Sea Power is of the utmost importance in terms of global control of both economic and geographical regions. Walter Raleigh wrote in the 17th century, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” The U.S. has remained the leading force at sea, and in recent years has re-affirmed its dedication to command at sea. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power lists sea control as one of the five essential functions of the Navy. Sea control and sea power are terms written about in no short supply, and that are constantly highlighted by the leaders of our combatant forces. While sea power is by itself a complex issue, the means by which we achieve it are far more intricate.
The most important challenges faced by the U.S. Navy in achieving sea power are not technological, but human. The current strategy laid out by the U.S. on Sea Power is multi-faceted and dynamic, but does little to address the day-to-day challenges of our Sailors. An expectation of being the most elite Navy in the world is impossible to achieve through strategic placement of assets if we can’t properly man and train our assets. When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?
The strategies of the U.S. Navy are still heavily influenced by the 19th Century writings of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian S. Corbett. Both men have written extensively on the importance of Sea power, as well as on how to achieve it. While each have distinct opinions, both agree that command of the sea serves national politics, and that it is not enough to merely have control of commercial shipping. Battle, the ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a Navy. We must ensure that we not only have the resources and plans to execute such decisive action, but also the human capability and training to do so efficiently. Corbett wrote in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, “it is not enough that a leader should have the ability to decide rightly; his subordinates must seize at once the full meaning of his decision and be able to express it with certainty in well-adjusted action.” In other words, it is not enough that our combatant commanders know the central strategy and governing tactics that guide and shape our daily lives, they must also be able to communicate and empower their Sailors to execute.
The Navy is unique to most other branches of the military in that we train in the same environment that we fight in. Our day-to-day job consists of preservation and maintenance of the weapon, vehicle, and berthing in which we will deploy. While most forces train at home to prepare for the environment in which they will fight, we operate every day in the environment from which we will fight. Marines and Soldiers must learn to manage their expectations for engagement as many who joined with the desire to fight on the frontlines may never step foot in a hostile environment. Sailors on the other hand, rarely asked to engage in hand-to-hand combat, will be “in the field” from the moment they pull out of homeport and will remain in a hostile, dangerous environment until their homecoming. Whether operating off the coast of Florida or transiting through the Straits of Malacca, Navy ships are constantly engaged in mission-focused operations. Due to the environment in which we operate, we must remain vigilant and ready to execute combat missions at all times. This need for vigilance has been tragically embodied in the recent collisions at sea of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. The requirement for constant readiness to fight is demonstrated by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were successfully launched into Syria in 2017, as well as countless other operations Navy vessels are engaging in on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to the order to launch missiles was not met by our ability to safely navigate our vessels. Even more unfortunately, 17 Sailors paid dearly for that imbalance.
Sea power must start at the deckplates. Naval officers and chiefs are taught that deckplate leadership is vital to ensuring that Sailors are taken care of, maintenance is done properly, and ultimately that the mission is accomplished. Deckplate leaders are leaders that are constantly present in the lives of their Sailors, who know what the orders they give actually mean, and who are engaged from the moment an order is given until it is accomplished. This type of leadership must extend beyond the demands of routine maintenance and preservation. We need leaders on the deckplates who know and can adequately represent the strategic objectives of the Navy to the Sailors on whom that mission depends. When Marines are training for a deployment to the Afghanistan, they train in simulated combat environments that help prepare them for the desert heat, as well as the intense atmosphere they will encounter. We must learn to adapt simulation tactics to our needs in the Surface Navy. Sending the bridge watchstanders to a simulator a couple times a year will not suffice. Strategy is at the forefront of Marine Corps training, every Marine knows the impact he or she has on the mission, and the role they play. The strategy of the surface Navy is on such a large scale, that it often is not felt by individual Sailors in the way it can be felt by a Marine practicing tactical team maneuvering or executing room-clearing procedures. The tactics of the surface Navy involve ships as a whole where captains and key watchstanders are sometimes the only people on board who know the role of the ship in the operational theater. Many of those watchstanders do not even understand the role their ship plays in the Navy’s larger strategy for sea power. Clearly communicating that role to every Sailor on board is the only way that we can begin to operate at the elite level which our nation’s strategy requires.
What this means today, is that we need to do a better job at training the whole Sailor and the whole ship. We need to impart on every Sailor and officer the value and importance of their role and ensure every aspect of our mission is met. It is not enough to drive our ships well, nor is it enough to launch missiles with accuracy. Every Sailor on board every ship in our fleet is important, from the ships forward deployed to the ships in the yards, it must be clear what we are working toward. Small tactical mistakes, maintenance deficiencies, and lackluster training must be treated with as much regard as a combat error. The only way to ensure that care is given to the smallest of tasks on board our ships, is to train and emphasize sea power from the deckplates up.
Olivia J. Morrell is from Albuquerque, NM, and graduated with a degree in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2017. She is currently a Surface Warfare Officer onboard the USS Cole (DDG-67), in Norfolk, Virginia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.
Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (August 24, 2018) Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class William Decker (left), from Pinedale, Arizona, and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Matthew Thomas, from Port St. Lucie, Florida, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, perform maintenance on the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared System aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams)
Last year, the Colombian Navy detected and captured the first electric narco-submarine.1 Demonstrating the innovative capacities of Colombian drug traffickers, narco-submarines, drug subs, narco-semisubmersibles, self-propelled semisubmersibles, or simply narcosubs, are maritime custom-made vessels used principally by Colombian drug traffickers with the purpose of smuggling illicit drugs to consumers or transshipment countries. This year only one of such vessels have been captured, and given their technical characteristics seems a step back in the ‘evolution’ of narcosub technology. Such is the paradox of security and maritime interdiction in the War on Drugs. The very process of thwarting a particular method or route creates the conditions to propel technological innovation on the drug traffickers’ side. The narcosubs are one of many of these innovations.
The term “narcosub” encompasses a diversity of watercraft that includes semisubmersible and fully submersible vessels. Several entries on CIMSEC (here, here, and here) have already delved into the characteristics of the narcosubs and their potential capacities to threaten regional security. In addition, several studies in the security field, such as by Ramirez and Bunker,2 as well as academic articles, have also attempted to provide technical evidence and policy advice. To summarize, narcosubs are characterized by the use of maritime diesel engines, a rudimentary system of refrigeration, no facilities, fiberglass hulls, and a valve which can be activated in case of being captured that allows water to fill the hull and sink the vessel. Narcosubs are not made to last, as smugglers mostly discard such vessels after ending their one-way journey. Smugglers have been using narcosubs from at least as early as 1993, but the majority of captures have been made since 2005. Narcosubs are described by the Navy as vessels that are highly difficult to detect and/or track, due to their lack of emissions, small wake, and low heat signature, preventing visibility all around.
Despite the centrality of innovation in the War on Drugs, there have been few attempts to understand the process. Given that 90 percent of the cocaine from Andean countries is transported using maritime routes,3 it is necessary to analyze the development of drug trafficker and state agency technologies in the maritime environment. That is to say, the study of the game of cat and mouse between interdiction and evasion.
This binary can be understood as the symbiotic relationship that creates the conditions for innovation, generating a constant arms race between drug traffickers and state agencies. Different versions of the genesis of the narcosubs mill around, from Pablo Escobar’s mastermind idea, boosted by the semi-mythical image of the drug baron with the economic means and savvy to contract specialized naval engineering. According to this
version, Pablo Escobar supposedly conceived the idea of a submarine after watching a James Bond movie. In this story a Russian and an English engineer were hired to design the submarines while Pablo’s brother took took care of the electric circuits.4 A common narrative in describing narcosub building is to assume some form of hierarchical organization, both in terms of decision making and knowledge. That is, the participation of a ‘cartel’ with capabilities to hire ‘expert knowledge’ such as naval engineers who then recruit builders. The diffusion of the technology is also assumed to be the result of transnational organized crime networks. Others suggest that narcosubs are the transfer of military innovation by the guerrilla groups FARC or ELN to their drug trafficking enterprises.5
Innovation in the design and building of these vessels is so commonplace that the adjective ‘first’ is often repeated. The truth about narcosub design and building may be more prosaic. The variety of watercraft labeled under the banner of narcosubs summarizes some of the key features of the innovation and counter-innovation competition in the War on Drugs.
The Evolution of Narcosubs
The narcosubs demonstrate a variable combination of materials, designs, and building. Even narcosubs found in the same shipyard vary in several features. In this sense, each narcosub is a unique way to solve the problem of transporting large amounts of illicit drugs, producing a complex timeline that is problematic to define using traditional innovation concepts, such as incremental or radical innovation, but also to define as the result of pull/push factors. The process of innovation in the War on Drugs can be better described using the concept of dispersed peer innovation,6 in which the design and construction of these vessels, not being bound by standardized procedures, profits from the possibilities of creating their own designs with high degrees of flexibility. In this sense, it is possible to say that what smugglers produced with the narcosubs are different versions of a ‘techno-meme’ that gets combined with the local knowledge of maritime routes and boat building. Those involved in the process of outlaw innovation are able to mix locally available knowledge of traditional boat building with off-the-shelf technologies.
One key issue when studying the evolution of narcosubs and other forms of drug traffickers innovations is how entwined they are with other forms of maritime drug transport. The process of incremental innovation does not necessarily produce a particular method that replaces older strategies. For example, a technical analysis of improvements of the go-fast boats or fishing boats demonstrates that there are few steps between semisubmersible methods and submersible ones. These few steps are provided by the availability of the knowledge to build such vessels within the relatively small areas where narcosubs can operate.
What it Takes to Build a Narcosub
Little is known about the day-to-day decisions on design and modification of such vessels. Official documents say little about the narcosub builders, but a set of documents allows us to take a glimpse at the organization of a narcosub enterprise. These include the Supreme Court of Justice ruling on the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States in order to be judged by courts in the U.S. for criminal offenses, including narcotics violation, and reports from the law enforcement agencies and military.
Several facts can be derived from the analysis of such documents. Narcosub builders are often independent of the owners of the cocaine. Several opportunistic relationships are undertaken, with drug traffickers either contacting the builders or the builders contacting the drug traffickers. As part of a plea bargain, a narco-submarine builder narrates how as a part of his organization he carried out and presented blueprints of ‘his’ narcosubs, and descriptions of the areas where the vessels could be built and launched. As part of his negotiation with prospective buyers, he shared his past experience of success in the building and operation of these boats.
