The Battle of the Atlantic: Command of the Seas in a War of Attrition

This article originally featured in The Submarine Review and is republished with permission.

By Ryan Hilger

Captain Gallery picked up the radio: “Ride ’em cowboy.” Lieutenant David’s boarding party worked quickly to clear the submarine and make up Pillsbury‘s towline, despite the rudder being jammed hard over and the submarine still making ten knots. Chatelain and Jenks broke off to pick up survivors. Commander Trosino, Guadalcanal‘s Chief Engineer, and another boarding party made for the submarine to begin salvage efforts. Flooded compartments and potential booby traps slowed repair efforts. Pillsbury radioed back that the destroyer didn’t have the power to maintain the tow and keep the submarine afloat. Gallery ordered Guadalcanal into position, taking up the tow. After a challenging several days, U-505 was turned over to Naval Operating Base Bermuda for evaluation.1 The capture of U-505 on June 4th, 1944 was the zenith of Allied anti-submarine warfare efforts, indicating that German submarines would not play a decisive role in what became the final year of the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic spanned the entire duration of the war, stressing the endurance and resourcefulness of all involved, from fleet commanders to heads of state to cryptographers to ordinary seamen in anti-submarine trawlers and U-boats everywhere. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, worth quoting at length here, frames the issue:

“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. Invasion, I thought, even before the air battle, would fail. After the air victory it was a good battle for us. We could drown and kill this horrible foe in circumstances favourable to us, and, as he evidently realised, bad for him. It was the kind of battle which, in the cruel conditions of war, one ought to be content to fight. But now our life-line, even across the broad oceans, and especially in the entrances to the Island, was endangered. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.2           

This unforgiving war at sea challenged the conventions of Mahan and Corbett on the meaning of sea control and, in that philosophical struggle, informs strategic thought as we face asymmetric threats abroad. Several anecdotes from this long, grinding campaign provide insights as American naval forces grapple with the nascent possibility of a modern, protracted war of attrition at sea.

The Essentiality of War Games

Convoys HX-229 and SC-122 were eastbound for Britain. Their air cover had lapsed until the Liberator squadron in Iceland could reach them. The base courses of the convoys were continually altered around wolfpack locations revealed by Ultra, the Allied radio intercept and cryptanalysis program.3 But this time, the routings had placed them on a collision course with each other and three wolfpacks, the U-boats still high after battering SC-121 and HX-228 the day prior. On March 16th, 1943, they “hurled themselves like wolves first on the Halifax convoy, then on the Sydney convoy as soon as it was sighted, and finally on the great combined mass of ships.”4 38 U-boats exploited the next three days, relentlessly attacking day and night, sinking 21 of 61 ships.

The massacre of convoys SC-122 and HX-229 began twenty-five years prior to the coup de main, southeast of Sicily with then Lieutenant Commander Karl Doenitz in UB-68 and his near death at the hands of a British warship escorting a convoy just out of the Suez Canal. UB-68 was hit, but managed to blow her ballast tanks to the surface, where the submarine sank beneath him, the convoy continuing on to Britain unmolested. At that moment, floating in the warm Mediterranean waters with his lifejacket and a piece of salvaged cork, Doenitz recalls,

“That last night, however, had taught me a lesson as regards basic principles. A U-boat attacking a convoy on the surface and under cover of darkness, I realized, stood very good prospects of success. The greater number of U-boats that could be brought simultaneously into the attack, the more favorable would become the opportunities offered to each individual attacker.”5

The seed of wolfpack tactics had been planted. Several other German submariners would come to the same conclusion independently during the Great War, but none seemed to gain traction with the German High Command. Revolutions do not come about overnight.

Doenitz would rise slowly during the interwar years, eventually being selected to take over the first reformed U-Boat Flotilla in 1935. He found like-minded officers under his command and proceeded to develop cooperative tactics. In 1937, during the German Armed Forces Maneuvers, U-boats operated for the first time together, tasked to “locate, concentrate and attack an enemy formation and convoy somewhere on the high seas to the north of the coasts of Pomerania and West and East Prussia.”6 The operation was wildly successful, and U-Boat Command continued with large-scale exercises into 1939, including under the review of Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, until the Second World War started a few months later. The exercises provided Doenitz with the opportunity to further refine the span of control, communications, and tactics the U-boats would need in combat to bring wolfpacks to their highest potency.

Interestingly, Doenitz reveals that the British were caught largely unaware in the first year and a half of the war that the Germans were employing cooperative tactics against their convoys. Citing Captain Stephen Roskill, the eminent British naval historian, Doenitz writes,                       

“But as the numbers controlled by Admiral Doenitz increased, he was able to introduce attacks by several U-boats working together…The change caught us unawares…but the Development was, from the British point of view, full of the most serious implications since the enemy had adopted a form of attack which we had not foreseen and against which neither tactical nor technical countermeasures had been prepared.”7

This is shocking revelation for the preeminent Navy in the world at the outbreak of the war. The roots of this negligence, Roskill continues, are found in the interwar period:

“When British naval training and thinking in the years between the wars are reviewed, it seems that both were concentrated on the conduct of surface ships in action with similar enemy units and that the defence was also considered chiefly from the point of view of attack by enemy surface units.”8

Doenitz theorizes that the invention of active sonar lulled the British into thinking that oceans had been made transparent and that the submarine became instantly irrelevant.9 In conjunction with the technological advances, the development of wolfpack tactics also reveals the grave threat presented by sclerotic British thinking during peacetime. The bold and decentralized command of the Nelsonian navy had slowly devolved over a century into untested, theoretical doctrine, the fleet “[enjoying] a peace routine and that its title of Mistress of the Seas [not having been] seriously challenged.”10 Arthur Marder relates the state of the Royal Navy in 1897 prior to the reforms of Admiral Jackie Fisher: “the British Navy at the end of the nineteenth century, numerically a very imposing force, was a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism.”11 The ramifications of stultified strategic thought and the unacknowledged strategic draw at Jutland in 1916 further ossified British tactical development for the next twenty years.12 Doenitz, on the other hand, presents a case for the importance of war games for tactical and operational developments, and the consequences for the navies that spend the peacetime steaming around the world to “show the flag,” fueled by achievements of past wars while the guns rust from lack of meaningful combat exercises. 

Tactical Innovation and Credulity in Technology

In the Clausewitzian sense, the nature of the Battle of the Atlantic changed little over the course of the war. The merchant ships plodded along the routes provided by the Allied convoy routing commands, ever in existential peril, while the U-boats prowled about the waves in search of prey. However, a closer examination of the operational level of war provides a plethora of examples of technical innovation—focusing on the development of active sonar here—the first applications of operations research, and a clear warning about immature faith in technological advancements without any corresponding evidence of efficacy beyond first principles or development of doctrinal employment.13

The first hydrophones were fitted to warships for submarine detection as early as 1915, but provided such inaccurate bearings, and without a suitable close attack weapon, to render then operationally irrelevant. In September 1918, the British formed a scientific committee, the Anti-Submarine Division International Committee (Asdic) to develop echo-ranging methods to fix a submarine’s position. The system was fielded shortly before the war ended in 1918 and continued to be developed during the interwar years, now able to provide both bearing and range.14 Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalls his experience with the refined Asdic sets:

“On June 15, 1938, the First Sea Lord took me down to Portland to show me the Asdics [italics original]… Standing on the bridge of the destroyer which was using the Asdic, with another destroyer half a mile away, in constant intercourse, I could see and hear the whole process, which was the Sacred Treasure of the Admiralty, and in the culture of which for a whole generation they had faithfully preserved.”15

