Look to the 1980s to Inform the Fleet of Today
When I was a naval officer, my ships always had a plan when we left port for where we were going, how we would get there, and what we would do when we arrived. While that remains true of individual ships in the Navy, it’s not true of the Navy as a whole today. The Navy lacks a comprehensive maritime strategy that defines what the Navy needs to do, how it needs to do it, the resources required, and how to manage risk if those resources aren’t available. The Navy had a strategy that did these things in the past. The maritime strategy of the 1980s articulated a clear vision for the Navy’s purpose and how Navy leaders planned to achieve it. The nation would be well-served by the Navy’s developing such a strategy again.
I entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and was part of a new generation of officers who assumed the watch after the fall of the Soviet Union. We were the beneficiaries of a nation that had a clear and defensible maritime strategy, an administration that provided the vision, a Congress that funded it, and a Navy that executed it. Throughout my career, I deployed on both the Navy’s oldest and newest ships, but they were all designed for the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
With China, the world has seen the meteoric rise of a maritime power that threatens U.S. and allied interests as well as free access to the maritime commons. The United States and like-minded nations are engaged in a new great-power competition. As the Navy focuses almost exclusively on future capabilities, it risks overlooking the immediate threats posed by that competition today. A Battle Force 2045 plan does little to ensure a ready battle force in 2025. Today, no longer in uniform, but as the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, I believe the constitutional role of Congress “to provide and maintain a navy” should be based on something more than future hopes in technology and budget expectations. We need to be prepared now for any contingencies that may occur on our collective watch.
Understanding the 1980s Maritime Strategy During Great-Power Competition
In August 1982, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Small ordered the development of a document “to connect national strategy with defense programming.” Developed in just three weeks using briefing slides and speaking notes, this document birthed the Navy’s first global maritime strategy, which was designed to inform the Navy budgeting process.
The authors developed the briefing using then-current war plans, contemporary directives on national defense policy, and intelligence estimates of the Soviet threat, brought together with Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s concept of a 600-ship navy. Over 18 months, the briefing evolved until it was finally signed by the chief of naval operations and issued as the Navy’s 1984 Maritime Strategy. As Lehman noted, “Once we had established the maritime strategy, we set about relating and conforming everything else we did in the Navy and Marine Corps to it.” Because of the global reach and strength of the strategy, the Navy’s stated need for a 600-ship fleet was defensible, and clearly tied to the numbers and types of ships needed to win in conflict. With the full support of the president, this strategy launched the nation on a trajectory to a massive Navy build-up, which nearly realized this fleet before the conclusion of the Cold War. The strategy clearly showed why the Navy needed 600 ships and indicated exactly where they would be deployed in global wartime operations. Additionally — and often overlooked when discussing the strategy — the strategy articulated the requirement for a peacetime presence to fill deterrent roles, reduce response times, and provide policymakers with naval crisis-response options. One-third of the ships needed for wartime missions in each theater would always be forward deployed under the strategy. Ensuing force-structure assessments have lacked this clear strategic vision for the role of naval forces.
Back to the Future
Lehman recently noted, “In some previous and current periods, naval strategy (if you could call it that) has been derived from predicted budgets. During the 1980s, the process was reversed: first strategy, then requirements, then the [Program Objective Memorandum], then budget.” The difference between strategy preceding budget or budget preceding strategy is the difference between going to the store with a shopping list to make a specific meal, and going to the store, looking in your wallet, and asking, “What could I buy with that?” According to Lehman, a good strategy is a living document that must be tested, refined, and tested again. Most importantly, however, the strategy should be simple, logical, achievable and focus on the enemy’s vulnerabilities above all else.
The Navy’s most recent strategy document, the tri-service maritime strategy issued in December 2020 known as Advantage at Sea, correctly acknowledges the maritime nature of the United States as a nation whose security and prosperity depends on the seas, and highlights the great-power competition faced today. It acknowledges the current world environment and gives guiding principles for prevailing in long-term strategic competition. But this document is not a strategy. It is a vision. One cannot design a fleet to meet current challenges, develop a naval force structure for the future, or create a budget input solely from a vision — these require a global maritime strategy to fight and win against a peer competitor, while simultaneously deterring other malign actors.
