Home / Asia and Pacific / Sliding Oars: Alternative Visions for the US Navy

Sliding Oars: Alternative Visions for the US Navy

July 8th, 2017

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The unexpected election of Donald Trump as US president left many analysts scrambling to review his previously dismissed campaign commitments in an attempt to better understand what could be coming over the horizon. In the realm of defence and security, it was his pledge to increase pressure on ISIS whilst rejecting an interventionist foreign policy in favour of a ‘Peace through Strength’ mantra that took most attention. Central to the latter would be a major military build-up, including an increase in US Army strength from 480,000 troops to 540,000, adding 10,000 US Marines to take the force from 24 to 36 battalions, building up the US Navy from 276 to 350 ships, and raising the USAF’s inventory from 1,100 to 1,200 tactical aircraft. These plans would, it was claimed, be facilitated through a mix of government efficiencies and the repeal of the sequestration provisions in the Budget Control Act (although not the act itself). Predictably, these plans ran into a roadblock almost immediately. Trump’s 2018 budget proposes an additional $54bn for defence, but cuts funding for everything from the US State Department to Big Bird in a way that the US Congress would never endorse, leading defence hawk Senator Lindsey Graham to declare the plan “dead on arrival”. Similarly, sequestration seems to be going nowhere fast, although the late $15bn boost to 2017 defence spending has provided welcome respite. The just published 2018 defence budget actually does little to enhance force size – instead, readiness is the priority, with the start of the Trump build-up not now expected until 2019.

However, whatever the minutiae, the key goal remains to address the fundamentals of the increasingly challenging situation the US military finds itself in. With the coming to power of a new administration, there now exists a window for solutions to begin to be put in place, with the Navy in particular having an opportunity to reassert its prominence.

All at sea

It became apparent early on that Trump’s notions regarding national security would broadly favour the Navy. The US Army was vulnerable due to American weariness with counterinsurgency operations, a need to focus on the Pacific, and an until recent near pathological push from Trump to improve relations with Russia – a potential enemy that the Army could find itself fighting in Eastern Europe. The USAF has suffered from a loss of profile in recent conflicts and – rightly or wrongly – continues to carry much of the blame for the challenges facing the F-35 programme that the president has voiced his displeasure over. In contrast, the US Navy has avoided a deep association with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, whilst still maintaining a reputation for effectiveness in both supporting counterterrorism efforts and conventional warfighting. On a practical level, this is compatible with Trump’s election pledge of combatting ISIS, and at the same time combining limiting foreign entanglements with asserting US power.

Equally important, given the lack of deep thinking that characterises the current commander-in-chief, is that the Navy has made its utility known in a number of recent actions. In the immediate aftermath of his election, one of the first operations Trump would have been briefed on was the Battle of Sirte in Libya, an engagement which – although led by local fighters and Western Special Forces – was critically dependent on the firepower of ships offshore for its success. He will also have been impressed by the immense speed at which the Navy was able to deliver on his decision to hit a Syrian Government airfield in response to a chemical attack. An aircraft carrier in the form of the USS Carl Vinson recently provided the main means to exert pressure on North Korea at a time when it seemed that they were preparing for additional nuclear tests, and Trump even appeared to enthusiastically reveal during a TV interview that the carrier group was supported by a pair of Ohio-class submarines, each carrying 154 Tomahawk missiles. Naval forces also provide an avenue for confronting China, and for facing down Iran.

Fundamentally, the Navy offers Trump a strong, flexible and visible presence in times of tension and conflict, whilst also maximising the technological leverage still held by US forces. Focusing additional resources on it therefore makes perfect sense. At a more visceral level, there is also the call back to the superficially similar ‘Peace through Strength’ Reagan-era build-up to a 600 ship Navy – a feat that could never be repeated today due to industrial capacity limitations, but still forms a touchstone for modern conservative defence aficionados who consider it a golden period. For Trump himself, it could be even more basic: 100,000 tonnes of aircraft carrier may be the closest thing to the skyscrapers he has made his trademark that the US Government has to offer.

None of this is to over-evangelise the value of sea power. Ultimately, its utility is determined only by the impact it can deliver on land, and much like air power, its ability to forge outcomes decisively suffers greatly from not operating in the medium in which the human race resides. Additionally, the US Navy has suffered from a number of recent procurement programme issues that have ranged from the delayed Gerald Ford-class carrier to the slow motion disaster of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). But it has also got a great deal right, with the Tomahawk cruise missile, SM-3 anti-ballistic missile, Virginia-class submarine and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer programmes all representing examples of US platforms delivering world-class capabilities en masse. All also have the advantage of having a flexibility that fits into the slightly odd post-post-Cold War zeitgeist of the current era – an accomplishment that US Army and USAF procurement has struggled to replicate.