The British began World War II with 220 sets installed on various small combatants and trawlers, with many more sets waiting for ships to install them on—Churchill’s maritime building program would take a year or two more to reach fruition.16 Of note, Churchill does not record the doctrinal development of anti-submarine warfare in the same way that Doenitz discussed the refinement of tactical and operational doctrine for submarine wolfpacks. Doenitz records in his Memoirs the seeming blind faith by the British that the new technology would render submarines useless as a weapon of war: “in 1937 the Admiralty reported to the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee that ‘the U-boat will never again be capable of confronting us with the problem with which we found ourselves faced in 1917.”17 Churchill, at the outbreak of the war, agreed:

“I had accepted too readily when out of office the Admiralty view of the extent to which the submarine had been mastered. Whilst the technical efficiency of the Asdic apparatus was proved in many early encounters with U-boats, our anti-U-boat resources were far too limited to prevent our suffering serious losses.”18

This failure to grasp the limitations of the new technology, both in technical performance and the employment of it, required a rapid development program and the founding of operations research.19

The British anti-submarine forces had dwindled in the interwar period to less than ten percent of the forces available to the Allies at the signing of the Armistice in Versailles.20 The shortage would cost them dearly in operational tempo and merchant shipping lost while waiting for the Americans to enter the war or for their own shipbuilding program to start delivering. Even with Asdics on their warships, merchant shipping losses totaled more than 900 ships and 4,000,000 tons by the end of 1940.21 Yet a significant inventory of Asdics still sat on shelves, waiting for ships to enter service, and in that lies another lesson for gaining superiority in the war of attrition—cooperation with allies.

Allies and the Fielding of Capabilities

In May 1940, Churchill first laid bare the British needs to President Roosevelt: “All I ask now is that you should proclaim non-belligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are, first of all, the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers to bridge the gap…”22 The use of mothballed destroyers seems a logical and prudent policy to pursue, but the American political scene then, records Samuel Eliot Morison, was still rooted in quasi-pacifism.23 It would take President Roosevelt a great deal of time and political capital to secure the Lend-Lease program.

Churchill pressed again several months later, indicating how their mutual, albeit still private, goals could be served: “We can fit [the older destroyers] very rapidly with our Asdics, and they will bridge the gap of six months before our war-time new construction comes into play.”24 This string of discussion would continue between Roosevelt and Churchill for the remainder of 1940, even with the offer of British crews to man and transport the destroyers across the Atlantic. President Roosevelt would eventually find a loophole in the Neutrality Act of 1939 and sign a bilateral agreement with Churchill on September 2, 1940, on the trade of fifty older American destroyers for 99-year leases for naval bases from Great Britain. British sailors would bring the American ships back to life and take the fight to their common enemy in a shining example of the importance of bringing capabilities rapidly to bear in a war of attrition to gain a tactical edge.

The Unbiased Tyranny of Geography

It is rare for terrain in war to be so unfavorable to the contesting parties. Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz speak of the ground as preferential to a particular side depending on the value accorded to it.26 The sea, however, retains the ability to be the great equalizer, especially in the modern, globalized era, while simultaneously being supremely cruel to those who lose their respect for it. The Atlantic Ocean and the martial contest for it offered different challenges for all involved—British, German, and American. For Britain, the sea was survival. For Germany, the sea presented the longest contiguous battlefront. For the Americans, the sea represented the lifeline to Britain, under constant threat which, for the majority of the war, they lacked the necessary escorts to fully protect. Not until the summer of 1943 did the Allies begin to achieve sea control. Corbett puts this battle into theoretical prospective:

“By general and permanent control [of the sea] we do not mean that the enemy can do nothing, but that he cannot interfere with out maritime trade and overseas operations so seriously as to affect the issue of the war, and that he cannot carry on his own trade and operations except at such risk and hazard as to remove them from the field of practical strategy.”27

Corbett, vice Mahan, defines the heart of the struggle: “By occupying her maritime in which they terminate we destroy the national life afloat, and thereby check the vitality of that life ashore so far as the one is dependent on the other.”28 Britain needed the sea for survival and Germany rightly discerned that the sea was the key to Britain’s destruction. Thus, the Battle of the Atlantic was not simply another battle on the road to victory, but rather an extended campaign at the operational level of war, and a matter of national strategic policy for all contestants.

Churchill, never shy at communicating the necessity of commerce to the survival of Britain, again indicates the British national policy to President Roosevelt: “North Atlantic transport remains the prime anxiety… I am sorry about [stopping food subsidies to Eire], but we must think of our own self-preservation, and use for vital purposes our own tonnage brought in through so many perils.”29 The American policy, still protected by pre-war isolationist policies, took more time to develop. Admiral Stark, then the Chief of Naval Operations, submitted his thoughts on American grand strategy to Navy Secretary Knox in late 1940: “Our major national objectives in the immediate future might be states as preservation of the territorial, economic, and ideological integrity of the United States…the preservation of the disruption of the British Empire with all that such consummation implies…”30 These views would be fully developed and codified in the American-British Conversation (ABC) agreements, first completed in March 1941.

In the years prior to the war, Germany began finalizing how they would structure the Navy to strangle the British islands. Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, saw the unfolding situation plainly: “Britain imported fifty million tons of goods annually and her very existence depended on the keeping open of her supply lines. An effective attack on Britain’s oversea supplies therefore had to be the main aim of any German naval building programme.”31 In contrast, Raeder believed that “[as] for our surface forces, they were so inferior to the enemy in strength and numbers that about all they could hope to do was go down fighting.”32 Raeder has grasped the four Clausewitizan factors of success in war.33 This attitude shaped the shipbuilding program in the final years of prior to the war, resulting in Germany beginning the war with near four times as many submarines as all surface ships combined.34 Geography shaped the battle, forcing widely distributed forces against a highly distributed threat.

For Germany, though, the execution of the maritime strategy would be anything but trivial.35 The development of wolfpack tactics and the technological advances added the efforts at the tactical and operational levels, but the distances involved pressed the strategy to its limits. Due to distance, geographic positioning, maintenance, and training cycles, only eight of the 57 U-boats in commission could be engaged in the Atlantic for the first year of the war. The early fall of France and capture of the French ports on the Bay of Biscay provided a significant improvement, both in geographic position as well as the addition of dockyards and repair facilities. Doenitz summed up the strategic value of this gain:

“Before July 1940 the U-boats had to make a voyage of 450 miles through the North Sea and round the north of Great Britain to reach the Atlantic. Now they were saving something like a week on each patrol and were thus able to stay considerably longer in the actual area of operations. This fact, in its turn, added to the total number of U-boats actively engaged against the enemy. It was thanks to these direct efforts of the possession of the Biscay bases….”36

The improvement in position, combined withe the building program, allowed Germany to eventually keep nearly one hundred U-boats at sea.

Control of the Sea

Captain Roskill records that the utter destruction of HX-229 and SC-122 “made a profound impression upon the British Admiralty, which later recorded that ‘the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943.'”37  Yet the German euphoria and Allied dejection would decisively reverse in the subsequent two months as the Allies shifted the balance of power with the introduction of additional long-range aircraft. Roskill recalls,

“[A] sweeping victory was gained in April and May; and of the 56 U-boats sunk in those two months 36 were destroyed by ships and aircraft operating as convoy escorts or in support of convoys. Doenitz thereupon abandoned the battle of the convoy routes. The reason was, so he said, that his losses had increased to about one-third of all the submarines at sea— losses much too high.”38

Doenitz and his submarines would never again gain the upper hand.

