Is the US Navy FUBAR vs the PRC in the Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit?

These excerpts from an article at War on the Rocks sure do not paint a pretty picture:

Gradually and Then Suddenly: Explaining the Navy’s Strategic Bankruptcy

Christopher Dougherty

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The U.S. Navy is on the verge of strategic bankruptcy. Its fleet isn’t large enough to meet global day-to-day demands for naval forces. Due to repeated deployments and maintenance backlogs, the fleet also isn’t ready enough to meet these demands safely, nor can it quickly surge in an emergency. Finally, the fleet isn’t capable enough to meet the challenges posed by China’s increasingly modern and aggressive People’s Liberation Army Navy. How did this happen to a force that, as recently as two decades ago, dominated the world’s oceans to a degree perhaps unequalled in human history? The answer is gradually and then suddenly…

While the U.S. defense community mostly agrees that China is the “pacing challenge” for the Department of Defense, there is much less consensus on what kind of threat China poses, or when the risk of conflict will be most acute. Some analysts believe that China poses an immediate threat. This position usually, but not always, correlates with a belief that competition below the threshold of war — like seizing unoccupied features in the South China Sea — represents a greater concern than the possibility of conventional war, such as over Taiwan. Others are more concerned with America’s medium-term vulnerability due to China’s rapid military modernization and the increasing age of the U.S. Navy fleet. This perspective tends to correspond with a belief that conventional war in five to 10 years is the most pressing risk. Still others are most worried that Chinese investments in AI and quantum computing could allow it to “leapfrog” the United States in the long-term military-technical competition, thereby establishing itself as the world’s foremost military power…

Further complicating this picture is the way that these risk assessments and future visions tend to correlate with different groups within the defense community. Traditional Navy advocates tend to fall into the “near-term group,” as it aligns most closely with their strategic vision of the Navy as a force that sustains the global order and ensures peace through forward presence. In this view, the fundamental purpose of the Navy is to be “haze gray and underway,” showing the flag across the world’s oceans. Persistently maintaining this overt forward presence demands large numbers of highly visible surface vessels like frigates and destroyers. Pentagon force planners, programmers, and analysts tend to worry about conflict in the medium term because that coincides with the five-year Future Years Defense Program, and conflict scenarios are a critical benchmark for the ability of the force to execute the defense strategy. From their perspective, a bigger fleet isn’t helpful if it lacks the capability to intervene directly in a war with China because it’s too heavily weighted toward surface vessels that are vulnerable to China’s arsenal of long-range missiles. Meanwhile, the research and development community, technologists, and horizon-scanning organizations like the Office of Net Assessment typically fret about the long-term military-technical competition. From their perspective, the traditional navalists and force planners are dangerously shortsighted. Every outdated, non-upgradeable piece of equipment acquired today or in the near future could become a white elephant that the department can’t divest quickly enough when AI and other technologies transform warfare.

The competition between these visions plays out yearly with each program review and budget submission and is partly responsible for a raft of recent studies and white papers on the future of the fleet. In these debates, near-term navalists advocate for increased readiness spending and acquiring more small surface combatants to reach the Navy’s goal of 355 ships and increase its ability to meet the demands of the geographic combatant commands. Mid-term force planners push for platform upgrades, additional munitions, more submarines and undersea systems, and longer-range carrier aircraft. Long-term technologists argue for greater research and development spending and investments in leap-ahead unmanned and autonomous systems to create a radical new fleet architecture comprising large numbers of unmanned and autonomous systems. The result of this competition between perspectives is usually an unsatisfying compromise that creates a fleet that’s not big enough for navalists, not capable enough for joint force planners, and not farsighted enough for the futurists…

The lack of [shipbuilidng] options becomes painfully acute if one ascribes to the mid- or long-term perspectives of the China threat. Further upgrades to the Arleigh Burke destroyers and Virginia submarines that comprise the backbone of today’s fleet will require new clean-sheet designs that are at least a decade away or more. Unmanned surface vessels offer a way to increase the Navy’s capacity within reasonable budget constraints, but current ships are immature, as are the concepts and analysis needed to integrate them into the fleet. They simply aren’t a viable near-term option to backfill proposed cuts to the surface fleet. The Navy has become like a sports team filled with aging superstars. It knows change is needed, but its choices are limited to proven systems with long-term limitations, or immature systems with significant technical and conceptual risks.

