Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

What Do You Call It? The Politics and Practicalities of Warship Classification

By Captain James P. McGrath, III, USN

The decommissioning of USS Simpson (FFG 56) in 2015 left the U.S. Navy without any frigates for the first time since 1950. Several pundits derided this “frigate gap” and suggested reclassifying the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a frigate to keep frigates in the inventory.1 These calls, which the U.S. Navy wisely resisted, are symptomatic of a century’s old challenge over how navies classify warships. Warship classification exists for two reasons, one practical and one political. Practically, naming a group of ships with similar characteristics allows for better comparison of capabilities within and among navies. Politically, warship classifications signal national intentions or influence political leaders who fund warship construction. While the practical reason may seem more functional, the political reason frequently determines classification.

Four common types of major surface combatants exist today: cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. Each title has historical roots and a variety of practical and political implications. This essay explores how these classifications came to represent modern ship types, how nations abuse them to suit their needs, and how they facilitate or hamper exploration of alternative fleet designs as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) challenges the U.S. Navy to do in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.2

Names, Roles, and Conventions

The classification of warships is as old as naval warfare. When historians evoke the ancient Trireme, naval scholars envision a large wooden vessel with three banks of oars and a prominent ram-style bow. During the golden age of sail, mentioning a ship-of-the-line conjured elements of national pride and a clear understanding of powerful broadsides that could only be defeated by similarly strong ships. Another commonly understood ship type during the age of sail was the frigate. Similar in length to ships-of-the-line and with comparable canvas, but significantly less broadside, frigates were swift ships, able to outrun what they could not outgun.

The rebirth of the American Navy authorized in the Naval Act of 1794 centered around a fleet of six frigates, “four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each,”3 conceived by Joshua Humphries and designed with the “outrun what they could not outgun” mantra in mind. Lighter and faster than ships-of-the-line, frigates often scouted for and covered the flanks of the battle line. Frigates also conducted independent operations, and several of the most famous naval actions of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were frigate duels. Corvettes carried even fewer guns on the smallest hulls capable of open-ocean operations. These ships often conducted raids or served as picket ships between fleets. The relatively consistent classification of warships in this age allowed for easy comparison and provided fleet commanders insight into the type of fleet required to defeat a foe.

Warship classifications evolved to describe new types of warships developed from the new technologies of the industrial age. With the advent of steam power ships gradually improved their propulsion with paddlewheels, and later screw propellers. Initially, these new warships kept the basic shape and mission of the frigates of old, so they kept the frigate name, albeit caveated as paddlewheel or screw frigates. With the addition of armor and turreted gun mounts, titles like cruiser and battleship emerged. By the mid-1880s, the terms “ship-of-the-line” and “frigate” fell out of use. The explosion of ship types resulted in an expansion of naming conventions with little commonality between navies. These new classes of ships came to describe the changing fleet designs of this new era of naval power.

Two common and modern warship classifications, both derived from descriptions of the ship’s mission, grew from this explosion of ship types. Designed to cruise the oceans independently, cruisers filled the role held by frigates in the age of sail, but capabilities varied widely across the world’s navies. The other type, the destroyer, represented a genuinely new classification of warship. The first ship to use the term “destroyer” was the Spanish torpedo-boat destroyer Destructor commissioned in 1887. What set Destructor apart as a new class of warship was her combination of size, large enough to operate in the open sea with the battle fleet; speed, 22.6 knots made her one of the fastest ships in the world in 1888; and her armament, seven rapid firing guns, and two torpedo tubes. Over the next three decades the destroyer evolved to provide all manners of protective functions for the fleet including usurping the role of torpedo boats and proving especially effective against the submerged torpedo boat, the submarine. Development of these new ship classes harnessed the technical advances of the industrial age and drove the development of modern fleets.

Spanish Navy torpedo gunboat Destructor, designed and built in the UK by Thomson and delivered to the Spanish Navy in 1887. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1906, Admiral Sir John Fisher of the Royal Navy shocked the world with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary, all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleship, which instantly made the world’s battleships obsolete. The capability gap between dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts sparked a naval arms race with the world’s maritime powers scrambling to build bigger and better battleships. This naval arms race is widely considered one of the principal causes of World War I. What constitutes a dreadnought, however, remains contentious, a situation confused by sub-classifications such as super-dreadnought and semi-dreadnought making fleet comparison challenging. Even more confusing and unfortunate is the classification of the battlecruiser. One of Fisher’s goals in developing Dreadnought was to help create a class of ships capable of outrunning anything they could not outgun – a large light-cruiser – the true successor of the sailing frigate. Unfortunately, and here is where ship classification can become dangerous to fleet design, politicians insisted on calling these ships battlecruisers since they looked like battleships, similar in size and armament but deficient in armor, which the designers sacrificed for speed. This unfortunate classification led to the battlecruiser’s misemployment in the battle line, which constrained their speed advantage, and where their lack of armor made them vulnerable to large caliber gunfire. This was demonstrated catastrophically at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when three battlecruisers exploded with incredible loss of life after only a few hits. Twenty-five years later, the last British battlecruiser, HMS Hood, met the same fate after only five salvos from the German battleship Bismarck. Classifying ships for political purposes can have deadly effects.4

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary exploding at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Queen Mary is surrounded by the explosion and smoke. To the left is HMS Lion, surrounded by waterspouts from enemy shots falling short. (Wikimedia Commons)

Treaties and Types

After World War I, in an effort to prevent a naval arms race like the one that preceded the war, world leaders aimed to curtail warship construction by treaty. Ensuring all parties met treaty obligations required common definitions of ship types. The Five Power Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 defined ship classes in a manner agreed upon by all signatories. The first treaty defined capital ships as those displacing more than 10,000 tons and carrying guns greater than 8-inches.5 Seeking an alternative to the now constrained battle line, Japan designed and built a series of cruisers right to these limits in the 1920s. These highly-capable warships caused great concern in the United States and Great Britain over the gap in cruiser capability. The London Naval Treaty, an attempt to further and more broadly restrict naval construction, especially of these “heavy” cruisers, defined lesser warship classes as follows:


Surface vessels of war, other than capital ships or aircraft carriers, the standard displacement of which exceeds 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), or with a gun above 5.1 inch (130 mm.) calibre.