Trump’s proposal and the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment

It is important (if perhaps a little obvious) to note that Trump’s defence manifesto was neither his nor his teams. As is often the case, the policy set was partly sourced from a think tank – in this instance the conservative Heritage Foundation. Recommendations for the Navy, however, originated from the bi-partisan National Defence Panel, which in a 2014 review proposed a force of up to 346 ships (Trump’s figure of 350 is this number rounded up). This represents an increase on both the current 275, and a hike on the then current US Navy goal of 308. The composition of this force, however, was not detailed by the Trump campaign.

Immediately after Trump’s election, the US Navy itself revised its recommendations for the required fleet for the first time since 2014. This request – for 355 ships – seemed conveniently timed given the President Elect’s manifesto, but this review had been in preparation for some time, and would also have landed in the in-tray of a Clinton presidency.

The Navy’s new Force Structure Assessment outlined a proposal for 12 aircraft carriers (up from the 2014 goal of 11), 104 cruisers and destroyers (up from 88), 52 ‘small surface combatants’ – i.e. the LCS family (unchanged from the earlier 52), 66 attack submarines (SSNs) (up from 48), 12 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) (unchanged) and 38 amphibious ships (up from 34). The increase was justified by the then Navy Secretary Ray Mabus by the need to counter “a growing China and a resurgent Russia”.

However, even the current build-up to 308 ships is constrained by resources, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projecting a cost of $19bn a year for new ships over the next thirty years – around $5bn higher than the recent historical average. The CBO has been even more unkind to the 355 figure. To get to 355 ships by 2035, annual shipbuilding costs would have to peak at $33bn a year by 2027. Even with a more sedate end date of 2047, it would still take $26-28bn.

Even ignoring the cost issues, it is not entirely accurate to speak of this as the ‘Trump build-up’ – he would be long gone from office before ship numbers started to increase substantially. But as a start-point for rising to emerging challenges, the next four years will be crucial.

Since the publication of the new Force Structure Assessment, Trump has spoken (perhaps unknowingly) in favour of the plan, pledging to support a 12 carrier Navy. Nevertheless, the Navy’s proposed vision – at least in its unclassified form – lacks detail. There is also a valid point that it is deeply unimaginative, and would be helped by more creative input from external stakeholders. Happily, the think-tank and wider policy community has been able to oblige.

The CSBA’s vision

The defence-focused Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s (CSBA) Restoring American Seapower was published in January 2017. At the level of fleet architecture, it puts forward a proposal of 340 ships, including 12 carriers, 74 cruisers and destroyers, 72 LCSs and frigates, 66 SSNs, 12 SSBNs and 39 amphibious ships.

The major difference to US Navy plans is the emphasis placed on small ships and unmanned vessels, with the trade being 30 fewer cruisers and destroyers. The LCS would be partnered with a larger frigate – a type that the Navy stopped using in 2015 and is only now beginning to explore the possibility of resurrecting in a genuine form, as opposed to a limited upgrade for the existing LCS. These would be accompanied by 40 corvette types to provide force mass, as well as 40 unmanned surface vessels (USVs): the latter would focus on enhancing mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and intelligence gathering capabilities.

Nuclear powered aircraft carrier numbers would be uplifted from 11 to 12. However, there would also be a gradual transition from LHA and LHD landing ships of the Wasp and America classes and towards smaller fixed-wing carriers (CVLs) similar to the old Midway-class, with the idea being that this would give added flexibility to the fleet. Such vessels would be based on the America-class hull design. Little new is said on naval aviation itself, although the need for both a basic stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) and additional in-flight refuelling assets (which would also be unmanned) are highlighted.

For submarines, the SSN force size would increase to 66 vessels, matching the latest US Navy plans. However, the CSBA’s paper curtails the number of future Virginia-class submarines to be fitted with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM), which adds 28 Tomahawk missiles to the boat’s existing 12 missile capability, or alternatively can act as a launch point for unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs). Under the CSBA’s model, only half of the fleet of SSNs constructed post-2020 would carry the VPM, as opposed to all of them as currently planned. This would, it is claimed, free up shipyard capacity to allow for the building of up to four SSNs per year. 40 UUVs would support this force in the surveillance role.

