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Invitation to the Indo Pacific Maritime Hour with Dr. Ollie Suorsa

By Jimmy Drennan

CIMSEC is partnering with the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS) and the Japan-U.S. Military Program (JUMP) to bring you an online event you will not want to miss! The Indo-Pacific Maritime Hour will be held online Monday, 2 Nov, 2000 EDT (Tuesday, 3 Nov, 0000 JST) with special guest Dr. Ollie Suorsa.

Dr. Olli Suorsa will discuss the decisions that smaller powers make when approaching multilateral naval exercises. He argues that participation in the exercises is inherently a political question. Specifically, he will discuss smaller powers’ considerations (with special reference to Southeast Asia) in taking part in naval exercises involving various sets of actors and the participation’s significance for conveying strategic signals. Olli will underline and contrast the different utilities reaped from inclusive and exclusive arrangements, and smaller powers’ agency in accepting/declining invitations, or initiating exercise routines of their own, to signal engagement, deterrence, and/or neutrality.

To join please go to https://meet.google.com/gkr-fved-tqp

Dr. Olli Pekka Suorsa is a Research Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). Before joining RSIS he lectured at the Department of Asian and International Studies in the City University of Hong Kong. Dr. Suorsa holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the City University of Hong Kong and a Master’s degree in Asian Politics from SOAS, University of London, UK, and Bachelor’s in International Relations from the Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. Dr. Suorsa has also work experience in defence industry in Finland.

Moderator: John Bradford, YCAPS Executive Director and Senior Fellow, RSIS Maritime Security Programme
Webinar Cost: Free of charge
Co-sponsor: Japan-U.S. Military Program (JUMP)

Please register by RSVP to info@ycaps.org. RSVP not required, but helpful for organizers.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at President@cimsec.org

Force Structure Perspectives: Dr. John T. Kuehn On Designing for the Long War

Force Structure Perspectives Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

As a part of CIMSEC’s Force Structure Perspectives Series, CIMSEC discussed the Battle Force 2045 fleet design with Dr. John T. Kuehn, a retired naval aviator who serves as the Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King Visiting Professor of Maritime History for the Hattendorf  Historical Center (HHC) at the U.S. Naval War College, and served on the Chief of Naval Operations’ 2016-2017 Fleet Design Advisory Panel. In this conversation, Dr. Kuehn discusses the pitfalls of designing a fleet around a short war, the historical context behind earlier fleet design efforts, and why naval leadership sometimes needs a push from Defense Secretaries to go in the right direction.

The Secretary of Defense recently announced a new fleet plan for a future U.S. Navy of 500 ships, a major increase over today’s fleet of around 300 ships. Among many changes, the fleet emphasizes substantial additions in areas such as sealift, unmanned warships, submarines, and smaller surface combatants. What do you make of the size of this fleet and its mix of platforms?

I recently penned an article about the U.S. Navy’s attempts to “right size” over 115 years ago, when the fleet numbered just over 300 ships. Unlike today, the fleet was steadily growing, but there were voices that claimed it was big enough to do what the American people wanted, such as to protect trade and enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere. The title was “no magic” number, and as mentioned by Trip Barber on this forum, I think we all need to keep from thinking there is some absolute in terms of numbers. “How many ships do we need?” is really the wrong question. There is no magic number. Naval officers always want more—more money, more ships, and more time.

The better questions have to do with what our maritime interests are, both for the U.S and for its alliance structures (NATO and in the Pacific), and how do we modify the existing fleet to address those interests, whether in peace or in war. Can the fleet we have today do that? Can the system we have in place to change fleet structure be responsive enough to self-correct?

That said, the capabilities the plan wants to leverage seem the right sort of mix, and it represents a better approach to both an actual conflict breaking out as well as a deterrent to prevent that conflict. This last seeming contradiction is the great paradox of military and naval power and it causes no end of resentment by amateur strategists who have difficulty understanding that preparedness is indeed the best guarantor of peace. But there must be progress to make that happen, and if competitors read big words but see little action, they are likely to be emboldened rather than deterred.

I think the mix of platforms is a sensible one, and I am prepared to see a modest reduction, but not elimination, of the aircraft carrier force to get the ball moving. This does not mean I necessarily think the overall naval air force needs reduction. Again, we want our competitors to see results. I share the concerns about loss of budget share, but I think strong leadership by whoever the next president and Secretary of Defense will be should prevent that.

The undersea components are the ones most likely to have significant impact for the near-term fight or its deterrence. I am on the record in a number of places—including CIMSEC—about building more submarines as well as maintaining core anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the fleet.

This new force structure may be used to execute Navy and Marine Corps warfighting concepts, including Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). These concepts and the new fleet design embody leadership’s thinking on the nature of future warfighing tactics and operations. Are these warfighting concepts mature or flexible enough to provide a long-term foundation for building this redesigned fleet? Are trends in tactics and technology adequately captured?

