Tag Archives: Budget

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt. 2

By David Tier

America has grown weary of the post-9/11 wars. Long, drawn-out conflicts have worn down American resolve and left many defense officials nostalgic for “the good-old days” when adversaries were easier to describe and devoted military efforts toward preparing for conventional warfare. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. Navy has capitalized on growing disillusionment and sought to exaggerate the military challenges posed by an ascendant China for parochial benefit in terms of gaining larger budgets and greater quantities of more expensive ships. The Navy should consider an external strategy review that accounts for efficiency as an aspect of its operating concept. This article reviews America’s current naval strategy and is divided into two parts. Previously, Part 1 analyzed U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2, below, will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 

The Right-Sized Force

The Navy currently possesses 279 combat ships, including 11 supercarriers.1 An analysis of the platforms required to accomplish each mission reveals that, by procuring greater numbers of surface warfare ships such as frigates, the Navy could accomplish its five core missions while growing the number of ships in the fleet, lowering its average shipbuilding cost, and increasing its relevance in the defense arena to a greater extent than in more a decade. Rather than seeking to overcome advanced threats operating in their own territorial waters (an over-ambitious and possibly suicidal strategy unlikely to be needed), the Navy could come fully onboard with the existing 21st century task of discriminating between shadowy enemies that hide amidst innocent bystanders across the globe. The Navy could, indeed, provide a fleet with more total ships at a fraction of its planned budget and improve its brown-water capabilities necessary to confront pirates, terrorists, and less-capable regional adversaries by developing a larger, but less expensive fleet of 319 ships, and by maintaining eight carriers instead of the planned 11. In turn, this fleet would accomplish the Navy’s missions and yield significant cost savings.

The Navy’s first mission requires the nation’s defense from maritime attacks in naval theaters along the East and West coasts of the continental United States, off Alaska and Hawaii, and territories in the Caribbean Sea and Western Pacific Ocean. Since the main naval threat to the United States is primarily ballistic missile submarines, this mission requires the continuously operating presence of six multi-role naval task forces, one for each maritime defense area, primarily to conduct ASW and to a lesser extent ballistic missile defense (BMD).

The Navy would specifically tailor each task force to its geographic area and utilize advantageous aspects of the “distributed lethality” concept by deploying small surface action groups as well as independent ships and attack submarines forward to detect and track boomers, while positioning naval BMD assets in optimal locations complementary to land-based BMD systems in order to intercept either the most dangerous or most likely paths of inbound ballistic missiles, as necessary. In total, a force of six guided-missile cruisers, 12 guided-missile destroyers, 24 frigates, six oceanic surveillance ships, 12 attack submarines, 10 airborne ASW patrol squadrons, and major systems such as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS; e.g. SOSUS), and the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) could reasonably accomplish the task.

Nuclear deterrence remains necessary to protect the nation from attack and, as is standard practice, eight ballistic missile submarines would continually patrol the seas to provide nuclear strike capability.2 Only anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability for self-defense would be necessary in this mission since the Air Force and Air National Guard are well-equipped to defend the nation against surface threats within range of America’s shores.3 Therefore, this mission requires neither aircraft carrier nor expeditionary strike groups. The Navy should strictly focus on defending against direct military threats to the nation’s territory while the U.S. Coast Guard should maintain its national security VBSS role, since it enjoys comparative economic advantage in national security tasks while close to home.

The second mission requires the Navy to establish SLOC security to friendly foreign waters, as military necessity dictates. Naval forces would only need to perform this mission during wartime, as opposed to the first mission, which requires continuous deployment. Therefore, the Navy would not require an indefinite rotational sea presence to fulfill this mission. Employed with tactical wisdom, the Navy could economize forces by operating the first two missions in tandem while simultaneously taking advantage of geographic barriers to sea traffic in the North Atlantic, Southeast Asia, and Oceania as well as other channelized waterways, and could lessen the number of single-purpose ships separately tasked to secure commercial ships from threats they might encounter far from America’s coasts. It is possible that this mission could be performed with no further forces whatsoever; however, to conservatively guard against a wide-variety of threats and specific circumstances, the Navy should procure the additional capability to simultaneously escort two large convoys in the open ocean. This would allow commercial traffic to continue with minimal disruption.

In 2013, there was a median commercial traffic flow of 441 container ships per month unloading in U.S. ports.4 Assuming that an anti-shipping threat could not engage half of these ships either because their routes crossed oceans they could not effectively operate in, or due to the effectiveness of forces already listed, the Navy would only need to escort about 200 ships per month of conflict. The duration of Navy escort tasks in this mission could last as long as one month because, given sea-lane transit times, a ship might have to journey as long as 32 days to reach the furthest destinations.5 Kaufmann noted that a task force composed of one destroyer, nine frigates, and a supply ship could sufficiently escort 100 transports at a time.To ease the ASW burden on the surface ships somewhat as well as adding some minesweeping capability, an additional two attack submarines, airborne ASW patrol squadron, and a minesweeper7 per task force would round out the requirement. Therefore, to counter against the varied military threats to commercial shipping such as hostile attack submarines, long-range attack aircraft, surface vessels, and mines, the Navy could employ two task forces composed of a total of two destroyers, 18 frigates, two minesweepers, four attack submarines, their attendant support ships, and two airborne ASW patrol squadrons. With substantial ASW and ASuW capability, moderate AAW capability and, combined with Air Force tactical support, these forces would likely defeat any projected threat that could seek to deny American commercial shipping access to friendly ports. These forces could protect American commerce from the East Coast to the Suez Canal, from the West Coast to Sydney, or from either direction into shore destinations along the Indian Ocean for that matter. As before, this mission requires neither aircraft carrier nor expeditionary strike groups.

The third mission graduates from defensive missions and nuclear deterrence that each seek to guard American interests, to offensive conventional capabilities that seek to destroy enemy naval forces maneuvering in a theater of war. Since the 2012 National Defense Strategy calls for the U.S. military’s capability to defeat one regional aggressor while denying the objectives of a second,8 and since nothing yet suggested by the Trump Administration indicates this paradigm will significantly change, the Navy should only require the capability to defeat the maritime forces of one-and-a-half regional aggressors for this mission. This is a half-step down from the nation’s previous desire to procure forces that could simultaneously defeat the militaries of two discreet adversaries. The Navy could perform this third mission by adding two carrier strike groups (CSG) and two expeditionary strike groups (ESG) on top of the previously listed forces. Depending on the tactical situation and the naval commander’s judgment, these forces could operate either as one CSG and one ESG in each theater, or two CSGs in one theater and the two ESGs in the other. The CSGs give the Navy a significant ability to strike enemy surface combatants and attack aircraft, while the ESGs give the joint force commander the ability to raid enemy forces on land as well as some AAW, ASuW, and strike capability. Multiple carriers give the U.S. force the ability to operate round-the-clock. In total, this mission results in an additional force requirement of two aircraft carriers with their carrier air wings, two amphibious assault carriers with their multi-role fixed-wing aircraft, four cruisers, six destroyers, four frigates, three minesweepers, six attack submarines, two amphibious assault carriers, and their attendant support ships.