Figure 1 reconstructs the main links in a narcosub builder organization and shows the multiple forms of knowledge and relationships that can be found in such an organization. While some aspects of the design are carried out by specialists such as electrical and mechanical engineers, others are left to people with local knowledge, such as knowledge about fiberglass handling and coating. In this organization, another individual, the provider of the fiberglass, also plays the role of quality assurance guaranteeing that, in fact, the vessel is correctly waterproofed. Other individuals are in charge of the logistics, such as the purchase and transport of materials and personnel to shipyards. Finally, some individuals are hired as crewmen. They test the vessel and provided feedback to builders.
The organization described in the legal files is interesting because it has two different construction sites; one in Colombia’s South Pacific and one on the Ecuadorian coast. The organization boss was not actually involved in the construction of the narcosubs, but he was the main source of finance. The main builder of the narcosubs is considered a “chief” within the organization. Besides providers of drugs, every shipyard has an administrator accompanied by a chief of security. The description provided does not delve into the process of designing and building narcosubs specifically, but shows the participation of people with formalized knowledge and others in possession of craftwork knowledge, such as the people involved in the woodworking and the fiberglass construction, some of whom worked in both shipyards. The fiberglass work was supervised by another specialist, who provided expert knowledge and supervision at both sites. This person was not part of the organization, but was the provider of the fiberglass. In the same organization, a mechanical engineer was identified, who was in charge of the design and building of the hatches, steering mechanisms, and galvanization of the narcosubs.
The innovation in narcosub technologies is then carried out by a multitude of different groups with little incentive to collaborate among themselves. This gives rise to a wide variation of submersible and semisubmersible designs. Such technical decisions are taken by builders and drug traffickers in a context in which the actions of other groups and their enemy (law enforcement and military) are not always known.7 Narcosub builders are able to configure a complex design using a mix and match approach. Blending off-the-shelf solutions, local traditional knowledge, and technical-formal knowledge produces hybrids such as low-profile narcosubs using truck diesel engines.
Drug smugglers do not just compete with the state, they also compete with other drug rings and other narcosub builders. This complex pattern of competition plays a role that promotes further local innovations. Through trial and error they master the building principles of the narcosub and introduce minor variations into their models. The variation and innovation in narcosub technologies, as well as the interpretation that actors, smugglers, and enforcement agencies make of such innovations, creates changes in a co-evolutionary fashion. In this way, the choices of the illicit actors, competing among themselves and against the state, continuously destabilizes and changes the landscape in which they act, triggering a situation in which multiple players attempt alterations, which create new adaptations.
It has been argued that smugglers often have the capacity to change their strategies and designs after they been detected by law enforcement and the military. Nevertheless, a more complex understanding of the pattern of innovation in the War on Drugs, in which explanations are not given in terms of push/pull between state agencies and drug smugglers, but take into account multiple layers of competition and sources of knowledge, will provide better tools to control the illegal flows. One main consequence of this would be to escape the fallacy of flexibility, in which the explanations of the process innovation in the War on Drugs is given solely based on drug traffickers’ actions.
Javier Guerrero C. is a Lecturer at the Instituto Tecnológico Metropolitano (Medellín, Colombia). In addition, he is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Centro de Estudios de Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, D.C, Colombia). Javier is currently researching the intersections between technology, security and the War on Drugs and the history of technology in the War on Drugs. He may be reached at the following addresses: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Current commentators consider the combination of collisions, groundings, and senior reviews of 2017 to be a watershed event for the Surface Warfare community. Rather than a wakeup call for the community, 2017 should be viewed as a culminating point for the Surface Warfare community overall and the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) culture in particular. Just as Napoleon’s policy objectives failed to bring Europe under his rule, despite brilliant military victories,1 many post-Cold War policy decisions for the Surface Warfare community, as admitted by past and current leadership, were misinformed. In some cases, they appear to have done more harm than good to the Surface Warfare community. More importantly, those changes in policy drove changes in the SWO culture. And, while many people debate the merits of some of those earlier policy decisions, the debate is lost in the fog and the SWO community is missing the real opportunity to reclaim its warfighting excellence by recreating the culture which led to victories within the last century in the same waters in which sailors died in 2017.
By identifying the warfighting traits the community believes necessary to lead, fight, and win at sea, by developing a modern approach to promotions and assignment processes, and by leveraging readily available techniques and solutions in use by leading industrial sectors,2 the SWO community can return to a culture built on warfighting competence and professional proficiency – excellence – that it once exemplified as it stood as the premier community in the Navy. This is no small task. But it is readily doable and doable in short order.
Leveraging Modern Techniques And Solutions To Restore SWO Warfighting Excellence
The national and global competition for talent in business, industry, and academia has driven the development of a variety of techniques and solutions to help organizations win the competition. Current techniques and solutions include compliance with federal and state job application laws, tailored machine reading, and the ability to develop specific questions or processes in an effort to find the right talent. Applicants build their profile and post or submit their resume. Depending on the traits the customer is looking for, applicants are screened. If their profile and resume are assessed to not meet the desired factors, applicants are notified by email that they are no longer needed to participate in the screening process. Or, if they score high enough, applicants may be required to participate in another level of screening in the form of a battery of questions or other online exercises – all before a single human has reviewed their submission. Of course, articles abound about how inhuman and unfair the process has become. However, more and more talent is migrating to these online processes to find employment and more and more organizations are paying for these services in order to win the competition for talent. These existing techniques and solutions could be applied to improve and align warfighting skill sets and proficiency for the SWO community.
