America as naval superpower – are we putting our eggs in the wrong baskets?

I read an article in the National Interest with some skepticism. It’s titled ‘How to Make the U.S. Navy Great Again‘, and harks back to the attitudes of the Cold War, IMHO.  Here’s an excerpt.

The United States has critical national interests in eighteen maritime zones identified by warfighting commanders. These maritime regions range in size from the small Gulf of Guinea to the vast northern Pacific and from the northern Arctic Sea to the Indian Ocean.

Each zone requires a naval presence to uphold American interests. Some of these zones, like the Baltic Sea, require only a single American ship to protect and promote our interests, while others, like the Arabian Gulf, have a standing requirement for an aircraft carrier strike group comprised of six to eight ships, as well as permanently stationed coastal patrol boats. Because of ship maintenance, crew training and transit times, providing a naval presence requires three to four ships to keep one forward deployed. All told, the Navy needs a minimum of 355 ships to keep a naval presence on a credible and persistent basis, if the United States wants to maintain freedom of navigation, protect resources and undersea critical infrastructure, and uphold its alliance agreements. The Navy certified the 355-ship requirement in its 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA). According to the FSA, the true number of ships required by military commanders exceeds 650 ships. Importantly, achieving the 355-ship fleet is not just a Navy requirement; it is a matter of complying with U.S. law. Signed by President Trump in December 2017, the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2018 includes the SHIPS Act, legislation establishing the 355-ship requirement as the national policy of the United States.

. . .

America cannot retreat from the seas. Its maritime interests are enduring and growing. Great wealth in the form of food stocks, minerals and energy resources lies beneath the waves that find their way to our shores. Additionally, access to lines of communication via the swiftest and most efficient routes across international waters, as well as maritime linkages to forty-nine transoceanic treaty partners, are of critical interest to the United States.

The threat to those interests is growing. Despite a brief post–Cold War respite of calm seas, the maritime domain is once again seeing rough waters as an arena of economic, diplomatic and military competition. China, Russia and Iran have invested heavily in ways to keep the U.S. Navy out of critical maritime regions. They are increasingly challenging American maritime interests and finding no response. The inability to respond is driven by a collapse in the size of U.S. naval forces over the past quarter century. Our adversaries and potential opponents see all of this as an indicator of overall national decline and an invitation to assume a larger role upon the world’s oceans. They have just begun what ultimately could become a financially and strategically disastrous naval arms race in an attempt to overmatch U.S. forces in their regions.

There’s much more at the link.  It makes interesting reading.

I see many problems with this approach.  They include (but are not limited to) the following.

1. The USA simply cannot afford to play global naval policeman as it did in the past.  Modern high-tech warships are very expensive, and their operating costs very high (particularly when maintenance is deferred to keep them at sea because there aren’t enough ships, and there isn’t enough money to maintain those we have).  Many of the geographical areas identified in the article should be patrolled by our allies and friends.  In effect, by spending far too little on their own defense, they’re sponging off the US defense budget, and the US Navy’s ships and personnel, to do their work for them.  This has to stop.  If they won’t carry their share of the load, why should we?  Do we really want to dispute control of the South China Sea?  Why?  What compelling US national interest is involved there?  If the countries in the region want to dispute control of its natural resources with China, why are we doing so for them?  Why are we patrolling it instead of them?  Why should US ships and sailors be placed in harms way when they won’t do so themselves?

2.  The US Navy has to get over its obsession with high-tech everything.  I accept that modern, high-tech offensive weapons can only be stopped by modern, high-tech defenses.  However, when the cost of that high tech becomes ruinous, it also becomes unsustainable (witness, for example, the debacle over the new Zumwalt class destroyers and their ammunition).  Nuclear submarines cost multiple billions of dollars each.  Destroyers approach $2 billion each.  Rail guns and laser beams are promising technology, but upgrading our ships’ electrical generating capacity to use them will cost a fortune.  By spending so much on relatively few ships and advanced weapons, we’re losing the numbers battle.  As the National Interest article observed:

From a naval perspective, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is pursuing a mix of high-end and low-end ships and submarines. This strategy would allow the PLAN to spread out across the vast Pacific Ocean in sufficient numbers to locate and interdict U.S. ships. At the high end, China is investing in aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines and large surface combatants equipped with advanced radars, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and surface-to-surface missiles. While China’s high-end ships are designed to go toe to toe with their American counterparts in battle, Beijing is unlikely to close the United States’ technological head start. Therefore, China is aiming to close the capability gap by fielding mass quantities of low-end ships.