The fourth mission involves defeating anti-access strategies in order to gain access to contested theaters of operation. As with previous missions, gaining access adds to force requirements and the Navy can use forces already operating in their stead to contribute, so long as adding tasks does not compromise the previous missions. The Navy could employ a total of four carrier groups to accomplish this mission and realistically incur no more than moderate risk. In fact, in all but one conceivable instance, even four carrier groups might be overkill. In all other cases, significant airpower can be generated from land-based airfields. Furthermore, the Navy does not need any additional ESGs for this mission because it requires only gaining access to the theater, not establishing footholds on land or otherwise driving out ground forces while simultaneously conducting a holding action in another theater. Therefore, the Navy requires an additional two carriers, two cruisers, eight destroyers, six frigates, three minesweepers, four attack submarines, and the standard compliment of support ships for this fourth mission. Combined with the forces previously listed, including two ESGs, this total force enables the Navy to gain access to contested theaters of operation.

The fifth and final mission, power projection, defines the remaining forces that the Navy would need. Projecting power is an important capability to procure, and precedents established in the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrate the level of capability that the Navy needs to operate at peak. An additional two CSGs and three ESGs are necessary to defeat an adversary’s defense of his coastline and establish a foothold on land to allow continued operations further inland. Even under difficult conditions, with little allied support and no land-based staging area to prepare for an invasion, this total force of six CSGs and four ESGs would be a force too formidable for enemies to resist. The Air Force, other joint forces, and allies could hold adversaries at bay in other theaters if geography required the Navy to concentrate on a single maritime-focused theater but, most likely, joint and allied forces would also contribute to the Navy’s mission in substantial and meaningful ways. This force adds a requirement of two carriers, six cruisers, seven destroyers, three frigates, five attack submarines, six amphibious assault carriers, and their attendant support and supply ships to the fleet.

Table 1. Summary of  Proposed Fleet Changes
CVN 11 8 -3
CG 22 23 1
DDG 62 44 -18
LCS/FF + FFG11 11 65 54
SSN 53 39 -14
LPD 9 10 1
LSD 12 10 -2
AGOS 5 18 13
JHSV 4 10 6
MLP 2 5 3
HST 1 10 9
Carrier Air Wing 9 8 -1

These five missions result in total operational requirements of six carriers, 19 cruisers, 37 destroyers, 56 frigates, eight minesweepers, 33 attack submarines, eight ballistic missile submarines, eight amphibious assault carriers, 12 long-range airborne patrol squadrons, seven oceanic surveillance ships, and additional amphibious and support ships, air wings, helicopter squadrons, as well as the IUSS and NOSS. This force is not yet the total force the Navy needs in inventory, however. Since it would be nearly impossible to sail the entire fleet, the Navy needs additional ships to remain in port and allow for training, maintenance, as well as to compensate for potential combat losses.

The Navy insists that, due to maintenance and training requirements, only one-third of its carrier force may be available for routine deployment at any given time and, in an extended crisis, about half could deploy in support of combat operations.12 According to a naval force generation analyst, the Navy could put only six out of 10 carriers to sea to fight a war.13 The rate of routine deployment seems to be a bit better for the rest of the fleet, though, where approximately 40 percent of the ships are deployed at any time and greater than two-thirds are available in war.14

The fact that only such a small fraction of the fleet is deployable is simply unacceptable. The Navy must work to improve its deployment rates to achieve a capability where at least 80 percent of the fleet could put to sea if necessary. One possible solution would be to increase the number of ships homeported overseas to decrease transoceanic transit times. Although this could increase maintenance costs by 15 percent,15 the increased operational tempo would reduce the number of ships necessary to hold in maintenance and training reserve. Moreover, the resulting procurement savings would significantly outweigh the increased maintenance costs. Another possible solution could be to invest more research-and-development funding into operational readiness improvement rather than developing new platforms. This would help advance new technologies and methods that could enable ships to require less maintenance, last longer, and generally increase readiness.

Regardless of how the Navy decides to improve its deployment rates, a solution must be found. In contrast, even the Air Force, despite the complexity of possessing the most sophisticated and technologically advanced equipment in all the Services, has historically been able to maintain consistent readiness rates above 80 percent for their critical combat platforms.16 Perpetually withholding so many ships in reserve is wasteful, inefficient, and may be the result of institutional complacency. In a declared war, a 11-carrier Navy would ideally confront an enemy with all 11 of its carriers. Likewise, an eight-carrier Navy should bring all eight carriers to bear. Once satisfying this requirement, the Navy would require enough ships so that 40 percent of its inventory would be enough to conduct the continual deployments described in the first mission, and that the total requirements across all missions should compose no less than 80 percent of that inventory.

 These stipulations produce the total number of ships that the Navy would need. In sum, the Navy would need 319 ships including eight carriers, 23 cruisers, 12 fixed-wing ASW patrol squadrons, 39 attack submarines, 12 ballistic missile submarines, 10 amphibious assault carriers, and 18 oceanic surveillance ships.17 Having determined the fleet’s size, we can determine its cost and compare it to the Navy’s present and planned inventories to ascertain potential savings.

Comparison, Trade-offs, and Budget Implications

The Navy’s inefficiently planned fleet provides three more supercarriers, 18 more guided-missile destroyers, but surprisingly, one less guided-missile cruiser than the efficient fleet proposed here. Although providing the Navy more firepower, this plan sinks a lot more money. On the other hand, the fleet proposed here adds 13 frigates and four amphibious assault ships to what the Navy plans, returns dedicated minesweepers to the fleet, and adds a small number of support ships as combat multipliers.18 This force sacrifices some firepower but improves brown-water niche capabilities that are more appropriate for the present and future strategic environment. Overall, it adds 13 ships over the current plan and is much more economical.

The savings come from the big ticket items. A Ford-class carrier costs almost $13B to build.19 Procuring its air wing costs another $5.5B.20 Ticonderoga-class cruisers cost $1B21 and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers $1.8B each.22 The savings would be even greater for destroyers if one considers that Zumwalt-class could cost an estimated $4.4B per ship.23 Alternative platforms are far less expensive. Independence-class littoral combat ships cost about $479M,24 and Avenger-class mine counter measure vessels cost $277M.25 Consequently, there are force mixes considerably cheaper and more germane to the Navy’s missions than large numbers of aircraft carriers. In comparison, the proposed fleet saves $63 billion over the 40-year plan in procurement and shipbuilding costs alone (see Table 2). However, life-cycle and total acquisition savings would be even greater. Spar Associates, Inc. estimates that capital costs are only about 18 percent of life-cycle costs.26 Therefore, the proposed fleet could yield $340 billion in savings over the duration of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan.