Developing the Warfighting Trait Model
For starters, past naval heroes were not rated by the same processes used today. However, unstructured data in the form of biographies, articles, battle reports, and other sources can be processed using current cognitive processing methods to glean or extract a set of character traits common to those past naval heroes deemed to have exhibited warfighting excellence. In parallel, a cadre of junior officers, with very few select retired flag officers as advisors, can separately develop a set of warfighting traits.3 It is essential that the ideal of warfighting excellence is captured by this group. Once both sets of warfighting traits are generated, they are then synthesized into a single warfighting trait model that would exemplify an individual with premier warfighting excellence. With the ideal trait model in hand, the Surface Warfare community can then embark on “scoring” individual warfighting proficiency reflective of its officers’ performance.
Scoring Individual Warfighting Capability
Returning to warfighting excellence to reinvigorate and restore the SWO culture may necessitate a reconsideration of not only the factors by which warfighting excellence is determined but also an expansion of the data set from which those factors are pulled. The existing performance evaluation system and its fitness reports, and how they are used, do not meet the need and do not drive warfighting excellence. Fitness reports serve a purpose and can continue to serve as one source of data for an officer’s performance. However, there are a myriad of unique and high performing skills demonstrated daily in the fleet. Yet, the proficiency with which those skills are performed is not assessed or recorded. Reportedly, every landing onboard an aircraft carrier is an opportunity to rigorously and objectively score the pilot’s performance, and provide critical feedback in the performance of this critical warfighting skill. The Surface Warfare community should immediately adopt an approach similar to that used by Naval Aviation.
For example, the shiphandling skills necessary to get a ship underway may be observed or scored during the Basic Phase or periodically in a simulator, but there are dozens more special details which are not required to be scored. Similarly, ships routinely go alongside for underway replenishment, but this opportunity is lost for assessing shiphandling proficiency.
In a healthy command, the plan-brief-execute-debrief (PBED) process is alive and well, but scoring against community-wide professional standards does not exist. Establishing such standards and scoring an officer’s performance to those standards would contribute to establishing officer’s warfighting capability and proficiency scores. Table 1 lists some of the means to establish an officer’s warfighting scores.
Some aspects of the warfighting scores would necessarily have a temporal component as proficiency degrades over time, especially time spent away from the waterfront. For example, an Executive Officer (XO) who last took a ship alongside for replenishment at sea four years ago would (and should) have their warfighting capability score appropriately degraded. All things being equal, the XO who went alongside yesterday is likely to be much more proficient at that skill than the XO who went alongside four years ago.
Consider other Navy communities such as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Divers, and Aviators. They all have skills that have an “expiration date.” In order to maintain proficiency and prevent triggering a requalification requirement, the skill must be demonstrated at some objectively established periodicity. While the periodicity can be lengthened such that the importance of the qualification is diminished, it must be a consistent standard to restore the warfighting excellence of the SWO community. If maintaining proficiency in basic shiphandling evolutions really is important to the SWO profession and culture, then SWOs will necessarily spend some of their shore duty in shiphandling simulators for their periodic assessments and community leadership will resource the requirement. Going to the Joint Staff for a 22-month tour will not be an excuse for not maintaining proficiency in warfighting skills.
Also listed in Table 1 are those methods that are available to and fully within the purview of a ship’s Commanding Officer (CO). This should help alleviate any concern the community might have on eroding the CO’s ability to lead or develop their wardrooms. While most of the methods are self-explanatory, it should be noted that the scores achieved during the Basic Phase are absent. Fundamentally, the Basic Phase is a training event. As such, introducing those scores into an officer’s warfighting capability score could diminish the training opportunity. In other words, activities that are primarily for training must be treated as such allowing mistakes to be made and learning to occur without concern about an officer’s warfighting capability score. Additionally, a CO’s assessment averages, just as with fitness reports, would need to be tracked as a forcing function to prevent inflating scores.
As an officer approaches a career milestone, such as a selection board or a slate, their warfighting capability score firms up and is then compared to the warfighting trait model. It is this comparison that determines their ranking within their respective cohort. For a selection board, this rank determines whether or not they are selected. Gone are the days where careers are determined by a system which is “as fair and unfair to everyone equally.” A bad briefer will not send the community’s best to “the crunch.” The Board members will know the warfighting trait model and they will be able to see the officer’s score against that model. They will see the score trends over a specific assignment and throughout the officer’s career. This way, warfighting competence and professional proficiency become the primary determinants for selection and assignment.
While most of the discussion has been focused on the determination of an individual’s warfighting capability score and proficiency, similar approaches can be used to assess shipboard teams and the ship as a whole fighting unit.