U.S. maritime leaders need to answer the question: How would the U.S. Navy deter or defeat Chinese naval aggression, which may perhaps be compounded and complicated by other states such as Russia, Iran, or North Korea acting opportunistically while U.S. Navy forces are engaged elsewhere? How can the U.S. Navy make a strategic difference? Irv Blickstein served in the senior executive service in the Navy’s programming office in the 1980s. In a recent interview, he said, “If you look at the vision the Navy has today, nobody quite understands what they want to do … the Congress is not convinced, and they would like to better understand what the Navy’s plan is.” As Lehman noted, “A critical lesson from the Maritime Strategy is that the Navy must restore credibility with Congress and the public that it knows what kinds of ships, aircraft, and technologies are needed.” What is missing is a concept of operations, broadly stated.
Today’s national security climate is different than that of the 1980s when the United States and Soviet Union faced off at the Cold War’s apex. The Navy does not have the decades-long at-sea experience with China that it did with the Soviet Union after the World War II. Today, the Navy has fewer than half the ships that it had in the 1980s. While modern U.S. Navy forces are more capable than those of the 1980s, the same is true of America’s competitors’ forces, especially China’s. In the 1980s, the F-14 program was less than a decade old, as new programs like the F-18, Aegis, Vertical Launch System, and Nimitz-class carriers matured. These were state of the art platforms and systems developed to counter specific Soviet threats and tactics. By comparison, the platforms the Navy has today are either (like the littoral combat ship) designed for a low-threat, post-Cold War environment, or designed to counter the same Soviet threats and tactics, as the Zumwalt-class destroyers are. Meanwhile, the Chinese have designed platforms and weapons, such as the DF-26 “carrier killer” missiles, to counter the heart of the U.S. fleet.
Not only does the Navy have a problem with lagging technology, the Navy also has a numbers problem. China is outbuilding the U.S. Navy at a rate the United States has been unwilling as a nation to match. Three-quarters of U.S. surface combatants are more than a decade old, while three-quarters of Chinese naval vessels are less than a decade old.
In addition to growing in size, China’s naval forces have grown their sea legs. Since 2009, more than three dozen Chinese anti-piracy flotillas have deployed to the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. These flotillas from the North, East, and South Sea Fleets have gained nearly as much experience as have U.S. Navy deployed strike groups over the same period.
The Lost Generation
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has lost a generation of shipbuilding to failed programs. For example, the DD-21 program office (which resulted in the Zumwalt-class destroyer) was established in 1998. Originally scheduled for a 32-ship production line, but pared down to just three, the Zumwalt and her two sister ships have not deployed. One of the game-changing weapons those ships were to use, the electromagnetic railgun — which had been under development since 2005 — was abandoned in the Navy’s current budget. Similarly, the CVN-21 program executive office, which was set up to produce what became the Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier, was established in 1996. The USS Ford has not yet deployed.
To put this in perspective, I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1997 — between the years in which these programs were established. I retired four years ago after a full naval career and have since twice been elected to Congress. Yet in all of that time, neither ship class has deployed. America cannot afford for it to take multiple decades to design, build, and deploy the next generation of warships.
Even new shipbuilding programs that have resulted in deployed ships have been troubled. Multiple challenges with the Littoral Combat Ship program have resulted in some of those ships being slated for decommissioning only a few years into their intended lifespan. The Constellation-class frigates, intended to provide a more capable alternative to the lightly armed littoral combat ship, will not be present in the fleet in significant numbers for a decade or more.
In its Fiscal Year 2022 budget request the Navy proposes decommissioning almost twice the number of ships it plans to build this year. Among the ships the Navy wants to retire are seven cruisers, some of which were only recently modernized at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Navy has argued that the maintenance costs on these decades-old ships would be better spent on new, modern programs and capabilities. This is one example of the broader “divest to invest” strategy reflected in this year’s budget, which does not instill confidence in the likelihood of fielding a capable fleet in a timely manner. Just as the planned railgun in the Zumwalt class did not come to fruition, history shows that reliance on hopes and dreams for “game-changers” is a poor substitute for forces and strategy.
