Tag Archives: Force Structure

The Network as the Capital Ship

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Robert C. Rubel


From the galleasses at the Battle of Lepanto to the aircraft carriers of today, the capital ship has been that ship type that is capable of defeating all other types. That is the general and simplistic definition of the term, but to speculate on the future capital ship, we must understand the underlying characteristics of a capital ship and its role in fleet architecture and design. We will start with the ship itself and then move outward to its context and implications for maritime strategy.

The Core of the Fleet

The adjective “capital” is used because the ships to which it has applied have been the biggest and most expensive of the naval vessels of their day. This was the case due to the armament they carried; the most and biggest guns available and later the most and most capable aircraft. Whether smooth bore cannon versus rams, number of guns available for a broadside or the caliber of rifled guns, the name of the game has been weight of fire and hitting at distance. The protection of capital ships required significant amounts of investment, first in armor, then in escorts. The expense and the difficulty of building capital ships meant that they were the least numerous ship type. However, their number was important in determining overall naval power. Generally, the capital ship inventory of the most powerful navies was in the dozens.

The physical characteristics just discussed had a powerful influence on fleet design and by extension on maritime strategy. The capital ship was the tool by which a nation could contend for command of the sea, either globally or regionally. Thus a nation’s fleet was designed around the capital ship in various ways.

First, they had to be supported by a variety of lesser ship types that performed functions such as scouting and protection. In this sense the capital ship was the pivot of fleet design. Given the existence of other, potentially hostile capital ship fleets, distribution of capital ships was a key issue. If there was a sea invasion threat to the nation, a “home fleet” of capital ships was necessary. On the other hand, depending on the threats to a nation’s maritime commerce, there was frequently a need to deploy capital ships, individually or in small squadrons, to counter or eliminate these threats, but that raised the danger that they would be caught by a larger force and destroyed. The British concept of the battle cruiser, a heavily armed but lightly armored and fast ship, was intended to address this dilemma. As additional threats such as the torpedo boat, submarine, and aircraft emerged, additional protective measures had to be taken such as escorts and design changes including torpedo bulges and dense anti-aircraft secondary batteries.

The capital ship has been the ultimate arbiter of command of the sea, both in war and peace. Command of the sea can be most usefully thought of as the balance of strength among contending navies. The navy with command of the sea is free to disperse its forces to exercise control in various localities and more broadly, has various strategic options open to it that are closed to the navy and nation that has lost command. The expense of capital ships and their consequent relative scarcity, the time required to replace losses and their intimate connection with command of the sea, coupled with the strategic importance of such command, led national leaders and admirals to be cautious about committing their capital ship fleets to the test of battle. Even a small perceived imbalance of power has caused admirals to try and avoid pitched battle; like going “all in” in Poker, one must be very confident of one’s hand.1 Thus decisive naval battles have been rare and most of those that have occurred involved the weaker force being surprised, cornered or forced into battle by their national leader.

Since the age of sail, the capital ship has been the unit of measure for naval power. When a nation seeks great power status, it starts building a powerful navy, this being true even of historically continental powers such as Germany, the Soviet Union, and now China. This has produced naval arms races and wars. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was an attempt to suppress naval arms races by limiting the total tonnage of warships and imposing a hiatus on building capital ships among the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.

Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Kaga (Colorized by Lootoko, Jr.)

After World War II, the U.S. Navy found itself with near absolute global command of the sea but retained a significant number of its capital ships for the purpose of exercising command of the sea in peacetime. Such exercise consisted of deploying carrier battle groups around the periphery of Eurasia in order to enforce the international order the U.S. desired. In this case the necessary number of capital ships became a function of the combination of deployment demands, maintenance requirements, training, and personnel tempo. 

Capital Capabilities

The large deck aircraft carrier has been the capital ship since the start of World War II. Its hold on this status is based on the effectiveness and utility of its embarked tactical aircraft. The question is whether it will retain that status or be replaced by something else. We will take on this question based on the characteristics and factors that have been discussed.

