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Commodore Dudley Wright Knox – Sailor, Writer, Sage

By Christopher Nelson

The U.S. Naval Institute’s popular and well-reviewed 21st Century Foundation series continues to grow. This past May, Dr. David Kohnen added to the list with his 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. 

Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the "Planning Section" of the "London Flagship" headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)
Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the “Planning Section” of the “London Flagship” headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

In a review published on CIMSEC back in August, Captain Dale Rielage, USN, said that “Knox offers an example of how an officer with ideas and the willingness to challenge the status quo can have a profound influence on the U.S. Navy.” To learn more about Commodore Knox, and how he challenged naval thinking, I talked with Dr. Kohnen about his new book. 

Finally, I am excited to tell you that Dr. Kohnen has provided us with pictures of Commodore Knox and Admirals King and Sims that have never been published. They are published here for the first time.

Professor Kohnen, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. So, to start, why did you want to write a book about Knox?  

Chris, thank you, I greatly appreciate this opportunity to discuss Commodore Dudley W. Knox. Indeed, I firmly believe that Knox stands among the most significant naval thinkers in American history. His ideas truly resonate, as the themes he addressed in his historical work during the first fifty years of the twentieth century informed the development of the U.S. Navy “second to none.” Through his close personal associations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Knox became one of the key architects in designing the foundations of U.S. Navy professional military education, in understanding American naval history and traditions, and in advancing the idea of employing the U.S. Navy as an international peacemaker. Knox remains one of the most important figures in understanding American concepts of “sea power” thorough two world wars and into the Cold War era.  From my own studies of his life and historical works, I firmly believe that Knox offered strategic observations on concepts of maritime strategy, which transcend into the twenty-first century. I also firmly believe that our Navy should revisit the ideas Knox offers in his writings in order to be better informed of the historical foundations, which have shaped contemporary discussions concerning the future of American sea power and the military policy of the United States.

(Previously Unpublished) U.S. Navy Captain Ernest J. King worked closely with Knox and the London Flagship staff to coordinate Atlantic Fleet operations with intelligence. After 1917, King temporarily served as Chief of Staff to the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo. Drawing perspective from wartime experience, King collaborated with Knox to frame a U.S. Navy strategy for professional military education after the First World War.

Knox advised the strategic decision makers who created the U.S. Navy “second to none” and the post-imperial vision of replacing historical empires with multinational alliances under the United Nations. Given his close friendship with Roosevelt and King, I have come to view Knox as a figure perhaps comparable to a Thomas Cromwell, or the fictional consigliore from the Godfather movie, as depicted by the Hollywood actor Robert Duvall. By the way, Knox was also a mentor for Duvall’s father, Commodore William H. Duvall, who served in destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Second World War.

I first became aware of Knox as I was working on my dissertation, which focused on Ernest J. King. In the process of writing, I started reconstructing the circle of personalities surrounding King in order to understand the bureaucratic culture and primary group dynamics, which characterized the social character of the U.S. Navy during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. As I am sure you know, the story of Ernest J. King begins during the reconstruction era after the Civil War. He eventually served as Chief of Staff of the Atlantic Fleet during the First World War. Among King’s best friends and closest shipmates was a guy named Dudley Wright Knox. Of course, Knox and King shared a deep interest in history. 

Knox had ties with historical figures in American military history. His father was a general officer in the Army, and he had relatives in the service going all the way back to the American Revolutionary period. So Knox is already one of these people who is inclined to think in historical terms.  

Then I started mapping out his associations. I’m an intelligence officer in the Navy. So in the same way you do that as an intelligence officer, I began doing that with these historical figures. When you look at the association between King and Knox you start to see other associations. You begin to then see the connection between King, Knox, Nimitz, and then Halsey, Spruance, and the whole gang.  So you have this close circle of naval officers who periodically bumped into each other during their careers in the naval service.  

Now, in this circle of naval officers, Dudley Knox looms large in the discussion. Knox was a little bit older than the rest of them and he was so sharp minded that people like Ernest King would look to him for advice, perspective, and just good conversation. 

Of course, those were the days before distractions like television and the internet. These guys, then, spent their time focusing on their profession – reading the professional literature that should be read for people who want to think about strategy, naval operations, and the maritime dimension. These are books that unfortunately have become obscured in the contemporary context. You think about some of the things that Knox and his contemporaries were reading, people like John Knox Laughton and Spencer Wilkinson. These guys were aware of Corbett long before anyone else was aware of Corbett. They are an interesting group of people. That’s why I started gravitating to Commodore Knox. 

Knox, however, was not my main focus in my PhD studies — my focus was Ernest King. But now I had all these “left-overs,” the cutting room types of material after I finished the dissertation on King. And all that extra material was there, so I wrote a paper that I gave at the Oceanic Society of History Conference. On the panel was Claude Berube and B.J. Armstrong. I gave this paper about Knox, and shortly after I finished B.J. slipped me a note. B.J. wrote, “You need to write the book on Knox.” I looked at him and was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ After the conference we went to the pub and B.J. told me about the 21st Century Series and its focus. He convinced me that what I had on Knox would work quite well within the context of the 21st Century Series. It came together relatively quickly because I already knew a lot of things about Knox that simply didn’t exist in the secondary literature — and still doesn’t exist. I’m pretty happy how this little piece came together. It was a great way of bringing Knox back to the 21st century professional naval audience. 