Even in areas where mature designs exist, like the Burkes, Virginias, and Constellations, there isn’t enough capacity at the shipyards to enable a rapid fleet recapitalization or sustain a larger fleet. This reflects a longstanding trend to consolidate and rationalize the defense industrial base in search of efficiency. The downside is a lack of slack capacity and the flexibility it enables. To his credit, Herzinger notes this limitation in his article, and other navalists such as Jerry Hendrix have frequently decried the state of the U.S. shipbuilding. Still, the reality is that aggressive fleet recapitalization isn’t possible without major up-front investments in industry that would require additional time and money. From industry’s perspective, these investments require predictability — there’s no sense in building new facilities and hiring and training thousands of workers without an unambiguous long-term demand signal from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Such predictability is impossible without a common perception of risk and a shared vision of the future fleet…

The Heart of the Matter

A series of decisions (and indecisions) decades in the making have backed the Navy into a budget and force-planning corner. Even if the Navy were to receive a larger share of the defense budget — which Herzinger and others suggest — there simply is no way to build a bigger fleet quickly, and any attempt to do so might burden the Navy with ships of limited utility in the long-term strategic competition with China. While perhaps unsatisfying, the Navy’s 2022 budget request is a product of these constraints. It prioritizes the ballistic missile submarines, munitions, auxiliary ships, and mature combatant designs, and divests older or less-capable ships. At the same time, the budget attempts to rebuild readiness (again) and invest in research and development to accelerate next-generation capabilities like unmanned surface and undersea vessels. It doesn’t rapidly grow the fleet for the same reasons that no budget request has rapidly grown the fleet in decades: There is no widespread agreement on why the fleet should grow; or how it should grow; and the underlying ideas, designs, and infrastructure needed for rapid growth have all withered.

The problems facing the Navy weren’t created in a single budget, and they won’t be fixed in a single budget. To get the Navy out of its force-planning doldrums, the next National Defense Strategy should clarify its assessment of the China challenge and serve as a forcing function to create a shared vision of the future Navy. The 2018 defense strategy tried to prioritize modernizing the Navy to deter future war with China over building near-term fleet capacity to supply ships to service geographic combatant command requests for forward forces. This prioritization got lost in implementation, as “Dynamic Force Employment” became shorthand for running the Navy ragged with repeated deployments, often to tertiary theaters like U.S. Central Command.

A clear assessment of the China challenge and a shared vision for the future fleet would help improve the gap between strategy and implementation that plagued the 2018 strategy. Perhaps more importantly, it would enable Navy and department leadership to work with, rather than against, Congress to undertake a long-term program to rebuild the Navy and reinvigorate the maritime industrial base on which the Navy and the nation depend.

Achieving consensus on this won’t be easy, as there are good reasons why China observers vary in their assessments of the risk of conflict and why U.S. naval and defense strategists differ on their visions of the future fleet. However, without this consensus and a concerted effort to reverse decades of drift, the Navy will continue its gradual slide toward strategic bankruptcy, and the risk of its debts coming due suddenly (and perhaps violently) will increase.

Chris Dougherty [tweets here] is a senior fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Dougherty served as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Department of Defense.

Caught between the Dragon and the deep red sea? One increasingly wonders about the utility of major crewed surface combatants trying to operate in waters anywhere near another major power’s territory. Recall the US Navy’s Cold War dreams of operating aircraft carrier strike groups in the Norwegian Sea to attack Russian ballistic missile submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula.

Meanwhile this story at USNI News is not particularly encouraging regarding clarity on the way ahead:

Panel: Budget Priorities Prompted Navy Cut to Forces to Prevent Hollow Fleet

By: Mallory Shelbourne

Related posts:

The Western Pacific Naval Cockpit, or, PLA Navy vs US Navy

US Navy, or, it’s the Ordnance/Effects Delivered, not the Vessels/Aircraft Delivering them

An Approach to the US (mainly US Navy, Air Force, Marines) not Losing vs a Dragon Rampant in the Western Pacific

The Drone Vessels the US Navy Wants to Cope with the PLA Navy

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

4 thoughts on “Is the US Navy FUBAR vs the PRC in the Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit?”