Let’s start with weapons. The advent of micro circuitry, new forms of sensing and artificial intelligence have transformed missiles, in all their forms, into perhaps the dominant and decisive type of weapon at sea, both for offense and defense. Most ship types carry them and countries such as China have developed land-based ballistic missiles of very long range that can seek ships. Advanced surface-to-air missile systems now constitute a lethal threat to any aircraft except  perhaps those possessing the most advanced stealth technology. Modern anti-ship missiles are increasingly sophisticated and hard to defend against.

All of this has difficult if not dire implications for the continued status of the aircraft carrier as capital ship. Certainly, additional measures can be taken to enhance the defense of both tactical aircraft and the carrier, but these will add to the expense of the total system to the point that it could outweigh the value of the offensive capability it possesses. At that point, according to George Friedman, it becomes “senile.”2 If indeed the missile becomes the key weapon, many different ship types can carry them, for both war at sea and shore bombardment. The question then becomes whether missiles are best concentrated in a large “arsenal ship” or distributed out among a lot of different ships. If concentrated in a few large hulls, it is possible that these “missile battleships” (BBM?) would be the new capital ship. Such concentration would certainly make it easier to coordinate missile salvos.

However, looking beyond the ship itself reveals some factors that militate against concentration. The first is the inherent risk in concentrating offensive firepower in a single ship. Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski articulated the concept of tactical stability which states that as we pack more offensive capability into a ship, there is a point at which its defensive capability ceases to increase proportionately. At that point, escorts are needed.3 Moreover, if a task force has a key capability installed on one or a few ships, their loss would neutralize the whole force, and thus it is tactically vulnerable and subject to catastrophic failure rather than graceful degradation. For this reason, the Navy is developing the concept of distributed lethality: mounting offensive missiles on as many ships as possible in order to complicate enemy targeting and reducing the risk of catastrophic degradation to the force as a whole. 

Another issue is the distribution dilemma. For today’s Navy, it takes two forms: global and regional. Globally, having only ten available aircraft carriers limits the presence the U.S. can generate in multiple regions simultaneously. Moreover, strategic adjustments to deployment patterns must be made on the basis of carrier groups, which is a rather coarse methodology, sort of like trying to draw a precise, detailed picture with a large-tipped magic marker. Regionally, deploying carrier groups must “starburst” into individually operating ships to accommodate all the Geographic Combatant Commander’s engagement commitments. This prevents routine training to maintain combat readiness skills and of course opens individual ships, especially the carrier, to surprise attack. There is also the risk involved in operating carriers in the threatened littoral. This risk is manifest not only at the tactical level in which attacks are more likely to be successful, but in the strategic risk of losing a precious capital ship. Again, the emerging concept of distributed lethality promises a way to avoid or at least moderate the dilemmas and risks.4

The emergence of the missile as the “weapon of decision” both at sea and ashore has a couple major implications. First, since missiles can be mounted on almost anything, the relationship between ship size and characteristics and weapon power is broken. It would seem to make little difference if a salvo of missiles is launched from a single ship or many. Second, the distribution of offensive power among a lot of different ships promises to reduce both operational and strategic risk in various ways and eases the distribution dilemmas.5 This would seem to spell doom to the capital ship concept, and in this writer’s opinion, it does, at least in the conventional sense of a single ship type.

There is, however, another way to look at the matter. The key capability of a capital ship has been to deliver a superior weight of fire at a longer range than anything else. Certainly, our “BBM” would have plenty of missiles to fire, but that is not enough. Those missiles must be fed targeting information to be of any use. International law doesn’t permit firing missiles down a line of bearing and letting them open up their sensors at a certain point and hit the juiciest-looking contact. That makes them “indiscriminate” and therefore illegal. So, without targeting, the BBM or any missile ship intending to fire over the horizon, is useless.

Guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test.  (U.S. Navy photo)

Missiles are getting smarter, but there are a couple of reasons that it is tactically and operationally inadvisable to just light off a salvo with incomplete targeting and identification. First, if facing sophisticated defenses, the salvo must be timed precisely to saturate or at least confuse defenses so that at least some missiles get through. Second, missiles themselves will likely be at least somewhat scarce resources and so must be used efficiently. To achieve both objectives, an area-wide network of sensors, processing and decision making must exist beyond the hulls of the fleet. Granted, individual ships will have their own targeting capabilities, but these likely will not be sufficient for getting full kinetic range from their missiles.

