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.
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)