The Allies would subsequently introduce greater measures to fight the U-boat menace, including the introduction of the hunter-killer groups like the one that captured U-505. The industrial machine in both Britain and the United States would pick up steam, churning out Liberty ships every 42 days and escorts even more rapidly, turning the tide of the battle through sheer numbers.39 Control of the sea in the Corbettian sense would be achieved, but that control did not mean that hostilities would cease—quite the contrary. Both sides would continue to feed grist to the millstone until the end of the war; each side would lose roughly 30,000 Sailors or airmen.40 Tenuous control at best.

The Battle of the Atlantic contains many more lessons for control of the sea in a war of attrition.41 But the essence of the battle should alert strategists to the necessity of exercises in merging revolutionary technologies into new doctrine and the need to deploy capabilities, not just platforms. Above all, strategists need to know that establishing and maintaining maritime superiority in today’s environment, as in the Battle of the Atlantic, is more than the capacity to destroy the enemy in a fleet action—the Battle of the Atlantic repudiated Mahan. Captain Wayne Hughes provides the simple summation: “Naval battle is attrition centered. Victory by maneuver warfare may work on land but it does not at sea. At sea, first effective attack is the aim of every tactical commander.”42 An enemy can fight a war of attrition at sea, a guerre de course in which he has many advantages and vulnerabilities. Force composition cannot be determined without due regard for the economic implications of the naval role in national strategy. Commanders must continue to innovate, experiment with new technologies, and evolve how they wage war at all levels. Failure to stay abreast of technology or properly incorporate it will engender strategic surprise on the battlefield, thus driving your forces from the sea, or to the bottom of it.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is an Engineering Duty Officer and former submariner. These views are presented in a personal capacity.


1. “Oral History-Battle of the Atlantic. Recollections of Captain Daniel V. Gallery, USN, commander of USS Guadalcanal Task Group concerning the capture of German submarine U-505 on 4 June 1944,” Naval History and Heritage Command, August 2, 2002,

2. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1949, p. 529.

3. The Ultra program was the highly secretive cryptanalysis efforts to break German radio encryption. See also “Ultra and the Battle of the Atlantic.” National Security Agency. Accessed on February 6, 2017.

4. Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Boston, MA: De Capo Press, 1997, p. 329.

5. Ibid, p. 4.

6. Ibid, p. 21.

7.  Ibid, p. 22.

8. Ibid, p. 23.

9.  Ibid.

10. Marder, Arthur. “Admiral Sir John Fisher: A Reappraisal.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1942,

11. Ibid. 

12. See also: Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013 and Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Chapters 2 and 3 of Hughes, in particular, have a concise discussion of this topic.

13. This essay focuses on the development of active sonar, but the list can certainly be expanded to include technological developments on both sides: radio direction finding, acoustic torpedoes, an air induction mast, or snorkel, the mathematically-based attack tactics for bombers and depth charging, and the prodigious industrial efforts of the American shipbuilding industry to churn out the Liberty ships and destroyer escorts. A myriad of resources provide greater information on these individual developments.

14. Sternhell, Charles M. and Alan M. Thorndike. “Antisubmarine Warfare in World War II.” Operations Evaluation Group, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington D.C., 1946, p. 2. 

15. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume I: The Gathering Storm. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1948, pp. 127-8.

16. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

17. Doenitz, p. 23.

18. Churchill, p. 325.

19. See Part II of Sternhell and Thorndike for an excellent exposition on the various scientific approaches to anti-submarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic. This section truly summarizes the first operational application of operations research, at the time a nascent field. See also: Koopman, B. O. Search and Screening: General Principles with Historical Applications. New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1980. Budiansky, Stephen. Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boat and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013.

20. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

21. Churchill, p. 569 and Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 639.

22. Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 23.

23. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I:  The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 33.  

24. Churchill, p. 117.

25. Ibid, p. 361.

26. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Edited by Basil Liddell Hart, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 114-115.

 Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 345.

27. Corbett, Julian S. Principles of Maritime Strategy. Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2004. pp. 102-3.

28.  Ibid, p. 91.

29. Churchill, Volume I, pp. 535-6.

30. Morison, p. 42.

31. Raeder, Erich. Struggle for the Sea. London: William Kimber and Co. Ltd., 1959, p. 128.

32. Ibid, p. 136.

33. Clausewitz, p. 261.

34. Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015, p. 34.

35. See also: Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015. This collection comprises the surviving documents that Doenitz ordered preserved, not destroyed, when he headed the German government at the end of the war. The volume shows the difficulties that the German Navy faced in executing the naval component of German national strategy given Hitler’s general disposition toward ground forces and the influence of Hermann Goering and the German Air Force.

36. Doenitz, p. 112.

37. Ibid, p. 329.

38. Roskill, Stephen. “CAPROS not Convoy: Counterattack and Destroy!” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1956,

39. Winston, George. “The Amazing Achievement of Baltimore’s Shipyards: One Liberty Ship Every 42 Days.” War History Online. November 24, 2015.

40. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 363.

41. See also: Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, pp. 361-4. Here Morison draws conclusions about the American role in the battle, which he generally confines to the development and deployment escort carrier groups. He writes that the British and Canadian forces were on the whole more skilled and experienced than American forces, and that British and Canadian forces did more to contribute to victory in the Atlantic than did the United States. His full conclusions about the battle are worthy fodder for strategists to consider.

42. Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval

Featured Image: Colorized photo of German U-boats. (Public Domain)

Will the Revamped Xiangshan Forum Displace the Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Earlier this year, the author published an analysis comparing and contrasting the 2017 and 2018 Shangri-La Dialogues (SLD) in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes; and more importantly, surmising what message Beijing was trying to convey and assessing what the message portends for the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and the world.

The author posited that Beijing views the SLD as a confrontational international forum used by Washington and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value, but not the overwhelming need, to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept criticism in these forums as a natural outgrowth and accepted cost of its rise as a global power.

That said, Beijing may one day conclude with respect to opportunity cost that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the seemingly biased and fading SLD when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum (XF)? The regional forum is widely regarded in Beijing as an increasingly viable and desirable counter to the SLD. The forum can function as the security component to the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more significantly, an integral part of a strategic agenda (the Chinese Dream) to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one lacking dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect soon a resurgent, revitalized, and revamped XF after an unexpected and self-imposed one-year hiatus. The decision to temporarily suspend the XF is not clear. If indeed Beijing did decide to use the XF in the aforementioned manner, then the pause may be a deliberate structural reset to re-orient itself to a new role.  

None had to wait long. On 30 August, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that the China Association for Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies  will co-host the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum (BXF) in Beijing from 24-28 October, 2018. Therefore, it is useful to examine the “restated” goals and objectives and discuss what it may mean for America, the region, and the international community.  

Restated Goals and Objectives

The theme of this year’s forum is “building a new-type of security and partnership featuring equality, mutual trust, and win-win cooperation.” Participants include defense authorities, military leaders, representatives of international organizations, former military and civilian officials, and scholars from 79 countries. They will meet and discuss ideas for new approaches to international security governance, terrorism threats and countermeasures, prospects for maritime security cooperation, and United Nations peacekeeping operations. Participants will also exchange perspectives during various special sessions and panels on the new dynamics in Northeast Asian security, ways and means of addressing the security issues in the Middle East, military and security confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific, and artificial intelligence and the conduct of warfare. Beijing hopes the forum will “further strengthen strategic dialogue and communications, accumulate consensus, deepen practical cooperation, and find ways to jointly respond to global challenges and jointly maintain peace and stability.”