With flat or reduced budgets, the Navy has no good options. It can sacrifice readiness, sacrifice research and development, or sacrifice fleet size. Those are the Navy’s only options — and they are all bad. I empathize with the position that Navy leadership finds themselves in today, as they have inherited a scenario created by decades of their predecessors’ failed shipbuilding efforts — a scenario that has no real solution without the commitment of significant additional resources. Regardless of administration, the United States has been unwilling as a nation to prioritize shipbuilding, much to its eventual detriment with regard to Chinese aggression and control of the maritime commons. China isn’t waiting until 2045 to realize its fleet. Neither should the United States. America needs a ready Navy that can credibly deter a potential conflict with a confident and overwhelming opponent.
A New Maritime Strategy
For the past three years — in numerous hearings and through information requests — I have sought to determine the Navy’s current global maritime strategy. What I have discovered is that it does not exist. There is not a clear plan similar to the 1984 Maritime Strategy that can inform and clearly articulate the fleet needed today to deter Chinese aggression, fight and win a war with China if required, and also employ naval forces globally in response to other malign actors such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea. I have heard many buzzwords, acronyms, and platitudes, but as naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett said, “Nothing is so dangerous in the study of war as to permit maxims to become a substitute for judgement.”
Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly confirmed as much to me when we spoke recently. According to him,
We’ve had oscillating and unrealistic shipbuilding goals, and a variety of operational warfighting plans designed for fairly static contingencies. Neither of these have been the byproducts of a coherent national maritime strategy that addresses our biggest threats, the broader geographies we must protect, or the unpredictable nature of the future. The national maritime strategy we need today must be an agile one that allows for rapid development and adaptation. The force structure it defines should also have the same characteristics. The strategy must be developed with a sober look at our adversaries and global responsibilities. Further, it must be implemented with a national consensus because such implementation, without a doubt, will be costly to the taxpayers.
The United States needs a Navy capable of maintaining maritime superiority and preserving free trade and freedom of the seas for America and its allies and partners. The Navy immediately should develop a bold global maritime strategy, which will clearly define the fleet required today. This global strategy should focus on Chinese vulnerabilities, of which there are many, including dependence on access to shipping lanes to fuel their economy. The U.S. Navy should be ready to target critical mainland infrastructure and close maritime chokepoints to strangle the Chinese economy. American forces should be agile and unpredictable, using geography to their advantage with mobile capabilities. This type of strategy will require a larger Navy in concert with the other services. Day to day, the U.S. Navy should be present in the East and South China Seas, exercising with allied navies, testing the strategy, and refining it. From this new maritime strategy will flow an informed force structure that will compellingly spell out to lawmakers and the American public the essential and urgent need to invest in a larger Navy to deter Chinese aggression and hold at bay other malign actors who may seek to take advantage of any future conflict in the Pacific. As Lehman notes in discussing the development of the 1984 Maritime Strategy,
90 percent of the deterrent power of this buildup could be achieved in the first year. This was done by publicly declaring and explaining the strategy, especially its naval component, and taking actions that left no doubt among friend and foe that it would be achieved. Those actions included [the need] to submit a revised Defense budget to Congress that fully funded the buildup.
Today, U.S. Navy leadership should heed the words of Lehman: “First strategy, then requirements, then the POM, then budget.” The global situation and America’s competitors and adversaries may have evolved, but the process by which the U.S. Navy designs and builds the fleet should take a valuable lesson from the 1980s. If the United States is to remain a global power, it needs a Navy fit for the purpose and the United States, as a nation, needs to make the commitment to prioritize national defense and make this investment.
Rep. Elaine Luria (VA-02) is vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. She is a 1997 graduate of the United States Naval Academy where she double-majored in history and physics. She retired as a commander after twenty years as a nuclear surface warfare officer.