August 1, 2006  

The fleet we need

A look at alternative — and affordable — futures for the U.S. Navy

We require for the guidance of our naval policy ? something of a wider vision than the current conception of naval strategy, something that will keep before our eyes not merely the enemy fleets, or the command of the sea, but also the relations of naval policy and action to the whole area of diplomatic and military effort.

— Julian S. Corbett, British naval historian

Alfred Thayer Mahan inexplicably remains the touchstone for U.S. naval force planning, despite his weak relevance to this century. In his day, Mahan was a useful advocate for an emerging power in need of a strategic rationale for investment in a powerful fleet. Yet, Mahan’s emphasis on cataclysmic clashes of capital ships concentrated in deep blue water fulfills only an outdated lust for future Jutlands or Nelsonic musings of modern Trafalgars. The American Navy continues to routinely inhale antiquated Mahanian fumes despite his narrow use of history and today’s dramatically altered strategic situation.

One need not look far for Mahan sightings. At this year’s Current Strategy Forum at the Naval War College, both Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen and Navy Secretary Donald Winter cited Mahan in their speeches. Actually, the CNO mentioned one of Mahan’s enduring strategic applications, the influence of navies upon nations, people and history. Mahan may have been a better advocate than historian, but he got this point right. It is an excellent starting point for a belated effort to redefine both the strategic basis for America’s Navy and the resulting force architecture.

But there is another naval strategist with a better grasp of strategy and history, a broader understanding of the use of maritime forces, and more joint approach. Such a framework will better serve the U.S. as it strives to transform today’s overwhelming military combat power into tomorrow’s agile post-Cold War armed services.

This article explores the nature of tomorrow’s Navy by examining and expanding on an incredibly detailed Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study authored by Eric Labs, who is recognized as one of the nation’s premier naval analysts and an objective expert in costing naval programs. This extensive CBO study comes on the heels of a long debate on alternative fleet designs in 2005. Over the past year, Congress has become increasingly concerned about the Navy’s inability to:

• Consistently articulate a rationale for the fleet.

• Provide a compelling fleet architecture or design.

• Argue for a fleet large enough to maintain the shipbuilding industrial base.

• Properly manage the sharply rising costs of Navy procurement programs.

The accumulating dissatisfaction and management failures are leading to a crisis in future fleet capabilities. In the past year, Congress has directed agencies outside the Department of the Navy to provide alternative fleet designs, publicly criticized the Navy’s leadership and called for independent costing agencies to give the Congress an objective basis for measuring naval costs.

The Navy, for the third time in a little more than a year, offered a long-term shipbuilding plan in February.

This plan defined a 313-ship Navy, a modest increase in current force levels. This was almost immediately criticized, however, by key think tanks and the Congressional Research Service as wildly unaffordable. In the CBO’s latest report, the new Navy-planned fleet and aircraft acquisition profile would require almost twice as much funding as the recent average for naval procurement.

For background, the Navy has averaged a bit over $10 billion per year for ship construction over the past decade. The Navy argues that its plan costs between $13.4 billion and $14.4 billion per year and assumes that reduced operations and maintenance costs can be shifted to acquisition due to the newer ships being brought on line. CBO questions the Navy’s methodology and budget assumptions and finds the Navy’s proposed fleet would have an average yearly procurement cost of roughly $21 billion.

The main conclusion of CBO’s analysis is that unless shipbuilding budgets increase significantly or the Navy designs and builds much cheaper ships, the size of the fleet will fall substantially. Most defense analysts do not think resources can be increased or that costs can be adequately reduced. Nor has the naval leadership resolved how best to meet competing demands for a force that can make a substantive contribution to today’s Long War, or materially defeat a competitor in the next war. This is no agreement on what that next war might look like, although the Navy’s staff seems intent on making China into the second coming of the Japanese or Soviet fleet. There is an internal drive to make China into a robust blue water threat in a reprise of War Plan Orange.

Composition of the Navy’s Fleet

The current U.S. Navy battle force fleet numbers 285 combat and support ships, including 12 aircraft carriers, 14 ballistic missile submarines, 53 nuclear-powered attack submarines and four guided missile submarines.

The new CNO submitted his 30-year ship construction plan to Congress in February, which includes a requirement for 313 battle force ships. That plan is built around 11 carrier strike groups and nine expeditionary strike groups (a 25 percent cut) and reduces the current maritime prepositioning fleet by a third. It should be noticed that as the Navy gets bigger, from 285 to 313, the only cuts come from expeditionary power projection forces. This says something about the nature of the threat the Navy is focused on — or perhaps more about extant internal institutional prejudices in the absence of a national maritime strategy.

Required resources

To execute its ship-construction plan, the Navy must buy 275 ships from now through 2035 — an average of 9.2 per year. The Navy estimates that procuring those ships would cost about $14.4 billion a year, whereas CBO estimates that they would cost about $19.5 billion annually. Other ship construction/maintenance costs the Navy would face, such as nuclear overhauls, increase the average annual shipbuilding budget to $21.6 billion, according to CBO estimates. When you factor in CBO’s cost estimates and budget assumptions, it is clear the Navy’s plan is based on questionable resource availability estimates that are significantly higher than the past few years. Such rosy projections do not square with most analysts’ views of expected increased pressures on the defense budget.