The cruiser category is divided into two sub-categories, as follows:
(a) cruisers carrying a gun above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre;
(b) cruisers carrying a gun not above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre.


Surface vessels of war the standard displacement of which does not exceed 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), and with a gun not above 5.1-inch (130 mm.) calibre.6

By 1930, there existed a shared understanding of capital ships (BB), aircraft carriers (CV), heavy cruisers (CA), light cruisers (CL), and destroyers (DD), but that shared understanding quickly fell apart since not every nation building warships was party to the treaty. The re-building German Kriegsmarine, governed by the Treaty of Versailles and not the Washington Treaty system, built three 14,520 ton, 11-inch gun Deutschland-class ships in the early 1930s. Although capital ships under the terms of the Washington Treaty, the Germans initially called them Panzerschiffe (armored ships) and later classified them as heavy cruisers. The British press derisively dubbed them “pocket battleships” since the Panzerschiffe were significantly smaller than most other nations’ capital ships further confusing what type these ships actually were.

Wartime recognition drawing of the German cruiser or “pocket battleship” Lützow, produced by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

The collapse of the Washington Treaty system in 1936 removed the constraints on warship classification, but the nomenclature initially remained as nations prepared for war. During World War II, the belligerent navies significantly expanded in size, creating a vast array of ship types not envisioned in 1922 or 1930. To describe these new ships, navies returned to the pre-World War I practice of naming them as they saw fit. The British brought back the historical terms corvette and frigate to describe dedicated anti-submarine vessels designed for convoy escort. The Flower-class corvettes fit well with the sailing vessel definition as the smallest class of ocean-going vessels capable of independent operations. The British River-class began as a twin-screw corvette, but in 1941 was reclassified as a frigate. While the frigate rated above the corvette in the age of sail, this new class of ship bore no resemblance to the prestige and importance of sailing frigates.7 The Americans chose the title destroyer escort (DE) for their version of the vessel filling the open-ocean escort role, but they also employed a class of patrol frigates (PF), the Tacoma-class, built to a modified River-class design. The United States produced 96 Tacoma-class PFs between 1943 and 1945, 20 of which served in the Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy considered these vessels inferior to the indigenously designed DEs, so kept the frigate classification to differentiate them. By the end of World War II, the modern classifications of cruiser, destroyer, frigate, and corvette appeared firmly established, although at the time the application of these classifications lacked continuity among the Allied navies. The outlier was the newly designed and named destroyer escort possessed only by the Americans, faster, more maneuverable and better-armed than the frigates but less capable than the destroyer.

Warships in the Guided Missile Age

The advent of the missile age further upset the Washington Treaty system of warship classification as nations began developing new missile-armed platforms for fleet anti-aircraft defense. The Navy’s missile-firing surface combatants (marked by a “G” in their classification from their guided missiles) were first born from World War II-era heavy and light cruisers that had their main armaments converted from large caliber guns into missile batteries. These ships kept their base cruiser designations (CAG/CLG and later CG). But lacking a clear classification example for the new warships built around missile batteries instead of guns, the U.S. Navy initially applied ship classifications it already had. It designated larger missile ships destroyer leaders (DLG), medium-sized missile ships derived from destroyer designs remained destroyers (DDG), and ships derived from smaller destroyer escorts kept that classification (DEG).8 But politics is tricky and explaining to Congress the difference between a destroyer leader, a destroyer, and a destroyer escort, and why the Navy needed all three, became a challenge. The Navy solved the image problem by evoking the prestige of the age-old title of frigate for the larger missile ships. Thus, the destroyer leader became a frigate (although kept the DL hull designation) in 1950, to make building and funding them more politically palatable.

Two problems arose due to the American system. First, it ran counter to the rest of the world’s ship classification system, especially NATO’s. In NATO, the primary surface combatants were cruisers (which were quickly disappearing), destroyers, frigates (the small open-ocean escort version), and corvettes. The second reason is another example of politics driving ship classification. With the singular exception of USS Long Beach (CGN 9), America built no “traditional” cruisers after 1949, and by the mid-1970s most of the converted World War II-era cruisers had reached the end of their useful service. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a resurgent Soviet Navy built a number of ships it classified as cruisers, leading to an apparent “cruiser gap” of 19 Soviet cruisers to America’s six. That the American frigates outclassed the Russian cruisers mattered little to policymakers worried about fighting the Cold War. So in 1975, the United States reorganized its ship classifications with frigates reclassified as cruisers (CG), destroyers remaining destroyers (DD/DDG), and destroyer escorts becoming frigates (FF/FFG).9 Additionally, the Navy reclassified the Oliver Hazard Perry-class patrol frigate (PFG), then under construction, as a frigate (FFG). This reorganization also aligned U.S. warship classifications with its NATO allies, simplifying allied ship employment and doctrine.

The 1975 reorganization did not end the confusion over ship classifications. That same year, the first Spruance-class ship joined the fleet. Displacing over 8,000 tons, these ships equaled the size of the newly re-designated cruisers but lacked the robust anti-air capability. Since the U.S. Navy committed the cruiser designation to large anti-air ships, these new ships were classified as destroyers.10 Later that decade, the newly-developed Aegis weapons system was installed on the Spruance-class hull to create a highly capable anti-air warfare ship. Despite displacing only slightly more than the Spruance-class, the new Ticonderoga-class ships earned the designation of cruiser. The Navy’s rationale included the ship’s anti-air mission and the inclusion of command spaces suitable for flag officers to control fleets in battle.11

A bow view of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Spruance (DD-963), left, and the guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) moored at the destroyer and submarine piers at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia (USA), on 8 October 1983. Although the superstructures are different, these ships use the same basic hull and the same propulsion plant. The destroyer tender USS Shenandoah (AD-44) is visible in the left background. (Wikimedia Commons)

