Shipbuilding has been one of the biggest conundrums of post-Cold War defense planning, and the Defense Department’s confusion seems only to escalate as time goes by. In fact, you might argue that the shipbuilding plan is the most reliable measure of our strategic uncertainty; it’s also a measure of how budgetary, industrial and domestic political concerns have hampered a genuinely strategic assessment of fleet requirements. Thus, the Navy’s shipbuilding plans have changed on nearly an annual basis over the past 15 years.
A quick bit of potted history: The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were, naturally, heralded as events that would allow the U.S. to return to its traditional role as a maritime power and an “offshore balancer,” to use a tortured but common term of social science. There has long been a view that America’s strategic heritage is as a successor to Great Britain and, as the Royal Navy was to the Pax Britannica, so the U.S. Navy had been and would continue to be the principal military tool of the Pax Americana. The need to confront adversaries on their home continents — not only as in the Cold War but also the two world wars — had passed.
This romantic illusion evaporated with Operation Desert Storm. For all the television coverage of cruise-missile attacks and carrier strikes, the contribution of naval forces to the Persian Gulf War was secondary at best. Land-based airpower emerged as the decisive form of military power, even though it required 900,000 soldiers and a massive tank charge to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. Adm. William Owens, who retired as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cruelly concluded that the Navy’s blue-water capabilities, nursed over decades, were “either ruled out by the context of the battle or were ineffective in the confined littoral area and the environmental complexities of the sea-land interface.” In other words, in the wars that were to be taken as illustrative of the post-Cold War world, the Navy didn’t bring much to the table.
For the Navy, the message was clear: To retain its relevance, naval force had to be projected onto land. The theory of sea power began to emphasize power “from the sea.” For the carrier community in particular, this became the first order of business. Carriers would be transformed from standalone capital ships to become contributors to the larger air campaigns championed by the Air Force as the dominant form of warfare. The difficultly of coordinating Navy strikes in the air tasking order — the daily plan had to be physically delivered, on paper, to the carriers in the Persian Gulf — was emblematic of the inability to conduct a joint-service strike campaign. To quote Owens again: “[T]he issue facing the nation’s naval forces is not whether strategic bombardment theory is absolutely correct; it is how best to contribute to successful strategic bombardment campaigns.”
A more challenging task was to engineer a similar transformation of the Navy’s principal surface combatants, its cruisers and destroyers. While the most modern and capable ships remained multirole platforms, with the striking power of the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and formidable anti-submarine warfare capabilities, there was no getting around the fact that the newest, Aegis-radar-equipped ships also reflected an out-of-date assessment that fleet air defense was the primary mission.
The investments of a decade or more seemed to begin to bear fruit during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent Rand Corp. report by Benjamin Lambeth captures the exponential increases in strike capability for carrier aircraft. His conclusion: By every measure that matters, U.S. naval aviation acquitted itself well during the first two wars of the 21st century. The previous inability of the carrier force to project credible and sustained combat power at great distances was a persistent and common theme of critiques of sea-based strike aviation in the roles and missions debates throughout the 1990s. The substantial contribution of naval strike and combat-support assets to those two subsequent wars in close succession did much to dispel that widespread and deeply held conviction.
Improving the strike capabilities of destroyers and cruisers is a longer-term process, but it has been a central part of the DD(X) and precursor programs to create a new class of surface combatants. As the Congressional Budget Office confirmed last year, “The ship’s capabilities are centered on providing fire support for forces on shore using two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems and 80 missile tubes that could carry Tomahawk cruise missiles or other weapons.” Indeed, the number of missile tubes, or Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, has become the measure of merit for the from-the-sea surface Navy, and another recent study speculated on the need for a “10,000-VLS” fleet.
But what if the Navy’s embrace of this from-the-sea mission is misplaced?
It’s becoming clearer that the point of departure for American strategy in the 21st century was not Sept. 11 but a yet-to-be-defined moment that captures the intersection of the three most pressing security problems of our time: the beginning of “The Long War” for the future of the Middle East, the accumulation of serious military power by the People’s Republic of China and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to otherwise weak states such as Iran.
The 9/11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are simply the most dramatic recent moments in the long-term U.S. engagement in the Islamic world. The U.S. is no longer an “offshore balancer” in the region, even in the Persian Gulf; we have come ashore — a long way ashore — and to be victorious, we must stay ashore.
Nor can we be sure what China’s rise holds for the future. But the trends in Chinese military power are clear. As the Pentagon’s annual report indicates, the People’s Liberation Army Navy sees its maritime perimeter as including “regional sea lines of communication” — that is, in the blue water. The report quotes Gen. Wen Zongren, “of the elite PLA Academy of Military Science,” on the need “to break international forces’ blockade against China’s maritime security. Only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China’s rise.” The term “international forces” here means the U.S. and Japanese navies.
And how to operate in a crisis or, heaven forfend, in the shadow of a nuclear-armed adversary such as Iran, or to mitigate the danger in the face of the collapse of a nuclear-armed ally such as Pakistan, are questions the Pentagon has only begun to wrestle with. It was a central concern of the Quadrennial Defense Review, but in a nutshell, the conclusion reached was that it was an operational problem that did not yet have a satisfactory answer, and that profoundly new forces and capabilities were required to address such a challenge.
Indeed, it is beginning to look as if the Navy came to premature conclusions about the kinds of conflicts to which U.S. forces in general and naval forces in particular have been called. Yes, the Navy was able to strike deep inland into Afghanistan in support of the initial invasion, but projecting power into Afghanistan was a necessary but not a sufficient capability; sustaining U.S. power in support of a free Afghanistan, for years into decades, is the decisive capability.
Further, the Navy’s enduring value in the world’s littoral regions isn’t necessarily its ability to bring lots of firepower to bear. Particularly in the Islamic world, simple, unvarnished, old-fashioned maritime presence would seem to have a renewed worth. Such missions place a premium on being there, an ideal job for the plain and often unloved Littoral Combat Ship, a design more Coast Guard-style cutter than capital warship. Thomas Jefferson would have adored the LCS, and the Barbary pirates would have feared and loathed it.
And so the future of the big-ship surface Navy seems to lie in a rediscovery of its blue-water, Mahanian, mythical past. Sea control is as fundamental to American security strategy as ever and it cannot be taken for granted. The price of assured sea control is on the rise. China’s mushrooming submarine fleet is a measure of its need and desire to assert its global claims without matching the U.S. Navy ship for ship.
Thus, most of the criticisms of the DD(X) program, or even the Navy’s carrier and aviation plans, don’t ask the right questions. There have been mountains of studies about all aspects of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans, but most of them worry about affordability rather than strategic or operational relevance.
In sum, the Navy’s surface fleet suffers from the same malady that plagues the Pentagon’s investment efforts more broadly: the focus on capabilities in the abstract rather than particular wars and what they might be like. The Navy should be commended for its energy in attempting to retain its relevance, and the improvements in carrier strike power have been invaluable, but, at least in regard to its surface fleets more generally, the full-speed-ahead approach may have been too hasty.