Merging Capital Ship and Networked Force Concepts

Putting it all together, it seems useful to regard the fleet battle force network as the future equivalent of the capital ship. It and it alone allows the delivery of a useful weight of fire at long range in a naval fight. The application of the capital ship term may not be absolutely necessary, but it does confer some useful organizational effects.

First, if the network becomes the pivot of fleet design, certain new perspectives emerge. A key one is a fresh understanding of how existing and potential ship types relate to each other. There isn’t room in this essay to tease out all of these threads, but there are several insights that can be mentioned.

First, since the network consists of physical nodes and connectors (sensors, communication relays, etc.) it must receive physical as well as cyber protection. This is an important potential new role for aircraft carriers. Using a new air wing composition, the carriers can provide air superiority over distributed lethality forces and protect airborne assets like P-8s and Tritons, provide communications relay in the event that satellites are knocked out, and perhaps provide targeting services to missile ships. Thus, carriers would become escorts for the network. An advantage of this new function is that they would not have to operate as close in to the enemy shore as they would if their air wings constituted the key offensive strike capability and the risk to aircraft is reduced. This would allow carriers to remain viable and useful for the foreseeable future.

Second, since physical concentration would not be necessary for combat effectiveness, the risks associated with the regional distribution dilemma would be substantially avoided. Globally, since combat power would be distributed among a larger number of ships, a finer strategic distribution picture could be drawn, assuming that each forward fleet has its own battle force network established.

A network-enabled distributed lethality force would also mitigate the strategic risks associated with the traditional capital ship concept, especially in an era of renewed naval competition. A fight for command of the sea using such a force would not necessarily entail an “all in” decision, providing some strategic decision making flexibility for fleet commanders. Crises or perhaps limited conflicts that occur within the range arcs of major power denial systems could produce a risk dilemma for the U.S. if its offensive power remains concentrated in traditional capital ships. This is precisely what, for instance, the Chinese hope to create if conflict breaks out over any of their contested island claims or even war on the Korean Peninsula.

Missile technology appears to give a decisive edge to the tactical offensive at sea – the historically normal state of affairs. In the early years of the Pacific War, aircraft carriers dealt with this condition by attempting to strike effectively first, the paradigm being the Battle of Midway. However, if the enemy’s offensive power (missiles, say) is dispersed and hidden, then such a remedy is unavailable. Thus capital ships, in attempting to intervene in some littoral conflict would be excessively vulnerable; that is, their loss would be incommensurate with the strategic gains promised by the operation. Capital ships should only be risked when the potential strategic gain, usually command of the sea, is worth such risk. The point is that in the emerging world it may not be worthwhile to employ traditional capital ships even when regional command of the sea is at risk, as they could be lost without prospect of meaningful gain. Network-enabled flotillas would substantially obviate the dilemma.6

Without going into the murky world of cyber warfare, it is worthwhile to point out that the network has offensive and defensive potential beyond supporting missile warfare. Offensive cyber attacks can disrupt enemy command and control and targeting. It would make sense to have such capabilities inside the lifelines of a fleet battle force network in order to achieve effective coordination with missile and other forces. In terms of network design, we may yet be in the “pre-Dreadnought era” awaiting that breakthrough concept that makes all other approaches obsolete. Applying the capital ship framework to the battle force network may help us develop or at least recognize that breakthrough when it comes along.

There are other capital ship-related concepts such as staying powerthat could be useful when applied to the design and operation of battle force networks. Capital ships were built to take hits and still fight. Obviously no ship can endure multiple hits indefinitely, so the notion of staying power helped designers figure out how much protection was needed and make the necessary tradeoffs with armament, speed, sea keeping, magazine capacity, etc. How long the ship needed to hang in there was a valuable determination and so it might be with the network. Staying power might not be measured in minutes as it was with battleships, but some other criterion such as confidence or available bandwidth might be adopted.


This article does not advocate reducing the number of aircraft carriers or for constructing any new class of ship; the designation of the battle force network as the modern instantiation of the capital ship is a way of establishing a new logic that underpins fleet design. If fleet design is regarded as the prerequisite and precursor to fleet architecture, the logic of network-enabled missile warfare will clarify what kinds and numbers of ships the Navy should have.8 There are, of course, many other considerations and influences on fleet architecture, but achieving institutional focus via the network as capital ship concept would go a long way in helping the Navy rapidly enhance its offensive lethality and use its available resources efficiently.