Classification and Politics

The United States is not alone in the questionable classification of ships. The Soviets designated the Kiev-class as heavy aviation cruisers, even though they operate fixed-wing aircraft and look like aircraft carriers. The cruiser designation allows the 45,000-ton ships to pass through the Turkish Straights in compliance with the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. The convention permits capital ships of Black Sea powers including Russia to transit the straights but excludes aircraft carriers. Fortunately for the Russians, the 1936 definition of aircraft carrier determines straight transit eligibility:

“Aircraft-Carriers are surface vessels of war, whatever their displacement, designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea. The fitting of a landing on or flying off deck on any vessel of war, provided such vessel has not been designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea, [emphasis added] shall not cause any vessel so fitted to be classified in the category of aircraft-carriers. ”12

By accepting the vessel as a cruiser whose primary purpose is not “carrying and operating aircraft at sea,” Turkey allows Kiev-class ships to transit the straights. Russia uses the same classification for the Kuznetsov-class, even though China classifies its Kuznetsov-class ship, Liaoning, as an aircraft carrier.

Classifying ships to skirt international convention is not the only reason to downplay a ship’s capabilities. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution prevents the nation from maintaining an offensive military capability.13 In the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force that equates to limiting ship types to destroyers or smaller, ostensibly since those types serve defensive roles. Within the last decade, Japan built four “helicopter destroyers (DDH)” which look suspiciously like aircraft carriers with full-length flight decks. The newest, the Izumo-class, can operate the fixed-wing, short take-off, vertical landing (STVOL) F-35B Lightning II. Despite recent reinterpretations of the Japanese constitution allowing the use of its military to defend allies in the event of an attack, calling these ships destroyers enabled the Japanese Diet to justify funding them as defensive.14

Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force helicopter destroyer Izumo (DDH-183) (JMSDF photo)

The German Baden-Württemberg-class (7200 tons) and Spanish Álvaro de Bazán-class (6300 tons) frigates both displace more than the destroyers they replaced, are only slightly smaller than contemporary destroyers, and are similarly armed with high-tech anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface sensors and weapons.15 Both the Deutsche Marine and the Armada Española emphasize the defensive roles of their naval forces, and building frigates is politically more palatable than building destroyers, even though these frigates are essentially equivalent to the destroyers of peer navies.16

The United States continued its Cold War tradition of confusing the world, and itself, with ship classifications with the development of the LCS. As then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “When I hear L, I think amphib, and it’s not an amphib. And I have to spend a good deal of my time explaining what littoral is.”17 Mabus even directed reclassifying LCS as a frigate, but the reclassification never came to fruition, partly because the LCS is significantly less capable than the world’s other frigates. Weighing in between 3100 and 3500 tons, armed with a 57mm gun, and with no real long-range anti-air capability, LCS more closely aligns with modern corvette classes than the frigates. But the United States does not want corvettes, because they are viewed as too small for its blue-water mentality.

The other oddly classified ship is the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Displacing over 14,000 tons, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) weighs as much as a World War II Baltimore-class heavy cruiser. Armed with 6.1 inch (155mm) guns, she meets the Washington Treaty system armament criteria for a light cruiser. She is also significantly larger than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers.18 Yet Zumwalt remains classified as a destroyer, again for political reasons. Derived from the “Destroyer for the 21st century (DD-21)” program of the early 1990s, the Navy continued to call this ship a destroyer even as it grew in size and complexity. When the U.S. Congress eventually authorized and funded the building of “a destroyer,” Zumwalt kept that classification.19

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Navy instituted a program called Surface Combatant for the 21st Century (SC-21). Designed to address the lack of land attack and fire support capability in the surface fleet, the program looked to develop a family of ships that would not necessarily fall in line with the traditional ship classes.20 Despite recognizing the potential for new ship classes, the U.S. Navy continued to shoehorn modern warships into the traditional ship classes until the development of LCS in the early 2000s. As mentioned above, LCS did not fit nicely into traditional categories, and its classification brought about more confusion than clarity.

Today’s U.S. ship designers also eschew the traditional ship classes. To meet the CNO’s goal “To better meet today’s force demands, [and] explore alternative fleet designs, including kinetic and non-kinetic payloads and both manned and unmanned systems,”21 the Navy’s Future Surface Combatant (FSC) program envisions three ship classes – Large Surface Combatant, Medium Surface Combatant, and an Unmanned Surface Combatant – to replace the current fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and the already retired frigates.

The Enduring Classification Gap

Today’s U.S. Navy still continues the century-old tradition of conforming ship classifications to more political instead of practical requirements. While it might appear trivial what a ship is called, ship classifications bring with them expectations such as armament and mission that may not match the practical needs of the fleet. The resultant ship tends to cost more and take on different missions than fleet designers initially intended in order to justify the higher price tag. Additionally, conforming to existing ship classification conventions limits the ability to develop ship classes necessary for exploration of alternative fleet designs. By naming its newest ship class “FFG(X)”, the U.S. Navy provides another illustration that while the classification of ships serves two purposes, political and practical, the political purpose usually wins.

Captain McGrath is a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer who commnded Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron Seven in Guam. After staff tours at Seventh Fleet, Naval Forces Europe, and the Joint Staff J7, he currently serves as a military professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. Christopher P. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,” Defense News, 15 January 2015, 

2. John Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority: Version 1.0 (Washington, DC, Officer of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2016), 6.

3. Naval Act of 1794, Session 1, Chapter XII, 3rd Congress (1794).

4. Philip Sims, Michael Bosworth, Chris Cable and Howard Fireman, Historical Review of Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions: SFAC Report Number 9030-04-C1 (Washington, DC, Naval Sea Systems Command, March 28, 2005,

5. Limitation of Naval Armament (Five Power Treaty or Washington Treaty), 43 Stat. 1655; Treaty Series 671, Article XI & XII.

6. Limitation and Reduction Of Naval Armament (London Naval Treaty), 46 Stat. 2858; Treaty Series 830, Article 15.

7. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

8. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000,

9. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000,

10. David W. McComb, “Spruance Class,” Destroyer History Foundation, Accessed 21 June, 2018

11. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

12. 1936 Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, Adopted in Montreux, Switzerland on 20 July 1936, Annex II, Section B.