Table 2. Comparison of Planned vs. Proposed Fleet27
CVN 11 8 -3 38.04
CG + DDG 88 67 -21 31.4
LCS/FF30 52 65 13 -6.227
SSN 48 39 -9 23.4
Amphibs 33 37 4 -7.4
SSBN 12 12 0 0
SSGN 0 0 0 0
MCM 0 10 10 -2.77
JHSV 10 10 0 0
Supply ships 29 32 3 -1.5
Other 23 39 16 -12.16
Total 306 319 13 62.783

Furthermore, in offering capabilities more likely to be used rather than far-fetched shore assaults originating from the open ocean, the Navy would improve the utility it has lacked for stability operations in the Middle East. The Navy would improve its counter-piracy and counterterrorist capabilities by increasing its number of small surface combatants. One could quibble about the mixture of frigates, minesweepers, and support ships in the Navy’s portfolio of small vessels, but the point is that these platforms are more important than task forces designed to project power in the current strategic environment. Instead of exaggerating carrier requirements, the Navy should concentrate its investments on less expensive platforms such as surface combatants, submarines, and shore-based patrol aircraft. The Navy should not completely relinquish its capability to establish sea-based air superiority, of course, and should increase its support of the Marines’ capability to seize footholds on land. However, the Navy should field an appropriate level of fixed wing airpower to support national military interests without overly burdening the defense budget.

One implication in reducing the number of carriers would be to decrease steady-state operational deployments. Only two or three carriers are presently deployed at a given time, with two deployed and one in-transit to or from home station.31 If the Navy reduced its carrier inventory from 11 to 8, only two carriers would be at sea during normal, peacetime conditions. Carrier deployments deter aggression and reassure allies, and reducing deployments would incur the risk that only one carrier would be actively operating in a forward area at a time while a second carrier transited to or from home station. Nevertheless, this transiting carrier could always turn around and move anywhere in the world in an average of 12 days32 and therefore at least two carrier groups would remain at sea at all times. If combatant commanders sought to request greater carrier presence than this force could provide, then the Department of Defense should audit the overall presence requirements that commanders request, and seek more inexpensive carrier substitutes such as Air Force tactical fighter squadrons where possible. Even deploying Navy carrier air wings without their embarked carrier would be a far cheaper solution. There are few places where a naval sea base would be necessary.

There has been good news for carrier enthusiasts recently, however, now that the Navy increased its carrier inventory to 11 with the commissioning of USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78, on July 22, 2017.33 Under the planned acquisition schedule, the Navy will even commission a twelfth supercarrier in 2020, then alternately vary its carrier supply between 12 and 11 through 2040 by replacing carriers at nearly the same time they retire. The Navy’s plan is to then lower its inventory to 9 carriers after 2053.34 Rather than seeking to decommission excess ships ahead of schedule and quickly reduce the carrier inventory to 8 as this proposal might imply, however, it would be more efficient to finish building the carriers already under construction, allow existing carriers to serve their planned lives, and then allow the inventory to decrease without replacing retiring carriers until the correct level has been reached. As an alternative to the Navy’s present plan, if the Navy ceased carrier procurement after completing the second Ford-class carrier under construction and allowed existing carriers to complete their service and retire in their 50th year, and then begin replacing carriers only when the inventory dipped to 8, the Navy could cancel construction of three aircraft carriers in the next 35 years and save $38 billion in current dollars for carrier procurement costs alone.35 

Altogether, the Navy could save an estimated total of $340 billion over 40 years. Though one of Candidate Donald Trump’s expressed desires while campaigning for President was to build a 350-ship Navy, the Administration’s budget has not yet supported that desire with funding requests.36 For whatever additional future funding requests the Trump Administration makes for the Navy, this proposal would also add that margin to potential savings. Some might argue that by allowing 16 years to elapse between the construction of CVN-79 and CVN-80 as proposed here, America’s carrier-building infrastructure might atrophy. This would certainly be another risk, but what are the opportunity costs for continuing to build carriers at the planned rate, and are their national defense priorities that are more important to pursue?

Would it be Worth it?

In the grand scheme of the federal budget, $340 billion over 40 years may not seem like much. However, it could provide for close to four years of an Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)-like ground force deployment at the 2014 level of activity,37 or many smaller-sized but longer-lasting counterterrorism operations. This leads to a final question for decision-makers to consider: would the benefits gained in providing four more years of an OEF-sized operation outweigh the risk incurred by allowing the Navy’s carrier fleet to decline from 11 to 8?

The answer is “yes.” Consider the fact that there were no terrorist attacks against the United States during the entire time the Bush Administration pursued aggressive military action in Iraq, but there have been several attacks on American soil since the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is not a coincidence. Military operations in the Middle East probably reduced the threat to the U.S. by attracting terrorist activity elsewhere. The operation allowed military personnel to confront terrorists on foreign soil rather than subjecting police and homeland defense officials like Transportation Security Agency officers to deal with attacks at home. If American military activity in the Middle East decreases, the number of attacks against the U.S. will rise…perhaps catastrophically.

On the other hand, if operations in the Middle East continue at their present rate such as in Afghanistan, or if ISIS, Yemen, or some other potential problem area requires commitment of ground forces, the nation will find its ground forces already exhausted, overburdened, and insufficiently provided for in order to accomplish new tasks. Financial resources will have to be diverted from other accounts to accommodate them, and waiting until the last moment will have further consequences. High operational tempo has already eroded the training and readiness of America’s ground forces. America should pursue a grand strategy of democratization in these troubled regions, and this requires a greater number of resources dedicated to ground operations in the Middle East which, in turn, will reduce the number of terrorist attacks against the United States.

Although civilian leadership might abhor the idea of continued ground operations in the Middle East, military advisors must recognize reality and advise apolitically. Ground combat operations must continue for the sake of American national security, and each Service needs to perform its role to support them even if it means taking cuts in favored programs like aircraft carriers. As Kaufmann found 30 years ago, the Navy should “knock it off” with attempts to maintain a double digit-sized carrier fleet and should recommend against the pivot to the Asia-Pacific for the nation’s greater defense interests. To do otherwise puts all Americans – civilians  and service members – at risk. 

David Tier is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He holds a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, has served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, a tour of duty in the Pentagon, and has authored several articles.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.


[1] Department of the Navy, “Naval Vessel Register,” as of August 1, 2017, available online at http://www.nvr.navy.mil/NVRSHIPS/FLEETSIZE.HTML

[2] Hans M. Kristensen, “Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces,” (Washington, D.C.: Federation of American Scientists, December 2012), 15.

[3] As demonstrated by routine air intercepts of Russian reconnaissance flights as well as potential homeland security threats.