The theme of the previous 7th Xiangshan Forum held 11-13 October, 2016 was “building a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation.” Participants from around 60 countries discussed the role of militaries in global governance, responses to new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific through cooperation, including maritime security cooperation, and counterterrorism policy. Additional panel discussions included major power relations and global strategic structure, globalization versus deglobalization and the implications for international security, latest developments in terrorism and creative approaches to cooperation, and maritime crisis management and regional stability. Beijing had hoped the forum would “strengthen mutual trust, accumulate consensus, promote regional security cooperation, and jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”

All in all, the language and tone of this new forum is more assertive and forward-leaning than previous forums – reflective of a more confident and insistent China, who seems determined to move forward from Mao’s revolutionary legacy and Deng’s iconic dictum of “hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never ever claim leadership” and now to promote abroad “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era (Xi’s Thoughts).” The plenary and special session topics underscore Beijing’s aspiration to be a respected global leader who has a say (and sway) in world events and issues, and perhaps lay the groundwork to eventually displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation. If so, the forum is a convenient and opportune platform to offer developing countries an alternative economic and political choice of Chinese “benevolent” governance involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances (economic development with supposed political independence). In other words, developing countries in Africa, Central Asia, South Pacific, and South/Central Americas should take heed and carefully consider the Chinese model – a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that feels it does not have to make political accommodations to others.

Of note is the last panel topic on artificial intelligence. There has been plenty of reporting on robust Chinese investment in this emerging technology, particularly in the area of military applications. Some have even speculated that China has already surpassed the United States, and strongly urge Washington to make up for lost ground. If so, could this be Beijing trying to allay these growing concerns? China may be attempting to get ahead of the strategic issue by shaping and influencing international legal frameworks and accepted norms of behavior on the future development, deployment, and employment of artificial intelligence capabilities.

What to Expect

The BRI – Beijing’s trillion-dollar, transcontinental infrastructure enterprise to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing – needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics to guarantee the BRI’s continued expansion and future sustainment. The BXF is that security framework. The forum and the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) promote and advance a new global political, economic, and security order under Beijing’s terms. Together, they constitute a new Chinese strategic approach that calls for the balanced integration of interests. These include long-term overseas economic development and concurrent domestic security reforms intended to safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Hence, in the coming years, expect China to subtly undermine the SLD while incrementally building up the revamped BXF as evident by the new competing theme to that of the extant SLD’s theme of “building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among the region’s most important defense and security policymakers.” The scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. Beijing seems content for now to send a relatively lower rank delegation head to the SLD, limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

This hedging posture may transform over time to more of a balancing one that will directly challenge the SLD for regional preeminence. If so, Beijing will slowly draw down its participation in the SLD, while subtlety pulling away the other participants through a calibrated program of incentive (carrot) and intimidation (stick). First to go will be the regional countries already in China’s growing sphere of influence (Laos, Cambodia), and then other countries within region and the world, possibly similar to how Beijing picks off countries that formally recognize Taipei. Those that are contemplating withdrawal from the SLD may face increasingly forceful political and economic persuasion (coercion) to do so as part of a pressure campaign, while those that will continue to participate in the SLD will receive growing political and economic backlash as part of a retribution campaign. Countries saddled with BRI-related debts will face the most risk, and in time they may be given a stark binary choice – bend toward Beijing’s will or face economic consequences.

Beijing may also establish its own version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise to further advance the security component of the BRI. China and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states held the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (table-top) in Singapore on 2 August, with plans to hold a follow-on field exercise in China involving navies from all the participating countries later in October. If successful, Beijing may make this a recurring exercise and gradually expand its scope, nature, and extent of the exercise to eventually rival that of RIMPAC.

At the end of the day, the strategic conundrum for the United States will be whether or not to participate in the BXF if invited by China. There are two schools of thought on this matter.

Those in favor may argue non-participation would be a miscalculation. By not participating in the BXF, Washington would cede the strategic narrative and initiative to Beijing. Specifically, the United States would yield to China and like-minded nations a public platform to stake out their strategic positions unchallenged; and lose an opportunity to counter Chinese strategic messaging and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

Those not in favor may suggest that in the early years of the BRI, Washington policymakers faced political and economic pressures to join the ambitious Chinese infrastructure project over the worrying prospect of being left behind. Contrary to conventional wisdom at that time, the U.S. government resisted the clarion call and chose not to join. In hindsight, the decision was the correct call given the political and economic difficulties that have emerged from the project. The same logic and rationale should be applied to the BXF. Resist the strong temptation to join in the false hope of changing  or reforming the BXF from within, and instead challenge the forum by continuing to offer countries an alternative security framework (such as the SLD) to accompany the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) economic strategy.


In terms of great power relations Beijing views itself as a destined rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power. And both are seen as being interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global preeminence. In this competition the Chinese BRI and BXF and its opposing counterparts – the FOIP and SLD – are the preeminent and enduring platforms in these contested economic and security battlespaces, respectively. The victor of this great power competition will determine not only the future course of the Indo-Pacific, but perhaps also the world.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: Seventh Xiangshan Forum (South China Morning Post photo).

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 5: Material Condition and Availability

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards

By Dmitry Filipoff

Material Condition and Availability

“The very gallantry and determination of our young commanding officers need to be taken into account here as a danger factor, since their urge to keep on, to keep up, to keep station, and to carry out their mission in the face of any difficulty, may deter them from doing what is actually wisest and most profitable in the long run…” –Admiral Chester Nimitz

The post-Cold War Navy made major reforms to a fundamental operating construct of the fleet, its readiness cycle. The readiness cycle of the Navy is a standardized period of maintenance, training, deployment, and sustainment phases that produce ready naval power within a specified timeframe. The deployment schedule the Navy operates on is tied to how its forces are moving along at various phases in the cycle and when they become available for use after having met their needs. 

A readiness cycle should be predictable in that it regularly produces naval power of consistent quality in the absence of major contingencies. From the perspective of a competitor it should be unpredictable in that it has enough margin where it can effectively surge and sustain a large number of forces on short notice to surprise and overwhelm foes if need be. It should then be able to recover from a surge in a reasonable timeframe and reset itself in stride. It should also maintain some consistency while allowing ships to undergo extensive maintenance and upgrade periods as needed.1

A readiness cycle’s viability is based on the deployment rate it serves, where a higher rate of deployment can come at the cost of more unmet needs. A cycle cannot resemble a taut rope, but rather one that keeps enough slack to maintain the necessary resilience and flexibility. These qualities are predicated on respecting the material limits of naval power. National security strategy is bounded by these limits.

During the power projection era the Navy’s readiness cycle lost its discipline. In less than 20 years the Navy has deployed under four separate cycles, and where the two most recent constructs are attempting to restore order and arrest systemic shocks that spiraled out of control. These shocks unbalanced the Navy, sapped its ability to surge the fleet, and incurred significant strategic risk with respect to great power war.