13. The Constitution of Japan, Chapter II, Article 9, May 3, 1947.

14. Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Japan Takes Historic Step from Post-War Pacifism, OKs Fighting For Allies,” Reuters, June 30, 2014.

15. Contemporary destroyer tonnages: Russian Sovremennyy-class (6600 tons), Japanese Kongō-class (7500 tons), Chinese Type 052D (7500 tons), British Type 45 (8500 tons), and American Arleigh Burke-class (9600 tons).

16. Deutsche Marine official website; Armada Española official website,

17. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,”

18. Even though Zumwalt’s guns are effectively useless with the cancellation of the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), but the guns are still mounted and available if projectiles are procured.

19. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

20. Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2004), 434-5.

21. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 6.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (December 8, 2016) The Navy’s most technologically advanced surface ship USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS 2) and USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) on the final leg of her three-month journey to her new homeport in San Diego. (U.S. Navy Combat Camera photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume/Released)

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 1

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It will be republished in two parts.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

The U.S. Navy submarine force has set the standard in undersea warfare for at least half a century. America’s submarines made a vital contribution to victory in the Second World War, and they formed an elite force of truly innovative capabilities during the “Cold War at sea” with the Soviet Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the submarine force has been a leader among U.S. military warfighting communities in transforming itself to remain relevant against militant Islamist extremism and other emerging threats.

In such missions, the submarine force conducts strategic deterrence, intelligence and surveillance, extended-range land attack, and insertion of special forces, in addition to forming the essential backbone of the Navy’s mission of sea control—the all-important, enabling task of maintaining command of the seas for the U.S. armed forces. With the launch of the first of the Virginia class in 2003, the Navy’s position at the forefront of global submarine forces was set for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps partly inspired by the great successes of the U.S. submarine force, navies around the world have invested heavily in undersea warfare, especially in submarine capabilities. China stands out among these as an emerging submarine power. Over the last decade, Beijing has been building four different classes of boats while importing the Kilo-class diesel submarine from Russia in large numbers. Indeed, China’s intense focus on undersea warfare has led some to speculate that a transpacific rivalry is already under way, at least with respect to submarine capabilities. As policy makers in Washington grapple with the challenge of China’s rise, therefore, it may be wise to consider how Beijing is approaching its evolving naval strategy dilemmas. This article examines Chinese views of the American submarine force. As that submarine force constitutes one of the most vital elements of Washington’s overall strategy for establishing and maintaining sea control in times of conflict, Beijing’s assessment of those capabilities may be critical to uncovering the future evolution of this nascent rivalry.

More specifically, then, this research was undertaken for three reasons:

  • The U.S. Navy submarine force is thought to represent a key capability for conflict scenarios involving China.
  • This part of the U.S. Navy has undertaken major efforts at transformation within a new geostrategic and technological environment.
  • The American submarine force represents a rather well-defined warfare area and thus lends itself to a bounded research effort.

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of publishing in China on all subjects, including strategic and military-technical research. Thus, there are at least five serious journals devoted to naval warfare and dozens of more technically oriented journals.1 In this project, well over a thousand Chinese articles were surveyed, of which approximately 150 were judged worthy of closer scrutiny and analysis by the research team. The danger of circularity—attributing to Chinese analysts ideas that have simply been translated from original English-language sources into Chinese—is real, but one that the research team carefully considered throughout. Most Chinese journals now openly attribute English-language articles to their original sources. By and large, this kind of material (direct translation from English) was not evaluated in this study, in favor of articles that appeared to represent the actual opinions of Chinese naval and defense analysts.

This article is divided into five parts. The first section surveys Chinese reactions to a variety of current issues in the U.S. submarine force, including recent deployments and incidents of special interest. A second section examines Chinese evaluations of specific submarine force capabilities, focusing especially on new factors (e.g., the development of SSGNs) that have been central to transformation efforts. Section three considers some critical historical issues, particularly Chinese perceptions of U.S. submarine operations during the Cold War. A fourth section considers how Chinese analysts believe their antisubmarine forces would match up against the U.S. submarine force. Section five reviews Chinese perceptions regarding the overall future trajectory of the U.S. submarine force. A conclusion summarizes the article and offers policy recommendations.

Overall, this article finds that Chinese naval analysts study the U.S. submarine force in excruciating detail, as concretely manifested in thousands of both strategic and technical articles that focus on it.2 As one Chinese naval analyst puts it, “Nuclear attack subs are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms. . . . During a regional conflict, [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines are the first in and last out.”3 Nevertheless, there is also a keen appreciation that the U.S. Navy is focusing primarily on ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing in the official PLA journal 当代海军 (Modern Navy), one analysis declares, “The U.S. Navy’s capabilities to wage war at sea are gradually declining, and open ocean warfare is already not a focal point.”4 Recognizing the potentially major role of the U.S. submarine force in China contingencies, another analyst suggests: “On the basis of a great quantity of research, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] believes that U.S. nuclear submarines are very quiet, and difficult to discover and counterattack; at the same time, [their] attack power is great, [and] must [be] restrain[ed].”5 Such assessments underline the importance of a closer examination of Chinese perspectives concerning the American submarine force.

Current Developments

In order to give a sense of what Chinese analysts believe to be the trajectory of U.S. submarine force development, it is useful to examine their assessments of two significant recent events: the grounding of the Los Angeles–class submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) and the stationing of nuclear-powered submarines on Guam.

