If the Navy rethinks the role of Carrier Strike Groups (Ferrari) and deploys new, scaled-down Influence Squadrons (Ford), the result will be 320 hulls in the water for three-quarters the price.
The problems that will have the most impact on the Navy's future force structure are large and can be categorized in two groups. The first is the growing expense of building new ships. The costs involved in research, development, and production of destroyers, cruisers, and carriers, each of which fields new, leading-edge technologies, have placed the price of the future force out of reach, even with four percent of the gross domestic product funding the Department of Defense.
Second is the growing mismatch between the Navy's strategic vision and its acquisition plan. The new maritime strategy, now just more than a year old, stated that the Navy would be an engagement force just as suited to preventing wars as winning them. The new strategy suggests a larger future force in terms of hulls in the water, and that this force would be more agile and better suited to support missions in the economy-of-force Phase 0-1 range of the engagement scale. Instead, the current long-term Navy shipbuilding plan continues to emphasize the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) construct.
The CSG has served as the centerpiece of naval force planning for much of the past 60 years. Comprised of an aircraft carrier accompanied by a complement of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and support ships, this basic element of the Navy embodies awe-inspiring offensive and defensive power. It has been an extremely effective tool in our nation's military and diplomatic arsenal. But in recent years the range of its capabilities has narrowed, and the Navy is in danger of falling into a situation where, when all you have is a hammer, everything invariably begins to look like a nail.
Currently the U.S. Navy has 11 CSGs (although it is temporarily seeking permission from Congress to dip below the legislatively mandated 11 carriers to decommission the long-serving USS Enterprise [CVN-65] prior to the USS George H. W. Bush's [CVN-77] entering full service). At a conservative estimated price tag of $30 billion to construct and a daily operating cost in excess of a million dollars, carrier strike groups are quickly becoming prohibitively expensive to both build and deploy. When these characteristics are considered alongside rising threats and increasingly challenging operational environments, even more questions arise.
Submarines have become the international flavor-of-the-month with regard to nation-state security. Relatively inexpensive export diesel submarine variants from Europe and Australia now provide a credible defensive capability to any country with an ocean shoreline. Torpedoes launched from these boats, and shore- and ship-based missiles can sink outright most of the world's surface combatants and would, at least, significantly degrade the mission effectiveness of American super-carriers.
The rise of these threats over the past three decades has forced the Navy to emphasize the defensive capabilities of the carrier force, giving rise to the "anti" warfare commanders (antisubmarine, antisurface, and antiair). This emphasis on defensive capabilities occurred even as the effectiveness of the carrier's striking power has noticeably waned. The venerable deep-strike A-6 Intruder and the long-range F-14 interceptor have vanished into the boneyard with their spots on the flight deck taken by the F/A-18 Hornet variants, which were intended to be replacements for the A-4 and A-7 short- and medium-range light attack aircraft.
The decisions that led to the current strategic condition have left us with a force that must operate at increased range from our adversaries in order to be safe (and preserve our expensive platforms), even as our striking arm has decreased in its combat radius over time. Hence we find ourselves in a circular argument reminiscent of the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, that "I must defend my force, Sir, so that I can defend my force." The CSG is, remarkably, a construct that can operate effectively only in a permissive environment, or be committed to an anti-access environment only under the most extreme conditions when national interests compel leadership to risk what amounts to a significant percentage of the Navy's annual budget in a single engagement.
What is needed is a Navy cheap enough to be built in large numbers while remaining sufficiently effective to defend American interests on the high seas. We need Fords, not Ferraris. In keeping with the new maritime strategy, the force should be designed with enough inherent flexibility to respond across the expanse of engagement, from humanitarian assistance missions to long-range precision strike. The Navy's force structure should be organized to maximize the potential of its assets during peacetime, including steady state operations, while also providing a means for swift concentration of credible combat power to meet any emergent major combat operation. It's a pretty tall order, but there is a way.
Step one is to abandon the idea of a Navy built around 11 or 12 carrier strike groups. These have become too expensive to operate, and too vulnerable to be risked in anything other than an unhostile environment. This is not to say that the carrier strike groups must be done away with, however, but the discussion of how many and where they fit in a new strategy comes later. Suffice it to say, dollars and billets recouped from a lower number of carrier strike groups should be invested in ships that are well suited for low to medium engagement.
A key tenet of post-9/11 strategic thought is that extremist religious terrorism is avoidable. Societies with infrastructural resources such as electricity, clean water, public education, and some modicum of medical care do not generally incubate extremist groups in their midst. Naval forces that have basic abilities to police the sea lines of communication while also seizing port call opportunities to build the basic communal building blocks of productive life ought to be an important component of the future Navy.