The Power Projection Era and Readiness Cycle Reform

“We kind of lost our way a few years back when we were all doing everything we could to get airplanes and ships forward into the fight…it went on and on and on, and I think that’s where the stress of not only the people and the equipment but also the processes started to break down.” –Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran

In the new national security environment of the power projection era the Navy felt it needed to increase its ability to surge the fleet on short notice as well as increase its continuous presence in forward areas. The Navy sought to accomplish this in part by making major changes to its readiness cycle through a major reform known as the Fleet Response Plan. The Navy was especially focused on increasing surge capacity, where according to the Naval Transformation Roadmap (2003):

“The recently created Fleet Response Plan (FRP) will significantly increase the rate at which we can augment deployed forces as contingencies require. Under the regular rotation approach…the majority of ships and associated units were not deployed and thus at a point in their Inter-Deployment Readiness Cycle (IDRC) that made it difficult and expensive to swiftly ‘surge’ to a crisis, conflict or for Homeland Defense. The FRP features a change in readiness posture that institutionalizes an enhanced surge capability for the Navy…a revised IDRC is being developed that meets the demand for a more responsive force. With refined maintenance, modernization, manning and training processes, as well as fully-funded readiness accounts, the Fleet can consistently sustain a level of at least 6 surge-capable carrier strike groups, with two additional strike groups able to deploy within approximately 90 days of an emergency order.”2

This surge policy was implemented and approved of just after the Iraq War began. Seven carrier battle groups conducted forward operations in support of the invasion of Iraq, with an eighth deployed in the Pacific. Five of those eight battle groups and air wings had already participated in Operation Enduring Freedom just a year before. A year later seven carrier groups simultaneously deployed in 2004 for the Summer Pulse exercise that intended to demonstrate the FRP’s surge capability.3 In relatively quick succession the Navy surged the fleet multiple times at levels not seen since the Vietnam War.4

One of the most far-reaching changes of habit was an increasing willingness to extend deployment lengths beyond what was previously the norm. Since 1986 the Navy had rigorously adhered to a maximum deployment length of six months, a policy the Global Navy Presence policy described as “inviolate.”5

New strategies concerned with adding forward presence and surge capability often encouraged the Navy to lengthen deployments. From Operation Desert Storm to 9/11 the Navy only granted a few dozen exceptions to the six-month deployment policy. It then granted almost 40 exceptions for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002, and a year later it granted almost 150 more in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.6 What was once the exception became the norm as ships continued to deploy in excess of six months many years after the large surges that accompanied the starts of those campaigns. From 2008-2011, carrier strike group deployments averaged 6.4 months, which then climbed to 8.2 months in the next three years.7

Table depicting the increase in percentage of deployments whose length exceeded six months. (Source: Center for Naval Analyses report, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?”)

This operating tempo and the Fleet Response Plan proved to be fundamentally unstable and unsustainable. The effects forced the Navy to repeatedly compromise and improvise its schedules to make ends meet and maintain its deployment rate.

Some ships already on deployment had their tours extended on short notice. Longer deployments then created greater maintenance demands, where ships often saw their expected maintenance phase grow by many months. Some even tripled in length.Maintenance overruns started happening more often than not, forcing other ships to deploy sooner to cover the planned operations of ships that found themselves stuck in prolonged maintenance. Meanwhile backlogs and equipment casualty reports were mounting as the fleet was pushed harder and harder and maintenance troubles grew more severe. In spite of all of this the demand for naval power only kept growing.9

Depictions of the preponderance of maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2014 for aircraft carriers and surface combatants. (Source: GAO information provided to Congressional committees on the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan.)

Navy leadership eventually admitted the system was falling apart:

“Unfortunately, the Navy was rarely able to execute the FRP as designed…schedules were adjusted to meet changing combatant-commander demands, maintenance delays, and crisis response. This has caused significant unpredictability for our sailors and maintenance teams, while revealing a host of inefficiencies…Inefficient readiness production and unpredictable schedules are never good, but they have become unsustainable.”10

As negative effects spiraled out of control and cascaded across the Navy’s timetables it had little choice but to take corrective action. A new readiness cycle known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) was implemented in 2014 in an attempt to bring “predictability” to the cycle.

Among many changes OFRP slightly reduced the amount of time ships would be deployed from 25 percent to 22 percent of the cycle, slowing material degradation and allowing more time for maintenance. A significant amount of time was added to the sustainment phase that follows deployments and comes before the maintenance phase. The surface fleet in particular benefited from a significant extension of the sustainment phase. Warships in this phase are supposed to be surge capable and available for hard training. However, the ships and crews are usually quite spent after six to eight months of forward operations, and more importantly the Navy has typically allocated little funding for significant amounts of training or operating in the sustainment phase.11 Perhaps the most value that comes from the sustainment phase is that ships can use it to get caught up on what maintenance they can.12

The phases of the Navy’s workup cycle under the Fleet Response Plan and its successor, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. There is some slight variation (by a month or so) in these figures across sources. (Source: GAO information provided to Congressional committees on the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan.)

Navy leadership described a key reform that OFRP attempted, in that it “transitions fleet production of operational availability from a demand based to a supply based model.”13 This new model will hopefully be “disciplined” and “predictable” in nature.14 However, a supply-based model is the only sort of readiness scheme a Navy can realistically run on. 

No fleet that wishes to maintain its consistency can operate under a demand-based model for long because it will eventually spend itself. Naval power is extremely flexible and mobile, where ships can independently conduct many sorts of missions and travel hundreds of miles a day. Operating remotely in international waters can temper foreign political sensitivities such as those that are often associated with hosting foreign troops on land. Naval power can often streamline operations by not having to rely as much on the bureaucracies of foreign countries. All of these qualities can make naval power very attractive to theater commanders and the interagency.

However, a Navy must guard its long-term condition by successfully saying no to excessive demand signals more often than not, which is how a supply-based model is preserved over time. To subscribe to a demand-based model is to put the fleet’s material condition in the hands of combatant commanders whose official responsibilities are to use forces for near-term operations, not maintain them for long-term well-being. 

Number of lost operational days due to maintenance overruns for aircraft carriers, surface combatants, and submarines from FY 2011-2016. According to the GAO these approximately 14,000 days of lost operating time translated into losing the use of 0.5 carriers per year, three surface combatants per year, and 2.8 submarines per year across this period. (Source: GAO Report,”Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Facing the Fleet.”)

Even if it operates under something more sustainable the consequences of recent deployment rates can come back to haunt the Navy and force it to pay another price later.

Hard deployment rates accelerate material degradation and can shorten the service lives of ships.15 This creates long-term risk because shortened service life can prompt early retirements. Concerns about gaps in presence and fleet numbers can be exacerbated in the future by ships being forced into early retirement as they become increasingly expensive and time-consuming maintenance burdens. 

Average maintenance backlogs by ship class, FY 2000-2015. It highlights the Optimal Manning Period, a reform the Navy attempted in order to save costs by reducing crew sizes on ships. Optimal Manning was subsequently reversed. (Source: GAO Report, “Navy Force Structure: Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews.”)

Now in order to grow and preserve fleet size the Navy is heavily counting on its ability to modify and extend the lives of many ships past the original estimates.16 But the significant maintenance debts incurred under recent deployment rates will no doubt complicate this endeavor, and add to the Navy’s fears of seeing the fleet shrink even further.

Fleet Availability and National Security Strategy

“I didn’t have a full appreciation for the size of the readiness hole, how deep it was, and how wide it was. It’s pretty amazing…You have a thoroughbred horse in the stable that you’re running in a race every single day. You cannot do that. Something’s going to happen eventually.” –Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer

Gaps in forward naval presence could become the new normal and not just as a result of lacking readiness discipline. Rather, it may be the product of the Navy and the Department of Defense finally coming to terms with the limits of what can be done with a much smaller fleet. Reconciling with this truth could mark a major strategic shift in how the U.S. envisions using its Navy for war and deterrence.