Distributed maritime operations that enable what is termed “distributed lethality” hinge on certain factors. In the first place, the fundamental vision should be for an approach that is enabled and enhanced by what some are calling the new capital ship, “the network.” But getting to that point requires enough resilience—a buzzword I do not use lightly, maybe robustness is better—in the force to be able to fight in a highly chaotic electromagnetic and cyber environment that will be degraded once the missiles and electrons start flying.

An important element to manage this risk is tactical mission command, and empowering subordinates at the scene of action to exercise initiative. But there is a catch. Nelson’s advice that “no captain can do very wrong in placing his ship alongside that of the enemy” must be updated to include the unmanned battlefield. Does this mean no drone operator, or operator(s) on a mothership, can do very wrong in placing these systems in a position to inflict lethal damage to enemy systems? Quite right. However, at what point do they trust the algorithms? A culture of micromanagement that wishes to monitor every weapon and engagement cycle is counterproductive to such an approach, and will stand as an obstacle to these nascent warfighting concepts.

As for the Marines and EABO, if the concept is more than just updated offensive methods, but a more holistic doctrine that includes defense, then it has promise. Everyone forgets that the first doctrine for Marine advanced base operations in World War II was really a defensive doctrine—at Wake Island and then again at Guadalcanal on a much larger scale (remember, the Marines landed unopposed at Guadalcanal). But I see few scenarios out there that might merit seizing advance bases rather than defending those we and our allies already control in what the Chinese call the first and second island chains. The next fight that is most likely to occur is in the seas around Taiwan, not the South China Sea.

I am concerned that the foot is being cut to fit the shoe in this case, or might the need for the Marine Corps as presently configured be an item that needs closer examination? It is not only the icon of the aircraft carrier that needs reexamination, but its amphibious counterpart, the Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG). As for applications outside the Pacific, we already have force packages with mature doctrine for most of the Marine Corps missions we might envision elsewhere. I am talking about things like non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO). ARGs are better suited to an expeditionary spectrum of war in the current environment.

The light carrier force in the Battle Force 2045 plan seems to be coming out of the ARG force structure with the America-class ships. As with the amphibious assault ships, I do not favor elimination, but reduction, modest reduction, of the ARG numbers—or repurposing as discussed in the Esper plan. But those remaining ARGs do need examination—what are they for? If they are simply to be advanced base “first responders” in a very lethal environment – that might not work out so well. So my question for EABO is: advanced bases where and under what circumstances?

I am not convinced that we really need to do much more to develop a force to establish advance bases in the Pacific. Our alliances there have already done that. Our need for such bases is not nearly as urgent as some may think.

The Navy has long been concerned about whether it can sustainably increase the size of the fleet within traditional levels of shipbuilding funding. How can we view the affordability and sustainability of this fleet? 

Underrating the cost of sustainability is a chronic issue in force structure assessment. In a report of mine to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson in 2017, I  referenced the Congressionally mandated fleet structure reports from 2016, one by MITRE Corporation, one by the Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), and one an in-house study by the Navy (OpNav).

In that report to the CNO, I mentioned how one of the most telling comments I heard was, “Whatever fleet we build, it must have readiness built into it as part of the plan.” I noted that the three reports were weak in addressing long-term logistics and supportability issues, although CSBA’s did make some effort in its discussion of how to use fleet logistics (e.g., oilers). I continued on to say that this was a great concern because the existing budget paradigm has led the Navy to the point where it risks becoming a hollow fleet due to fragile readiness, as was the case after Vietnam in the 1970s. And if the geopolitical risks are assessed to be low, then this is not such a big problem, but when the Embassy in Teheran was seized, the poor readiness of all the U.S. military services’ forces came into sharp focus.

I concluded to the CNO that I would take a smaller, more ready fleet than a larger, unready one. In 1914 we had a large fleet with plenty of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, but not nearly the trained people to crew them, never mind all the trained crews for destroyers that we needed to fight submarines when war did come in 1917.

I would add that we were weak in our ability to logistically support the 1914 fleet outside the Western Hemisphere. We had a similar situation in 1941 with a Pacific Fleet that simply did not have enough fast oilers (although we were trying to remedy that), but we had gotten the cart before the horse, or rather forgotten that we needed more carts.

Any expansion or change in fleet structure and size has to include the second and third order requirements for maintenance, trained personnel, logistics, and parts support. Designing around winning a short war as some have mentioned works against this. It is always better to plan for a long war, that way, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will not be caught short.

This process was notable for including the direct involvement and direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which initially rejected the Navy and Marine Corps force structure assessment delivered in January. What is unique about how this process played out and what can we learn for making future assessments?