The Grounding of the USS San Francisco

The collision of San Francisco with an underwater mountain on 8 January 2005 greatly interested China’s naval press. The articles published then, which prominently feature official U.S. photos of the damaged vessel, express admiration that a submarine that received such damage could have returned to port. This respect is couched in terms of the fundamental strength designed and built into the ship, however, not in terms of the critical factors of crew training and damage control. Author Qi Yaojiu, for example, wrote approximately four months after the incident in a typical article, “In order to investigate battle damage strength, the U.S. undertook strength tests [for submarines] under the conditions of nuclear weapons detonation.” Additionally, “almost every U.S. submarine, before entering into active service, undergoes tests that use underwater explosives to evaluate resistance to battle damage.”6 Notwithstanding this apparent respect, the author recognized that the damage San Francisco incurred would have amounted to a “mission kill,” stating: “If the San Francisco collision had occurred during wartime, and crew members had experienced such wounds, the San Francisco would essentially lose its basic combat effectiveness.”7 A realization that submarines do not have to be destroyed in order to lose combat effectiveness could influence Chinese operational calculations.

Also characteristic of Chinese discussions of San Francisco’s grounding is an undercurrent of bewilderment, asking in effect, “Why were they going so fast?” The tone of analysis implies that such a high-speed transit is somewhat reckless. Thus, one Chinese analyst states that “a nuclear submarine in the process of underwater high speed transit is confronting serious danger” and that “even some U.S. Navy officials expressed that they could not understand the incident.”8 Another author declares, “It is well known in all navies that as soon as a submarine enters international waters in order to protect its stealth, the submarine will not rely on its active sonar. Objectively speaking, a submarine at high speed that is not operating its active sonar is in danger comparable to a vehicle without headlights traveling in the pitch dark.”9 Perhaps because China’s submarine force consists primarily of diesel submarines that rarely make high-speed, long-distance transits, the circumstances surrounding the collision seem peculiar to Chinese naval analysts.

Chinese analyses of the San Francisco incident recognize the United States as a world leader in submarine rescue.10 As one author observes, “Overall, the USN employs the best submarine rescue vehicles and has the most extensive exercises, so its submarine rescue capability leads the world.”11 This appraisal is corroborated in Modern Navy: “Over the last few years, the U.S. Navy has continuously explored submarine rescue methods, and thus strengthened international cooperation, enhancing submarine rescue exercises with its allies. For us this represents a certain inspiration.” Moreover, the Chinese author states, “small groups at various bases are alternatively ready for war or ready to go out and undertake the rescue of an American or allied submarine at any time.”12 Even though the Chinese Navy evidently has extreme respect for the U.S. submarine force, the analyses of the San Francisco incident appear to show awareness that even this elite force can make errors and must invest in cutting-edge rescue technologies.

SSNs in Apra Harbor

As might be expected, China’s naval press has watched the military buildup on Guam with great interest, particularly that of the American submarines.13 A 2004 article in Modern Navy suggests, “The U.S. Navy has stationed three nuclear powered Los Angeles–class attack submarines on Guam. At present, the U.S. military has considered dispatching an additional 6 nuclear submarines. . . .Deployment of such weapons would give the U.S. military considerable capacity to ‘gain the initiative by striking first’ at us from the sea.”14

The same journal a year later described the basing of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) on Guam in greater detail, observing that the United States officially reestablished Submarine Squadron 15 on Guam under Submarine Group 7 in February 2001 and deployed three nuclear-powered attack submarines there: the first and second in fall 2002 and the third in summer 2004. Moreover, as administered by Commander, Submarine Force Pacific, the submarine group “on the basis of troop deployment plans regularly dispatches 4–5 submarines under its 7th fleet jurisdiction. The duty period of these submarines is ordinarily 6 months. Each submarine can execute missions independently, or can attach to a carrier battle group.”15

The operational significance of stationing SSNs on Guam is not lost on Chinese naval analysts. One observes that “if [a submarine] sets out from Guam, especially in a Taiwan Strait crisis, it may only require 2 days or so.”16 A significant finding of the present study is that even in official journals, Chinese analysts are exploring Guam’s vulnerabilities. The same author notes that Guam, in addition to conferring some advantages to the United States in a Taiwan crisis, also carries self-defense vulnerabilities having strategic implications:

“The U.S. military has still not established a defense system of anti-aircraft, antimissile, and other defense systems on Guam—[there exists] only a pittance of coastal patrol forces. Once there are hostilities, Guam’s defense can only rely on the U.S. Navy’s sea-based missile defense system and Air Force joint operations. Consequently, in wartime, Guam’s defense is still a problem; also, because it is in a special position surrounded on four sides by ocean at the intersection of three major international sea lanes, it is impossible to defend effectively. If the other side’s long-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles, long-range bombers or maritime special forces operations units, etc., can break through Guam’s peripheral warning and defense, [to] destroy or seriously damage its naval port, airfield, munitions warehouse, and communications system, [then] the entire operational system of America in the Pacific Theater can become ineffective, its sustained warfare capability can greatly fall short of requirements [and] its resolution and dynamics of military intervention would have to change.”17

Regardless of the validity of their specific claims, then, it is clear that some Chinese analysts perceive Guam to be vulnerable to offensive attacks.

U.S. Navy Capabilities

Having set the scene by reviewing major submarine force developments noted by Chinese analysts, we now turn to a more comprehensive survey of the major American capabilities that have attracted their attention. These include nuclear powered cruise missile–armed submarines (SSGNs) and Tomahawk cruise missiles, Trident submarines, fast attack submarines, sensors and systems, and research and development.

SSGNs and Tomahawks

Chinese analyses demonstrate interest in the Navy’s four new SSGNs, their conversion from Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, and their mission areas.18 A fairly typical article observes that:

“refitting focal points are refitting the first 1–2 of 24 ballistic missile launch tubes for the use of special forces; tubes 3–10 into special forces use or for Tomahawk cruise missiles; [and] tubes 11–24 for Tomahawk cruise missiles. After refitting, the submarine can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and 66 special forces personnel, a dock/shipyard cover, a frogman transport ship (SDV), and an advanced Seal Transport System (ASDS).”19

Although they clearly recognize the potential value of an SSGN’s embarked special operations forces, Chinese analysts appear to be much more impressed by the implications of one SSGN’s potentially large inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the high readiness rate that SSGNs will be able to maintain. One perceptive article observes that these features will allow other ships to focus on different mission areas:

“After being refitted, SSGNs will be deployed 65% of the time each year on average. . . . As such, the USN will always have at least 2 SSGNs ready for battle at any time, and in wartime, 1 SSGN can take over the duties of many attack submarines and surface ships. Once the SSGN goes into service, this will significantly reduce the land attack burden shouldered by the surface fleet and allow it to focus on providing air defense against missile threats. At the same time, the SSGN will reduce the land attack role of SSNs, enabling them to concentrate on anti-surface and ASW [antisubmarine warfare] missions.”