Emerging technology and shifting geopolitical conditions are changing how naval warfare will be conducted in the future. The U.S. Navy must adapt or find itself strategically outmaneuvered. Effective adaptation will require more than updates to current ship types; it will require totally new approaches to fleet design. Instead of thinking outside the box, it might help the Navy to think outside the hull.9 Adopting the network-as-capital ship idea is one way to do that.

Professor Emeritus Rubel is retired but serves as an advisor to the CNO on fleet design and architecture. He spent thirty years on active duty as a light attack and strike fighter aviator. After leaving active duty he joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. In 2006 he designed and led the War College project to develop the concepts that resulted in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. He has published over thirty articles and book chapters dealing with maritime strategy, operational art and naval aviation.

1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Lessons of the War With Spain and Other Articles, (Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1899), p. 31. Mahan discusses the effect of the loss of a single ship on the naval balance with Spain before the war.

2. George and Meredeth Friedman, The Future of War, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), p. 26 and Chapter 8, “The Aircraft Carrier as Midwife,” pp 180-204.

3. Wayne P. Hughes Jr, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2000), pp. 286-291. Prof. Hughes influenced Admiral Cebrowski’s thinking, and the discussion of massing  for defense on the cited pages provides a more in-depth look at the logic of instability.

4. Robert C. Rubel, “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2015, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), pp. 31-45. The article contains a detailed discussion of the various risks and distribution dilemmas inherent to aircraft carriers using the Battle of Midway as a case study.

5. Hughes. Chapter 11, “Modern Tactics and Operations,” pp. 266-309. Prof. Hughes offers a detailed and mathematical discussion of modern missile combat through the lens of operations research.

6. Rubel, “Cede No Water: Naval Strategy, the Littorals and Flotillas,” Proceedings, September 2013, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute), pp. 40-45.

7. Hughes, pp. 268-274.

8. Hughes, “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).

9. Rubel, “Think Outside the Hull,” Proceedings, June 2017, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute), pp. 42-45.

Featured Image: USS Yorktown (CV-10) Crew stands at attention as the National Ensign is raised, during commissioning ceremonies at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 15 April 1943. (Photographed by Lieutenant Charles Kerlee, USNR. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt.1

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. Part 1, below, analyzes U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2 will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 


In 1987, William W. Kaufmann analyzed U.S. Navy force requirements and determined that the Navy sought to procure a force much larger than necessary to meet realistic Cold War-era force projection demands.His review dissected the Navy’s threat assessments and his work was used as a successful tool to stunt the Navy’s attempts at inducing greater budgets. Today, in much the same way as then, we see the Navy favor approaches like AirSea Battle and “sea-basing” that counter anti-access/area-denial strategies but are anchored in conventional warfare concepts that discount the less-sophisticated threats more likely to challenge our nation. The attention and resources diverted from chasing terrorists on land will almost surely have negative consequences for the U.S., while the challenge of using naval power to forcefully gain access into contested regions will likely not be necessary, or perhaps even suicidal if tried. Despite implications to the contrary of the Navy’s parochial interests, naval officers should advise America’s leaders that the danger of being denied military access to a theater of operation is manageable and that the threat of terrorism is the greater national security problem. To do otherwise puts American interests at greater risk. This article explores the Navy’s missions in the context of the current strategic environment, proposes adjustments to its missions to align with its national defense role, analyzes the number of platforms and capabilities required to counter projected threats, and recommends reallocating budget to reduce excessive capacity in the Navy’s force projection mission in favor of sustaining the Army and Marines’ counterinsurgency capability.

The Navy’s Missions

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the Department of Defense has struggled to build a joint force portfolio that distributed resources in proportion to priorities established in the national defense strategy. However, intra-service politics often hampered efforts to cross-level in line with the strategy and each Service wound-up with nearly equal budgets instead. There have been a couple of noteworthy exceptions to this strategy-to-resources mismatch, however. The Eisenhower Administration’s policy of “massive retaliation” emphasized the role of nuclear forces over conventional, whereby the Air Force and Navy benefitted from budget increases at the expense of the Army. The Kennedy Administration reversed Eisenhower’s course with its “flexible response” policy, which sought to improve the Army’s ability to withstand a conventional attack in Europe as well as to develop counterinsurgency forces.