[4] USDOT waterborne trade statistics (available at http://www.marad.dot.gov/library_landing_page/data_and_statistics/Data_and_Statistics.htm) indicate that 1.259B metric tons of goods were shipped into an out of American ports in 2013. Since the median container ship holds about 5000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), this yields about 441 container ships per month in and out of U.S. ports. According to page 2 of the CRS report titled “Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues for Congress” by John F. Fritelli dated May 27, 2005, there were on average 500 ships per month transiting U.S. ports in 2003, which is in the same ballpark as figures derived for 2013.

[5] See powerpoint press release by Rear Admiral William K. Lescher, USN, “FY 2015 President’s Budget,” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2014), 3.

[6] William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 64.

[7] Although the Navy has recently decided to discontinue dedicated minesweeping platforms in favor of the mine countermeasure mission package of the littoral combat ship, minesweepers are more cost effective for the particular task. According to Michael Zennie at The Daily Mail, an Avenger-class minesweeper costs $277M per ship, while according to a Congressional study, littoral combat ships cost $479M per ship. Accordingly, the Navy should continue to procure minesweepers rather than replacing them with littoral combat ships/frigates; see Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2015), 2; and Michael Zennie, “The U.S. Navy’s $277 Million pile of scrap,” January 30, 2013, available online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270395/U-S-Navy-hack-61million-minesweeper-ship-pieces-remove-sensitive-reef-near-Philippines.html, accessed on April 7, 2015.

[8] Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” (Washington, DC: DOD, January 2012), 4.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] See appendix for a complete listing of platforms required, including support ships.

[11] The Navy is seeking to replace its remaining Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates with the new littoral combat ship. Just a short time ago, Perry-class frigates were slated to retire without replacement and the littoral combat ship was intended to fulfill a different, but overlapping, set of brown-water capabilities supposedly not addressed by the frigate. According to the Secretary of the Navy, however, the littoral combat ship will be reclassified as a frigate and given “FF” hull registry numbers. This acknowledges the need for a traditional frigate and reduces the distinction between the tasks littoral combat ships were intended to perform that Perry-class frigates had not already done. For the purposes of this analysis, littoral combat ships and frigates will be grouped in the same category as frigate, and consider the main role of a frigate to be as an escort to high-value ships. The frigate is primarily an ASW platform, but can also perform secondary roles such as ASuW, AAW, and other general-purpose tasks to a lesser extent. Frigates can perform brown-water tasks by utilizing helicopter search as well as with small-craft borne visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams; See Sam Lagrone, “SNA: Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates,” USNI.org, January 15, 2015, available online at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/15/sna-modified-littoral-combat-ship-class-changed-fast-frigate, accessed on March 30, 2015.

[12] U.S. Navy Captain(Ret.) Marty Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?” Forbes.com, available online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/07/17/why-does-the-united-states-only-have-eleven-aircraft-carriers/, accessed on October 16, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Department of the Navy, “FY2015 President’s Budget,” March 2014, 3. 

[15] John Pendleton, “Navy Force Structure: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 2015), 14-17.

[16] Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Meserve, “USAF Maintenance Metrics,” Department of the Air Force presentation, 2007, slide 5,  available online at http://www.sae.org/events/dod/presentations/2007LtColJeffMeserve.pdf, accessed on August 7, 2017.

[17] Department of the Navy, “Naval Vessel Register,” as of August 1, 2017, available online at http://www.nvr.navy.mil/NVRSHIPS/FLEETSIZE.HTML; This analysis identifies a requirement for 20 SSBNs, but defers to the Navy’s analysis as an exception in this instance.

[18] These additional supply ships could facilitate greater numbers of small, dispersed task forces as well as enable more frequent resupply that may occur by increased ammunition expenditure.

[19] Average cost of Ford-class carrier is $12.68 billion each according to O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program:  Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, October 22, 2013, 4. 

[20] Jones Arvino, “How much does a carrier strike group cost?,” Quora.com, available online at https://www.quora.com/How-much-does-a-carrier-strike-group-cost, accessed on August, 5, 2017; this figures uses the cost of 48 F/A-18s rather than 20 F-35s and 24 F/A-18s, whose costs are close enough for comparison.

[21] U.S. Navy Fact File on Ticonderoga Cruiser, available online at http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=800&ct=4, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[22] O’Rourke, “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 19 April 2011, 6, 12, and 25; since 1 and 2 ships are procured in alternate years and the “1 in a year” ships cost more, the fairest estimate of unit price comes from averaging three ships across two years. US$50-300m is spent on long lead-time items in the year before the main procurement of each ship. DDG-114 and DDG-115 together cost US$577.2m (FY2010) + US$2,922.2m (FY2011) = US$3,499.4m, (p25) and DDG-116 cost US$48m (FY2011) + US$1,980.7m (FY2012) = US$2,028.7m, (p12) making an average for the three ships of US$1,847.2m. DDG-113 cost US$2,234.4m. (p6)

[23] Jeff Daniels, “Navy’s costly and controversial Zumwalt ship may get second look by Trump,” CNBC.com, December 1, 2016, available online at https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/01/navys-costly–and-controversial–zumwalt-ship-may-get-second-look-by-trump.html, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[24] O’Rourke, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)/Frigate Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” 2.

[25] Michael Zennie, “The U.S. Navy’s latest $277 Million pile of scrap: Minesweeper will hacked to pieces after it ran aground on reef off Philippines,” The Daily Mail, January 30, 2013, available online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270395/U-S-Navy-hack-61million-minesweeper-ship-pieces-remove-sensitive-reef-near-Philippines.html, accessed on August 5, 2017.

[26] Spar Associates, Inc. presentation, “Naval Ship Life Cycle Cost (LCC) Model,”3, available online at http://www.sparusa.com/Presentations/Presentation-Military%20Ship%20Life%20Cycle%20Cost%20(LCC)%20Model.pdf,accessed on March 30, 2015.

[27] Complete Microsoft Excel file available upon formal request.

[28] O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2015, 2.

[29] As described in this article.

[30] Sam Lagrone, “SNA: Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates,” USNI.org, January 15, 2015, available online at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/15/sna-modified-littoral-combat-ship-class-changed-fast-frigate, accessed on March 30, 2015.

[31] Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?”

[32] See powerpoint press release by Rear Admiral William K. Lescher, USN, “FY 2015 President’s Budget,” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2014), 3.

[33] Peter Baker, “U.S. Navy Opens New Era With Commissioning of Gerald R. Ford,” July 22, 2017, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/us/politics/ford-class-aircraft-carrier-commissioning.html, accessed on August 4, 2017. 

[34] Assuming that the Navy procures one carrier every five years as planned; Congressional Budget Office, “Stop Building Ford Class Aircraft Carriers,” November 13, 2013, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2013/44769, accessed on October 28, 2014. 

[35] O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program:  Background and Issues for Congress,” 4. 

[36] Sydney J. Freedburg, Jr., “No 350-Ship Navy From This Trump Budget,” May 19, 2017, available online at http://breakingdefense.com/2017/05/no-350-ship-navy-from-this-trump-budget/, accessed on August 4, 2017.