While the United States will not start buying frigates until the 2020s, China is building a new frigate every six weeks. Vast numbers of these low-end ships will increasingly patrol China’s expanding front lines in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Backed by a growing arsenal of longer-range and more sophisticated air and missile weapons, the Chinese navy will have a highly capable and numerically larger maritime force by the middle of the next decade. If this situation comes to fruition, it could make the projection of U.S. naval power cost prohibitive in the western Pacific, undermining the credibility of our alliance commitments. Indeed, China currently calculates that western Pacific nations—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and perhaps even Australia—may ultimately align with the Middle Kingdom.

Again, more at the link.

As Joseph Stalin is alleged to have observed, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.  A 2002 war game proved that in the context of the Middle East.  Why has this lesson not been remembered by the US Navy?  For example, why is it so adamantly opposed to conventional, as opposed to nuclear-powered submarines?  The former are just as high-tech these days, and can be bought for a fraction of the cost of their atomic big brothers.  Why not buy three modern conventional subs (which are also more stealthy and harder to detect) instead of one nuke?

3.  The US government has to redefine the mission of the Navy in a post-Cold War era.  At present, too many overseas bases, deployments, etc. are based on the realities of opposing Communism and the Soviet threat.  If that threat is no longer what it was before, then should we not reconsider the requirements we place on our armed forces?  It may be that, if force projection into disputed areas was primarily an anti-Soviet measure, we don’t need it as badly now that the Soviet Union is no longer around.

I’m not at all convinced by the arguments advanced in this article.  I’d rather see a hard reset on US Navy plans, construction, etc. until its mission has been more clearly defined and/or redefined, the ships it needs for that mission have been agreed, and its budget has been devoted to vessels and weapons and systems that will do the job, rather than gold-plated jobs lobbied for by special interests.



  1. We need to discontinue the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS – Little Crappy Ship) and fill that need with a frigate. There are several out there that we can build in the US on license – why reinvent the wheel? The DDG 51's are effective and the Zumwalts are an abortion. We still don't have an alternative to the big deck carriers. Maybe drones, but that has yet to be hashed out. The Ohio Class SSBN's are now being replaced and we need more SSN's because there are really only subs and targets on the ocean.

  2. Those who control the skies (including space) control the world. Carriers may be needed, but less of the other ships, it would seem.

  3. During close to forty years of paying attention to naval matters I've noticed one thing that never changes: the assumption that Our Navy Is Doing It Wrong. Somehow the wily Chinese or the rascally Russians' half-assed naval planning is part of some super plan that will make our whole navy obsolete, and has already done so.

    Sure, I think our allies should bear more of the cost. And I know perfectly well that Naval acquisition is politics-driven. But I also know that our (potential) adversaries are ALSO politics-driven in their construction and planning, plus they are not Nelsons ten feet tall.

    There's one striking thing one learns from history: the only thing that can beat Anglophone navies are other Anglophone navies.

  4. Speaking as a surface warfare officer there are a few truths we simply accept but most people prefer not to believe. A submarine has detection capabilities against surface ships that will let an SSN of our navy target and destroy a surface ship (any surface ship) at 40,000 yards with torpedos. The surface ship cannot detect the submarine. Anti-submarine warfare and the physics of underwater sound are something one has to practice to understand. It is increasingly difficult to make the case for building surface warships. In any conflict with a properly commanded submarine, the surface ship loses 10 out of 10 times.

    People think carriers are principle weapons of war in the naval arena but China and the Persian Gulf both nullify every single aspect of carrier war. In both regions the carrier and battlegroup are within anti-ship missile range of a thousand coastal anti-ship missile launchers and there are thousands of them in both Iran and China and those islands in the Spratleys and all the other former ocean washed reefs.

    I read this morning about whether there was a need for a battlegroup in the Persian Gulf (NO!) or whether one was required off the coast of Syria (NO!). We are still waiting the day when 40 ASCM are flushed out of coastal launchers at one of our battle groups. The results will not be pretty.

    The sea denial forces reign supreme right now and the USN knows it. Until we do get the killer high energy weapons and killer ASCM defenses there is no way a surface ship survives a flaming datum or on any hostile coast.

    When you look at things like Aegis, consider just how many SPG fire control radar dishes there are on the ship. Terminal guidance is provided by those 2 or 3 dishes and when there are 40 missiles inbound at mach 4, just how long, above the horizon, will those inbound missiles be (5 or 8 seconds).

    Good luck with all that.

  5. As a former submariner it's difficult for me to say the cost of submarines are too much. The 1960's era submarine builders demonstrated that not having stringent (and expensive) quality control costs lives.
    However, I have advocated that the US could build diesel submarines that would be able to fulfill the coastal defense role at a much lower cost per sub.

