Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

3 studies say Navy needs to be bigger. But hey, are we focusing too much on China?

Three recent studies of the future of the U.S. Navy arrived at remarkably similar conclusions.




By Jim Gourley
Best Defense frequent contributor

Three recent studies of the future of the U.S. Navy arrive at remarkably similar conclusions.

The three, commissioned by Congress, were issued by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA), MITRE Corporation, and the Navy itself. The range of perspectives represented by these publishers highlights the remarkable extent to which their findings converge, not to mention the provocative similarities in their underlying assumptions.

All three studies advocate for significant increases to the Navy’s battle force fleet, which currently sits at 274 ships. The Navy’s own Future Force Assessment recommends growing to 355, CSBA comes in with a modest bump to 340 hulls, and MITRE shoots for the biggest goal of building up to 414 ships. Within that range are more nuanced differences regarding types, classes, and capabilities. Starring in any lineup is the carrier fleet, which CSBA and the Navy propose bumping up to 12. That target is already within range, as the USS Gerald R. Ford will bring the total number of operational flattops to 11 by 2019 and the second ship of its class is already planned for construction. MITRE, on the other hand, believes the Navy ought to have another two Ford-class carriers for a total of 14.

This disparity introduces the difference in underlying philosophies. Writing in War on the Rocks, CSBA study author Bryan McGrath sided with the Navy, saying that 11 carriers are insufficient to meet the Navy’s power projection requirements. McGrath also disagreed with the service’s plan to lay new keels based on its existing structure of large surface combatants. CSBA believes the Navy should cut its appetite for 104 surface warriors — supported mainly by Arleigh Burke-class Destroyers — down to 71, and instead opt for a greater number of smaller surface ships with an increased emphasis on the Littoral Combat Ship. MITRE goes the opposite direction, recommending to scrap the LCS program, ramp up Destroyer production, and add a new line of Frigates to the mix. This sector of the fleet represents the most disagreement between the three reports and will likely experience the liveliest debate, with both the LCS and the Zumwalt-class destroyer programs drawing unanimous Congressional rebuke as defense budget boondoggles.

There are further points of contention between the three studies as each group reaches differing conclusions about the scale and range of missile threats, the impact of emerging naval and aviation drone technologies, and methods of compensating for fleet size through forward basing, strike group architectures, and modifications to logistics support. However, the most interesting aspects of the studies’ underlying assumptions has more to do with what they agree on. Specifically, they are all overwhelmingly preoccupied with China.

In the last 12 months, the U.S. Navy has experienced challenges from Russia in the form of fighter flybys over ships, the combat deployment of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to Syria, two cruises by the spy ship Leonov off the east coast, and the deployment of a new medium-range cruise missile. In that same time, U.S. ships have been fired upon twice each by Iranian ships and Yemeni coastal forces. The Chinese have hijacked an unmanned submarine and harassed U.S. “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea.

It’s inarguable that China’s transformation of coral reefs into a network of naval outposts threatening access to international shipping lanes is one volcanic island with a skull-shaped entrance away from this decade’s Lex Luthor award for diabolical plans. However, the three research papers make these outposts the prima facie argument for a more robust fleet. MITRE specifies the fear of China positioning Dong Feng 21D anti-ship missiles in the area, which would represent a critical threat to any ships within an 810-mile radius. The Navy and CSBA reports are most concerned with a fleet’s reaction time to developments in the South China Sea region. In a 2015 CSBA study, “Deploying Beyond Their means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps At a Tipping Point,” Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman (both members of the team that produced the CSBA report to Congress) warned of a looming “Presence Crisis” in which the Navy could find itself experiencing extended periods during which it could not muster forces to respond to emergency developments in the western Pacific. The unacceptability of such a development is palpable in their recommendations to Congress.

But whether ensuring deterrence through sheer size as MITRE does or evolving the agility to respond to whatever crises may emerge in the case of the Navy and CSBA, all arguments are based on the unspoken belief that China’s presence constitutes an imminent threat. The assessment of required ships moves forward from that point without further consideration of how a conflict in the area might unfold, including participation by international allies, other sources of U.S. power that might be used to dissuade China, or what exactly Chinese objectives might be or how committed they would be to achieving them. In the most thoughtful review of the current strategic environment out of the three studies, the CSBA authors write that “to deter great powers from achieving their revisionist goals, U.S. forces will need the capabilities and operational concepts to deny them the objectives of their aggression or punish them, compelling the aggressor to stop — instead of threatening a response after aggression occurs.” This is as close as anyone comes to discussing how naval power might need to evolve in response to hybrid warfare tactics like those used in Crimea or asymmetric strategies like those used by the Iranians. Afterward, much ado is made about the Dong Feng’s potential. That the U.S. has already been required to shoot a $3.3 million missile to defend its ships from a $500,000 Chinese-made rocket fired by Houthi rebels doesn’t factor into the discussion. Given that this capability gap is the one most ignored by the studies, it’s reasonable that it may be the one most vulnerable to exploitation.

A certain degree of agreement between independent studies like those going before Congress is good. It represents independent verification of observations and assumptions. But independent observation is less helpful when everyone points their telescope in the same direction night after night. With so much focus on China’s “nine-dash line,” one cannot help but wonder what’s been missed when it comes to the challenges that will be put to the Navy in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Congress is receiving three options for the Navy of 2030, but they are all variations on the same theme. If the reports believe that a Navy built for the Spratly Islands will play just as well in the Black Sea, they owe it to Congress to at least say as much.

Jim Gourley is a frequent contributor to the Best Defense. Why aren’t you? This article does not necessarily represent your views, because as you go through life silent who knows what they are?

Photo credit: Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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