The Middle Way: A Balanced Approach to Growing America’s Navy

NAFAC Week

By Riley Jones

During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump made the size and strength of America’s naval force a key aspect of his defense platform, arguing that the fleet should be increased in order to give policy-makers a diverse array of options to deal with threats and emergencies.1 Others stress that the size of the Navy is completely sufficient to deal with any and all potentialities, particularly given the fact that the United States currently possesses the only 10 nuclear-powered supercarriers in the world; this advantage precludes any serious challenge from the likes of near-peer competitors and ensures American dominance of the seas for the foreseeable future.2 However, these extremes fail to recognize the realities of a constrained and competitive national budgetary environment and the growing inadequacies of the current fleet to deal with limited-scope challenges from rising near-peer states. The United States Navy should adopt an intermediate approach to growing the fleet in order to maintain a favorable balance of power while also making efficient use of limited budgetary resources.

Critics of a proposed buildup in naval forces often focus on the current advantage that the United States enjoys over every other nation, particularly the fact that all supercarriers are currently American. They note that America possesses an overwhelming dominance in terms of “carriers, nuclear submarines, naval aviation, surface firepower, assault ships, missiles and logistics.”3 However, they fail to take into account what the most likely conflicts with China and other near-peers like Russia would look like. Carl von Clausewitz distinguished between warfare waged in order to obtain the complete annihilation of the enemy’s military capability and warfare waged in order to shift and renegotiate the balance of power between two sides.4

An engagement with China, for example, would likely be limited in scope and not involve either side seeking the total or even significant destruction of the other’s military force, let alone the use of nuclear weapons.5 During such an engagement, there would be a focus from the enemy on the deployment of anti-access, area-denial weaponry to push American carriers out of aircraft range of the mainland and immediate coastal waters, as well as potential sea lanes; this would deny America the ability to rapidly retaliate, leaving U.S. allies without key air defenses and vulnerable to a blockade by Chinese forces.6

Those who wish to maintain the current status quo in naval forces or even implement a reduction also fail to realize the dangers of the current operational tempo to the long-term health of the fleet. In order to ensure three supercarriers are on deployment continuously throughout the world, it is necessary to maintain a fleet of twelve, as for each carrier on assignment, three are heading to replace it or are training, returning home from deployment, and undergoing maintenance, yet the Navy has been deferring maintenance and lengthening deployments in order to accomplish the same mission with only 10 carriers.7

Conversely, some argue that the United States must engage in a drastic naval build-up. President Trump’s current proposal includes an increase in the number of carriers to 12 and of the total ships to 350.8 Such a force, he maintains, is necessary for the United States to be able to meet any rising security threats across the globe and to continue to ensure the freedom of the seas. Rear Admiral Thomas Moore stated that the Navy is “an 11 carrier Navy in a 15 carrier world.”9 While aircraft carriers, as outlined previously, are rightfully integral to America’s vision for its navy, there is a danger in building such an expansively large force.

The first is the danger of spreading resources too thin and exacerbating current budgetary instability. The Ford-class aircraft carries costs upwards of $10 billion per ship, while the Virginia-class attack submarine and littoral combat ships have price tags of $3 billion and $500 million respectively.10 The Defense Department must already compete for funding and such a large increase in the naval force would result in even greater budget deficits or cuts to domestic spending, neither of which are tenable in the long-term. These unpopular solutions may reduce political support for the continuance of such a large force in the future and the additional maintenance of non-vital vessels will prevent investment in technologies that will ultimately allow the United States to counter measures such as anti-access, area denial.11