Slating For Unit Warfighting Excellence
Another benefit of knowing an individual’s warfighting capability score is developing slates which better support the fleet’s warfighting readiness needs by ensuring a ship’s overall warfighting capability score remains above a minimum level through slating officers to that ship using their warfighting capability scores.4 Consider that when a group of individuals come into their slating window, their warfighting capability score is again determined. The group is then ranked and divided into top, middle, and bottom thirds (or quarters). For example, a prospective Department Head who ranks in the top quarter will get slated to a ship where the current Wardroom’s overall warfighting capability score indicates they could use some talent. Of course, there is risk that an officers’ duty preferences will not align with the fleet’s needs, but that issue exists today and will continue to require the same quality engagement by community leaders. Detailers will still need to understand factors listed in Table 2. While Table 2’s factors are important to an officer’s quality of service, they are not factors for determining warfighting excellence. By grouping a slate by quarters or thirds, flexibility is created which allows accommodating factors in Table 2. But, the entering argument for the entire officer slating process is warfighting capability and professional proficiency.
The existence of a strong, objective warfighting excellence scoring system would allow the Surface Warfare community to manage warfighting capability within individual ships and across the fleet. It will provide a means by which the performance of individual ships and the fleet can be improved.
Things to Guard Against
The process of driving the SWO culture back to warfighting excellence and professional proficiency will be challenging and there are those who will fight the change tooth-and-nail. Senior officers will see this as an attack on “their Navy.” Detailers will see this as a challenge to their primary activities. Senior mentors and advocates will see this as an affront to their mentoring and their confederation of mentees. Some will see this approach as a challenge to various support organizations external to DON, such as the Surface Navy Association. Many will immediately start looking for ways to game or manipulate the system, eroding its effectiveness. These things must be anticipated and guarded against as a new process that attempts to change culture will have to face friction posed by existing culture.
If SWO warfighting excellence is the reason that the Surface Warfare Community exists, and if warfighting competence and professional proficiency is the critical need for the current and future maritime warfighting environment, the SWOs must rise to the challenge. By leveraging modern techniques and solutions to develop an objective and rigorous system of assessing warfighting capability for SWOs throughout their career, and by using the warfighting capability scores to make warfighting competence and professional proficiency the centerpiece of promotion and assignment, the SWO community will realize its greatest potential and return to a level of professionalism not seen since the end of World War II.
Themistocles is a pseudonym whose choice is intentional in order to focus on the subject of the article rather than the author. There is also the parallel in the choice of Themistocles that, while some of the ideas presented may not be popular with the establishment, the discussion and discourse prompted by these ideas may again assist in establishing the preeminence of the naval power of the world’s greatest democracy. Statements and opinions expressed in this article represent personal views and not that of the DoD or DoN.
Weldman, Thomas. War, Clausewitz and the Trinity. New York: Routledge, 2013.
 Weldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, 79.
 While there is a vibrant debate about what is and what is not ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘machine learning’, and other relatively new terms, this paper focuses on the fact that there are modern techniques and solutions available rather than attempting to define terms which are new, changing and not yet agreed upon by the wealth of experts debating them.
 The involvement of and control by current flag and senior naval officers in articulating this set of warfighting traits must be purposefully limited so that an independently developed set of traits can be achieved. The concern is that traits which may have contributed to the current culture will be captured inadvertently. Additionally, the flag officer advisors’ role is to guide the junior officers and constructively challenge their ideas to strengthen their product. The flag officer advisors to have no veto over or approval authority regarding the junior officers’ results.
 A unit’s overall warfighting excellence score has further implications in how and when they are employed by operational commanders. However, those possibilities are not discussed here in order to keep the discussion focused on improving the SWO culture.
Featured Image: Pacific Ocean (April 21, 2018) USS Stockdale (DDG 106) fires its Mark 45 Mod 4 5-inch gun during a live fire exercise as part of a Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda A. Hayes/released)
There has been much gnashing of teeth and complaint in response to the U.S. Navy’s slow build toward a goal of 355 ships. Peacetime naval buildups by free societies have never been simple undertakings. Such governments usually retire large numbers of warships in search of “peace dividends,” from which recovery is often a challenge. If ill-timed, they can result in large numbers of warships that are out of date before they complete even a decade of service, or need to be retired before the end of the service lives to cut costs. Getting to the right numbers of ships, especially in a period of tight finance may mean holding onto old ships well past their expected service life. Past examples of peacetime buildups by the British Royal Navy and U.S. Navy suggest that while getting to larger numbers of ships is possible, the costs can be prohibitive; especially in an environment of rapid, technological advancement.
British Royal Navy Buildups
Representative governments have always been quick to reduce expensive naval armaments in peacetime. The British Royal Navy (RN) reduced its force structure in only modest terms in the wake of the victorious French and Indian War. End strength of the RN dropped from 365 commissioned warships of all types in 1763 at the conclusion of those hostilities to 270 vessels at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.1 While still formidable, British lawmakers questioned whether this force that still boasted over 130 “ships of the line” of 50 guns and greater was capable of dealing with the American rebellion. A debate in the House of Commons from 13 February 1775 featured one speaker who stated “Our present naval force was by no means adequate to our professed intentions; for the squadron that we designed for America would answer no purpose of stopping their commerce; or if we did send a sufficient one, our own coasts, comparatively speaking, must be left totally defenseless.”2 The speaker went on to state that Britain’s perpetual enemy France might dispatch 75 or more ships of the line to menace English seacoast communities if the bulk of the available RN went to the Americas to reduce colonial commerce.