The next step on the Navy's path to a new future should be the creation of "Influence Squadrons" composed of an amphibious mother ship (an LPD-17 or a cheaper commercial ship with similar capabilities), a destroyer to provide air, surface, and subsurface defensive capabilties, a Littoral Combat Ship to extend a squadron's reach into the green-water environment and provide some mine warfare capabilities, a Joint High Speed Vessel to increase lift, a Coastal Patrol ship to operate close in, and an M80 Stiletto to provide speed and versatility.
The Influence Squadron should also heavily employ unmanned technologies to further expand the squadron's reach. Unmanned air, surface, and subsurface platforms could be deployed and monitored by the various vessels, extending American awareness, if not American presence.
These forces, operating every day around the world, would represent the preponderance of visible U.S. naval power. Their understated capabilities would epitomize America's peaceful, non-aggressive intent, and would carry out the new maritime strategy's stated purpose of providing positive influence forward. However, the Influence Squadron, carrying credible firepower across a broad area of operations, could also serve to either dissuade or destroy pirate networks that might seek to prey upon increasingly vulnerable commercial sea lines of communication.
Creating 16 of these squadrons, ten in the Pacific, six in the Atlantic, would allow the Navy to forward deploy six to eight squadrons at any given time, expanding American influence around the world. Pacific-based squadrons would routinely deploy to the east coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, the waters off Malaysia to include the Strait of Malacca, the archipelagic waters of Indonesia, the waters in and around the Philippines, and the regional waters near Japan and Korea.
Atlantic-based squadrons would visit the Caribbean, South America, the north and western coasts of Africa as well as pushing up into the Black Sea to visit Georgia, the Ukraine and other partners in the region. Sometimes, however, Influence Squadrons, no matter how well they are placed, will not have the necessary concentration of capabilities to meet the emergent challenges. It would be at this point that the next force along the scale of naval response would be dispatched.
For the past 30 years the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU) has served as the basic core unit of America's quick-reaction force in the littorals. In 2001, however, with the announcement of the Sea Power 21 construct, this force underwent an evolutionary change. With the addition of a cruiser, a destroyer, a frigate, a fast-attack submarine, and a flag- or Marine general officer-led staff; the ARG-MEU quickly became an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).
The core characteristic of the ESG lies in the recognition that its Marines and their ability to wage a Four-Block War (from peacekeeping to full-scale house-to-house combat) represented the true strike asset of the formation. Hence, the main advantage of this strike group lies in its Marines and their ability to provide scalability of response across the spectrum of engagement. The scalability of this force and the credible nature of its combative power make the ESG the ideal force of the Department of the Navy in the war on terrorism.
The new maritime strategy recognizes explicitly that "preventing wars is at least as important as winning them." The prevention of wars can occur in small acts, like Marines and SeaBees building a school or digging a well to provide a village with clean water, or it could involve the medical staff of a hospital ship or a light amphibious squadron inoculating an entire community against polio, measles, mumps, and rubella.
These things may seem small to Americans-almost assumed aspects of day-to-day life in the United States. But such activities in many communities near the sea will ensure that an entire generation reaches maturity rather than just 50 to 60 percent. The ESG, with the tremendous vertical-lift capability of its embarked Air Combat Element, can also serve as a credible first responder to natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions (which are more than likely to occur concurrently in the Pacific). The movement of relief supplies and the evacuation of injured, the restriction of piracy, and the protection of American interests, can permanently affect the perception of the United States in regions at strategic crossroads.
The new maritime strategy also postulates that the U.S. Navy should field a force capable of winning "the long struggle against terrorist networks." Careful consideration of the range of operations to be undertaken within an anti-terrorism campaign leads to a conclusion that the Expeditionary Strike Group can provide theater commanders in the field with a full toolbox of options.
If it is accepted that the aircraft carrier, with its aviation strike packages, represents the sledgehammer of America's arsenal, then the ESG, with its Tomahawk-firing cruisers and destroyers, as well as its scalable squad-to-battalion Marine force, represent the wrenches, screwdrivers, and pliers within the nation's war on terrorism toolbox. When the introduction of the MV-22 Osprey and the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) Joint Strike Fighter is factored into the strategic equation, the ESG represents a force that is ideally structured to counter terrorist actions anywhere from oceanic blue water to ground operations 150-200 miles inland. The flexibility of this unit makes it the ideal candidate to serve as a critical response force, capable of dealing with threats short of those large enough to justify a surge force deployment.
The proposed surge force is easily recognizable to the reader as it represents those capabilities currently embedded within the carrier strike force, but rather than taking a posture of regular deployments, the majority of the surge force will be maintained in a high state of readiness at home. To be sure, carrier strike group deployments will still occur, but they will be less frequent and more focused on emergent strategic requirements.
Instead, the aircraft carriers (nine or ten for the sake of this discussion) and their support ships and airwings will remain in home waters, exercising as required to maintain six CSGs in a high state of combat readiness. The assumption underlying this force is that one carrier will be involved in reactor upkeep, one will be coming home from either a regional deployment or a major international exercise, and another will be on her way out. This leaves roughly six carriers in standby, ready to surge at a moment's notice. Where they surge from is a critical question. A smaller carrier force needs to be redistributed to get the most out of a decreased number of ships.
