on more favorable ground?
- What is the task at hand? Is it defeating an invasion of Taiwan? Destroying the Chinese navy? Winning a protracted conflict?
- What operational concepts are being employed when wargaming these scenarios? Why has the Defense Department chosen these ways of operating?
- What are the key assumptions that enable these concepts to perform effectively? How has the Defense Department hedged against the possibility that these assumptions may be incorrect?
- Have these concepts proven effective in deterrence through denial? In which scenarios? If not, do these concepts need to be adapted? Abandoned?
- What capabilities are most needed to enhance deterrence? What capabilities do players “leave on the shelf”?
- What changes need to be made to the defense program to strengthen deterrence through denial?
- Are there plans to transition these operational concepts into doctrine? If not, why not?
Congress needs a simple explanation of how the Pentagon proposes to deter China by denial in the Indo-Pacific, why the Pentagon believes its approach will be successful, and what it will take to get the job done at an acceptable level of risk. If the Pentagon cannot accomplish its goals at an acceptable level of risk, Congress needs to know what resources the military requires in order to make risks manageable again. If the Navy cannot explain in simple and direct terms how Battle Force 2045 will produce sufficient deterrent capability in the Indo-Pacific, then Congress is unlikely to provide it with a disproportionate share of the budget.
When not in the midst of a pandemic, members of Congress and high-level defense officials travel all over the world and attend all sorts of fancy conferences. Some of these trips are valuable, others less so. None of these trips are as important as the wargame that should take place in Newport in early 2021. Done right, 72 hours with members of Congress and defense leaders locked in a room together examining maps, strategy, forces, and assumptions could bring about the oft-promised naval rebuild that, until now, has yet to materialize. Now that the Pentagon finally has a plan, it is time for Congress to pull up a chair and join it at the table.
Mike Gallagher is a Marine Corps veteran and Republican congressman from Wisconsin’s 8th district. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.