Second, growing the fleet more than necessary to maintain America’s ability to field three carriers and project power across the world would be seen by near-peers as a sign of aggression, likely to cause an escalation of tensions. While maintenance of naval capability may be seen as the United States holding ground and taking a primarily defensive posture in relation to its role in world affairs, a large build-up of naval forces will be depicted as aggressive because it would enable the United States to, in their view, become more involved in world affairs.12 Naval forces are difficult to classify as either offensive or defensive in nature because of their mobility and the differing nature of naval warfare regarding territorial possession, but an increase beyond the current strategy of three deployed carriers would exacerbate tensions because of the perception that the United States was seeking to further tip the balance of power in its favor, rather than maintain its current advantage.13 Much like those who would maintain or shrink the force, proponents of such a large growth ignore the reality that an engagement would have a “limited aim” which would not be the total defeat of opposing forces, but to maintain the balance of power for America and, for our enemies, to encourage a retreat of American forces.14 We should therefor prepare our forces to be able to dominate in this “trial of strength” with our competitors so that they conclude challenging the status quo the United States maintains is too costly for them.15

Riley Jones is a junior at Indiana University from Marion, Indiana. He is studying Political Science and Anthropology with a minor in German. After graduation, he hopes to serve his nation as a United States Marine Corps Officer.

Bibliography

Donnelly, Thomas. “You Say You Want a Revolution?” American Enterprise Institute, March 15, 2017. https://www.aei.org/publication/you-say-you-want-a-revolution/.

Easterbrook, Gregg., “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

Friedberg, Aaron L., Ross, Robert S., “Here Be Dragons: Is China a Military Threat?” The National Interest, 103. September/October 2009.

Kraig, Michael R., “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017.

Larter, David B., “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

Levy, Jack S., “The Offensive/Defensive Balance of Military Technology,” in Conflict After the Cold War. ed. Richard K. Betts (Columbia University, Pearson Press. 2012). p. 444

McGrath, Bryan., Eaglen, Mackenzie., “America’s Navy needs 12 carriers and 3 hubs,” American Enterprise Institute, March 11, 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/americas-navy-needs-12-carriers-and-3-hubs/.

Shear, Michael D., “Touring Warship, Trump Pushes Plan to Expand Military,” New York Times, March 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/trump-navy-warship-military-spending.html.

1. David B. Larter, “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

2. Gregg Easterbrook, “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

3. Gregg Easterbrook, “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

4. Michael R. Kraig, “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017. p. 102.

5. Aaron L. Friedberg, Robert S. Ross, “Here Be Dragons: Is China a Military Threat?” The National Interest, 103. September/October 2009. p. 22

6. Ibid. p. 23

7. Bryan McGrath, Mackenzie Eaglen, “America’s Navy needs 12 carriers and 3 hubs,” American Enterprise Institute, March 11, 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/americas-navy-needs-12-carriers-and-3-hubs/.

8. Michael D. Shear, “Touring Warship, Trump Pushes Plan to Expand Military,” New York Times, March 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/trump-navy-warship-military-spending.html.

9. David B. Larter, “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

10. Ibid.

11. Thomas Donnelly. “You Say You Want a Revolution?” American Enterprise Institute, March 15, 2017. https://www.aei.org/publication/you-say-you-want-a-revolution/.

12. Jack S. Levy, “The Offensive/Defensive Balance of Military Technology,” in Conflict After the Cold War. ed. Richard K. Betts (Columbia University, Pearson Press. 2012). p. 444

13. Ibid., 446

14. Michael R. Kraig, “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017. p. 102

15. Ibid. 120

Featured Image: ARABIAN GULF: Sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) participate in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk to increase awareness for suicide prevention. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Casey J. Hopkins)

One thought on “The Middle Way: A Balanced Approach to Growing America’s Navy”

  1. Riley,
    I appreciate this piece. I would consider using the USCG for the power projection and maintaining the balance in the world, much like Russia and China are doing now with their fleets of militia/fishing vessels.
    Think about it, the service is battle tested, and maintains authorities to do Title 10/14/50 and all customs authorities. Wouldn’t it make sense to make investments here in increasing fleet size and upgunning the service?
    Expansion of the Coast Guard answers both international power projection needs as well as domestic issues. Finally, these actions are their core functions dating back to their founding and initial role in the War of the Barbary States.

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