[37] Based on the FY14 Overseas Contingency Operations request for OEF; “Addendum A:  Overseas Contingency Operations,” (Washington, D.C.:  Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer, 2013), 1.

Featured Image: NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. (Sept. 18, 2017) Sailors watch from the hangar bay of USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as the ship passes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jackson G. Brown/Released)

‘A Fiscal Pearl Harbor’

I will focus more of this discussion on the first 20 years of the Navy’s plan, covering the years 2016 through 2035, because the third decade of the Navy’s plan is necessarily quite speculative. Nevertheless, keeping an eye on the longer, 30-year perspective is important. While it is true that the nature of warfare, technology, and costs cannot be predicted decades into the future, it is today’s decisions that are most important for the long-run perspective. The President proposes a budget and Congress makes appropriations year-to-year. The Department of Defense provides Congress with a five-year Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), but without the presence of the 30-year plan, the long-range effect on the Navy of the incremental decisions made in each year’s budget cycle would not be understood. For example, in the 1990s, the service built an average of one submarine every other year, and that low rate of construction had no effect on the existing inventory, because coming off the boon years of the 1980s, the attack submarine force was young. Submarine procurement could be reduced during the 1990s without affecting the existing force structure at all. But in the next decade those decisions would manifest themselves in a declining SSN force in a world that today looks like it will get more dangerous and more competitive, not less, and for which some observers of international and naval affairs think having more submarines would be a valuable asset for the Navy.

What to Buy and at What Cost?

Between 2016 and 2035, the Navy plans to buy 178 ships, including 12 expensive Ohio -class replacement ballistic-missile submarines. The rest of those purchases comprise 4 aircraft carriers, 28 attack submarines, 40 large surface combatants, 35 littoral combat ships (LCSs) and frigates, 16 amphibious ships, and 43 combat logistics and support ships.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 10.41.08 PM
J. M. Caiella – The Ohio-class sub replacement (SSBN – X) is “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to the Navy’s shipbuilding ledger. “At around $6 billion apiece, buying those new boomers poses a substantial fiscal and budgetary challenge to the Navy.”

The Congressional Budget Office, in a report that I authored, estimates the cost of building those ships at an average $18.7 billion per year in Fiscal Year 2015 dollars. 2 But that amount is for new construction only. It does not include all of the other activities that the Navy must fund from its shipbuilding account, such as refueling aircraft carriers, outfitting and post-delivery, and other items. They add another $2 billion to the Navy’s funding requirements, resulting in an average shipbuilding budget of $20.8 billion per year for the next two decades.

The dilemma the Navy faces is that in recent decades shipbuilding budgets have been much lower. Since 1986, the Navy has received an average of only $15.8 billion per year, after adjusting for inflation, for all of its shipbuilding activities. And in the most recent decade, 2006–2015, it was even less—$15 billion. Thus, in order to fund the Navy’s plan, the shipbuilding budget will need to increase by an average of 40 percent compared to the past ten years, or about $6 billion per year.

As readers of Proceedings will know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the Ohio Replacement Program. The Navy plans to replace its aging force of 14 Ohio -class ballistic-missile submarines with a new, as-yet unnamed class of 12 boats, with procurement funding starting in 2017 and continuing through 2035. At around $6 billion apiece, buying those new boomers poses a substantial fiscal and budgetary challenge to the Navy. Declared to be the Navy’s top budgetary priority, the question, in the view of some members of Congress, is not whether the Ohio replacements will be funded, but rather how they will be funded. Will the Navy receive increases in its shipbuilding budget to pay for the new submarines, or will the Navy have to buy those submarines from a budget that is not increasing? If so, what happens to the rest of the fleet?

Future Fleet, Historical Funding Level

In the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the Navy to assess what would happen to its shipbuilding plan if, on average, future shipbuilding budgets matched historical budgets. So far, the Navy has not responded to that congressional directive.

The CBO’s analysis shows that constraining future shipbuilding budgets to an average of $16 billion per year results in a much smaller fleet over time. The assumptions that were made in doing such an assessment were as follows:

• The Navy builds all 12 Ohio replacement submarines.

• Production of aircraft carriers is not cut, because Congress mandates the 11-ship force level in law.

• All other ship programs are cut roughly proportionately.

With those assumptions and applying the budgetary constraint, the Navy would purchase 131 ships over the next 20 years, instead of the 178 in the 2016 shipbuilding plan. Specifically, those purchases would include:

• 4 aircraft carriers

• 12 ballistic-missile submarines

• 18 attack submarines

• 25 destroyers

• 25 LCSs and frigates

• 12 amphibious-warfare ships

• 35 combat logistics and support ships.

Reducing the shipbuilding program by 47 ships over 20 years results in a fleet no larger than today’s by 2035. Over the entire 30 years of the Navy’s plan, the fleet would drift down to 237 ships if the historical funding level does not budge much from $16 billion. (See the accompanying table). That is a reduction of 13 percent compared to today’s Navy and 22 percent compared to the fleet of 2045 projected under the 2016 plan.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 10.41.12 PM
Our future fleet.

Is There a Solution?

What are the alternatives to a decline of the Navy’s fleet? Are the alternatives viable? Let us consider each one in turn.

Increase the shipbuilding budget. The first and immediately obvious solution would be to increase the size of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. Shipbuilding represents about 3 percent of the overall defense budget, a relatively small fraction. As my counterpart at the Congressional Research Service, Ron O’Rourke, has noted in his work, increasing ship construction by $5 billion per year would represent less than 1 percent of defense spending. Yet, even such a small increase faces three powerful headwinds—one short-term, one long-term, and one that is a constant—that are political and budgetary in nature. In the near term, any increase in the defense budget faces the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and the various amendments, including the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. While the BCA says nothing about how much of the DOD budget may be spent on any particular account, the fact that the BCA caps defense spending below the President’s 2016 FYDP makes it extremely difficult to find the money to increase any category of spending, including shipbuilding. The 2016 FYDP allocated $121 billion more for defense spending over the years 2016 to 2020 than the amounts allowed under the revised caps of the BCA. Thus, widespread cuts are the order of the day, not funding increases.

Although the BCA is set to expire in 2021, presumably making it easier to increase the defense budget in the long term, the large fiscal challenges facing the United States will not. Between now and 2040, the CBO projects that the demands by a growing older population and rising medical costs will increase spending on Social Security and Medicare by 27 percent and 80 percent respectively. But the dedicated revenues that support those programs will remain nearly flat. 3 Because federal deficits over that period will persist and increase the national debt, the CBO also projects that spending on interest will increase by 230 percent; at the same time, revenues from federal income taxes will increase by only 25 percent. Stiff competition for federal resources will remain a fact of our budget debates for decades to come, and the Navy will not be immune.