    The Navy has to get smarter about the needs in today's world. There has been terrible decisions made about what ships to build, how to build them and the role those ships should fill.
    Just as the aircraft carrier eclipsed the battleship as the most powerful projection of force on the ocean, a large modern super quiet fleet of submarines can project all the power we need.
    The current leaders of the Navy are going to get a lot of surface ships sunk and sailors killed in order to learn their lessons and change the thinking.

  6. I'd like to see a hard reset on our overseas military strategy in all branches. Where are we, why are we there, what do we hope to accomplish, are we likely to accomplish it? If there are not clear answers to each of these, we simply shouldn't be there.

    And 100% agreed that (most of) our allies are sponging off of us. The Japanese seem quite serious about building up their strength in reaction to China, but they really stand out compared to pretty much everyone else.

  7. So much fail in the conclusions.

    We're the world's biggest trading partner. That, alone, is enough to justify a US Navy the size it was in the late 1980s, not the size it is now – smaller than it was before Pearl Harbor.
    This is one time where correlation is causation.

    Nature abhors a vacuum.
    Our retreat from the size of navy we used to maintain is why worldwide piracy has increased.
    It's why the Chinese PLAN has expanded into the South China Sea, and claimed the entire area.
    You think Singapore or Brunei is going to confront that?? Let alone Taiwan, the Philippines, or Indonesia?
    Sh'yeah, right.

    We don't have a too many commitments for our navy.
    We have a navy criminally too small for our requirements.

    But hey, tell me how things are going for formerly great Britain since the RN has shrunk to the size it was in Henry VII's era.

    We're a nation bounded primarily by coasts.
    We have worldwide trade and mercantile interests.
    And a decided lack of friends and allies worth two cents at the other end of any of them.

    The current world disorder is directly attributable to letting our navy shrink to the size it was in 1937, and spending that imaginary "peace dividend" on social programs for The Diversity, putting social experimenters instead of warfighters in the admirals' posts, and thinking we could buy crap ships and crap planes to do crap missions, instead of building on the strengths we took 50 years to establish from the time of Teddy Roosevelt's great White Fleet.

    Now, those foolish decisions are coming home to roost, and paying the bills is liable to break the country. Not the financial cost of maintaining a pitifully small navy – which is laughably tiny in terms of the federal budget – but the costs to the national interest in abandoning the world-beating behemoth we'd established, and letting our forces, particularly the Navy, shrink to a shell of their former selves.

    It's now a toothless paper tiger, and more hollow than the Army was in 1974. We have to cannibalize hangar queens and museums to get enough parts to give a deploying carrier one half-@$$ed air component.

    And now, even Somali pirates have figured out the emperor is naked.

    If we had to blockade Cuba today like we did in 1960 with present available forces, it'd look like Dunkirk: we'd need to draft Bayliners and Boston Whalers from Galveston to Norfolk just to get the job done.

    And our enemies can count hulls, and draw conclusions.

    We are entering the time of reckoning for forty years of utter foolishness – starting with cutbacks by idiot Bush Senior, though Clinton, Dumbbell Dubbya, and then destruction and chaos on steroids by HopeyDopey – and it won't be pretty.

    Buckle up kids, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

  8. Given where our homeland is and where we may have to operate, I don't see diesels (SSs) as viable. For the countries in Europe or eastern Asia, sure, Not for the USA.

    I see no viable rationale for the LCS, other than providing O-4/5s with command tours.

    I'd guess, offhand, that we need 20-30 more SSNs than we have.

    Carriers are mobile airfields, not warships. They are too costly to go in harm's way. They require a lot of defensive assets.

    The sad reality is that we've not gone toe-to-toe in a hot war with a roughly equivalently-armed nation in over 70 years. We don't know how it will go. But if history is any guide, it will be far bloodier and messier than we can fathom.

  9. Ah yes, the anti-carrier mentality is alive and well… Shitcan the LCS and Zumwalt. DDG-51s/FFG-X, and more Subs. Remember, we no longer own/control the Panama Canal, nor Long Beach. What if the Chinese shut them down? Or Egypt closes the Suez? Or Russia closes the Bosporus? Then what… I’ve been aboard Gotland. It is TINY, a week at sea is pretty much it at a time… Not 60-90 days. As for Russia not being a factor, both they and the Chinese are out building us on both the submarine and surface sides, and they are MUCH more capable than the predecessor units. Same thing on the air side. We are seeing more submarine activity off our coasts/possessions than any time since the late 1970s, early 1980s. And we’re having to respond with less than HALF of our previous force structure.