The CBO’s study makes clear the significant delta between the Navy’s plan and recent historical spending trends. The biggest gap between the Navy’s plan and projected affordability is ship procurement. The Navy is clearly projecting that future resources for new ship construction will be significantly higher than past trends. It is one thing to hope for a windfall, but it is entirely something else to base the Navy’s critical procurement decisions on a fantasy.

Not only is the plan unaffordable, according to CBO, it is not executable, either. It does not achieve the 313 ships the Navy claims it does. The size of the battle force fleet would initially rise under the Navy’s plan as the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) entered the inventory. The fleet would peak at 330 ships in 2019 but then gradually decline to 294 by 2035 — 19 less than the 313-ship requirement.

The most critical implication to take from this detailed and balanced analysis is the conclusion that the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is based upon a number of optimistic assumptions that cast its validity into severe doubt. This assessment will only further undercut whatever credibility the Navy has on the Hill. Second, this study highlights the severe pressure upon Navy programmers to construct and fund the future fleet. Third, it highlights the need for a serious debate on exactly what sort of Navy we need.

If the Navy does not receive or cannot devote more budgetary resources to ship construction in the future, to what extent can it modernize its fleet? To address that question, CBO looked at five options in which the Navy could keep its total ship and aircraft procurement, operations and maintenance costs at an average of about $43 billion annually over the next 30 years (see chart, “Current, planned and alternative U.S. Navy fleets”). CBO chose those alternatives to illustrate the potential consequences if large and sustained increases in funding for ship construction do not occur.

With respect to the options, the Balanced Fleet is not all that balanced, as it was flawed by its starting point — the unaffordable and overestimated Navy 313-ship plan. The Balanced Fleet is a hedging methodology; it has no strategic direction. Under this option, aircraft carriers, and thus the number of carrier strike groups, are reduced to seven. The CVN-21 carrier would be delayed from 2008 to the 2020s. The number of expeditionary strike groups declines to seven (from 12), and the amphibious ships in those strike groups would be cut in half. Submarine forces would be reduced by about one-third. The number of ballistic missile submarines would decline from 14 to 10, and the number of attack submarines would fall from the planned 48 to 35. The total number of battle force ships would increase from 285 to 299 in 2020 and then decline to 217 by 2035.

The Mahanian fleet modernizes the Navy by acquiring all three of the service’s new surface combatants but far fewer other planned ships. In a twist that Mahan might not have agreed with, 82 littoral combat ships are acquired rather than the planned 55. To pay for the new surface combatants, aircraft carriers, attack submarines and amphibious ships are cut substantially. The carrier force is cut to seven; the first CVN-21 class carrier would be bought in 2026. The attack submarine force would decline by nearly 40 percent to 30 boats. The amphibious force would be reduced by more than half, the number of expeditionary strike groups would decrease to six and the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future) program, or MPF (F), would be terminated. The number of Arleigh Burke destroyers and their replacements would drop from the planned 62 to just 28. The total number of battle force ships would rise to 300 in 2020. By 2035, however, the fleet would number 246 ships, one-third of which would be the maneuverable “Street Fighters.” I think Mahan would trade 80 LCSs for eight cruisers.

The Midway option emphasizes aviation-based strike capability and preserves a carrier-based Navy of 11 aircraft carriers over the long term. The Navy would buy six CVN-21s between 2006 and 2035, one every five years. To pay for keeping 11 aircraft carriers and 10 deployable air wings without a real increase in funding, this option would result in the severe reduction or elimination of almost all other naval acquisition programs. CBO estimates that the Zumwalt-class destroyer would be canceled, the CG(X) program pared from 19 to eight ships, and LCSs cut from 55 to 40. The attack submarine force would drop to 30 boats, and the amphibious force would drop to just 13 ships. This alternative would result in the smallest battle force fleet of all the alternatives in the study, dropping to 189 by 2035.

The Stealth fleet is intriguing, offering the foundation for a fleet that is substantially subsurface and presumably more difficult to track, target or interdict. This option maintains 55 attack submarines over the long term, as well as 10 ballistic missile subs and four nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines. To maintain a 55 attack-boat fleet, the Navy would have to delay or cancel most major ship programs. Carriers would be reduced to eight, with just three CVN-21s purchased over the next 30 years. The Zumwalt and CG(X) programs would be canceled, and the number of large surface ships dropped to 31. Amphibious ships would be reduced to 13, and the sea-basing-capable MPF(F) eliminated. Under this option, the size of the Navy battle fleet eventually decreases to 219 ships. It may support a useful capability for guerre de course against a country with extended lines of communication like China, but it brings a limited strike capability and poor support for power projection ashore.