Finally, within the defense budget itself are the competing demands and priorities of the services and their supporters. If the military branches were unified in the perspective that naval shipbuilding, including the Ohio replacement, should be the nation’s first military priority—or at least the first acquisition priority—it might be a relatively simple thing to shift 1 percent of the defense budget in its favor. But that is not a universally held view. As the threats to U.S. national security become more varied in this emerging new strategic era, the competing demands of all parts of the military for more resources make shifting even a small amount of the defense budget a difficult proposition, especially with the demands on federal resources continuing to grow. 4

Adopt alternative ship designs and fleet architecture. If more money does not flow into the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts, what are the other alternatives? Are there ways to squeeze more out of the current budget? Can you keep ships around longer and modernize them? Does the Navy really need to buy the fleet it is proposing, or would an alternative be better? These are large, wide-ranging questions that deserve serious attention and debate. My purpose in raising and discussing them briefly in this article is to show that even if such suggestions were adopted, they would have little effect on the fleet over the next 10 years and only a marginal effect over the next 20 years.

Let us very briefly consider two examples of alternative fleet architectures proposed by two knowledgeable and experienced men in the business of fleet design: Captain Arthur “Trip” Barber and Captain Wayne Hughes. 5Both are retired Navy officers who then spent many more years thinking about alternative fleet architectures and ship designs. They still do.

In a 2014 Proceedings article, Captain Barber recommends that the Navy do a number of things differently in what he sees as an unending period of federal fiscal constraint. He suggests changing the capabilities of existing ship platforms as well as changing the ways the Navy deploys or stations ships in order to get more deployed time out of these expensive capital assets. However, he also recommends exploring several alternative ship designs that, he argues, would reduce shipbuilding costs, including using a single new ship design for both aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious-assault ships, developing several classes of surface combatant that perform different missions but share a common hull, and repeating that common-hull approach for various support-ship missions.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 10.41.16 PM
U.S. Navy (Sam Shavers) – Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus delivers remarks at the christening of the USS Jackson (LCS-6) in December. The Secretary of Defense recently called for cuts to the LCS shipbuilding program, which might be said to have experienced its share of setbacks and controversy.

Captain Hughes equally reimagines the future fleet, although he believes his plan is affordable within existing shipbuilding budgets. The New Navy Fighting Machine, as Captain Hughes describes it, would develop even more new ship types than would Captain Barber’s. Specifically, Captain Hughes envisions new conventionally powered submarines, light aircraft carriers, small land-attack arsenal ships, and a substantial green-water force, as well as continuing to build numerous ship types that are already part of the Navy’s 2016 plan.

Nevertheless, however thought-provoking the suggestions offered by both men, making such major changes to the fleet will not be easy or quick. Alternative ship designs and fleet architectures take a long time to implement. For example, the LCS was first proposed in 2001. Fifteen years later the Navy has commissioned six of those small, relatively inexpensive 3,000-ton ships. A large all-new ship design, such as the DDG-1000 Zumwalt -class destroyer, has been in development, design, and construction for 20 years and won’t commission into the fleet until later this year. The same is true for the new Ford -class aircraft carrier. Under the Navy’s shipbuilding plan, in 15 years—2031—the Navy will have only eight new combat ships of entirely new design: three Ford -class carriers, three Zumwalt -class destroyers, and two Ohio replacement ballistic-missile submarines. Another 48 combat ships will be commissioned that have a modified design of existing warships: 21 Arleigh Burke –class Flight III destroyers, 20 frigates based on the LCS (or just 12 under Secretary Carter’s directive), and seven LX-R amphibious ships based on the existing LPD-17 hull. The Navy will also have another 28 combat logistics and support ships of some new type. Overall, in 2031 at least three-quarters of the fleet will still be composed of ships with designs that are in service today.

Thus, unless the ship-acquisition process can be changed such that it dramatically speeds up the introduction of new ship designs into the fleet, most of the suggestions by Captains Barber and Hughes would not have a meaningful effect on the composition of the fleet until, coincidentally, the Ohio Replacement Program is essentially completed in 2035. This is a point that Captain Hughes explicitly acknowledges and addresses (and one that Captain Barber recognizes but does not address), but, based on the Navy’s acquisition history, the former may be optimistic about what is achievable in 10–20 years. 6

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 10.41.23 PM
Huntington Ingalls – A rigger oversees a small-unit flip during construction currently underway on the second Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding. “In 15 years – 2031 – the Navy will only have eight new combat ships of an entirely new design,” including three Fords.

Keep older ships in the fleet. A less time-intensive alternative to new ship designs or fleet architectures would be to modernize older ships and keep them in the fleet. But this approach has its own problems. Paradoxically, the Navy is already doing this to a large extent, so it is not clear that more can be done, but also historical experience suggests that the service dislikes doing so. Over the past 20 years, senior Navy leaders have extended the service lives of more than 100 submarines, destroyers, and amphibious ships relative to their original design lives. At the same time, the Navy retired dozens of ships that had many years of useful service life remaining, rather than purchasing slightly fewer new ships to pay for keeping the older ships in the fleet.

Specifically, in the early 2000s, the Navy increased the service life of the Ohio -class ballistic-missile submarines from 30 years to 42. If that had not been done, we would have debated the merits and means to pay for the Ohio replacement more than a decade ago, when the United States was fully engaged in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similarly, the service life of Los Angeles –class attack submarines was increased from 30 years to 33. The Navy now assumes its large-deck amphibious-assault ships will serve for 43 to 45 years, which is up from 40 years. And since the release of the 2009 shipbuilding plan, the Navy has assumed its Arleigh Burke –class destroyers would serve in the fleet for 40 years, rather than 35 years in earlier plans, which is up from the original design life of 30.

Extending the service lives of these ships further is impossible in some cases and questionable in others. The submarines will be at the limit for the number of cyclings (submerging and surfacing) that their pressure hulls can tolerate, and the energy in their reactors will be exhausted. Conventionally powered surface ships, however, could in theory be upgraded if the Navy chose to do so. Properly maintained, conventional hulls can last for many decades. Ships that were retired from the U.S. Navy and sold or transferred to other countries often serve for decades longer as a result. But at a certain point, a ship that is still useful in a South American or Asian navy would no longer be valuable to the U.S. Navy, because physical limitations may prevent a modernization of her combat systems to perform high-end missions. Further, keeping older ships in the fleet even longer would require the Navy to modernize combat systems and fully fund maintenance programs. But budgetary constraints and long, frequent deployments have made it hard for the service to do so. Thus, if it is not clear that Burkes can serve for 40 years, it seems even less likely they could serve for 45 to 50 years performing missions the Navy would find valuable.

At the same time the Navy was extending the service lives of some ships, it was retiring others well before the end of their design lives. In the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, the Navy retired the entire class of Spruance destroyers. To keep those ships in the fleet the Navy would have had to spend money on improving their material condition as well as upgrading their combat systems. It also would have cost money to continue to operate those ships. But a decade later, the surface-combatant force is overworked with long deployments because there are insufficient ships to meet the demand. In addition, the original plan was to retire the Oliver Hazard Perry –class frigates sooner and keep the Spruances around, but that decision was reversed because it was cheaper to operate the smaller ships. Relative capabilities apparently did not figure strongly in the decision.