The British increased their fleet to 478 warships by 1783, but at great cost with some estimates suggesting an increase from a low of £1,526,357 in 1765 to £8,063,206 in 1782, and where public net debt rose to over 150 percent of GDP. Peacetime naval buildups are not new, and are almost costly affairs. Britain was perhaps lucky in that the increase in the size and capability of the RN in response to the American Revolution served to also prepare it for a renewed period of war with France. The creation of a state bank (The Bank of England) in 1694, and growing public confidence in the solvency of the British Crown allowed Parliament to “Raise immense sums on short notice and at relatively low rates of interest.”3 Unlike its Continental rivals the British also did not have to spend large sums on ground forces to defend vulnerable land borders. This combination of factors allowed for a fairly quick transition from “rusty trident” in the early 1770s to the sharp instrument that soundly defeated the navies of Denmark, Spain, and France during the Napoleonic wars.
A lack of such an immediate conflict can serve to create whole generations of warships that are out of date before they ever fire a shot in anger. The Royal Navy again reached such a low point in the late 1880s as it struggled to deal with a resurgent France and a rising Russian naval threat that imperiled both the British isles and multiple, overseas British possessions such as the imperial “crown jewel” of India. The Industrial Revolution was also in full swing with new grades of steel armor and improved steam engines entering service as often as new smart devices and software builds do today. British warship construction in the previous two decades had been slow to keep up with technical advances and many newspapers suggested the Navy was in poor condition to take on France and Russia. A series of articles in September 1884 in the Pall Mall Gazette by the muckraking journalist W.T. Steed described the Royal Navy as unready for war against Russia and France based on shrinking budgets, a lack of protection for Britain’s global naval logistics hubs, and an antiquated fleet of small craft for the defense of the British Isles.4
The British response to these conditions was the Naval Defence Act of 1889; a £21,500,000, 5-year program designed to produce 10 battleships, 42 cruisers, and 18 torpedo gunboats.5 According to naval historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida, the program was a resounding success in terms of finance and construction in that most of the program was completed on schedule with little cost overrun. The 1889 program also marked the beginning of an official “two power standard,” where Britain officially declared that its sum of first class fighting vessels (namely battleships) would be superior to the combined fleets of the next two naval powers (France and Russia). While a firm declaration of the importance of British seapower, it was at best a political measure rather than an accurate estimation of British naval strength. Naval historian Nicholas Lambert asserts that many uniformed senior Royal Navy officers believed the two-power standard was not enough and that it best represented a minimum level of strength.6 Britain’s primary political parties in the late 19th century (Conservative and Liberal parties,) however accepted the two power standard as a benchmark.
This decision would have significant consequences in the following decade as Britain’s burgeoning economic growth slowed and with it the funding for a larger fleet. Political scientist Aaron Friedberg asserted that British naval spending in the 1890s was made by possible by three factors. A general increase in national prosperity and with it consumer spending, especially on tea, tobacco, and beer, provided additional tax revenue. The British income and estate (death) taxes also provided generous sources of spending for both defense and for a rising tide of British social spending.7 Unfortunately, British economic growth slowed dramatically over the last quarter of the 19th century as the economic output of Germany and the United States dramatically increased.8 This process of British relative decline served to offset its naval superiority as the cost of replacement battleships dramatically increased over the same period. The pioneering battleship (then known as an ironclad) HMS Devastation cost £360,000 in 1869, but by 1898 the battleship HMS Implacable was £1,100,000.9 These increasing costs would make replacement of the existing foundation of British naval supremacy a significant challenge.
To this financial setback was added the rising costs of new technology; first in the form of new armor, weapons, and steam-powered equipment, but later by the introduction of asymmetric warfare systems such as the side armored cruiser. This ship, with long range, medium-sized weapons and armor sufficient to withstand the shells of the British cruisers traditionally assigned to defend imperial trade routes, represented a direct threat to British finance from trade and key sea lines of communication to overseas possessions like India.10 The French Navy also financed submarine and torpedo development as additional countermeasures to traditional British maritime superiority.11 The very expensive ships of the Naval Defence Act of 1889 were, by contrast, too slow and short-ranged to overtake and destroy armored cruisers, despite being better armed. They were also poorly protected against the torpedo as employed by the submarine and the surface torpedo boat. Improvements in armor manufacture, especially the Krupp steel process that resulted in much lighter yet stronger protective plates, enabled much more armor to be used over a wider area of even cruiser-sized ships. This gave the armored cruiser class its edge over earlier ships that could not support side armor. The new armor was less expensive than past versions, but that improvement was lost in the rush of other expensive steam propulsion and gun systems that combined to double the cost of a modern battleship over the period from 1895 to 1905.12 In fact, technological advancements ensured that the ships from the Naval Defence Act of 1889, notably the eight Royal Sovereign class battleships that were state of the art in 18991, had at best 15 year effective service lives before being out of date.13