My own option is based on the teachings of Julian S. Corbett, the British strategist/historian who emphasized the use of a navy to serve joint operations ashore. Rather than supporting the Navy’s focus on future hypothetical threats, this option exploits our domination of the global commons to improve our capacity to execute sea denial in key choke points and penetrate ashore against real threats we face today.

This alternative reduces the carrier force to seven and buys only two CVN-21s between 2006 and 2035. Instead of pulsed strike power, the emphasis would be on long-range unmanned systems. By 2030, an unmanned combat air vehicle squadron should be a key component of each carrier wing. The Zumwalt DD-1000 program would be canceled to save money, and the number of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cut to 38. Because this option emphasizes operations on and close to shore, it would buy 55 LCSs. This alternative maintains nine expeditionary strike groups to ensure sufficient amphibious ships to support any future expeditionary operation. A four Marine Expeditionary Brigade lift is retained, with a split of 2.0 amphibious lift level and 2.0 brigade equivalents in two squadrons of re-leased prepo ships. Future sea-basing technologies would be incorporated to the greatest degree practical but not through new ship design and acquisition.

As did CBO in its seabasing alternative, this alternative argues for a new type of ship to provide the fire support capability of the canceled Zumwalt-class destroyer. The new vessel — referred to here as a Fire Support Ship — would consist of a San Antonio-class amphibious ship fitted with two Advanced Gun Systems (total magazine of 900 shells) and 16 Vertical Launch System cells for launching missiles. To further increase sea-based fire support, the development of an articulated set of floating batteries, called Monitors, is suggested. Each Monitor is armed with the Advanced Gun System and 300 rounds and would deploy with both of the MPF squadrons. The Monitor could be extremely low draft and unmanned for operations in shallow littorals to provide more responsive and efficient fire support to joint forces operating in the littorals.

Overall, this option would expand the Navy’s battle force fleet from 285 ships today to 323 by 2020, but slowly drop to 255.

Comparing capability

To evaluate the different approaches and the resulting capabilities of various options, CBO used a variety of measures. These help compare the options with both the Navy’s shipbuilding plan and the current fleet (see chart, “Fleet capabilities in 2035”). Of the approaches analyzed in this study, the Navy’s 2006 shipbuilding plan would provide the greatest capability, according to most measures — but at the greatest cost. The alternatives offer less overall capability than that plan and than today’s fleet. Most of the plans do not have a big capability shift between now and 2020, assuming that current ships are permitted to retire at expected end-of-service-life dates. By 2035, however, the strategic orientation of each option is more pronounced.

The Corbett fleet offers a range of capabilities that appear well-suited for today’s age, at an affordable price. Well-grounded in Clausewitz and the correlation of policy and strategy, Corbett placed special emphasis on commercial interests and economics. Those seeking to capitalize on the “global commons” and the growing velocity and interdependencies of global trade need to ask, “What would Julian do?” Corbett’s grasp of the importance of sea lines of communication stands in marked contrast to Mahan, both offensively and defensively. He argued for distributed maneuver of cruisers to protect friendly lines and choke points. Additionally, he noted the fleet’s wonderful opportunities to menace the opponent’s capacity to sustain operations or his economy at the outbreak of hostilities. Given the energy-dependent nature of some growing economies, this point needs to become more prominent in our strategic thinking.

With regard to military operations and doctrine, Corbett is especially pertinent, as he eschewed Mahan’s slavish devotion to concentration of the fleet. Like Liddell Hart and John Boyd, Corbett understood that dispersal maximized the effect of the fleet’s ability to exploit surprise, flexibility and complexity relative to the opponent. The ability to reaggregate the fleet at the right time and place remains important, he would acknowledge. Corbett is clearly having an influence today as the emergent Naval Operational Concept is pregnant with discussions regarding distributed operations, the antithesis of one of Mahan’s canonical principles.

Support to joint operations ashore was another Corbett fundamental. Well before it was fashionable, he stressed the interrelationship between navies and armies. In this regard, he was optimistic about amphibious warfare although he was suspect about the prospects of effective naval fire support for joint operations ashore. He would be impressed with the Navy’s range and the volume of the fleet’s strike capacity today, but probably dispirited by the emphasis on expensive missile-delivered munitions, ideal for waging war against states with critical infrastructure and static targets.

The CNO is right that it is time for a new maritime strategy, one that shapes and defines the purpose and capabilities of tomorrow’s fleet. The new shipbuilding plan is neither fiscally supportable nor “a wider vision than the current conception of naval strategy.” As Corbett argued, we should not focus just on potential enemy fleets or the command of the sea, but also the relationship of our fleet to our strategy aims. This fleet cannot be built to Mahan’s late 19th century precepts, it is time to stop lighting incense at poor Alfred’s bust at Newport. We need to embrace Corbett, an astute geo-strategist who insisted that navies serve national political objectives, not just war fighting or institutional prerogatives.

FRANK HOFFMAN is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia.