Is Esper’s New Plan for the Navy Enough for the Indo-Pacific?
Recent wargames suggest the U.S. Navy would have a hard time fighting China, but this might be nothing compared to infighting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his successors will have to manage to build a navy that can hold its own in the Pacific. The secretary will soon release a much anticipated and somewhat delayed Future Naval Force Study. This document, normally issued by the secretary of the Navy, was previously known as the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan and is unique to the naval forces. Neither the Army nor the Air Force produce such a comprehensive, congressionally feted long-term procurement planning document. Ultimately the study will be a strong signal of the administration’s commitment to implementing the National Defense Strategy promulgated in 2018. Despite the delay in reporting it out, with the study coming too late to impact the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process, it is still a powerful statement for the secretary of defense to articulate the force structure that he sees as necessary to field the most critical forces (naval) for the most demanding adversary (China) for which his combatant commanders have to plan.
In his recent comments at the RAND Corporation and at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Esper provided an initial peek at the study. The media coverage of any naval force structure plan quickly spirals into a discussion of ship numbers — 355 or 500, in this case — and arguments over how to characterize unmanned vessels, and what size vessel “counts.” In reality, what is of greatest import is not the number of ships, but the composition of the fleet. One can produce a 450-ship Navy heavy on corvettes and amphibious ships and get nowhere against China. Conversely, one can build a 300-ship Navy with an emphasis on attack submarines and missile tubes, thus producing a war-winning capability. Therefore, before one can assess the value of the secretary’s plan, it is essential to know what it is being built to achieve.
Over the past two years, the Department of Defense has consistently identified the security challenge from China as the most significant long-term threat to the United States. Successive commanders of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command have consistently characterized the challenge of fighting the Chinese military as one that will come fraught with risk and necessitate naval forces beyond what the United States can put to sea today. The principal measuring stick for a naval force structure assessment should be how it contributes to the U.S. military’s ability to deter — and, if deterrence fails, defeat — Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan in both the near and distant future.
In planning for any crisis in the Western Pacific, one should remember that the geography of the theater makes the principal warfighting requirements air and maritime in nature. U.S. military commanders in the Pacific have been consistently asking the military services and Congress for certain capabilities and capacities. These can be generally put into six categories of planning requirements:
- Hundreds of launch systems (aircraft, ships, and submarines) with missiles and torpedoes to destroy the People’s Liberation Army Navy while at sea.
- Resilient and redundant satellites and aircraft systems to acquire and track Chinese maritime assets and communicate targeting data to launch systems.
- A smaller number of launch systems (aircraft, ships, submarines, and land-based) with missiles to destroy “politically feasible” targets, most likely military assets on illegally developed maritime features in the South China Sea, and these would be complemented by cyber and electronic warfare tools that could somehow “touch” targets on the mainland of China.
- Defensive systems (fighter aircraft, air defense ships, and maritime patrol aircraft) allowing the principal launch systems to operate with the temporary geographic air and maritime dominance necessary to destroy their targets.
- Sea control forces (ships, submarines, aircraft, and surveillance assets) to either establish maritime blockades (surface ships and submarines) or break them (submarines and aircraft).
- Logistics and force protection systems (refueling aircraft and ships, logistics ships and bases, air bases, weapons and fuel storage facilities) to support the operational forces.
Esper’s comments teased out a number of arguments about the naval force structure that are worth assessing against these priorities.
First, he emphasized the need to protect America’s most critical military capability in the Western Pacific: an asymmetric advantage in undersea warfare. Plans to refuel a seventh Los Angeles–class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and increase Virginia–class SSN production should be lauded. These absolutely accord with top-priority requirements for the Indo-Pacific. But his comments could also create a false sense of security, that “we finally have this right.” In truth, the submarine force structure is, and will remain for at least a decade, a depressing story of a nasty self-inflicted wound.
It is generally understood that the requirement is for 66 or more attack submarines, but the current inventory has only 51, and the U.S. Navy is inexorably backsliding toward 42 by 2025. Nothing Secretary Esper has said will change that. In fact, it is too late for any naval force structure plan to prevent the bottoming out of the SSN force, as this is the product of thirty years of neglect beginning in the 1990s. Another reason attack submarines should be a sore spot for the Defense Department is that the most recent budget submission (FY2021) only requested funding for one Virginia–class submarine, instead of the previously planned for two. Six months ago, the Pentagon did not have this sense of urgency. Fortunately, this oversight can be remedied this month in Congress. The House National Defense Authorization Act recommends two attack submarines. They will debate this number shortly with the Senate. A final concern is that Esper’s recommendation to raise Virginia-class submarine production to three per year could conflict with production of another of his number one priorities, the Columbia–class ballistic missile submarines.
Policymakers should emphasize investments in the other elements of undersea warfare. The U.S. defense industrial base cannot currently build submarines of any sort fast enough to replace those retiring, let alone expand the existing fleet. Because of this, it is critical that the Naval Force Structure Assessment emphasize the immediate procurement of sufficient complementary undersea warfare capabilities such as ocean surveillance ships, and large and extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles. These vessels, with supporting aviation assets, may be able to help the Navy maintain its asymmetric undersea warfare advantage and meet combatant commander warfighting needs over the next 10 to 15 years without the necessary number of attack submarines.
Second, Esper placed a welcome emphasis on unmanned platforms of all types. Again, this is consistent with the combatant commander requirements. He rightly committed to the goal that every future fixed-wing aircraft on the carrier’s flight deck beyond the F-35 — strike, fighter, refueling, electronic-warfare, early warning, and so on — needs to have optionally unmanned or unmanned-only designs. These designs are already in the works for refueling aircraft. This should start a long-overdue conversation that brings into question the Navy’s recent proclamation that the next (6th) generation of carrier-based fighter aircraft will be manned. Sooner than many may imagine, unmanned or optionally unmanned platforms in all three domains — surface, subsurface, and air — will be critical to meeting warfighting priorities in the Indo-Pacific. The stark contrast between how the Navy’s submarine and surface warfare communities have embraced unmanned vehicles versus naval aviation’s efforts to hold them — especially strike mission vehicles — at arm’s length remains maddening and unexplained.
Third, is the issue of aircraft carrier numbers. The secretary argued for a carrier force of eight to 11 nuclear carriers and up to six additional “light carriers.” First, one should hope that there is no plan for an actual new class of light carriers. Nothing could be more fiscally irresponsible than initiating a new large-deck ship design, given that the Navy has a consistent track record of going overbudget on all of its recent large ship class designs. If the Navy is going to build an aircraft carrier, it should build more of the type that leverage the $8.5 billion already spent on a working design, such as Ford-class carriers. There is a reasonable argument for repurposing some of the existing amphibious assault ships, namely landing helicopter assault and landing helicopter dock ships, as very light carriers which could help with some of the less demanding combatant commander requirements. This would require mixing unmanned aircraft capable of refueling, early warning, and electronic warfare missions with the existing U.S. Marine Corps F-35s. The Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, when equipped with the right manned/unmanned aircraft mix, will remain key to achieving three of the U.S. military’s warfighting requirements mentioned above, so any reduction in carrier numbers should be limited to 10 nuclear carriers. For all the talk of China’s “carrier killers,” the Chinese capability and capacity to attack fixed airfields is exponentially higher.
Fourth, Esper’s remarks dance around the issue of the future of amphibious warfare. In his discussion of future fleet attributes, Esper notably ignored the amphibious warfare ship’s joint forcible entry operation mission. This is wise, given China’s current defensive capabilities and the ongoing expense to the U.S. Navy associated with maintaining this capability. Previously, the joint force’s most demanding amphibious capabilities were tied to planning for North Korea contingencies. U.S. and Korean planners should be directed to identify alternative concepts of operations in preparing for that contingency. Secretary Esper’s vision of the future number of amphibious warfare ships needed as “50 to 60” tracks with a Hudson Institute report, a study utilized to inform the secretary’s assessment. The study calls for procuring large numbers of a new class of light amphibious warships and marrying them with a reduced number of up-armored landing platform dock ships, which should allow them to maneuver in non-forcible entry contexts. Given this, some of the ships that were previously anchored in the forcible entry scenarios could make reasonable platforms for the light carrier duties that are envisioned. In any case, the Navy should reduce its overall procurement of expensive landing helicopter assault and landing platforms dock ships, and instead build less costly vessels to rapidly distribute the Marines for deployment throughout the region, thus saving shipbuilding funds while still contributing to military requirements in the Indo-Pacific. Hopefully, future assessments will make this argument more directly.
Fifth, although not explicitly stated by Esper, there will be a slight shift from large to small surface combatants. The Hudson Institute plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in large surface combatant (cruisers/destroyers) numbers over 20 years. The likely justifications for this are the emergence of a new frigate class to conduct sea control and defend high-value units, and the development of Large Unmanned Surface Vessels to maintain missile cell capacity. Both of these are important future vessels, but neither has been demonstrated as effective yet. It is likely the Navy will have to make a risky decision not to extend the life of older Arleigh Burke-class destroyers or sustain the build rate of new Burke destroyers before the frigate and unmanned surface vessel experiments are proven sound and the design for the next-generation destroyer (DDG Next) is firmly grounded. If everything goes to schedule, the plan will meet warfighting requirements. If not, the U.S. military could be short a number of critical sea control and power projection assets, such as missile tubes.
Sixth, the secretary’s emphasis on combat logistics force vessels is a welcome addition. It is a credit to this Force Structure Assessment that this is even in discussion, as reducing logistics capabilities has been a constant source of operational risk over the past two decades. A focus on increasing the raw numbers of logistics ships for distributed operations across the Western Pacific is bold and contributes to logistical and warfighting requirements.
Looking across these six issues, the Naval Force Structure Assessment that Esper is hinting at puts down some good markers related to the combatant commander requirements to deter or defeat China. It emphasizes attack submarines, delivers a much-needed impetus to unmanned air, surface, and undersea vessel planning, shifts amphibious assets away from unlikely and risky forcible entry amphibious operations, and increases logistics capacity. But it also takes risks with aircraft carriers and large-surface combatant reductions without demonstrated replacement capabilities, and, of course, it does not actually solve the attack submarine problem so much as identify it.
The secretary also leaves one important issue insufficiently addressed: the money to pay for this. As the saying goes, a strategy without a budget is just a fantasy. In his remarks, Esper acknowledged the need to increase naval shipbuilding from 11 to 13 percent of the Navy budget — a growth of just over $4 billion dollars a year. The secretary was vague as to how he will pay for this growth in shipbuilding, and implied that efficiencies in the Navy and elsewhere in the Defense Department could cover this. To fund the increased undersea capabilities, improve power projection and sea control capabilities, and meet all six combatant commander warfighting requirements listed above, it will take more than reductions in amphibious ship costs (if that is in fact the plan) and the potential trimming of one aircraft carrier. If the remaining “bill” is taken out of the Navy’s current budget, finding this money each year through modernization and readiness reductions is not realistic. This would, without a doubt, hollow out current naval force capability to such a degree that Esper’s recent comments about China’s navy “not catching us soon” would be rendered false.
If you do not believe “efficiencies” will get you there, and you assume significant defense funding increases are not in the offing, the options for funding this plan become limited. The U.S. Air Force is nearly as essential as the Navy in executing these combatant commander tasks and needs more funds itself, so it is an unlikely source. Thus, the only realistic billpayer for this growth in naval force capability is the service with the least skin in the counter-China game described above: the U.S. Army. The Army currently has responsibilities for logistics and the air defense of air fields and logistics bases in the Indo-Pacific, and it would also like to get into the maritime and land attack missions, but it remains a supporting service in such a fight. The Defense Department could roll back the growth in Army force structure over the past four years and place the Army’s end strength at 460,000 troops, which is still 10,000 more soldiers than what was recommend by the 2017 National Commission on the Future of the Army. If the Pentagon did this and did not remove forward stationed troops from Europe and Korea while doing so, it would harvest billions of dollars a year and not harm Army readiness. This rollback, along with the savings from reducing amphibious ships and one carrier, would allow the department to fund the necessary shipbuilding increases and even have something left over for the Air Force as well.
It may be insightful to hear what National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, the most prominent navalist in the administration, had to say on the issue today at the Navy Yard near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Perhaps he can address the vexing budget question in a way the department cannot address itself.
Esper has described a naval force structure designed to deter, and if needed, defeat China, one that will be equally applicable to national security decision-makers in a Biden or second Trump administration, but he has left the critical question about how to fund it unanswered. The next administration will have to answer this question if it wants to prepare the military for great-power competition with China. In the meantime, Congress can immediately help the Department of Defense achieve some momentum on this by adding the second Virginia-class submarine back into the FY2021 budget and providing the offset from non-Navy funding. It will be an initial signal to Beijing that the United States will match its words with deeds.
Mark Montgomery is a retired Navy rear admiral whose last military assignment was as director for operations (J3) for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. He is currently the senior advisor to the chairmen of the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.