Similarly, the Navy retired 17 Los Angeles –class attack submarines at an average age of 22 years, rather than pay to refuel those boats and keep them in the fleet. Paying for all 17 refuelings would have cost less than the price of two new Virginia -class submarines. Again, the Navy would have had to budget resources to operate those ships, but at about $40 million per submarine per year, that was not an insurmountable obstacle.

And more recently, the Navy proposed to retire seven Ticonderoga -class cruisers and two amphibious ships to help conform to the budgetary caps of the Budget Control Act, rather than reduce new ship purchases further. Congress intervened, however, directing the Navy to keep those ships in the fleet and provided additional appropriations to do so. But if the Navy had had its way two years ago, the fleet today would number 264 ships. In that event, the strain on large surface combatants and amphibious ships, which now routinely deploy for seven to ten months, would be even greater.

Size? Capabilities? Both?

One way for a policymaker or anyone interested in naval matters to think about these issues is to figure out what your objective is. Do you care most about the size of the fleet? Or are the capabilities of the fleet more important? Of course, both are important. But the tension between size and capabilities is in many ways a proxy for the tension between the Navy’s day-to-day responsibilities and its high-end warfighting requirements. In an unendingly tight fiscal environment, a larger Navy is one that is better able to provide overseas presence and perform the many, varied peacetime missions that our naval forces are routinely called on to conduct—without overly stressing the ships and crews. 7 However, ships with the high-end warfighting capabilities that would be needed in an unlikely, but far from impossible, future conflict with a peer or near-peer competitor are expensive. The Navy cannot afford to build as many of them as it would like under historical funding levels.

If this seems like a daunting set of challenges for shipbuilding, that’s because it is. Yet, it may be possible that a little bit of everything could close the gap. If the Congress can shift a fraction of 1 percent of the defense budget toward shipbuilding, if improving acquisition can squeeze a fraction of 1 percent of the defense budget toward more shipbuilding, and if the Navy invests in some of its older ships to keep them in service, then perhaps it can step off the path toward a fleet of 237 ships that history says it is on. But that combination of outcomes would be difficult to achieve.

Dr. Labs, writing here as a private citizen, is Senior Analyst for Naval Forces and Weapons at the Congressional Budget Office. He specializes in issues related to the procurement, budgeting, and sizing of the forces for the Department of the Navy. Dr. Labs has testified before Congress several times and published numerous studies under the auspices of the CBO as well as a number of articles and papers in academic journals and conferences.

1. Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2016 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), http://tinyurl.com/ocrqtfc [8] .

2. Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan , October 2015, www.cbo.gov/publication/50926 [9] .

3. Congressional Budget Office, The 2015 Long-Term Budget Outlook , June 2015, www.cbo.gov/publication/50250 [10] , 3.

4. Ronald O’Rourke, A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense—Issues for Congress , Congressional Research Service, 20 November 2015,www.hsdl.org/?view&did=788858 [11] .

5. CAPT Arthur H. Barber, USN (Ret.), “Rethinking the Future Fleet,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 140, no. 5 (May 2014), 48–52. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), The New Navy Fighting Machine: A Study of the Connections Between Contemporary Policy, Strategy, Sea Power, Naval Operations, and the Composition of the United States Fleet , (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2009). See also his “A Bimodal Force for the National Maritime Strategy,” Naval War College Review , vol. 60, no. 7 (Spring 2007), 29–47.

6. Megan Eckstein, “CNO: Navy Needs More Agile Procurement to Keep Pace with ‘4-Plus-1’ Threat Set,” USNI News, 7 December 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/12/07/cno-navy-needs-more-agile-procurement-to… [12] .

7. Congressional Budget Office, Preserving the Navy’s Forward Presence With a Smaller Fleet , March 2015, www.cbo.gov/publication/49989 [13] .

Featured Image Credit: Chris Oxley.

Missing an Opportunity for Innovation: A Conceptual Critique of Distributed Lethality

100 years ago today, in bunkers and boardrooms across Europe, the military and political leaders of a Europe that was being drowned in its own blood were attempting to solve the stagnant enigma of the Western Front. The traditional narrative of the First World War places the inability of military and political figures of the time to adapt to the previously unimaginable efficacy of modern defensive technology deployed on the battlefields of France and Belgium. While the popular narrative of the conflict usually ends with a nod to the tank and aircraft as the great mobilizers of the sclerotic armies, Stephen J. Biddle effectively argues with quantitative data, in his book Military Power, that it was in fact force employment (and the innovative tactics of the German Army) that broke the stalemate in the West and brought mobility back to warfare (see the Michael Offensive). The “modern system” of land warfare was born.

I’m reminded of Biddle’s illustration of the birth of the “modern system” when considering Distributed Lethality, not because I view the US Navy as antiquated as the armies of the old Europe, but because Distributed Lethality seems to be an intelligent effort at bypassing the tough and expensive learning curve associated with fighting the previous war by reorienting existing resources to meet new challenges. Within it appears to be the tacit recognition of the end of the aircraft carrier as the main instrument of maritime power in the types of 21st century A2/AD environments the US Navy is most likely to find itself fighting for dominance. Carriers will continue to be essential for the support of operations during the fight for dominance, and after it has been achieved in the maritime realm, but their time at the center of naval combat, contesting control of the world’s oceans, may well be over. Distributed Lethality is an attempt at defining the Navy’s future operational flexibility in the complex future of highly contested environments that preclude overuse of its most prominent investment.

At the same time, the reorientation of the surface fleet around the concept of increasing the fighting ability of individual craft within the current system may be too simple a concept to fully address the increasing complexity of the modern maritime environment, especially when that environment is seeing a proliferation of the number of actors able to potentially upset the capabilities of today’s Navy, with more advanced and capable anti-ship missiles, underwater sensors, and unmanned technology likely to be on the way. If the US Navy will have to engage in combat with a low to medium tier opponent within the next 17 years (the technology development timeline cited by Admiral Peter Fanta), then Distributed Lethality will be able to easily carry the day in the same way the Navy has been able to do in similar conflicts (maybe even at a lower price point). If the Navy is faced with a much more complex and determined threat (represented by a recent addition to the rank of top tier naval competitors, even just a regional one), then the concept of Distributed Lethality may be little more than a patch on the inadequacies of the contemporary Navy in considering the operational imperatives of facing and neutralizing that particular set of threats. It would seem to me that Distributed Lethality is, in fact, more a response to the emergence of a high tier threat (within a constricted budgetary environment) than a low to mid-tier threat, so its efficacy must be evaluated within this context.