Most of America's strategic interests in the decades to come will be in the Asian Pacific region, and that is where the majority of the nation's aircraft carriers should be as well. Of the force of nine or ten carrier strike groups, six should be home ported in the Pacific; two in Bremerton, two in San Diego, one in Japan, and one in another forward base to be determined. The remaining east coast carriers should be strategically dispersed between Norfolk and Mayport. This distribution scheme will both help ensure the survivability of the force against surprise attacks, and cut the transit time to crises around the globe. The bottom line is that the United States should always have six carrier strike groups ready to surge to a point of conflict within 15 to 30 days.
Another critical component of the surge force will be the Expeditionary Strike Groups and their light amphibious carriers. Long considered to be the central core of the amphibious force, these highly capable aircraft carriers can serve in new roles within surge operations. Assuming one is in dry-dock for maintenance, a force of ten LHAs can provide nine small flattops for surge operations. Five of them will go to sea with their embarked Marine Expeditionary Units serving as their primary strike assets (again, the assumption would be that two of the MEUs would either be deploying or returning from deployment at any given time) while the remaining available LHAs deploy with each of their decks and hangars populated by two squadrons of STOVL Joint Strike Fighters.
The four LPDs and four LSDs that would have normally deployed with the Joint Strike Fighter-configured LHAs can be allocated to provide such maritime lift as necessary to carry out the Marine Corps' mission. Such a configuration would provide the naval services with a wider, distributed, and more survivable strike capability and joint forcible entry options in an increasingly anti-access environment. The new LHA(R) America-class ships, lacking a well-deck, would seem particularly suited for this STOVL strike carrier role.
Another area of focus for the future force should be in undersea warfare. Perhaps no place poses a greater threat to the current U.S. force structure or suggests the greatest potential for improvement in a future Navy than the underwater environment and the vessels that populate it. The first major proposed shift is the inclusion of diesel-powered submarines that incorporate air-independent propulsion (AIP) technologies. These submarines can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine such as those of the Virginia class.
Diesel/AIP boats are very quiet, and can be equipped with effective torpedoes, antisurface missiles, and even antiair missiles. These relatively inexpensive yet highly capable subs should replace the Virginia-class boats in the shallow-water environment alongside the new Influence Squadron surface force, allowing the Virginias to concentrate on their antisubmarine warfare mission in the blue-water environment. The one significant drawback of the non-nuclear design is shorter patrol intervals because of limited fuel supply. But this can be offset by forward-basing them near their patrol areas. A number of nations may welcome permanent basing of diesel/AIP submarines but have rejected nuclear-powered submarines in their ports for political reasons.
Another proposed area of change is the permanent inclusion of guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) in the U.S. inventory. The advantages inherent in the deployment of these concentrated strike packages either in conjunction with a strike group, or by operating alone are only now being recognized. However, the U.S. Navy has made a mistake along the path to an SSGN force by tying the capability to a back-fit program for Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines. Future guided-missile submarines should be built new as adaptations of the Virginia class, perhaps offsetting the decreased buy of Virginias as the diesel/AIP boats come online.
There are times, or so it has been said, when quantity has a quality all its own. In the current geostrategic setting, the U.S. Navy needs to be in more places than it has hulls in the water. It has stated that it needs to rise above the 270-odd ships currently in its inventory to meet its commitments.
The naval services have published a maritime strategy that enunciates what those commitments are, but the Navy's acquisition strategy has failed to align with its strategic goals. Instead of procuring a large number of ships with blunt, effective capabilities to meet the threats of today, the Navy has aligned with the shipbuilding industry to build an entire generation of ships with exquisite technologies that are the very best in the world, but are also so expensive that the Navy can only afford a limited number of hulls.
It needs ships capable enough to perform basic missions, yet inexpensive enough to buy in large numbers and operate cheaply. Naval planners also have to factor in unmanned technologies that will allow its ships to extend their awareness far beyond the reach of their own sensors. In addition, the Navy needs to dedicate these ships to the current threats of today, not the imagined boogey-men of tomorrow.
Rampant "next-war-itis" needs to stop, and the Navy needs to commit itself to fighting the very real, and very relevant conflict of today. To be sure, the Navy will need to retain its current, high-end capabilities in such numbers and at such readiness as to dissuade future competitors from entering into conflict with the United States. The data suggest that if the Navy were to pursue a future fleet as described here, with both high- and low-end capabilities in an appropriate ratio, it could have 320 hulls in the water within 12 years for three quarters of the acquisition budget it intends to spend. This represents a net savings of almost five billion dollars a year. Again, I say the Navy needs to buy Fords, not Ferraris.
Commander Hendrix is a past member of the U.S. Naval Institute Editorial Board. He is former commanding officer of Tactical Air Control Squadron 11.
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