Others have already pointed out some of the historical context that informs the uniqueness of this approach. It has not always worked out so well with Secretaries of Defense in the past “pulling rank” on the Navy. Recall that in 1949 a Navy Secretary resigned and a CNO was relieved by the SECDEF in the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals over the cancellation, of all things, of the construction of a super-sized aircraft carrier, the USS United States, as well as the neutering and reduction of naval aviation. Only the outbreak of the Korean War reversed this trend and brought some sensibility back into naval building policy and structure. I might add the Korean War also saved the Marine Corps from a permanent reduction in its size. I don’t think we should count on the serendipity of unexpected wars to solve our force structure problems.

That said, in this case I think the Secretary of Defense is correct. My own view is that the Navy and Marine Corps have an overly romanticized view of aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare based on World War II. In some sense, they are having cultural difficulties overcoming their history and answering the “why do we need these ships?” questions for today.

There is often no help from the top because of policy confusion over places like the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands, and Taiwan. When policy is confused, answering the question of what to do with the fleet becomes even more difficult than it already is. The crystal ball becomes a black hole. In Esper’s case, it seems there is more policy clarity with respect to prioritizing China. His adoption of a different approach to fleet design, if it is sustained in the next couple of administrations (and that is a big if), can at least begin to give naval leaders new “sailing instructions.”

Another case study comes from my research. In 1922, naval leaders were again forced to go in a direction against their advice and collective will with the Washington Naval Treaty, which they did not like because it cut down the size of the fleet and instituted a battleship building “holiday” for ten years. Imagine an aircraft carrier building holiday (for all nations) for ten years today! Nonetheless, the Nay’s admirals grudgingly began designing a new fleet and I argue that they –  and the fleet they designed – were better for it.

Sometimes naval leaders need to be pushed in the right direction. Sometimes they don’t (as in 1949). In this case, I think Esper is pushing them in a better direction than they were going with the status quo.

What does it mean for U.S. naval strategy and great power competitiveness to build this fleet, and to build it soon? Does it address a gap between national strategy and the navy needed to execute it?

I think the building it “soon” concept is a message that will be undermined by subsequent events. We may send an unintended negative message of a lack of resolve if it appears we have a new plan, but we have no political will to see it through, especially with regard to China. But if our competitors see us making real progress with real change, that message will be received.

However, saying we will do it quick is gratuitous and counterproductive. We simply do not have the shipbuilding capacity or the budgetary flexibility to do any of this quickly, even if we get to reprogram billions of dollars from carrier construction. And while some of the components have the potential to be fielded a bit more quickly, there is still much to be learned and experimented with. We have to be careful about how we do this.

Trying to do this quickly can amount to counterproductive sloganeering. And doing it quickly in the hopes of the aforementioned, magical short victory solution is historically a chimera. The short war “masters” of the past—Napoleon and the Nazis—lost in the long run, didn’t they? I would also lump the Imperial Japanese Navy into that category.

Previous force structure assessments conducted in 2016 were later considered by some to be overly optimistic with respect to certain factors, such as available resourcing. How can we be confident in this new assessment, and that it will spur the change it recommends? What comes next to build this fleet?

When I took a look at all three of those 2016 force structure studies and analyzed them, I found that perhaps the most optimistic of them, the CSBA study, still had the most promise. But it was not perfect—it discounted the capabilities of the other services (especially the U.S. Air Force) and allies. So this new assessment has to include the larger U.S. defense force structure, as well as our allied capabilities. Too often we plan in an American-only maritime vacuum.

What we do know, and have known for over 10 years now, is that the status quo, especially with a surging China at sea, is a long-term loser. If we keep doing what we are doing, with whatever assessment we say is guiding our path, then the taxpayers—and I believe the global community—will be poorly served by a legacy fleet instead of an updated fleet designed for the problems of this century, not the last one.

I am not overly optimistic, but neither am I totally cynical. The problem has made it to the Defense Secretary level, but if it fades after the election into business as usual, I think we will all lose. And by “we” I mean the American people and the people of allied nations.

Dr. John T. Kuehn currently serves as the Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King Visiting Professor of Maritime History for the Hattendorf  Historical Center (HHC) at the U.S. Naval War College. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 after 23 years, serving as a naval flight officer who specialized in airborne electronic warfare. In 2016-2017 he participated as a member of then-CNO Admiral John Richardson’s Fleet Design Advisory Panel. He authored Agents of Innovation (2008), A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century (2014), Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (2015), America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950  (2017) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco as well as numerous articles and editorials, and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. His latest book from ABC-CLIO is The 100 Worst Military Disasters in History (2020), co-authored with David Holden. He is the former Major General William Stofft Chair of Historical Research (2013-2016) at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (March 15, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) leads ships from the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the America Expeditionary Strike Group during a transit of the South China Sea during a photo exercise, March 15, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brandon Richardson/Released)

Force Structure Perspectives: Congresswoman Elaine Luria on Getting Congress Involved

Force Structure Perspectives Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

As a part of CIMSEC’s Force Structure Perspectives Series, CIMSEC discussed the Battle Force 2045 fleet design with Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and a retired nuclear-trained surface warfare officer with 20 years of active duty service. In this conversation, Rep. Luria discusses investing in the industrial base to support the new fleet, carefully developing shipbuilding plans, and how Congress should become more involved with fielding new force structure.

The Secretary of Defense recently announced a new fleet plan for a future U.S. Navy of 500 ships, a major increase over today’s fleet of around 300 ships. Among many changes, the fleet emphasizes substantial additions in areas such as sealift, unmanned warships, submarines, and smaller surface combatants. What do you make of the size of this fleet and its mix of platforms?

More than simply focusing on the size of the fleet, we should be concerned with capability, lethality, and our ability to generate forces and deployed presence. Any major changes to our fleet structure should come through serious analysis that balances lethality with force projection.

As a counterpoint to simply growing the size of the Navy, we have failed to make adequate investments in the infrastructure that allows us to maintain and deploy the existing fleet to its full capability. Public shipyards are at maximum capacity, and our private shipyards are not optimized to complete maintenance in a timely and efficient manner. Any commitment to grow the size of the fleet must have an accompanying investment in the infrastructure to grow and sustain the industrial base to support a fleet of this size.

Recently, Michele Flournoy wrote the U.S should be able to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.” I agree with this type of strategy that would focus our naval efforts on a narrow goal that would achieve and preserve maritime dominance in the Western Pacific. With such a defined goal, we could design a fleet not based on size, but based on capability. Deterrence must be credible and is only effective when an adversary believes, through our daily actions, that the cost of their armed aggression will be met with such overwhelming force (damage) that the loss would be too extreme for the benefit.

The failure of current and past administrations to translate a national strategic vision into actionable long-term goals for the U.S. military necessitates additional Congressional involvement, and not just with purse strings or oversight, but with a seat at the table to develop the National Defense Strategy (NDS). Additionally, the national strategic vision should be signed into law so that it extends beyond the terms of elected officials and military leadership.

This new force structure may be used to execute Navy and Marine Corps warfighting concepts, including Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). These concepts and the new fleet design embody leadership’s thinking on the nature of future warfighting tactics and operations. Are these warfighting concepts mature or flexible enough to provide a long-term foundation for building this redesigned fleet? Are trends in tactics and technology adequately captured?

I am concerned that neither DMO nor EABO are mature enough to be used as a basis for developing the foundation for a redesigned fleet. Particularly in the technology realm, the Navy and Marine Corps combat systems and communications systems have many interoperability shortcomings. DMO specifically requires a robust network of sensors and communications that allows seamless interoperability. Although we have focused on joint interoperability in the past few decades, there are still many challenges to providing a seamless joint network, which has been exacerbated by a piecemeal modernization strategy.

The Navy has long been concerned about whether it can sustainably increase the size of the fleet within traditional levels of shipbuilding funding. How can we view the affordability and sustainability of this fleet?

Current levels of shipbuilding funding cannot grow to and sustain a 355-ship fleet, much less a 500-plus ship fleet. Far too often we field technology for technology’s sake without having a fully developed plan that dovetails costs like maintenance and increased end-strength requirements to crew these vessels. Current shipbuilding programs have been plagued by cost overruns, production delays, and other issues related to technology insertion on first-in-class vessels, like the Ford-class carriers. All of these costs must be considered upfront when planning for the future fleet. Current Navy budget levels will not be sufficient to grow and sustain the fleet proposed by the Secretary of Defense.

The founders of this country understood the importance of the Navy to maintain freedom of navigation, freedom of trade, and power projection. The constitution states that it is the responsibility of Congress to “Raise and support Armies,” but to “provide and maintain a Navy.” The distinction between the Army and the Navy outlined in the constitution is critical, because the founders understood that regardless of peace or war, the country must have a robust Navy.

I think there need to be hard conversations in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about the allocation of resources between the services. A defined national strategic vision developed jointly by the legislative and executive branches would allow these tough conversations to take place. Some legislators, including Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) who serve as the chairman and ranking member of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, respectively, have long advocated for the funding of the SSBN program to reside in the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF). This would be a good start to free up funding for additional shipbuilding in the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), and I fully support moving the SSBN program to the NSBDF. One could make the argument for other strategic programs to be funded similarly as we engage in the modernization of our nuclear deterrent.

An additional area of focus that I will be working on in the upcoming Congress is the role of civilian mariners within the Navy. Currently, civilian mariners man logistics, sealift, special mission, and many other ships—over 130 in the Military Sealift Command (MSC) inventory. Although MSC has operated hybrid crewed ships (civilian mariners and military) for some time now (e.g. USS Mount Whitney, USS Ponce), the introduction of the Expeditionary Sea Base (T-ESB) advances the potential for civilian mariners to play a larger role in the Navy. There are legal hurdles to overcome, but one should examine constructs such as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Landing Ship Dock program to see the possibilities of a hybrid crew on a traditional warship.

This process was notable for including the direct involvement and direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which initially rejected the Navy and Marine Corps force structure assessment delivered in January. What is unique about how this process played out and what can we learn for making future assessments?

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 removed strategic planning as a primary responsibility of the Chief of Naval Operations and moved the responsibility to various other entities, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the Combatant Commanders. However, responsibility for developing the force structure assessments and 30-year Shipbuilding Plan remained with the Navy.

So one hand is developing the strategy and another the means to deliver the strategy, but neither is fully delivering. As previously mentioned, additional congressional involvement must be a top priority in the 117th Congress in developing a national strategic vision, and I believe this must include revisiting Goldwater-Nichols.

What does it mean for U.S. naval strategy and great power competitiveness to build this fleet, and to build it soon? Does it address a gap between national strategy and the navy needed to execute it?

Building the right fleet should be a national priority. Our main global adversary is China, so future conflicts are likely to be naval. Again, it is not about the size of the fleet, but the capability that fleet brings to the fight. Building a fleet of this size would enhance American naval presence around the world.

But I maintain my concerns about the makeup of this new fleet and that its composition must be framed by defined objectives and concrete goals that support our National Defense Strategy. Our shipyards are challenged to keep up with maintenance of our current fleet, so this will also require intensive investment in the industrial base to ensure that both our existing and new vessels remain functional and readiness is enhanced. More than just fleet size, we should also think about capability and lethality.

Previous force structure assessments conducted in 2016 were later considered by some to be overly optimistic with respect to certain factors, such as available resourcing. How can we be confident in this new assessment, and that it will spur the change it recommends? What comes next to build this fleet?

The next step is for Defense Secretary Esper, Navy Secretary Braithwaite, and other top Defense Department officials to explain the assessment to congress.

Recently, my colleague, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) proposed that members of congress participate in wargaming at the Naval War College. I think this would be a good start, but Congress needs to understand the requirements being proposed and why. Most members of Congress don’t understand specifically the needed mix of ships, aircraft, and missiles required to prevail in a conflict with China. Congressional buy-in will be critical as we determine funding levels for each acquisition program, maintenance, and readiness requirements.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria represents Coastal Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base. Before running for Congress, Elaine served two decades in the U.S. Navy, retiring at the rank of Commander. A Surface Warfare Officer who operated nuclear reactors, she was one of the first women in the Navy’s nuclear power program and among the first women to serve the entirety of her career on combatant ships. Of all members in the House Democratic Caucus, she served the longest on active duty, commanding hundreds of sailors and deploying six times to conduct operations in the Middle East and Western Pacific. Congresswoman Luria serves on the House Armed Services Committee, where she is Vice Chair of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where she is the Chair of the Disability and Memorial Assistance Subcommittee.

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

Featured Image: Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), front, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) transit the South China Sea April 18, 2020. (U.S. Navy Photo)

A Decisive Flotilla: Assessing the Hudson Fleet Design

Force Structure Perspective Series

By Robert C. Rubel

Soon the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) will issue the Future Naval Force Study (FNFS), which he commissioned after rejecting the Navy’s draft Force Structure Assessment (FSA). In his view, the FSA contained invalid assumptions and hewed too closely to traditional fleet design.1 He then commissioned two groups to redesign the fleet: the Hudson Institute and the Department of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office. Both efforts produced designs that envisioned a fleet that consisted of fewer aircraft carriers but greater numbers of smaller combatants and unmanned vessels.2

How may the Hudson fleet in particular perform in applying U.S. naval strategy and American grand strategy, and what changes may be needed to employ this new fleet?

Origins of a Distributed Fleet Design

From one perspective the results of the Hudson and CAPE studies are encouraging. Some in the community of naval strategy and policy have been advocating for such a redesign since the late 1990s. Notably, the late Professor Wayne Hughes, long-time chairman of the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, advocated for what he called a “bi-modal” Navy consisting of a mix of ships similar to what both Hudson and CAPE came up with.3 The notion of a mixed fleet was at least euphemistically embedded in the 2007 national maritime strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” (CS21). It called for “credible combat power” to be concentrated in the Middle East and the Western Pacific with “globally distributed, mission tailored” forces being dispatched to other areas to carry out an array of peacetime missions including maritime security, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance. This concept was the result of an input to the strategy development process by Prof. Hughes. It seemed congruent with the document’s sweeping assertion that the sea services would deploy globally to “…protect and sustain the peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance.”4 Such a comprehensive approach to defending a favorable world order clearly called for a large and strategically dispersed Navy.