Amphibious warfare would remain broadly in line with existing plans, although in time CVLs would replace the current LHA and LHDs. The other significant change would be to rework the LX(R) programme to replace the Harpers Ferry and Whidbey Island-class landing ships to procure a total of 17 vessels (vs the 11 currently planned), and equip both them and the earlier 12 San Antonio-class landing ships with 32 vertical launch cells (VLCs) to carry offensive and self-defence missiles.

How the Navy deploys would also change under the CSBA’s plan. Broadly, it would be split into the Deterrence Force and the Maneuver Force. The former would be comprised of partly forward-based formations tailored for local need, and would be tasked with both routine operations and as the first line of defence in a major war. For example, the Deterrence Force covering Northern Europe would provide maritime security and surveillance in peacetime, and facilitate an immediate reaction to any Russian incursion into Eastern Europe and supply an ASW capability during the early stages of a conflict. It would include four destroyers and four attack submarines based in the UK. The largely US-based Maneuver Force – centred upon nuclear powered aircraft carriers – would provide the follow-on force for sustained combat.

The MITRE Corporation

The MITRE Corporation is a think-tank that provides research and development support for the US government. Their vision for a future US Navy, the Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, was actually published in July 2016, but remains one of the stand out efforts to craft an alternative model.

The ideal fleet as outlined by MITRE is comprised of 14 aircraft carriers, 160 cruisers and destroyers, 46 small surface combatants, 72 SSNS, 12 SSBNs and 38 amphibious ships. However, there is also a recognition that a fleet of this size is impractical. As a result, a number of work-arounds are proposed to improve capabilities.

The most drastic suggestion is the termination of the LCS, thus allowing the ploughing of the money saved into additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and accelerating the introduction of a frigate capable of air and missile defence tasks. It also proposes the resurrection of the 1990s-era Arsenal ship concept, which would see cheap civilian-grade hulls fitted with Electromagnetic Rail Guns (ERGs), hundreds of VLCs, and silos for a new conventionally armed medium range ballistic missile. These ‘magazine ships’ would act to provide additional firepower for the more traditional Navy vessels that would accompany it.

Likely to be less popular amongst the suggestions put forward is the slowing of the nuclear-powered carrier programme to maintain a fleet of 10-11 ships. Like the CSBA plan, there is also a proposal to shift towards buying conventionally powered carriers, this time based on either the Gerald Ford or America-class hulls. Also in the field of aviation, the MITRE proposal advises procuring additional F/A-18E/F to plug the fighter shortfall.

MITRE’s proposal for the SSN fleet suggests little beyond the sustaining of the construction of two vessels per year, as opposed to letting production slip to one per year when the Columbia-class SSBNs begin to be built. The heavy lifting in addressing the projected shortfall in attack submarines would be dealt with through a proposal to build a fleet of non-nuclear submarines to augment the current fully nuclear force – a type the US has not procured since the 1950s. The crewed submarine force would be supported by a fleet of UUVs.

Finally, it is recommended that the Navy abandon the LX(R) programme and replace it with a scheme to procure more numerous but less capable transport ships. Overall, the vision seems to be very-much a ‘high-low’ fleet mix of the type espoused by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Zumwalt during the 1970s.

The MITRE proposal does not make a significant contribution to the wider issue of Navy strategy, instead choosing to simply build its recommendations on the core US Defense Strategic Guidance – which is based on an approach of being able to defeat one adversary while holding or inflicting unacceptable losses on another.

The Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study

The final detailed vision on offer is the Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study (AFFPAS). This is not the product of a think tank, but an independent Navy Project Team. As with the MITRE plan, this paper was released before the election, with publication in October 2016.

The AFFPAS vision of the US Navy is somewhat particular in its fleet mix. The number of crewed ships totals only 321: 11 carriers, 86 destroyers, 48 LCS and frigates, 53 SSNs, 12 SSBNs and 35 amphibious landing ships. The major difference between the AFFPAS and the other models outlined is the emphasis on unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. Whilst the US Navy only suggests deploying 10 such ships and the CSBA proposes 80, AFFPAS envisages 48 UUVs and 88 USVs. The latter would be based on existing manned vessel models and would broadly fit into the mould of the World War 2 PT boat, in that they would be small, fast, cheap and heavily armed. Like the PT boat, the USVs would also have limited survivability, but the absence of a crew would make this a price worth paying.