The military strategies that followed these policy changes gave birth to a principle that the U.S. should maintain capability to simultaneously fight at least two major regional wars. The U.S. maintained this defense strategy for decades and only recently sought to scale back. Still, not all was smooth sailing in the Defense Department, as defense analysts noted the need to curb budget waste that resulted from factors ranging from Congressional pork barrel projects to misplaced Service priorities. Kaufmann observed that the Navy had drifted off course in his 1987 analysis titled, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy.

At the time the Navy sought a 622-ship fleet cruising with 15 aircraft carriers, and submitted budget requests based on a vision articulated in 1986’s The Maritime Strategy. Overseen by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins, the document went so far as to envision decisive warfare against the Soviet Navy called “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy,” which advocated using naval power to attack the flanks of the Soviet Union during the course of a potential war.2 The Maritime Strategy persuaded defense planners of the need for a large Navy to accomplish this end.3 Although the Navy advertised its conclusions to justify necessary means to accomplish assigned missions, outsiders viewed it as a parochial argument intended to gain force structure.

Kaufmann deconstructed the Navy’s approach and determined that a naval attack against the Soviet Union would incur losses that outweighed the value of the strikes, or might even be suicidal.4 In his analysis of the maritime threats, he observed an overstated stated need for aircraft carriers, and proposed force reductions that would have substantially curbed Navy carrier-building. 

Like The Maritime Strategy, the Navy’s 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is similarly off course. Section III of the document, titled “Seapower in Support of National Security,” overstates the need to achieve “all domain access” and to project power. It conditions the reader to expect that inflated anti-access threats imply that the most prudent solution is to apply brute force of naval power. One must examine the Navy’s purpose and missions within the context of today’s strategic security environment to establish a baseline for more reasonable Navy force requirements.

Notwithstanding the national defense strategy’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the Navy’s enduring missions in priority sequence are:

1. Protect the U.S. and deter enemy attack, particularly from seaborne threats
2. Secure economic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to support national livelihood
3. Deny an adversary the use of the sea for military advantage
4. Secure military SLOCs to ensure access to distant theaters of operation, and enable military transport vessels safe transit to discharge their matériel in support of joint operations inland from the sea
5. Project forces that can attack adversary interests on land in support of other combat operations

Some may argue that these missions omit important tasks that the Navy is required to perform and others may argue that they are incorrectly prioritized. However, these arguments do not hold water. Although there is no mission listed above to provide “presence,” humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or establish maritime superiority, these missions can be accomplished with the same assets needed for the other missions described, or otherwise derived from a combination of them. Forces conducting the first mission could assist humanitarian relief efforts and, in effect, the second, third, and fourth missions combine to describe graduating levels of sea superiority. No further forces would be necessary to accomplish these other missions. A close examination of the five listed missions can help identify and determine the capabilities required of America’s Navy.

Reconsidering Threats and Missions

First, protecting the nation from attack is the purview of all armed forces. Military threats to the U.S. are the primary reason America should procure military capability. Naturally, the Navy’s portion of this mission should focus on seaborne threats and, to an extent overlapping with the Air Force, threats overflying the sea. The primary maritime military threat to the United States today is the threat of ballistic missile submarines operating within firing range of American shores. There is no real threat of an amphibious attack against the U.S. There is also no serious threat of any enemy carrier or surface strike group threatening American territory, nor will there be any in the foreseeable future. The threat of submarine-launched missiles however, particularly nuclear ballistic missiles, should be the number one priority for the Navy to defeat. Therefore, the capability to detect, track, and destroy “boomers,” and even intercepting their missiles, should be the Navy’s primary focus. This places a premium on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms such as long-range patrol aircraft, attack submarines, ASW helicopter-equipped surface action groups, and ballistic missile defense systems such as Aegis-equipped ships. Although fixed-wing ASW aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier also perform well in this role, aircraft carriers are not optimally employed in ASW and are an inefficient means to address this threat. Likewise, nuclear deterrence through deployment of U.S. ballistic missile submarines is an important capability for the Navy to maintain as part of the strategic deterrence triad. In conjunction with the other legs, it helps discourage enemy attacks against the U.S. by providing a credible second-strike threat.