But in 2007 the Navy was already feeling the pinch of too much mission and too few ships, with no real prospect for increasing fleet size, at least with the all-big-ship fleet design then in place. Thus Hughes and others, including this author,5 advocated for a mixed design that featured a large number of smaller ships so that a strategy of robust forward presence did not compromise maintenance schedules and personnel tempo as well as other aspects of the Navy’s infrastructure, in addition to increasing fleet lethality.

However, this concept was opposed by a number of senior naval officers, as well as the resource bureaucracy within the Navy. Fleet size thus continued to decrease as the Budget Control Act (BCA) strangled military spending, the cost of ship construction increased faster than inflation, and units originating from the 1980s “600-ship Navy” reached the end of their service lives.

Some specific factors underpinning fleet design need to be considered. There are essentially two reasons for having more numerous, smaller ships to compose at least part of the fleet vice a relatively smaller number of larger ships, with one being strategic, the other operational/tactical, and both having to do with dispersal. At the strategic level, as was implied by CS21, a comprehensive defense of the global system requires the Navy to be in many different places, some continuously, for plenty of reasons. In most forward presence cases, high-end warfighting capability is not required, so “constabulary” units could be smaller, cheaper, less capable but thus more numerous for the same price as larger, traditional combatants. Having a large fleet of these would relieve mission pressure on those large warfighting ships. The objection to such ships is precisely that they have less combat capability, so in effect such a fleet design could be seen as reducing the overall warfighting power of the Navy.

At the operational/tactical level, dispersion is mostly about warfighting. In previous eras, bigger was stronger. The capital ship, be it a four-decker under sail, a dreadnought with major caliber guns, or a nuclear aircraft carrier, each was able through its superior offensive power to defeat any other class of ship. Of course, there were always caveats to this presumption of dominance, from fire ships to mines, to submarines and Kamikazes. But the capital ship has persisted through it all, with the current instantiation being the Ford-class nuclear aircraft carrier.

Capital ships represent both concentration of capability and concentration of investment, which is why there are always relatively few of them. The inverse of the capital ship is the flotilla: a large number of small craft whose modus operandi is to swarm, perhaps like a pack of wolves harassing and eventually bringing down a bull bison. The idea of many platforms and payloads attacking from different directions complicates the defense of the capital ship. Critically, the weapons possessed by units of the flotilla must have sufficient range and lethality to offset and overwhelm the defensive capability of the capital ship and its escorts.

Enter the anti-ship missile (ASM). Current versions can travel hundreds of miles, have various characteristics that makes them difficult to shoot down, and have demonstrated lethality. The ASM broke the historical linkage between weapon power and ship size needed to carry it. Now several ASMs can be carried by craft displacing less than 500 tons.

Wayne Hughes, who was renowned for developing missile salvo combat models, provides the mathematical basis for the advantages of a dispersed flotilla of missile craft in his book Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations.6 A wargame held at the Naval War College in 2013 convinced the then-commander of the Navy Surface Force that the fleet’s offensive power should be distributed more widely. The subsequent concept of Distributed Lethality,7 now more fully evolved into Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), called for more ASMs to be placed on destroyers, cruisers, submarines, and perhaps other ship types.8 Since most of those vessels already carried Tomahawk land-attack missiles, the move was focused on war-at-sea. This was, however, only a partial move toward the distribution of combat power since it was still being applied to a Navy of relatively few large ships.

Houbei-class missile boats under the South China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy conducting drills (Photo via navy.81.cn/Gao Yi, Liu Xin)

It is beyond the scope of this commentary to go into all the factors affecting the advisability or inadvisability of adopting a true flotilla approach to battle fleet design, including the issue of unmanned vessels and systems, but it appears that both the Hudson and CAPE studies have adopted that approach to some degree.9

American Grand Strategy and U.S. Naval Power

Strategic dispersal has been practiced by the U.S. Navy for most of its history. Part of the reason is that the U.S. has two coasts separated by 3,000 miles of land, so even that ardent advocate of fleet concentration, Alfred Thayer Mahan, had to acknowledge the need for some kind of division of the fleet between the coasts (the East Coast getting the lion’s share at the time though). Secondly, even since the earliest days of the Republic, the U.S. has had global commercial and political interests that the Navy has routinely been called upon to protect. Even in the years between the world wars, when the bulk of the Navy was concentrated in home waters, there were still small squadrons operating overseas. The Cold War forced the Navy to establish a ring of steel around Eurasia in support of containment of the Soviet Union. That ring was not disassembled after the collapse of the USSR, and any number of reasons have been offered for why, but there seems to be one overriding purpose that most do not recognize, but which bears heavily on fleet design.

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz asserted the intimate relationship between war and politics, where war is a means to political ends. One of the rather mechanical linkages he describes is what he terms “culminating point of victory.”10 Among its facets is that every offensive must ultimately end in some kind of defense in order to defend what was seized in prior victories. Extrapolating this idea beyond the purely military arena, especially if the victory is complete, some kind of political defense must be established, otherwise, as Clausewitz admonishes, the result in war is never final. The monumental example of this was, of course, the two world wars of the 20th Century. As it became clear in late 1944 that the Axis powers would be defeated, American and allied statesmen gathered at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to consider how to defend their hard-won victory. Their answer was to establish a framework of international institutions and rules that would, collectively, prevent the causes of the world wars from recurring. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and World Bank were several of these measures. While the U.S. proceeded to demobilize its massive military establishment in late 1945, events soon forced the U.S. to recognize that the political and economic defense of the victory over the Axis would have to be supplemented with military force. By the early 1950s, the Navy had established its ring of steel around Eurasia.

Despite being widely studied in U.S. war colleges, Clausewitz is a difficult and esoteric read, and his concept of the culminating point of victory remains opaque to most, even senior military officers and statesmen. Therefore any number of justifications were advanced for the routine and extensive deployment of U.S. forces around the world that essentially described bunches of trees without seeing the forest. Deterrence, dissuasion, reassurance, engagement, and contingency response were all invoked at one time or another. Only in the 2007 CS21 document was there a glimpse of the forest: the defense of the global system. The Soviet Union, rogue nations, and terrorist organizations could come and go, but the system, always seemingly threatened somewhere by someone, endured. But the system, being the foundation of the defense of the 1945 victory, must have military protection and thus spurred an open-ended global commitment of U.S. naval power.

It was one thing for the U.S. to undertake such an epic mission when the national resource/requirement equation was in rough balance. But progressively, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has constricted the resources dedicated to the comprehensive defense of the global system while also being unwilling to modify that mission. In one sense, the Navy is the canary in the coal mine: its operational and strategic problems, most recently manifested in the rejection of its FSA by the Secretary of Defense, are indicators of the requirements/resources mismatch at the level of grand strategy.

The Hudson Fleet

Viewed through the lens of this mismatch, what can be said about the suitability (i.e., if adopted , would the course of action achieve the mission), feasibility (able to be executed with available resources), and acceptability (involves an acceptable degree of risk) of the Hudson fleet design? It features nine nuclear aircraft carriers, eight large-deck amphibious ships, 64 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 80 corvettes, 22 other large amphibious ships and 26 smaller amphibious ships, and 60 nuclear attack subs, in addition to 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. In addition, the plan calls for 99 medium unmanned surface vessels (MSUV) and 40 extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles. For the rest, there are commensurate numbers of logistic and support vessels.11

The fleet must be first examined with respect to operational and tactical dispersion, which is mostly associated with warfighting. To begin with, the number of large and small surface combatants advocated by Hudson (116) is actually smaller than the current fleet inventory of 120 (if including active Littoral Combat Ships – LCS). The major difference is the plan’s 80 corvettes and 99 MSUVs. Assuming that the corvettes and at least some MSUVs will be capable of carrying long-range ASMs, the potential for operational/tactical dispersion exists, especially if projected Marine Corps ASM detachments are folded in. Depending on how these units are deployed in wartime, they would potentially constitute a very difficult problem for China, assuming that U.S. fleet operations were knitted together by a robust and resilient battle force network. In peacetime, as a consequence, they could enhance deterrence by elevating the credibility of U.S. combat power. These same principles would apply, perhaps in different ways, to other regions.

Strategic dispersion becomes more complicated. If the U.S. clings to its grand strategy of defending the system and cannot generate any significant increase in allied assistance, then the Navy must somehow make forces available in all regions. With fewer aircraft carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups, the “unit of issue” for forward presence will have to change. The burden of presence will then fall on the Hudson fleet’s corvettes, small surface combatants, and small amphibious ships. Unmanned systems will play a limited (but in some cases, important) role in strategic dispersion.

Even at 581 total vessels, the Hudson navy would be challenged to achieve effective presence in all the required areas if current deployment practices are followed. Recall that some number of these units would be required for operational and tactical dispersion. This leads to the idea that a new organization of the fleet would be required. The new structure would consist of forward-based regional flotillas, the assigned units being able to contribute to operational and tactical dispersion in the region. In fact, Bryan Clark, lead on the Hudson study, was also lead on an earlier Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) effort, one of three 2016 Congressionally-mandated fleet architecture studies that recommended a similar arrangement. The CSBA study called for a series of regional “deterrent” forces coupled with “maneuver” forces consisting of carrier strike groups.12 That bifurcated framework would be nicely supported by the Hudson fleet. Forward-based regional flotillas would constitute the key presence tool, supplemented at intervals by a pool of deployable forces, mainly the carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups.