Examining the more conventional elements of the fleet, the AFFPAS replicates the CSBA and MITRE studies in its call for a new type of conventionally powered carrier based on the America-class LHD hull, although in this case the vessel would lack the catapults and arrestor wires to support conventional take-off and landing aircraft – instead being confined to helicopters, V-22s, F-35B and vertical take-off UAVs. The nuclear carrier fleet would see a significant reduction in the number of F-35C and F/A-18E/F fighters in exchange for a UAV – presumably whatever the MQ-25 Stingray programme produces – that can perform the in-flight refuelling and surveillance role.

On the surface combatant front, the US Navy cruiser fleet is stated to disappear by 2030, with only the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class leading in the air defence role. These and the older ships of the class would be supplemented by 5 ‘helicopter destroyers’ – essentially Arleigh Burke-class ships with their rear missile silos removed and replaced with a capability to carry a mix of six helicopters and UAVs, as well as enhanced ASW systems and an HVP-capable main gun. Accompanying the destroyers would be the LCSs and an enlarged number of frigates. The US Navy SSN fleet would be increased to 53 from the planned 2030 baseline of 42, supported by the aforementioned 48 UUVs. No changes of note would be made to the amphibious force.

At the level of doctrine, the AFFPAS outlines a ‘Distributed Fleet’ concept, which builds on the pre-existing strategy of ‘Distributed Lethality’ – returning the Navy’s non-carrier assets to a more offensive role. Put simply, this envisages that every asset possible will be given a strike capability in order to increase net firepower and multiply the points of origin of attack an enemy has to deal with: to quote the supporting Surface Force Strategy document, “If it floats, it fights”. In terms of how assets are deployed, there would be a shift away from large battle groups in tight formation and ships operating individually into a system where a fleet can be separated geographically but tightly integrated operationally. In theory, this makes the force more survivable by presenting it neither as a large tightly packed group of targets, nor as singletons that can be overwhelmed. This also allows for a wider area to be covered. The strong UAV, USV and UUV component of the force proposed in the AFFPAS reflects the sensor and electromagnetic requirements of such dispersal.

Analysis

All of the alternatives to the US Navy plans outlined have a number of themes in common. The most prominent – and likely controversial – is the shift away from an emphasis on CVNs. None of the models presented here proposes a drop below the current number of ships, but there is also an acknowledgment that such vessels represent an over-centralisation of offensive power, and would therefore be a weak point whose damage or loss in a major conflict would risk fatally undermining an operation. Fears about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles are probably overblown, but the cornucopia of systems that would be faced by the US in any conflict with Beijing would present the risk of the loss of major units. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also the case the CVNs are overkill in most situations. During the 2011 intervention in Libya, the US saw no need to send a carrier, with an amphibious vessel with half a dozen Harriers being the main Navy/Marine air power contribution.

The CSBA, MITRE and AFFPAS models all take similar approaches to counter the CVN focus. Firstly, they all push for the reintroduction of medium sized aircraft carriers based on America-class hulls. This strategy would multiply the targets an enemy force would have to manage in a major war, whilst also providing for ships that could manage a less intense crisis without tying up a CVN group. Secondly, firepower is defuse – a concept very much in tune with the Distributed Lethality mantra. A larger surface and submarine fleet – both manned and unmanned – is envisaged, with the emphasis switched away from protecting the CVNs and towards offensive operations.

At the higher end of war, these shifts have considerable merit. There can be little doubt the CVNs are dangerously close to becoming too militarily and politically valuable for their own good. The move away from a defensive mindset amongst the non-carrier units will also be needed to retain the initiative and create a more complex challenge for the enemy. Questions do, however, have to be asked about the more ‘constabulary’ value additional small carriers will bring. At the moment, the chasm in capability between the air groups of the Wasp/America-class landing ships and the Nimitz/Gerald Ford-class is clear given the former’s reliance on the Harrier. However, with the introduction of the F-35B, this gap will close considerably. This must raise major questions as to whether the loss of flexibility a shift from LHAs/LHAs to small carriers would be worth it. Given the Navy’s introduction of a well-deck for landing craft into the America-class design after leaving it out of the first two of the type, the answer seems likely to be no.