  10. Bring all our troops home. Keep the sea lanes in the Western Hemisphere open. Leave the rest of the world's oceans to the nations that border them. I am tired of being taxed to keep China's sea lanes open so they can ship us cheap crap after we ship them our jobs. Let Europe pay to keep the Gulf oil flowing. We are broke. Draw a redline at the borders of the Western Hemisphere, sink any foreign troop ships crossing the line.
    Nothing in the South China Sea or the Middle East is any responsibility of the American tax payer.

  11. The question that everyone is avoiding is this:

    What happens to the USA if we are unable, or unwilling, to control the seas, as we have been doing since the end of WW2?

    If we allow China to replicate what Japan was endeavoring to accomplish with their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the '37-'45 era?

    If we allow Russia and Associates to co-op the EU/Med area, as was attempted?

    China intends to acquire Africa. Should we care?

    What about Central and South America?

    At what point, if any, should we be concerned about the deterioration of the neighborhood, and how far away should that worry extend?

  12. Lots of good comments being made here, so I will restrict mine to Peter's points.

    1. The USA simply cannot afford to play global naval policeman…. Our military units have always had a hefty price tag, especially the way Americans go to war. We got lots of tools and we bring them all to the party. But the problem is NOT the cost of the military. Look at gubmint outlays over time. You will see military spending was low and steady in constant year dollars, except during the build ups during wars. So was expenditures for the rest of the gubmint, until the early 60s. Now our military spending is a small fraction of all gubmint outlays. Expensive? Yeah, but I will claim it is worth it, and we should not skimp on our requirements because some Congress critter wants to buy more votes with "free" stuff.

    2. The US Navy has to get over its obsession with high-tech everything. No doubt, see above. Buy I will also point out that this is exacerbated by by the criminally negligent reduction in weapons buys over the last few decades. When you only can buy a couple of ships you tend to want to cram everything into them. Instead of ships designed for one or two primary missions we have jack of all trades, Swiss Army knives masquerading as the ultimate warship.

    3. The US government has to redefine the mission of the Navy in a post-Cold War era. Please tell me how this is not so? Our war plans get re-written every few years based on what the NSC and others consider our most pressing threats. The Soviet Union threw in the towel about 30 years ago. During this time several different administrations with their different outlooks each took whacks at redefining the problem along with their associated Congress critters. Meantime, we have had many different things going on all over the planet. What we have not seen is a revolution in naval technology which would cause all existing ship types to be considered obsolete, like when the battleships replaced wooden sailing vessels, then got replaced by aircraft carriers. Just because the solution might outwardly look the same doesn't mean it's a case of when the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. I think the doofusses in the 5-sided puzzle palace actually do accomplish some things they are supposed to (but I will deny it if you say I just said that).

  13. No, Peter. We've got other baskets to fill, like SAPR rodeos. What good is a war-winning Navy if it's not sufficiently diverse and sensitive? Could it even be called a victory at all if we're not PC about it?

  14. We are right now in a period best described by the interwar period between WWI and WWII. There was another mighty naval power that only learned at great cost what air power meant and it took the sinking of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. We and the rest can wage sea denial but getting and maintaining control of the seas in and around the Sea lanes of Communiciation is just about impossible now and it has little to do with submarines or ships. It's simply the nature of over-the-horizon targeting and coastal missile batteries that can shoot mach+ missiles all day and all night at targets a thousand miles away and homing weapons using radar and/or IR with OTH targeting is impossible to beat.

    Why did you think China was fortifying all those islands in the South China Sea?

    If your bent is history and naval history, take a look at what taking the islands back from Japan cost once they implemented their kamikaze homing weapons on our ships. The losses were staggering. One can gain an idea of somewhat modern warfare in this realm from looking at the Royal Navy's losses taking back the Falklands.

  15. Old NFO: Carriers are great for working outside the effective range of ground-to-sea missiles. They are nearly useless inside that threat envelope in an actual shooting war. That's the primary thrust of this conversation.

    Don't like the small size of the Gotland design? Scale it up by 50%, to the size of a Gato or Balao class. You can't claim those weren't effective. Want something bigger? Double it to 3,000 tons. The basic principle is sound. I bet we can make it even better – but we'd have to actually try.

    Just like the Air Force, the Navy has lost sight of the basic principle that you need both quality and quantity. Having the greatest ship in the world does you no good if you'e only got the one, and it's in the wrong place. The Army has the Ranger Regiment – but it's also got ten Divisions of regular troops, plus the Guard and Reserve.

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