In spite of increasing demand signals and widespread fluctuations across the Navy’s workup cycles one key thing remained consistent. For at least the past 25 years the Navy steadily deployed around 100 ships per year for about six months at a time. The Navy tried to maintain this deployment rate despite the fact the fleet shrunk by over 40 percent in the same timeframe. 

Graphic depicting relationship between fleet size, deployment length, and deployment rate. (Source: Department of the Navy FY 2018 President’s Budget Press Brief)

Fleet size helps dictate what deployment levels can be sustained. In order to maintain round-the-clock presence in a distant part of the world around four ships are needed for every one kept forward.17 This comes from how the deployment phase is about a quarter of the time within the workup cycle under the FRP or the OFRP. Forward-deployed naval forces such as those homeported in Japan are far more efficient by being based in theater, but forward-based units are a small minority of the force. Rotational crewing can also increase availability, but this also applies to a minority of the force and no large surface combatants or flattop capital ships operate under this scheme. Four ships for every one forward translates into something quite larger than the 280-ship fleet that exists today if the Navy wishes to keep deploying 100 ships per year for six months at a time.

The Navy was able to maintain constant presence in certain parts of the world through this deployment rate. The strategic argument for presence had long been a driving force behind the power projection focus, and where it was widely reported in 2015 that a carrier presence gap emerged in the Middle East for the first time in eight years.18 Guaranteeing constant presence was used to justify crushing deployment rates for years. Perhaps this is why it was so difficult to break away from deploying 100 ships per year on six-month deployments. Dropping below this rate could normalize presence gaps in certain areas, thereby triggering a major strategic revision of how the fleet could be used in key parts of the world.

Gaps in presence are poised to become more frequent in any case. It is not that the Fleet Response Plan itself was a failure, but that the strategy it tried to serve became highly unrealistic for a shrinking Navy. Recent experience proves the Navy will wreck itself if it tries to continue deploying around 100 ships per year for over six months at a time. Therefore this deployment rate may actually represent a supply-based ceiling that was set many years ago by a much larger fleet, instead of a true demand-based model. Despite the fact that demand for naval power substantially increased throughout the power projection era the number of ships being deployed held steady. 

However, what was once a supply-based limit may have morphed into demand-based pressure as the shrinking fleet became more stretched and strained. Maintenance troubles became severe enough to induce presence gaps in this deployment rate despite the Navy’s vigorous efforts to improvise timelines to prevent those gaps from happening. Somewhere along the way the fleet shrunk so much that eventually predictable presence could not come without predictable maintenance, putting the Navy at a tipping point. 

A map providing an idea of the forward presence maintained by U.S. Navy forces. (Source: Department of the Navy FY 2018 President’s Budget Press Brief. Click to expand.)

The Navy’s latest deploying construct, known as Dynamic Force Employment, was implemented this year. One of its main features appears to include regular three-month deployments, which are half as short as the deployments of the past 30 years. By bringing units home much earlier the Navy won’t spend most of a ship’s readiness in a single stretch and in a forward area. This will conserve enough readiness to allow ships to more confidently deploy again if need be instead of possibly reusing tired ships and crews coming off long deployments. This will then create greater overlap in the employability of the Navy’s ships, allowing the fleet to better surge in larger formations. Ships can also use that extra time to get caught up on maintenance, conduct force development operations near home, or be better primed to surge. Perhaps Dynamic Force Employment is the break the Navy finally needed.

This operating concept could also represent a major shift in how the nation envisions using the Navy for winning and preventing wars. A major strategic justification for emphasizing continuous forward presence was the concept of deterrence by denial. By steadily maintaining naval forces in forward areas the Navy would shut down threatening ambitions by ruling out an adversary’s options for sudden strikes and quick, fait accompli victories. Forward presence also allows ships to frequently engage in foreign partnership operations and security cooperation. These operations can build constructive relationships, enhance partners’ skills in providing for their own security, and shape regions toward a more positive outlook of the U.S.19

Gaps in presence can change the strategic calculus of military options and deterrence. With gaps the Navy would not be as able to prevent sudden hostile actions or victories, but instead it could be reactively deployed to punish adversaries, roll back their gains, and prevent consolidation. This concept is strongly reinforced by shifting to an operating posture that emphasizes surging forces from home instead of continuously maintaining them abroad for presence. Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested this significant shift behind Dynamic Force Employment:

“They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment. They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result…You can bank readiness by decreasing forward presence – that is, if you have fewer forces forward deployed…you have more to push forward when you want them. In other words, it’s punishment rather than deterrence — you surge after the enemy has made its move.”20

This suggests deterrence by denial through steady presence has been deemphasized in favor of responding to hostile action through reactively surged force.

Deploying ships for only three months at a time under this latest construct will dramatically lower presence even further. Dynamic Force Employment may therefore signal the removal of forward naval presence from an overriding position in national security strategy. This year the Navy has gone about six months without operating a carrier group deep in Middle Eastern waters, and with little fanfare compared to the previously mentioned two-month presence gap in 2015.21 Under this new construct presence gaps could have been made much more acceptable, and especially for the sake of improving surge capacity.

A tracker displaying Navy deployments over a six-month period. Note the absence of a carrier strike group operating deep in Middle Eastern waters for almost all of the time period. (Types of major ship formations: ARG = Amphibious Ready Group, ESG = Expeditionary Strike Group, CSG= Carrier Strike Group. ARGs and ESGs are centered on an amphibious assault ship as the primary capital ship of the formation. Formations here are named after their main capital ship. Tracker source: U.S. Naval Institute News Fleet Tracker, sponsored by the Center for Naval Analyses)

This could be a major pivot in the Navy’s posture toward great power competition and away from power projection. It could also be the long overdue acceptance of the strategic downgrade in presence that occurs when the Navy of a geographically isolated superpower shrinks to half its size in a span of 15 years.22 For American naval supremacy it could mark the end of an era, or a new beginning.

Surge Capacity and Strategic Credibility

“I had always supposed that the subdivision in time of peace of a nation’s fighting units into numerous independent squadrons was due more to personal reasons than to a consideration of the principles of naval training and strategy—which latter seems to be more correctly illustrated by the rapid concentration that takes place when war is imminent…where the command of the sea is involved, a nation is not deterred from going to war by the state of dispersion of a rival nation’s battleships, but by the knowledge that he has a certain number…and that they have been continuously trained to a high degree of individual and fleet efficiency by concentration in one or more large fleets.” – Lieutenant Commander William Sims, 1906.

The damage done by years of excessive deployment rates has already degraded the Navy’s credibility. Regardless of any demand for presence maintaining latent surge capacity has always been one of the most vital national security requirements for a superpower. It gives the nation the flexibility it needs to effectively respond to major contingencies. War plans must be underpinned by realistic understandings of surge capacity to know how much force can be brought to bear in those crucial first weeks and months of a major war. 

Significant declines in surge capacity can force revisions to war plans, and where a diminished ability to surge the fleet can increase strategic risk if the Navy cannot respond as well to major events. This makes the state of the fleet’s maintenance and material condition a major limiting factor of strategic consequence because these variables largely determine the Navy’s ability to surge its forces on short notice.