Finally, the international situation and unexpected war in South Africa added to the financial problems of relative decline and rapid technological advancement. The Second Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902 put further strain on British finance and with it plans to renew naval supremacy. While early estimates by the British government suggested that costs for the South African conflict might be maintained below £21 million, army-related spending rose quickly in the first two years of the conflict from £21 million to £44.1 million and, and overall British government spending finally grew to a figure of £205 million during the last two years of the war.14 The British national debt also rose from £14 million in 1899-1900, and later to £53 million in 1901 and 1902.15 It was inevitable that these figures would affect Royal Navy expenditures. Over roughly this same period (1897 to 1904,) the Royal Navy expended £29.6 million on new battleships and £26.9 million pounds for the new armored cruisers. Such expenditures could not be sustained without a major increase in taxes which neither British political party would countenance. By 1902 it was clear to the British political establishment that some economy was desperately required and the new Prime Minister Arthur Balfour created the Committee of Imperial Defence to seek joint (Army/Navy) solutions to Britain’s global defense posture. The First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy,) Lord Selborne advised his flag officers to “Cease to say ‘this is the ideal plan and how do we get enough money to carry it out,’ to ‘Here is a sovereign (UK coin,) how much can we squeeze out of it that will really count for victory in a naval war?’”16
Ultimately, despite significant expenditure, the Naval Defence Act of 1889 failed to deter continued naval expansion of France and Russia, and also later Germany, Japan, and the United States.17 Rapid technological advancement quickly made the fleet of the 1890s obsolete in the next decade. Britain’s own relative decline and the expenditures for the Boer War further weakened the Royal Navy’s efforts to keep pace with advancing technology and the rising fleets of other nations. The end result was the ascent of the eponymous Admiral Sir John Fisher and his radical program of what today would be called “transformation” where the battlecruiser would replace the battleship and the armored cruiser for high seas combat, and littoral combatants such as destroyers and submarines would be responsible for the United Kingdom’s homeland defense. The Fisher regime, while innovative and fiscally responsible, is seen by some as the beginning of the end of British naval supremacy as Fisher’s program required major reductions in presence forces scattered around the empire in favor of the combat-capable force to defeat rising European competitors. This reduction in direct imperial influence and dependence on other powers, notably the United States and Japan to secure British interests in North America and the Western Pacific, was seen as perhaps the beginning of the end of the British Empire and with it the need for an expanded Royal Navy in its defense.18 This decline might be traced back to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and a desire to build a significant peacetime fleet in specific numbers over those of opponents.
U.S. Naval Buildup Challenges
The final example of difficult peacetime buildup also deals with the political calculus of fleet size. The U.S. Navy’s 600 ship fleet goal of the 1980s had its origins, like that of the Royal Navy of the 1880s and 1890s, in an enemy’s (Soviet) increased fleet size, rising welfare state expenditures, and a distant land conflict (Vietnam) sapping of funds that might have been used for modernization. The United States Navy of 1970 was a Vietnam War-focused fleet in dire need of recapitalization and modernization. The incoming Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. set out to begin those processes, but at the cost of the retirement of significant numbers of ships; most of World War II vintage and diminished capability. The fleet had already undergone significant reductions during the tenure of Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO, with the overall number of ships dropping from 932 to 731.19 Zumwalt had to impose further reductions in order to gather enough resources and potential crews for new construction. He later said:
“We were, on the average, technologically obsolescent. Our fleet was over 20 years of age, on the average. One of the things that impressed both Secretary Chafee and Secretary Laird in my preliminary meetings with them when, as it turns out, they were looking for who should be the next CNO, was that I said that given the budget limitations, we simply had to reduce the numbers of ships in order to begin the process of building new ships. We needed to reduce the expenditures for men and ships and start building ships.”20
Like Fisher in 1904, Zumwalt also needed to cut obsolescent ships before building new ones. While such processes delay growth and in fact result in reductions, they are necessary for subsequent fleet growth. Zumwalt worked hard to ensure existing, authorized classes like the Spruance-class destroyers were built and pushed to get what became the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates added to the fleet, but mass retirements of old ships further reduced the fleet size.21 Overall numbers of ships decreased to 530 by 1980.22
The Presidency of Jimmy Carter was an especially dark period for the Navy with the former naval officer president content with an objective force of only 400 ships.23 Carter and his land warfare-focused subordinates such as Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy Bob Komer sought significant reductions in naval expenditures through most of his administration.24
Studies for rebuilding U.S. Navy force structure began during the Ford Presidency and gained maturation during the Carter administration thanks to the efforts of Carter’s own Navy Secretary Graham Claytor, a World War II naval officer who opposed the Defense Department’s naval reductions. Claytor sponsored a study known as SeaPlan 2000 that recommended a 585 ship fleet that could be purchased and maintained with regular, four percent growth in the Navy’s budget; a figure then within accepted spending limits of the Navy.25 Like the British “Two Power Standard,” this figure was also a political measurement in that multiple studies on 400, 600, 900 and 1200 ship fleets had been undertaken with the 600 ship version seen as most economical and that it represented a minimum rather than an ideal force structure to meet the global Soviet naval threat.26
Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the new administration both adopted and altered elements of SeaPlan 2000. Led by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr, a new 600-ship Navy (an easy round-up from 585) figure was introduced as the benchmark for U.S. Fleet strength. An aggressive building program was introduced to meet the 600 ship figure by the close of a hypothetical 2-term Reagan presidency. The 600 ship Navy was paired with a new Maritime Strategy that justified and detailed the fleet’s use in combat with the Soviet Navy as well as routine presence and other operations. Navy Secretary Lehman also stated that 600 ships was the minimum fleet size to support the 15 carrier battle groups needed to provide the geographic, peacetime naval presence.27 The whole package of fleet size, strategy, and employment was offered at the same four percent rate of growth.