Second, securing SLOCs to enable global maritime traffic and foiling an enemy’s attempt to blockade the U.S. is a vital maritime mission that ensures the nation’s way of life can continue despite attempts to wage war against it. This mission does not include protecting traffic in or through an active theater of war, but requires a capability for the Navy to establish safe lanes of transit from the territorial waters of the U.S. to the territorial waters of major international shipping ports around the globe. The primary military threat that sea-going commercial traffic might encounter would be attack submarines, although land-based long-range attack aircraft, and, to a lesser extent, surface groups or small water craft, could pose a threat. Accordingly, these threats require the Navy to maintain a transoceanic ASW capability, defensive anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, and the capability to defend against smaller surface threats. These are largely the same capabilities required in the first mission above, and greater numbers of the same types of assets can effectively be used for this second purpose. 

The third mission for the Navy is to deny, or at least inhibit, enemy use of the sea for military advantage. An enemy must not be able to outflank land forces using maritime maneuver. This is where the need for sea-based fixed-wing attack and air-intercept aircraft makes their first appearance, as the Navy needs a limited strike and air combat capability to prevent an enemy from gaining localized sea control. America’s potential adversaries, however, do not furnish a strong blue-water capability that threatens to overturn the Navy’s long-established control of the sea. Even the most vaunted projected maritime threat, the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China (PLAN), will possibly field three aircraft carriers in the coming years, 85 ocean-going surface combatants, and nine nuclear-powered attack submarines.Although this may sound like a substantial challenge at first glance, a closer look assuages concern about blue water contests with the Navy. In a potential war against the U.S., the PLAN would not survive beyond the reach of land-based air cover since the Navy’s attack submarines would almost assuredly destroy their task forces on the open seas, and even be a significant threat for PLAN forces in their home waters. Furthermore, the Air Force’s long-range bombers would severely hamper Chinese maritime freedom of maneuver outside of the East and South China Seas. Therefore, only a few cruise missile-equipped ships, and possibly a single aircraft carrier with multi-role fixed-wing aircraft would be necessary to accomplish this third mission per theater of war. Even the amphibious assault ship-based U.S. Marine Corps attack aircraft may sufficiently address this role. A joint task force of attack submarines, amphibious assault ships, and Air Force strike aircraft could fulfill this task, thus lessening the demand for supercarriers. 

The fourth mission for the Navy is to secure SLOCs into a theater of war, which necessitates a stronger offensive capability. This mission includes the possibility of forcefully gaining access to contested theaters and, combined with the second and third, accounts for the Navy’s desired capability of sea control as articulated in the Navy’s vision statement, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.6 The AirSea Battle concept envisions the most challenging aspect of this fourth mission. AirSea Battle considers a worst-case scenario where the Navy must escort military transports into the full weight of sophisticated enemy defenses—within ample range of the enemy’s inventory of attack aircraft, cruise missiles, attack submarines, and mines. However, there are only a few locations in the world where Navy forces would have to confront this most challenging task by themselves, and only one current location where this is even conceivable: the South China Sea. Regardless, even the worst-case scenario there would probably require no more naval forces than required during Operation Desert Storm or in the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the Navy deployed six aircraft carriers in each instance.7 Although this may seemingly vindicate the Navy’s need to maintain a double-digit number of carriers, we must be realistic about the threat faced. Admittedly, the challenge to escort convoys would substantially increase as task forces approached theaters of war but the chance that regional partners would not allow greater basing access assumed in some studies is overly pessimistic. This, combined with the low likelihood that a severe South China Sea problem would actually occur, reduces the challenges posed.

From a different perspective, consider more pessimistic accounts such that there were no bases in the region from which American forces could launch attacks, no allies contributing meaningful forces to assist the cause, and an enemy force that actually developed into the great adversary it is predicted to become. Were six carriers required in both wars against Iraq that sought to eject entrenched forces from an occupied country or force regime change as the 1991 and 2003 military missions respectively, or was that overkill? Couldn’t four carriers have accomplished the more limited objective of simply “gaining access” to that theater?  Self-serving parochial aspects aside, the Navy should recognize that overselling the capability to execute a highly-contested South China Sea mission under the worst circumstances promises to divert resources that could be employed against other, more likely threats, such as transnational terrorism.

The Navy has encountered difficulties persuading defense planners of the full narrative for its fifth mission—power projection—since the end of the Cold War. The Navy should indeed maintain a capability to project power into distant theaters of operation since there is great value in an ability to assail an enemy in as many ways as possible. The main problem with the Navy’s approach, however, is that it single-mindedly envisions large carrier strike groups for this role. Carrier strike groups should, at best, only be one part of a comprehensive package that could be accomplished by guided missile-capable attack submarines alone or with surface combatants, and possibly to a greater degree, by long-range bombers and tactical aircraft controlled by the Air Force. This is a joint, overlapping mission set. Because the power projection argument has lost favor in recent years, the Navy has sought a different narrative to justify its service size. Hence, the AirSea Battle concept was born.


This examination has identified, prioritized, and placed limiting stipulations on five core missions the Navy must accomplish. Next, an examination of the Navy’s present forces it has to carry out these missions, particularly its aircraft carriers, will help determine if there is excess capability it could reduce in favor of other national defense interests. 

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, served 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. William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 123.

2. Admiral James D. Watkins, The Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD.: US Naval Institute Proceedings Supplement, January 1986), 9-13; John B. Hattendorf, Ph.D., Peter M. Swartz and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, (Newport, R.I.:  Naval War College Press, 2008), 221.

3. Hattendorf, Swartz, and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, 204.

4. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy, 102-104.

5. Kenji, Minemura, “China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 31, 2008, available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20090526192305/http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200812310046.html, accessed on October 16, 2014.

6. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015, 22.

7. 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.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 3, 2017) Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) observe the guided-missile destroyers USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Halsey (DDG 97), USS Preble (DDG 86) and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) during a Group Sail training unit exercise with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts/Released)

Alternative Naval Force Structure Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This past week CIMSEC hosted a topic week on alternative naval force structures. Contributors proposed new fleets with hypothetical warship designs with an eye towards future threats and technological opportunities. Others analyzed historical examples of attempts to overhaul naval force structure, and many authors applied imaginative thinking to see how the U.S. Navy can make the most of its existing fleet. The topic week’s Call for Articles may be read here. We thank our contributors for their excellent submissions.

The Perils of Alternative Force Structure by Steve Wills

“Even the best alternative force structure that meets strategic needs, is more affordable than previous capabilities, and outguns the enemy could be subject to obsolescence before most of its units are launched. These case studies in alternative force structure suggest that such efforts are often less than successful in application.”

Unmanned-Centric Force Structure by Javier Gonzalez

“The conundrum and implied assumption, with this or similar future force structure analyses, is that the Navy must have at least a vague understanding of an uncertain future. However, there is a better way to build a superior and more capable fleet—by continuing to build manned ships based on current and available capabilities while also fully embracing optionality (aka flexibility and adaptability) in unmanned systems.”

Proposing A Modern High Speed Transport –  The Long Range Patrol Vessel by Tom Meyer

Is the U.S. Navy moving from an era of exceptional “ships of the line” – including LHA’s & LPD’s, FFG’s, CG’s, DDG’s, SSN’s and CVN’s – to one filled with USV’s, UAV’s, LCS’s, CV’s, SSK’s and perhaps something new – Long Range Patrol Vessels (LRPV’s)? But what in the world is an LRPV? The LRPV represents the 21st century version of the WWII APD – High Speed Transports.

No Time To Spare: Drawing on History to Inspire Capability Innovation in Today’s Navy by Bob Hein

“Designing and building new naval platforms takes time we don’t have, and there is still abundant opportunity to make the most of existing force structure. Fortunately for the Navy, histories of previous wars are a good guide for future action.”

Enhancing Existing Force Structure by Optimizing Maritime Service Specialization by Eric Beaty

“Luckily, the United States has three maritime services—the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps—with different core competencies covering a broad range of naval missions. Current investments in force structure can be maximized by focusing the maritime services on their preferred missions.”

Augment Naval Force Structure By Upgunning The Coast Guard by Chuck Hill

“The Navy should consider investing high-end warfighting capability in the Coast Guard to augment existing force structure and provide a force multiplier in times of conflict. A more capable Coast Guard will also be better able to defend the nation from asymmetrical threats.”