The same analysis also recognizes with some alarm that “it is conceivable that in the future the arsenal ships could from a safe distance simultaneously rain 500 or more guided missiles upon several points of an enemy’s territory. Using [the SSGN] would be stealthier and faster than an air raid by carrier based aircraft and would also avoid pilot losses.”20

Chinese literature on SSGNs suggests anxiety regarding this capability and what it may mean for Chinese forces. One analysis calculates that SSGNs will allow the United States to engage in saturation attacks: “The ground forces that have relied on the traditional deception against air attack, such as fake targets and positions, will be severely tested under future conditions in which the U.S. armed forces are able to employ saturation attacks by low-cost [cruise missiles].”21 Another analyst, however, points out that Tomahawks are expensive, estimating that Tactical Tomahawks cost anywhere between $5.7 and 8 million dollars a round.22 One Chinese lesson from the Kosovo conflict was that the United States does not possess an infinite inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles; even in that relatively minor conflict, it adjusted its weapons stocks to cope with apparent resource limitations.23

Trident Submarines

Chinese writings about SSBN capabilities express concern about potential U.S. plans to place conventional warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. One scholar writes that “the new Trident II D5 can achieve a CEP [circular error probable—generally, accuracy] of nine meters. Therefore, as far as point targets are concerned, there already exists the ability to achieve nuclear destruction with a conventional warhead.” This accuracy, he worries, might raise the risk of war overall: “One can see that through lowering one’s own barriers to war, one can more realistically deter the enemy. This undoubtedly reduces war’s actual combat threshold.”24 This may reflect a Chinese concern that Trident conventionalization could give the United States more ability to coerce China in a variety of combat scenarios.

The nuclear deterrence provided by American nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) is well recognized in the majority of Chinese writings, as is the significance of the shifting of five Ohio-class SSBNs (USS Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Maine) from the Atlantic to Pacific fleets from 2002 to 2005. This transfer occurred as the four oldest Ohio-class SSBNs, which had all been stationed in the Pacific, were temporarily taken out of service for conversion to SSGNs; the two transactions effectively rebalanced the American SSBN force from a Pacific/Atlantic ratio of ten/eight to nine/five.25

Fast Attack Submarines

Chinese observers are intensely interested in and closely follow other modern U.S. nuclear submarines, including the USS Jimmy Carter, Seawolf, and Hawaii. Highly detailed, full-page color photos of Seawolf– and Virginia-class submarines appear in China’s most prominent naval journals. These photos are usually accompanied by articles that imply an advanced state of technology and advanced acoustic quieting. Thus, for example, Seawolf is described as having

“an X type stern, [sic] employ[ing] a non-circulating main pump SbW [sic] pressurized water reactor, rel[ying] on natural circulation [of cooling water], thereby reducing noise; us[ing] an advanced pump jet propulsor, [thereby] reducing noise, us[ing] anechoic tiles on the hull. Anechoic tiles can absorb the enemy’s active sonar survey waves as well as both separate and reduce the submarine’s own noise radiation. Moreover, this ship’s own machinery power equipment also employs [sound isolation] technology. These measures reduce the Seawolf-class’s noise level to 95 decibels, making it the world’s quietest submarine (ocean background noise is 90 decibels, Kilo 636 noise is 105 decibels).”26

Additionally, Chinese authors believe Seawolf possesses “beyond-first-class performance” and is regarded as the most sophisticated and lethal submarine yet to go to sea, despite its “tortuous development history.”27

The Chinese also respect Virginia-class submarines for their advanced technology and quietness. An author in Modern Navy states that “compared with the Sea Wolf–class submarine, the Virginia is slower and carries fewer weapons, but is just as quiet. Its acoustic signature is lower than that of the improved model of Russia’s Akula-class attack submarine and Russia’s fourth-generation attack submarine that will hereafter be in active service.”28 Another analyst, in discussing the Virginia class’s acoustic achievements, reports, “The Virginia-class has been called ‘the world’s quietest submarine,’ with a cruising sound level that is only 1/10 that emitted by a Los Angeles class boat pierside.”29

The techniques used to build Virginia and its sister ships also evoke respect, with one author noting, “The use of modular construction has been a major breakthrough in the construction of the Virginia-class SSN. . . . This construction method is a revolutionary breakthrough compared to the methods used to build the Los Angeles–class.”30 Modular construction is widely perceived as a tremendous advantage, allowing the United States to “promptly design and build new nuclear submarines on the basis of new circumstances and requirements.”31 Plans for Virginia, it is implied, having been generated by computer-aided design tools and relying on modular construction, could be used as the basis of a new SSBN design.32 Chinese authors argue that Virginia’s impressive technology allows it to “scout, reconnoiter, and keep watch from a concealed position using its modern sensors to gather intelligence; analyze it; fix radar positions, missile bases, and command centers; as well as watch and track warship movements.”33 The Virginia class is thus seen as “a completely new attitude emerging on the world military combat arena.”34 Some Chinese analysts believe “the U.S. will keep building Virginia class boats and the final number could exceed 30.”35

Los Angeles–class submarines receive significant attention from Chinese authors. One article on this class notes, “The American Navy believes that: nuclear attack submarines are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms, have the advantage of being stealthy, and have become one of the premier threats at sea.”36 Another author rates their performance as “outstanding,” with the reservation that although they have superior weaponry, they “might not [have proved] an effective counter to new types of Soviet nuclear submarines.” This impending disparity, in turn, is credited with precipitating U.S. follow-on designs.37 Still another observer notes that Los Angeles–class submarines are aging: “By the year 2020, the U.S. military intends to have built 30 nuclear attack submarines. However, by the year 2016, all of the Los Angeles–class submarines will exceed 30 years of service life”; the writer emphasizes the great expense of replacing them with Virginia-class vessels.38