The Navy, in its current state, could be considered the product of post-Cold War dominance (as Vice Admiral Rowden and Rear Admirals Gumataotao and Fanta explain in their Proceedings piece) and the attempts to take advantage of the concepts of network centric warfare and the revolution in military affairs (RMA) of the 1990s. This was done within the technological confines of the time period, and through the budgetary struggles of a US Navy competing for funds and defining itself within the budgetary narrative of the Global War on Terror. Its difficulties are manifest in the Navy After Next’s loss of its key platforms to cancellation and production truncation along with the discussions surrounding how the Navy will take on the A2/AD capabilities of today, let alone the future.

The US Navy now has a tremendous opportunity (in the face of rapidly evolving threats in the Asia-Pacific), that of being able to define itself within confines of its own primary operational environment, without the time and resource constraints of being actively engaged in combat. While the aircraft carrier’s time as the dominant maritime platform may be nearing the precipice of its decline, the rumblings within the military services and think tank sphere seem to point to the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and the promise of additive manufacturing in the service of US operational and strategic needs, if the effects of their application can be grasped with full appreciation. If the US is to truly begin to push towards achievements that will open up the promise of network centric warfare and increase the ability to disrupt the defensive systems of the adversary (with acceptable costs in terms of equipment, money and lives) then we should be looking for cheaper ways to do that than through the Navy’s existing platforms, whose survivability and ease of replacement is questionable within the context of type of operational environment Andrew F. Krepninevich lays out in his excellent Maritime Competition in a Mature-Precision Strike Regime.

While Distributed Lethality is an important concept that should inform short and medium term planning (within the 17 year range that it takes to develop and deploy a new system), long range planning must begin now that takes into account the potential coming industrial revolution and advancements in AI and robotics that will bring about the full conceptual realization of networked warfare and unmanned systems. Their development could prove to be the real advantage in naval combat that will no longer feature a dominant aircraft carrier platform and will likely be the key to maintaining American maritime primacy in areas that have the potential to be seriously contested. Unlike the armies of 1917-18, the US Navy currently has the (limited) luxury of time and space to experiment. While the accusing finger of Kitchener, a draft notice, or more efficient bureaucracy could slowly make up for operational shortfalls during the Great War (still, at great human and financial cost), today’s strategic, technological and industrial imperatives are more exacting in terms of lost opportunities.

Ryan Kuhns is a master’s student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He studies International Security and Commerce, focusing on defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war.

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.

Coast Guard Budget Battles Revisited

Post by Chuck Hill

Why does the Coast Guard seem to be losing the budget battle within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? While funding for the Department has grown, the Coast Guard budget has in fact declined in real terms. I suspect it has a lot to do with perceptions of a miss-match between DHS missions and Coast Guard missions.

Congress attempted to address this perceived mismatch in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 by requiring an annual report of resources allocated to DHS missions and non-DHS missions, to ensure non-DHS missions are not ignored. I will refer to this “Annual Review of  the  United States Coast  Guard’s  Mission  Performance” (pdf) as the Performance Report.

It is an interesting report, but it does have significant weaknesses, largely stemming from the use of undifferentiated and undefined “resource hours” as a measure of effort. I reviewed a report back in 2010 and offered my criticisms, which have not changed herehere, and here.

Unfortunately, I think this report may be part of the problem, in that it defines several Coast Guard missions as “non-DHS,” and it gives the impression, erroneously I believe, that roughly half of the Coast Guard’s budget goes for things outside the DHS charter.

Of the eleven Coast Guard missions, six were regarded as Non-Homeland Security missions: SAR, AtoN, Living Marine Resources, Marine Environmental Protection, Marine Safety, and Ice Operations.

The five Homeland Security missions are Ports, waterways, and coastal security, Drug Interdiction, Undocumented Migrant Interdiction, Defense Readiness, and Other Law Enforcement (primarily Foreign Fisheries Enforcement).

But these distinctions are fallacious.

The Department views its own missions as:

  1. Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security
  2. Securing and managing our borders
  3. Enforcing and administering our Immigration laws
  4. Safeguarding and securing cyberspace
  5. Ensuring resilience to Disaster

NON-DHS MISSIONS: All these missions, at least in some respects, support DHS missions.

SAR: A robust SAR organization is clearly a necessary foundation for “Ensuring resilience to Disaster.” What were Katrina and Sandy but huge SAR cases? SAR command posts and communications are the skeletal structure upon which Disaster Response is based. After all, every SAR case is really a response to a disaster of some dimension. If the 3,000 plus people the CG saves every year had died in a single incident, it would have been a disaster on the order of 9/11.

AtoN: Most of the population lives near the coast or inland waterways. Most depend heavily on marine transportation and in many cases fishing. When there is a disaster, restoring safe navigation is a high priority both for bringing in assistance and for recovery.

Marine Environmental Protection (MEP):  The Deepwater Horizon was a disaster. MEP regulation attempts head off disasters and mitigate its effects, that is “ensuring resilience to disaster” plus offshore and port-side energy infrastructure are potential terrorists targets.

Marine Safety: Marine Safety is designed to prevent marine disasters. A sunken cruise ship could be a disaster on the order of 9/11. Marine Safety standards tends to mitigate the effects of a terrorist attack on marine targets

Living Marine Resources: Destruction of valuable marine resources can actually be as disaster for the economy of some communities.

Ice Operations: Domestic icebreakers can prevent flooding. We recently had a case where a community in Alaska would have been left without fuel, if an icebreaker had not opened a path for delivery.


Safeguarding and securing cyberspace: It is not one of the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions, but this is in fact one of the Commandant’s key priorities. Still it is not addressed in the Coast Guard’s annual Performance Report.

THE NON-DHS DHS MISSIONS: Two missions listed as DHS missions in fact are of little interest to the department, and performance goals (which are themselves perhaps inadequate) in these two areas are not being met.

Defense Readiness: Apparently the Coast Guard is doing more for Defense Readiness now than it was before 9/11, but really little has been done in terms of adapting resources for wartime roles. Additionally, a potentially major Coast Guard contribution to defense readiness, the major cutters, are being replaced at such a slow rate, the fleet continues to age, making it less reliable.

Other Law Enforcement (primarily foreign fisheries): DHS probably has little interest in this. This mission also suffers from the aging of the cutter fleet, and additionally the very large US EEZ in the Western Pacific has been largely ignored.

Problems in DHS: I do think the Departments placement of priority on counter-terrorism over more general disaster response is misplaced,  and this is another source of problems.


I will quote my closing paragraph from my 2010 post,

When it comes time to decide the Coast Guard budget, I would suggest Congress take a different approach. Consider return on investment. If you like the return you are getting from the Coast Guard now, invest more.  Don’t say, “Agency ‘X’ isn’t working, we need to put more money into that.” “The Coast Guard, is doing a good job with their current budget so we don’t need to give them any more.” I don’t quote scripture very often. I’m not religious, but there is some wisdom there. Check out the story of the “good and faithful servant” Matthew 25:14-30.


This article can be found in its original form on Chuck Hill’s CG blog.  Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

Skip to toolbar