The weak point of the 600-ship navy buildup, however, was its retention of older, steam-powered surface warships in significant numbers in order to bridge the gap between existing and future force structure while maintaining the 600 ship number goal. The navy of the period had ships propelled by steam, diesel, nuclear, and most recently gas turbine engines. Of these types, nuclear power supported a growing portion of the Navy’s carrier strength and a dozen guided missile cruisers built as carrier escorts. Diesel engines were auxiliaries on many ships and propelled a growing number of mid-sized amphibious warfare ships. Gas turbine engines had become the new choice of propulsion for combatant ships including the Spruance-class destroyers, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Steam power, however, still served the bulk of the existing surface combatant fleet, some of the aircraft carriers, and large number of auxiliary ships. Many of these ships were older units and they were not aging well; a condition that made their retention as part of the growing 600-ship force a challenge.
In terms of one warship category, guided missile destroyers (DDG,) the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 1985 that only five of 67 such ships in 1989 would be classed as “modern,” which the CBO defined as constructed after 1970.28 The most numerous frigate/guided missile frigate (FF and FFG) category was better, but still saw 65 of a possible 111 ships as pre-1970 construction in 1989.29 The vast bulk of these older units were steam-powered units, whose manpower and maintenance-intensive 1200 psi, 950 degree steam plants became more challenging to maintain as they aged. Numerous oil leaks and fires plagued these aging units over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s. While the steam cruisers received significant combat systems upgrades in the form of the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) system, only a few of the steam destroyers received such improvements and the steam-powered frigate classes remained largely unaltered with the exception of the addition of the close in weapon system (CIWS) for some.
The modernization and retention of the steam-powered surface combatant force, and many other steam powered navy warships became a moot point at the end of the Cold War in 1991. As early as 1989 when it became evident that the Soviet Union was in a period of decline, 16 frigates of the Garcia and Brooke class frigates and guided missile frigates were decommissioned as a cost-savings measure.30 The manpower cuts determined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in the creation of the post-Cold War “Base Force” further accelerated the retirement of the personnel-heavy steam warship fleet. The 34 units of the Adams and Farragut-class destroyers followed into retirement in 1990 and 1991, and the upgraded steam cruisers of the Leahy and Belknap followed in the early 1990s.31 The numerous Knox-class frigates were also decommissioned by the mid 1990s, with an abortive attempt to retain some as reserve frigates ended in 1994.
In all, 114 steam-powered cruisers, destroyers, frigates were retired in the period 1989-1995. It is open to debate how long these ships could have been retained had the Cold War continued, but given their age and maximum thirty year service life, it is improbable that enough could have remained in commissioned long enough to be steadily replaced by newly constructed Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the 1990s and 2000s.32
Peacetime naval buildups are difficult and face uncertain sustainability if the force structures they create are not soon called to active combat. Like the British in 1889 and the U.S. in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy is attempting a significant peacetime naval buildup without an immediate conflict on the horizon (unlike the U.S. “Two Ocean Navy” buildup of 1938 to 1940 when World War 2 was already underway.) Like the Royal Navy of the middle and late 18th century, it now finds that even modest reductions can inhibit low-end presence and limited war operations. The U.S. Navy may also discover that rapid technological advances in data processing, artificial intelligence, hypersonic and directed energy weapons can render much of any fleet additions obsolete less than 10-15 years into a 30-40 year life span. Open architecture systems and the modular weight, space, and connectivity of the unfairly maligned littoral combat ship (LCS) might allow that ship type to deploy capabilities yet unplanned or conceived when they were constructed. Such ships can also be constructed in larger numbers than their larger, much more technically complex cousins. It may still be difficult to maintain a fleet of any relevant size given these challenges.
The U.S. Navy has however taken some positive steps to increase fleet size and simplify the process of maintaining that fleet longer and at best cost. The Cold War-era classification of surface warships (cruiser, destroyer, frigate, patrol,) is giving way to one of large and small surface combatant (LSC and SSC.)33 Historically, a reduction in the number of individual classes by merger has been a good way to reduce costs. The British Royal Navy combined the predreadnought battleship and fast armored cruiser into first the battle cruiser and then the fast battleship. The introduction of open architecture combat systems and vertical launch capability for weapons has made the process of updating much easier than in the past. The Navy has requested that the new FFG(X) class have as much commonality with current ships as possible.34 More reductions in the acquisition and test and evaluation bureaucracy can help this process as well. The LCS, for example, must undergo another round of operational testing every time one of its mission modules gets a new piece of equipment. This sort of endless testing only delays programs and results in cost increases as do the additional layers of “oversight” added to an already over-burdened Navy.
Peacetime naval buildups in periods when war is not imminent are historically difficult, and no one should expect immediate results in the absence of large budget deficits. As history shows, sometimes a reduction in overall numbers of ships is required in order to build new construction necessary to grow the fleet. Solutions for managing such efforts include not reducing the fleet to a point where even a modest increase is difficult; avoiding the pitfalls of rapidly advancing technology that can make today’s force structure rapidly out of date, combining classes of ships into fewer types of ships with more commonality, and avoiding politically-driven fleet sizes that cannot be retained without herculean efforts. The U.S. Navy can increase in size and capability, but it won’t happen overnight in what remains a peacetime environment.
Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. These views are his own.
1. Jack Coggins, Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, p. 22.