  1. Two related stories:

    1) ‘Congresswoman calls for Pentagon reorg to help Navy develop maritime strategy

    The Virginia Democrat, who spent 20 years in the Navy as a nuclear-qualified surface warfare officer and is serving her second term in Congress, is eyeing a reform of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. She said this would take the next four or six years to do right, but believes it’s important for the future success of the Navy.

    The problem as she sees it? The Navy’s recent attempts at defining its future force were constrained by budget limitations. The service assumed flat or declining budgets and therefore never fully lay out what it needs and for what purpose…

    “Under the current law, the Navy really can’t write a strategy … because nothing is done as a service; it’s actually done jointly, and the different strategy roles reside at the Joint Staff — operational plans and theater-specific ones reside at the combatant commanders — so I think that that is really one of the things that I want to focus on long term, legislatively: How do we fix this problem that was caused by Goldwater-Nichols?” she said during an event hosted by the Hudson Institute.

    Compared to the 1980s, “with Goldwater-Nichols happening, the naval strategy is dead. And there really is no long-term vision as far as strategy for the Navy. And the real truth of it is, is that I think the strategy has to come before requirements, before the [president’s budget request], before the budget, and we’re doing it all backwards,” she added…

    Among the issues with which the Navy is contending is that it has little say over how its fleet is used.

    “We can do more with what we have by changing how we deploy, how we focus on where we put those ships and aircraft,” she said, but those decisions don’t reside with the Navy today…’

    2) ‘ Top Admiral: Defense Firms Are Lobbying Against the Weapons the US Navy Needs
    Adm. Mike Gilday also accused companies of slow-rolling ship repair.

    The U.S. Navy’s top admiral accused defense companies of slow-rolling the production of certain weapons, moving too slowly on ship repairs, and lobbying against newer types of ships and aircraft that needed to compete with China.

    “Although it’s in industry’s best interest…building the ships that you want to build, lagging on repairs to ships and to submarines, lobbying Congress to buy aircraft that we don’t need that excess to need, it’s not helpful,” Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations said Monday. “It really isn’t, in a budget-constrained environment.”

    Gilday spoke at the start of the Navy League’s 2021 Sea Air Space convention, the first large defense trade show held in-person since the pandemic began last year.

    The Navy wants to stop buying Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets (Congress is expected to add $1 billion to buy another batch). It also has slowed its purchase of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works has said it will lay off thousands of shipyard workers before the 2024 presidential election if the Biden administration does not place a long-term order for at least 15 Burke destroyers by 2023. Bath is at least six months behind schedule on ship construction. It is one of two companies that builds the Burkes, along with Huntington Ingalls Industries.

    “One of the things, I think, where industry can really help us is to be a bit more agile in pivoting to new technologies and new platforms,” Gilday said. “It’s not the ’90s anymore, as we go to the tri-service [maritime] strategy and really try to punctuate the sense of urgency that we feel every day against China to move the needle in a bureaucracy that’s really not designed to move very fast.”

    Military leaders have been calling for new types of next-generation ships and warplanes to counter Chinese and Russian advancements. But these projects, like a new class of destroyer and sixth-generation warplane are a decade or more from entering serial production. Congress routinely opposes military officials’ calls to retire existing weapons…

    Gilday said the Navy needs to regularly include industry executives and lawmakers in its wargames to better show how existing weapons stack up against global threats.

    “About a year ago, the Navy spent a day with industry leaders, showing them the results of some of our wargaming,” he said. “I think that was really, really instructive. We need to do that again…and we need to do more of it not only with industry, but with the Hill.”..’ See 3)

    3) Then see this post:

    “Taiwan, or, a War Game Example of how Bad it looks for US vs PRC in Western Pacific”

    Taiwan, or, a War Game Example of how Bad it looks for US vs PRC in Western Pacific

    Mark Collins


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