Such a structure would require some adjustment of the Unified Command Plan (UCP). The regional flotillas would constitute the forces for the regional combatant commanders (COCOMs), much like current practice. The difference would be in how deployment pool forces are handled. Current practice is to assign a share of a service’s forces to each COCOM, which is strategically inefficient in an era of constrained ship numbers. The Hudson fleet has too few carriers and large deck amphibs to make that process viable. Rather, there should be some kind of staff located in Washington, D.C. that controls the assignment of deployment pool forces. Such a staff would structure such operations on a global view of national strategy, deploying with a specific mission vice simply keeping station. Once dispatched to a region they would come under COCOM command but would not be “captured.” The flow of global deployers would be controlled from the SECDEF group, which would be in a better position to also integrate the range of non-military elements to support national strategy.

If one goes through the exercise of allocating ships to three regional flotillas and the deployment pool, few are left for the rest of the world, including Africa, Latin America, Oceania, and the Arctic. Also in short supply are forces available for warfighting experimentation and force development, although deployment pool forces could be used. But regional flotillas would have to be thinned out to integrate operational and tactical dispersion into fleet experiments. In going through this exercise, a reasonable number of units must be allocated to long-term maintenance rotations. One potential wild card would be to use logistic and support ships for routine constabulary duty, especially outside flotilla regions.


The bottom line is that the Hudson and presumably CAPE studies offer fleet designs that are potentially suitable, feasible, and acceptable, if and only if organizational adjustments accompany them. Presumably, both studies were based on a shipbuilding budget no greater than today’s. If not, their feasibility is compromised. It also likely matters how they are implemented, the dynamics of how the Navy gets from its current design to the recommended one while avoiding the perception by adversaries of opening or closing windows of opportunity for aggression.

Beyond those considerations, many decision-makers within the Navy bureaucracy still remain deeply wedded to the current fleet architecture. This source of inertia and resistance will have to be overcome if fleet design is to be changed. Similarly, changes to the Unified Command Plan will face opposition within both the Pentagon and Congress. It will take strong, committed, and persistent leadership from a succession of Secretaries of Defense and Chiefs of Naval Operations to achieve it.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.


1. Megan Eckstein, “Pentagon Leaders Have Taken Lead in Crafting Future Fleet From Navy,” USNI News, June 24, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/06/24/pentagon-leaders-have-taken-lead-in-crafting-future-fleet-from-navy

2. Congressional Research Service, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, 1 October, 2020, pp 7-9. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL32665.pdf

3. Hughes, Wayne P. Jr. (2007) “A Bimodal Force for the National Maritime Strategy,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 60 : No. 2 , Article 5. Available at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol60/iss2/5  and Wayne Hughes, Jeffery Kline, et.al., 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, Naval Postgraduate School, August 2009.

4. US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, October, 2007. https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=479900

5. Robert C. Rubel “Cede No Water: Naval Strategy, the Littorals and Flotillas,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2013. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2013-09/cede-no-water-strategy-littorals-and-flotillas

6. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) and RADM Robert P Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2018), pp. 141-162 and pp. 282-284.

7. Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015/january/distributed-lethality

8. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, July 24, 2019, pp. 8-9. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20190724_RL32665_7bea2e4f25267bb1883fa3ecdf1583d268bf457a.pdf

9. For a more extensive discussion on flotillas, see Robert C. Rubel, “Cede No Water: Naval Strategy, the Littorals, and Flotillas,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, September, 2013. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2013-09/cede-no-water-strategy-littorals-and-flotillas

10. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 566-573.

11. Megan Eckstein, “Hudson Recommends 581 Ships, New Class of Corvette as Part of Input to Pentagon Fleet Plan,” USNI News, September 30, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/09/30/hudson-recommends-581-ships-new-class-of-corvette-as-part-of-input-to-pentagon-fleet-plan

12. Bryan Clark, Peter Haynes, Bryan McGrath, et. al., Restoring American Seapower, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 9, 2017, pp. 41-48. https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/restoring-american-seapower-a-new-fleet-architecture-for-the-united-states-

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (July 21, 2020) The Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Hobart (DDG 39), left, the frigate HMAS Arunta (FFH 151), the landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra (L02), the fleet replenishment vessel HMAS Sirius (O 266), the U.S. Navy forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54), the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Teruzuki (DD 116) and HMAS Stuart (FFH 153) steam into formation during a trilateral exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Codie L. Soule/Released)