Chinese naval observers regard American torpedo technology highly. Noting an enviable six decades of torpedo experience, one Chinese author observes, “Since World War II and for a relatively long period, U.S. torpedo technology has always been among the best in the world.”39 With specific reference to the Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo, another analyst assesses that “the [Mark 48] torpedo’s outstanding effectiveness in all combat circumstances has been proven and it can be used to attack surface ships, nuclear submarines, and also diesel electric submarines.”40 The same author describes the aggressive U.S. torpedo-testing program: “The USN has already carried out more than 6500 exercises and warshot firings [with the Mark 48], in addition to 20,000 simulations and 9 million mathematical simulations, so that this torpedo reaches a high state of reliability.” Perhaps in reference to the sinking of Russian Oscar-class submarine Kursk, and also as part of an overall effort to improve submarine safety consciousness, this analyst later observes that “the [Mark 48] system has been in active service since 1982 and there have been no safety accidents.”

Not every Chinese analyst would readily agree that the Mark 48 torpedo or its Advanced Capability (ADCAP) variant is especially fearsome. In a 2005 article, a Chinese author flatly stated, “Traditional heavy-weight torpedoes practically have no way to cope with modern diesel submarines in shallow waters.”41 The author notes that “shallow waters constitute a very acoustically complex warfare environment” and that the U.S. Navy has allocated significant resources to developing sonars suitable for littoral combat against diesel submarines.42 Another analyst, however, appreciates the U.S. Navy’s ability to upgrade the weapon: “At the moment, [the Mark 48] torpedo is still being upgraded, so that it can correspond to the challenges associated with shallow water environments and threat—it is expected to be in service with the USN until 2025.”43

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.