More generally, all of the plans outlined seek to keep ‘clean sheet’ innovation in crewed vessels to a minimum. Even the proposals for new frigates, corvettes and conventionally powered submarines lean towards adopting existing US or foreign designs as opposed to starting from scratch. For larger vessels, the focus is on the continued development of core types such as the Arleigh Burke and Virginia-class. Again, this must be seen with a positive slant – the recent experience of the Zumwalt-class destroyer has demonstrated the risk of revolutionary rather than evolutionary approaches. In the short to medium term at least, the most important developments in naval technology are likely to come inside anonymous looking grey boxes rather than entirely new concepts. The requirement of the genuinely novel systems on the horizon – notably direct energy weapons, railguns and dynamic armour – will chiefly be electricity rather than Battlestar Galactica–style hull forms.

In contrast, all three of the alternative models hugely ramp-up the future planned reliance on UUVs and USVs. To an extent, this is understandable: unmanned platforms are cheaper, smaller, and do not require a crew to be placed in a high risk (or potentially extremely boring) situation. However, none of the maritime systems proposed are beyond early prototype form, much less ready for deployment. To an extent, this can again be justified given the typically shorter development time of unmanned units once the required investment is made. But there is also significant risk – particularly in the larger designs that will operate over long ranges. There will need to be an acceptance that, however vital they may be, these units will likely not arrive on time or on budget.

Linking back to all of this is either an explicit or implicit attempt to return to a high-low fleet mix. Although this stance is strongest in the MITRE Corporation proposal, the underlying theme is carried over in the CSBA’s call for 40 corvettes and – to a lesser extent – in the AFFPAS reliance on a large number of UUVs and USVs to bolster the force. All of the alternative models want to see light carriers return.

As noted above, the US Navy has a track record with this debate. During the 1970s, the force faced the retirement of a large number of World War 2 vintage vessels without any funding for replacements. To compensate for the Navy’s inability to afford all of the high-end platforms it needed, three programmes were put in motion. The Sea Control Ship was a mini-aircraft carrier designed to support ASW and secondary taskings, the Pegasus-class hydrofoils were fast attack craft, and the Oliver Hazard Perry-class provided a patrol frigate capability. Just the latter two ever entered service, and only the frigates in substantial numbers. All three designs suffered from having limited capabilities, and the two that actually went into production were less affordable than originally billed. Although it seems unlikely that the modern vision of CVLs, corvettes and frigates would have the same capability shortfalls, this is likely to be a balanced out by an even less attractive price tag.

Conclusions

That there is a need to rebuild the US Navy is disputed by few in the mainstream. Initially at least, readiness needs to be prioritised by beginning to clear the many years of deferred maintenance that have undermined the fleet. But in the longer run, building up both numbers and capabilities matter. The broad form an enlarge US Navy will take is made clear from the common threads running through the proposals put forward. CVNs, whilst not exactly ‘out’, are no longer the centre of the surface fleet universe. Dispersal of forces from a deterrent, defensive and offensive stance is ‘in’. Non-traditional platforms will be needed to compensate for numerical weakness – particularly if the budget environment fails to improve.

That Donald Trump is leading the US Government at this critical inflection point for defence capability is an unhappy accident. The occasion called for an individual capable of reaching out across the political aisle to form some sort of consensus on the way forward. In fairness, it may be that current partisan differences are too wide to be bridged by anyone. That some Republicans now prioritise tax cuts even above national security is a key stumbling block, but other problems – political and practical – also exist. Trump does at least talk the talk: the eight years of Obama saw little inclination to do even this.

The main barriers for all of the proposals remain funding and industrial capacity, the latter of which ultimately links back to financial resources. At present, there is no path forward to funding any of the expansion programmes outlined here. Realistically, only two things could change this in the immediate. The first would be a major strategic shock that underlined US vulnerability. The fall of France in 1940 spurred the passing of the Two Oceans Navy Act that allowed the US to build the world’s most powerful maritime force. However, it is difficult to foresee a type of shock that would be sufficiently extreme to trigger a policy change, but at the same time not be a signal that such a shift had been left too late. A conflict with China over Taiwan would not leave any meaningful time for additional investment – only for recriminations about what should have been done beforehand.

The second option would be a drastic political shift in the US similar to the one that occurred with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which facilitated the 600-ship Navy programme. Again though, how this might happen today is unclear. The US political system is already suffering from nervous exhaustion. A post-Trump renaissance similar to the one that followed the 1970s nightmare of Vietnam, recession, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis is likely – but this seems destined to be under the governance of the more extreme anti-military elements of the Democratic Party. As is always the case in politics, almost anything can happen, but the current view from the bottom of the hole gives little reason for short-term hope.

 

Image: USS Ross (Source – US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg)

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Political Science and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report.