If the Navy has to suddenly surge in large numbers it will have to make difficult decisions on which ships it will bring forward and which ships it will leave behind. Major contingencies could easily force the Navy to pull forces from beyond those that are in the “employable” windows of the workup cycle. At any given moment many ships are undergoing deep maintenance and complex upgrades which makes it more difficult to deploy them on short notice. The deeper and more troubled the maintenance work of a ship the harder it will be to surge it with confidence. In the aftermath of last year’s fatal collisions the Navy’s “can-do” culture was cited as a major factor in normalizing excessive risk by deploying ships in worsening condition for years. But how “can-do” will the Navy be when it really has to surge for a major crisis?23

The viability of a readiness cycle can be measured by its ability to preserve a given amount of surge capacity against the wear-and-tear of regular operations. This is how a supply-based model can drive its discipline. Maintaining ships and aircraft in a good state and knowing how to firmly control their maintenance needs is central toward preserving surge capacity and understanding material limits. But a demand-based model and its inherently unstable nature will eat away at that supply and make maintenance less predictable. Navy leadership testified before Congress on the nature of the demand-based model and the mounting strategic liabilities it was incurring:

“…we continue to consume our contingency surge capacity for routine operations. It will be more challenging to meet Defense Strategic Guidance objectives of the future. Ultimately, this is a ‘pay me now or pay me later’ discussion.”24

Exactly how much surge capacity has the Navy sacrificed? Navy leaders testified that a major goal of OFRP was to “restore” the Navy to a three-carrier level of surge capacity.25 This is half the six-plus-two construct that was the goal of the Fleet Response Plan, suggesting a staggering loss of over half the Navy’s surge capacity within about ten years. But perhaps the Navy just overestimated itself. When the GAO suggested in 1993 that a 12-carrier force could surge seven battle groups within 30 days the Navy wrote the idea off as an “overly optimistic picture of carrier battle group surge capability.”26 Yet the goal of the Fleet Response Plan was not much different.

The U.S. is heavily disadvantaged by geography when it comes to military responses in that it must cross large oceans to surge to the front. Great power competitors such as Russia and China can easily enjoy steep advantages in time, space, and numbers because major contingencies are more likely to break out in their front yard. By operating so much closer to home great power competitors will have a vastly superior ability to surge at the start of sudden war. By comparison the U.S. will have relatively few forward forces, will have to surge across great distances, and may have to heavily rely on regional allies where many are easily overmatched by Russia or China. The deterrent value of forward forces and certain allies could make them more of a tripwire instead of a roadblock.

Surging is vital to winning the high-end fight because of its especially intense character. War at sea in particular has always been fairly deterministic when it comes to firepower overmatch because of the concentrated nature of naval capability. This trend is greatly magnified in the missile age where now only one hit can easily be enough to put a ship out of action, meaning a very small advantage in firepower can quickly snowball into decisive effects. This is especially true when modern war at sea can consist of forces unleashing dozens if not hundreds of missiles at one another’s ships within minutes. High-end naval combat could easily witness extreme amounts of rapid overkill if warship defenses fail to keep up even slightly. As Wayne Hughes the renowned thinker on naval tactics describes it, “It is demonstrable both by history and theory that not only has a small net advantage in force…often been decisive in naval battles, but the slightly inferior force tends to lose with very little to show…when committed in battle, the heart of a fleet can be cut out in an afternoon.”27

A fleet that is even slightly outgunned can easily lose. This makes the ability to powerfully surge foundational to success. By swallowing surge capacity to feed forward presence the Navy’s ability to win great power war has been degraded in a most critical way. A Navy that is serious about its credibility for the high-end fight will vigorously defend its material readiness for the sake of surge capacity.

Instead, the power projection Navy compromised its discipline. It lowered key readiness standards, set extreme surge requirements, and made lengthy deployments that were once considered rare the new normal.28 Pursuing more presence in forward areas and having more surge capacity from home are two opposite ambitions for orienting readiness. The Navy tried to do both, and with a shrinking fleet.

The Navy is now less sure of its own limits after having long exceeded them. If a pressing contingency breaks out tomorrow could the Navy effectively surge and then quickly rebound? Could the Navy surge enough ships to arrest a short sharp war by China, such as in a Taiwan scenario? After pushing too hard for too long the U.S. Navy finds itself tired, unbalanced, and less sure if it has either the forward presence or the surge capacity to stop great power war in its tracks.

Part 6 will focus on Strategy and Operations.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at


1. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Fleet Forces: New Deployment Plan Designed to Create Sustainable Naval Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, January 20, 2016.

Excerpt: “We’re trying to get four things out of OFRP: we’ve got to have a schedule that’s capable of rotating the force, meaning sending it on deployment; surging that force in case we have to go to war; maintain and modernize that force so that we can get it to the end of its service life; and then if you had to go to war or if you had some other catastrophe, be able to reset the whole thing in stride, which the previous iteration didn’t have that capability…”

2. Naval Transformation Roadmap 2003, Assured Access & Power Projection From the Sea…

3. For scale of recent surge deployments see:

Roland J. Yardley et. al, “Impacts of the Fleet
Response Plan on Surface Combatant Maintenance,” RAND, 2006. 

Excerpt: “Operation Iraqi Freedom featured the largest naval deployment in recent history, with more than 70 percent of U.S. surface ships and 50 percent of U.S. submarines underway, including seven CSGs, three amphibious readiness groups, two amphibious task forces, and more than 77,000 sailors participating…”

Benjamin S. Lambeth, “American Carrier Air Power  at the Dawn of a
New Century,” RAND, 2005. 


“As the Iraqi Freedom air war neared, the Navy had eight carrier battle groups and air wings deployed worldwide, including USS Carl Vinson and her embarked CVW-9 in the Western Pacific covering North Korea and China during the final countdown. Five of those eight battle groups and air wings had participated in Operation Enduring Freedom just a year before. With five carrier battle groups on station and committed to the impending war, a sixth en route to CENTCOM’s AOR as a timely replacement for one of those five, a seventh also forward deployed and holding in ready reserve, and yet an eighth carrier at sea and ready to go, 80 percent of the Navy’s carrier-based striking power was poised and available for immediate tasking. During the cold war years, having eight out of 12 carriers and ten air wings deployed at sea and combat-ready at the same time would have been all but out of the question.”

For Summer Pulse see: 

“Summer Pulse 2004,” All Hands Magazine, September 2004. 

Caveat offered by GAO:  “Summer Pulse 2004 was not a realistic test because all participating units had several months’ warning of the event. As a result, five carriers were already scheduled to be at sea and only two had to surge. Because six ships are expected to be ready to deploy with as little as 30 days’ notice under the plan and two additional carriers within 90 days, a more realistic test of the Fleet Response Plan would include no-notice or short-notice exercises.”

4. General Accounting Office, “Cost-Effectiveness of Conventionally and Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers,” August 1998. 

5. Heidi L.W. Golding, Henry S. Griffis, “How Has PERSTEMPO’s Effect on Reenlistments Changed Since the 1986 Navy Policy?” Center for Naval Analyses, July 2004. 

For “inviolate” reference: Raymond F. Keledei, “Naval Forward Presence,” Naval War College student thesis, October 23, 2006.

6. Raymond F. Keledei, “Naval Forward Presence,” Naval War College student thesis, October 23, 2006.

7. Admiral Bill Gortney and Admiral Harry Harris, USN, “Applied Readiness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014.

8. Megan Eckstein, “USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Repair Period Triples in Legnth; Carrier Will be in Yard Until 2019,” U.S. Naval Institute News, September 24, 2018.

9. For increase in Combatant Commander demand see:

Naval Operations Concept 2010.