A Fleet Plan for 2045: The Navy the U.S. Ought to be Building by Jan Musil

“2045 is a useful target date, as there will be very few of our Cold War era ships left by then, therefore that fleet will reflect what we are building today and will build in the future. This article proposes several new ship designs and highlights enduring challenges posed by the threat environment.”

Closing Remarks on Changing Naval Force Structure by CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.)

“The biggest deficiencies in reformulating the U. S. Navy’s force structure are (1) a failure to take the shrinking defense budget into account which (2) allows every critic or proponent to be like the blind men who formulated their description of an elephant by touching only his trunk, tail, leg, or tusk. To get an appreciation of the size of the problem you have to describe the whole beast, and what is even harder, to get him to change direction by hitting him over the head repeatedly.”

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

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 2, 2016) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) underway in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Tyrone Pham/ Released)

Closing Remarks on Changing Naval Force Structure

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.)

The biggest deficiencies in reformulating the U. S. Navy’s force structure are (1) a failure to take the shrinking defense budget into account which (2) allows every critic or proponent to be like the blind men who formulated their description of an elephant by touching only his trunk, tail, leg, or tusk. To get an appreciation of the size of the problem you have to describe the whole beast, and what is even harder, to get him to change direction by hitting him over the head repeatedly.

A good thesis to make the point is by LT Juan L. Carrasco, published in 2009. It explores the number of fleet billets in (1) the then current 285 ship fleet (2) the proposed, now defunct, 313 ship Navy, and (3) a new fleet of over 650 vessels designed by nine members of the NPS faculty that included more than 260 smaller coastal warships. Carrasco showed, remarkably enough, the NPS-designed fleet required the fewest afloat billets. Looking at the details reveal why. One major reason was that the then-current Navy’s eleven CVNs took 46% of all fleet billets in 285 ship navy, so when the NPS-designed fleet cut the number of CVNs to six and added more than a dozen small sea-based air platforms, then they were more distributable 100,000 ton carriers. The smaller ones, more like a CVL in size, can operate in littoral waters where a CVN wing is more than is needed for long term littoral operations. Thus, there were enough billets to more widely distribute across the NPS fleet.

A Manpower Comparison of Three U. S. Navies: The Current Fleet, a Projected 313 Ship Fleet, and a More Distributed Bimodal Alternative by Juan L. Carrasco.

Those who haven’t thought about all the elements of a 600-ship navy will have a lot of questions about logistics, flying off smaller carriers, new tactics to accompany the new technologies, procedures to deal with warships damaged from missile attacks, and so forth. The Navy must confront its budget crunch while needing to buy more expensive missiles in greater numbers, restoring the SSBN fleet, sustaining the APN dollars to buy ever-more expensive aircraft, supporting Marine expeditionary operations, structuring an offensively capable surface ship fleet, building up—or merely sustaining—our increasingly valuable submarine forces, and maintaining enough CLF ships to take some losses and continue to maintain the fleet forward. This will take a lot more original thinking about the role of unmanned and robotic vehicles of many kinds, more teaming with partner nations, forward bases that support our friends in East Asia and Europe, applications of offensive cyber warfare, achieving more stealthy C2 ways to attack effectively first, all to achieve the end of building a more distributable, combat ready 21st Century U. S. Navy.

Captain Hughes is a designated professor in the Department of Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master of science degree in operations research from the Naval Postgraduate School. On active duty he commanded a minesweeper and a destroyer, directed a large training command, served as deputy director of Systems Analysis (OP-96), and was aide to Under Secretary of the Navy R. James Woolsey. At the Naval Postgraduate School for twenty-six years, he has served in the Chair of Applied Systems Analysis, as the first incumbent of the Chair of Tactical Analysis, and as dean of the Graduate School of Operational and Information Sciences. Captain Hughes is author of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000), Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (1986), and Military Modeling (1984), and he is a coauthor of A Concise Theory of Combat (1997). He served as a member of the Naval War College Press Advisory Board for over twenty-five years, until 2012.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 23, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) steams in formation with, from left to right, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20), the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) during a photo exercise during Valiant Shield 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)