  1. This article draws extensively on five of the serious PRC professional publications concerned with naval warfare: 当代海军 (Modern Navy), 人民海军 (People’s Navy), 舰船知识(Naval and Merchant Ships), 舰载 武器 (Shipborne Weapons), and 现代舰船 (Modern Ships). Modern Navy is a monthly magazine published by the official PLAN newspaper People’s Navy, which is the daily newspaper published by the Political Department of China’s navy. Modern Navy offers articles that are often concrete and revealing of important capabilities, initiatives, and exercises. See, for example, 徐红明, 刘新民 [Xu Hongming and Liu Xinmin], “‘敌后’布 雷–中国海军某潜艇突破反潜编队训练 目击记” [Lay Mines “In the Enemy’s Rear Area”: An Eyewitness Account of a Certain PLAN Submarine Exercise Involving Breaking Through Antisubmarine Formations], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 4 (2003), p. 38. 舰船知识 (Naval and Merchant Ships), a semitechnical monthly publication of the Chinese Society of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, has directly involved a retired PLA Navy rear admiral, Zheng Ming, formerly head of the PLA Navy’s Equipment Department, in its publication activities. See “我刊召开作者, 读者, 编者座谈会” [Our Journal Convenes a Discussion among Writers, Readers and Editors], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2006), p. 8. An active-duty PLA Navy admiral has contributed to the journal. See 杨毅 [Yang Yi], “谁 的潜艇今后说了算?” [Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?], 舰 船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (July 2006), p. 28. Shipborne Weapons and Modern Ships are both monthly journals published by the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), China’s largest designer, manufacturer, and trader of military and civilian vessels and related engineering and equipment. In addition to these naval-oriented publications, 中国军事 科学 (China Military Science) is published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences.
  2. Because of the difficulty in conclusively identifying the authors of many Chinese writings on naval issues, this article will use a very broad definition of “naval analyst” —namely, one who engages in research and publication concerning naval affairs.
  3. 钱晋 [Qian Jin], “影子 ‘前锋’ 洛杉矶: 我伴 航母走天涯” [The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class: Escorting Carriers to the Far Corners of the Earth], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2002), pp. 38–41.
  4. 张建平, 高倚天 [Zhang Jianping and Gao Yitian], “透视美海军 2035 年: 远 景规划” [Perspective on the U.S. Navy in 2035: Prospective Plans], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2005), p. 37.
  5. 林长盛 [Lin Changcheng], “潜龙在渊: 解放军水雷兵器的现状与发展” [The Hidden Dragon in the Deep: The Present Situation and Development of PLA Mine Weaponry], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 9 (May 2005), p. 32.
  6. 齐耀久 [Qi Yaojiu], “‘旧金山’号核潜艇触 礁事故的再思考” [Reflecting Again on the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Collision Accident], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (July 2005), p. 41.
  7. Ibid., p. 42.
  8. Ibid., pp. 41–42.
  9. 止戈 [Zhi Ge], “旧金山’号核潜艇事故分 析” [Analysis of the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Accident], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (March 2005), p. 59.
  10. 孙晔飞, 聂其武 [Sun Yefei and Nie Qiwu], “从美核潜艇出事: 瞧潜艇非战时事故规 律” [Looking at Patterns of Nonwar Submarine Accidents, from the Perspective of 15 Collins et al.: Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Published by U.S. Naval War College Digital Commons, 2018 82 naval war college review collins, erickson, goldstein, & murray 83 the U.S. Nuclear Submarine Incident], 当代 海军 [Modern Navy] (March 2005), p. 20.
  11. 临河 [Lin He], “常备不懈—美国海军潜 艇救生及启示” [Always Prepared: The Inspiration of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Rescue Cooperation], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2004), p. 11.
  12. Ibid., pp. 9–11.
  13. Among the many articles that examine the U.S. military buildup on Guam are台风 [Tai Feng], “中国需要反潜巡逻机马?” [Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], no. 3 (March 2005), pp. 70–75; “美国陈兵关岛虎视台海” [U.S. Troops Deployed in Guam Vigorously Watch the Taiwan Strait], 世界新闻报 [World News Report], 15 February 2001; “美核攻击 潜艇欲驻关岛意何为” [Why America Stations Nuclear Attack Submarines in Guam], 信息日报 [NewsDaily], 3 November 2000, p. 22; “美国核潜艇关岛触礁” [U.S. Nuclear Submarine Strikes a Reef near Guam], 环 球时报 [World Times], 20 January 2005; Zhao Xiaozhuo, “The United States Does Not Want to Get Involved in a Crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” Huanqiu Shibao, 3 January 2005, FBIS CPP20050114000176; “核潜艇进 关岛: 美国居心叵测” [Nuclear Submarines Enter Guam: The U.S. Harbors Unfathomable, Evil Intentions], 中国国防报 [China National Defense News], 2 April 2002, p. B04.
  14. 李杰 [Li Jie], “对美系列海上演习之思考” [Reflections on the Series of U.S. Exercises at Sea], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2004), pp. 20–21.
  15. 赵宇 [Zhao Yu], “全景扫描: 美太平洋第 七舰队战力, 中部” [Scanning the Entire Panorama: The Combat Power of the U.S. Pacific Seventh Fleet (middle part)], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (February 2005), pp. 53–57.
  16. 韩江波 [Han Jiangbo], “关岛—美军控制 西太平洋作战体系的‘纲’” [Guam: The “Key Link” in the U.S. Military System to Control the Western Pacific], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2006), p. 33.
  17. Ibid., p. 34.
  18. For the SSGN program and related operational opportunities and issues, see Charles D. Sykora, “SSGN: A Transformation Limited by Legacy Command and Control,” Naval War College Review 59, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 41–62.
  19. 杨修水 [Yang Xiushui], “2010, 世界大洋的新 生代—核潜艇篇” [In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans: Writing on Nuclear Submarines], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 9 (September 2004), pp. 50–55.
  20. 天鹰 [Tian Ying], “SSGN 即将面世的水下武 库舰” [The SSGN Will Soon Be the World’s Premier Underwater Arsenal], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (December 2004), p. 67.
  21. 李文盛, 程建良 [Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang], “威胁自海上来: 美海军对陆火力 突击能力的发展特点及影响” [Threat from the Sea: Development and Implications of Development Trends in the U.S. Navy’s Surprise Strike Firepower against the Land], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (March 2003), p. 20.
  22. “美国海军拟部署战术‘战斧’导弹” [U.S. Navy Intends to Deploy Tactical Tomahawk], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2000), p. 36.
  23. See Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang, “Threat from the Sea,” p. 17.
  24. Both quotes in this paragraph are from董 露, 郭纲, 李文胜 [Dong Lu, Guo Gang, and Li Wensheng], “析美国战略导弹常规 改装的动因及影响” [Analysis on the Motives and Effects of U.S. Strategic Missiles Armed with Conventional Warheads], 中 国宇航学会 [China Space Institute] (paper distributed but not presented at Tenth PIIC Beijing Seminar on International Security, Program for Science and National Security Studies and Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, Xiamen, China, 25–28 September 2006).
  25. See, for example, 朱伟 [Zhu Wei], “美 9 艘战 略核潜艇聚集太平洋” [Nine U.S. Strategic Nuclear-Powered Submarines Assembled in the Pacific Ocean], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (November 2005), pp. 58–59. In addition to commenting on the significance of the United States transferring SSBNs and SSNs from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, this lengthy, wide-ranging article also devotes substantial space to alleged aging problems in the W76 nuclear warhead, criticizes as overly large and unstable the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and decries the negative effects of all this on Asia-Pacific security.
  26. Yang Xiushui, “In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans,” p. 50.
  27. 汪玉, 姚耀中 [Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds.], 世界海军潜艇 [World Naval Submarines] (Beijing: 国防工业出版社 [National Defense Industry Press], 2006), p. 127.
  28. 河山 [He Shan], “‘弗吉尼亚’号能否成为新 世纪海上霸王?” [Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (October 2004), p. 21.
  29. “‘弗吉尼亚’ 潜艇浮出水面” [Launching of the Virginia Class], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (October 2004), p. 23.
  30. Only three Sea Wolf–class submarines were ever built. The Cold War’s end made it impossible to justify construction of additional hulls, because this submarine had been optimized for combating the Soviet Navy. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 129.
  31. Ibid., p. 29.
  32. 陈位昊 [Chen Weihao], “美国海军调整 部署: 美国核潜艇云集太平洋妄图威摄 中国”[The U.S. Navy Adjusts Deployment: U.S. Submarines Converging in the Pacific Vainly Attempt to Deter China], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 6 (March 2006), p. 13.
  33. 曹家伟 [Cao Jiawei], “杀向近海—美海军弗 吉尼亚级新型攻击型核潜艇”[Fighting into the Littoral: The U.S. Navy’s Virginia-Class Nuclear Attack Submarine], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs], no. 18 (2004), pp. 26–29.
  34. Ibid.
  35. He Shan, “Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?” p. 21.
  36. Qian Jin, “The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class,” pp. 38–41.
  37. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 121.
  38. 世画 [Shi Hua], “世界未来潜艇发展前瞻” [World Submarine Development Prospects], 海事大观 [Maritime Spectacle] (January 2007), p. 86.
  39. 黄龙华 [Huang Longhua], “潜艇克星: 世界 反潜鱼雷概览” [The Star for Subduing Submarines: A Survey of World ASW Torpedoes], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs] (August 2006), p. 48.
  40. 崔峰 [Cui Feng], “Mk48 ADCAP: 美国海军主 战重刑鱼雷” [The Mk 48 ADCAP: The U.S. Navy’s Primary Combat Heavyweight Torpedo], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], no. 4 (2004), p. 31.
  41. 刘伟[Liu Wei], “外军的鱼雷及鱼雷防御技 术” [Foreign Torpedo and Torpedo Defense Technology], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (May 2005), pp. 34–37.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid. This three-page article is accompanied by full-color pictures of Mark 48 ADCAP circuit boards, torpedo body sections, detailed propulsion system schematic diagrams, and tables with performance criteria.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 7, 2012) The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Mississippi (SSN 782) conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat/Released)

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)