Excerpt: “Since 2007 the combatant commanders’
cumulative requests for naval forces have grown 29 percent for
CSGs, 76 percent for surface combatants, 86 percent for ARG/MEUs, and
53 percent for individually deployed amphibious ships.”

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, USN (ret.), “It’s Not Just the Forward Deployed,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2018.


“Between 2015 and 2017, naval operations in the Indo-Asia Pacific expanded dramatically both in direct response to national priorities and to ComPacFlt and Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (USPaCom). As a consequence of the increasing demand for and decreasing availability of C7F assets, readiness declined in CruDes forces. This was known both to commanders in FDNF and across the Navy. The GAO had reported to the Navy in 2015 that resources were not keeping pace with demand. Through 2016 and culminating in early 2017, my staff produced detailed data quantifying the increase in CruDes operational tasking and demonstrating the consequent decline in executed maintenance and training, which I sent directly to ComPacFlt. ComPacFlt agreed operational tasking threatened FDNF surface maintenance and training. Yet C7F received no substantive relief from tasking or additional resources.”

For increase in equipment casualty reports see: Government Accountability Office, “Navy Force Structure: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports,” May 2015.

10. Admiral Bill Gortney and Admiral Harry Harris, USN, “Applied Readiness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014.

11. Captain Dale Rielage, USN, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. 

Excerpt: “…we created a sustainment phase in the OFRP. This phase was designed to ensure that readiness did not “bathtub.” Each deployment cycle was envisioned to build on the previous iteration, ultimately creating the varsity-level performance the challenge demanded. The sustainment phase was also where we planned to keep surge forces, but it was never resourced. Ten years ago, the director of fleet maintenance for U.S. Fleet Forces referred to it publicly as a “sustainment opportunity” because there was no funding associated with it. The years of continuing resolutions, Budget Control Act restrictions, and maintenance deficits left the sustainment phase a shell of a concept.”

Megan Eckstein, “Navy Proves High Readiness Levels During Carrier’s Sustainment Phase Leads to Maintenance Savings Later,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 3, 2017. 

Excerpt: Of course this high level of readiness had an upfront cost. [Admiral] Lindsey praised U.S. Fleet Forces Command commander Adm. Phil Davidson and his staff for the “maneuvers” it took to keep Eisenhower funded during the sustainment phase, saying “I never wanted for money that I needed to keep them at that high level. … That’s a testament to Adm. Davidson and his staff, his comptroller and everything.”

12. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Proves High Readiness Levels During Carrier’s Sustainment Phase Leads to Maintenance Savings Later,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 3, 2017. 

13. Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, “COMUSFLTFORCOM/COMPACFLT INSTRUCTION 3000.15A, Subject: Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” December 8, 2014. 

14. “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015.

15.  “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015.

Rear Admiral Bruce Lindsey and Lieutenant Commander Heather Quilenderino, “Operationalizing Optimized Fleet Response Plan – SITREP #1,” March 5, 2016.

David Larter, “New Deployment Plan Faces Hurdles, Official Warns,” Navy Times, September 11, 2015.

16. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Will Extend All DDGs to a 45-Year Service Life; ‘No Destroyer Left Behind’ Officials Say,” U.S. Naval Institute News, April 12, 2018. 

17. Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 2015.

18. The story of the late 2015 carrier gap was picked up by outlets including Business Insider, U.S. Naval Institute News, CNN, Navy Times, Fox News, and Stars and Stripes.

19. For nature and benefits of forward presence operations see Navy strategy document: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, 2015.

For nature of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment see: Michael Gerson and Daniel Whiteneck, Deterrence and Influence: The Navy’s Role in Preventing War, Center for Naval Analyses, March 2009. 

20. David Larter, “Is Secretary of Defense Mattis planning radical changes to how the Navy deploys?” Navy Times, May 2, 2018.

21. Sam LaGrone, “U.S. Aircraft Carrier Deployments at 25 Year Low as Navy Struggles to Reset Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, September 26, 2018.

Caveat: In the time period covered the Harry Truman strike group conducted operations in the Middle East but from the Eastern Mediterranean and not for the full duration of its deployment. Hence the distinction of describing naval presence as “deep” in Middle Eastern Waters, where typically carrier groups were deployed and maintained in the immediate vicinity of the Persian Gulf.

22. For U.S. Navy fleet size and ship counts see: US Ship Force Levels, 1886-Present, U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command. 

To explain the difference between this point with the earlier comment on 40 percent shrinkage across 25 years, the Navy shrunk by half from 1990 to 2005, and where fleet size stabilized in the range of 270-280 ships around 2005. Open source data on deployment rates (as a defined by number of ships deployed per year) in the early 1990s was not immediately findable. However, in the early 1990s such as from 1990-1993 the fleet would drop in size by over 100 ships.

23. Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, October 2017. 

24.  “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015.

25. “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015.

See Also: “Aircraft Carrier – Presence and Surge Limitations and Expanding Power Projection Options,” Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces Meeting Jointly With Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, November 3, 2015.

26. General Accounting Office, “Navy Carrier Battle Groups: The Structure and
Affordability of the Future Force,” February 1993. 

27. Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN, “Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Volume 39, Number 1, Winter, 1986. 

28. For reduced readiness standards see review conducted in aftermath of fatal 2017 collisions: Strategic Readiness Review 2017,

Featured Image: Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Wash. (Aug. 14, 2003) USS Ohio (SSGN 726) is in dry dock undergoing a conversion from a Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) to a Guided Missile Submarine (SSGN). (U.S. Navy file photo)

Nine Prejudices About Future Naval Systems

By David C. Hazen

There are many ways of attempting to estimate the nature of naval surface warfare in the next quarter century or so. Some are based on systematic and relatively sophisticated extensions of perceived trends. Others are dependent upon a variety of projected scenarios of various types. All are just personal judgments or prejudices, if I may call them that. And all are highly suspect—as must be any projection into the future, the degree of uncertainty increasing with the length of the forecast.

The following thoughts are the product of my own prejudices, based on observations and exposures to the thoughts and arguments of many others. I shall therefore simply set them forth without trying to repeat the arguments that have led to them, other than noting that they contain the following basic assumptions:

  • There will be no major naval war within the period discussed.
  • There will be no major technological surprises during the period.

Prejudice No. 1: There will be a U. S. surface Navy in the year 2000 and beyond. This is based on the simple fact that we have a very substantial capital investment in our current fleet. Prudence is going to require that we protect this investment by whatever steps seem to be most cost-effective, whether this means retrofitting of new equipment, continued procurement of new versions of existing equipment, or the procurement of totally new systems. It is to be expected that any new element of the fleet—ship, plane, weapon, or equipment—will be introduced because it has some clearly apparent way of operating in concert with the existing elements to enhance their capability. If it has additional characteristics that permit it to perform new and unspecified missions, these characteristics will be developed in an evolutionary manner. The tendency to look at proposed systems as a total replacement for existing ones on an all-or-nothing basis has been the source of a lot of unrealistic projections in the past. Many of these projections have been associated with the Navy V/STOL (vertical and short takeoff and landing) aircraft program. The measure by which any system proposed for Navy use within the next 20-25 years will be judged, unless events demonstrate the wisdom of selecting some other criterion, is how capability of the current battle group built around the large carrier can be maintained or improved in the face of perceived threats.

The above is excerpted from an article originally featured in USNI Proceedings, finish it here. Reprinted from U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine with permission; Copyright © U.S. Naval Institute/

Featured Image: The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) (MC3 Daniel Gaither/U.S. Navy)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.