And we are not done with Knox. Once I get some other things done, it is my full intention to go back and do something more substantial about Knox. He certainly deserves a focused biography for all the work that he did and the influence that he had, which I highlight in the collection, specifically his associations with Ernest King and Franklin Roosevelt.

Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the "Quasi-War" with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.
Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the “Quasi-War” with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.

I assume it is difficult as an editor to decide what to include in a book and what not to include, particularly if a subject is a prolific writer. How did you go about making those decisions?

That’s an interesting question. So, Commander B.J. Armstrong is the editor of the series, and we’re also good friends. I’m prolific in terms of, well, I like to use a lot of words to say things. And I like to use footnotes and I like to explore every avenue in my analysis. That results in large manuscripts. B.J. was draconian as an editor in executing the sixty-thousand word limit. That really constrained me in terms of what I could do in terms of Knox. We actually cut two essays that I wanted to include just to make sure the pieces fit within the context of the 21st Century Series.  

So the balance of putting together Knox’s biographical details, which are not out there in the secondary literature, there’s no real comprehensive biography of Knox available to us – so for the time being, at least, this book is a starting point for a detailed biography, which needs to be written. And if somebody else doesn’t do it I’m going to do it once I get King off my plate. When you think about editing and the choices that you have to make, what I did is I focused on the themes that the CNO is focusing on with his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” I also considered pieces in light of some of the discussions that are ongoing here at the U.S. Naval War College, contemporary questions of American maritime strategy, naval leadership, ethics (but Knox always talked about the “naval ethos” opposed to ethics), and I think those differences are worthy of discussion. Knox also strongly talked about the importance of understanding the foundations of history in order to frame contemporary discussions about the future. He wrote about these themes. The way he did it was so profoundly unique that Knox remains worthy of consideration in the contemporary context. So, when I assembled these essays I followed those points when selecting the essays in the book.

My favorite essay is actually the last one. It turns out in my mind as the most interesting within the contemporary context. He’s talking about the problem of unification among the services. He’s writing at the time of the revolt of the admirals, which was just erupting. And there all of these problems between the Army and the Navy. The Air Force was newly created; the armed forces security agency; the Central Intelligence Agency; all these new things that came after World War Two. Knox is reeling against the tide as the future was being mapped out. I think Knox was a little bit reluctant to embrace these new ideas because he was still looking at things from the perspective of the past. He understood the problems that came with the bureaucratic changes that happened after the Second World War, which, from Knox’s point of view really didn’t measure up in terms of American ways of war — the American tradition of having a clearly defined civilian command over the military. Knox was worried about a progressive military industrialization of American culture. He wrote about this.  

After that last essay, Knox sort of said ‘look, we need to rethink how we are talking about problems of war.’ And he did talk about the importance of how navies are different from armies, and that armies require naval support. Armies are there to conduct operations ashore to achieve an effect ashore. But armies and navies are different, they operate in different environments, and both need airpower to conduct those operations.

So when you follow Knox’s logic he is saying this separation of an air force is a really bad idea. It creates another bureaucracy. As a result you are going to create more flag billets and you are going to see more investment, not less investment, in the military. Knox is reeling against that. Then he does this nice comparison of “Hey if I build an aircraft carrier it is going to last 40 years, you can use it for multiple functions, and use it during peacetime. Rather than if you build a fleet of bombers where its only function is going to be useful if you need to drop a bomb.” Knox did not agree with that sort of approach.   

Are there other Knox writings that didn’t make it into the 21st Century Knox but should be read as well?

Dudley Knox was prolific. B.J. and I would go around and around about which essays should go in the book. So like I said earlier, the important part was zeroing in on themes that are immediate interest to the contemporary U.S. Naval professional. That sort of dictated how we were going to put together this little collection. When I compiled the essay that were selected, I focused on the questions of strategy, doctrine, leadership, and of course, the ethos of American naval service. The one thing that I would say that is important in the process of selecting the essays, is that Knox and his associates had this perspective that the naval service has multiple functions. It is not just war. I think Knox would have a problem with contemporary words like “warfighter” because it is too specific. Knox would have reminded us that the Navy is always operational rather if we are at peace or at war. So when you look at his essay titled “Naval Power as a Preserver of Neutrality and Peace,” it is an important essay because he is basically riffing off an essay Teddy Roosevelt published in 1914 titled “Our Navy, Peace Maker.” Now, these themes are important because it is a way of thinking about military service that is different than some of the conversations that we have here in the contemporary era. For example, when you look at their careers, Knox’s generation, coming out of the naval academy at the beginning of the 20th Century, they remained in the naval service for the remainder of their lives. Knox even served in retired status as director of naval history until his death.  

(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.
(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.

When you put together the chronology of some of these guys’ naval careers, and the numbers they spent fighting wars, it only adds up to about eight years. So what are they doing during this other time? So here you have people serving, this idea of service, the ethos of naval service, over a sixty odd year period, and their orientation is not to go find a war but to find ways to avoid a war through sea power. And of course this ties into the theories of Mahan and Luce at the end of the 19th century. Of course, their perspectives reflected an informed understanding of John Knox Laughton’s work, Spencer Wilkinson, Alfred Mahan, and others. 

Dudley Knox had some well-known mentors. Who were they and how did they influence him?  Knox, if I understood correctly, was concerned that there will be some challenges if you have a U.S. Air Force trying to support a naval surface force. He had some concerns about an independent air force. This was in a time when discussions of creating a U.S. Air Force sounded quite contentious. Was he concerned that air force aviators wouldn’t understand naval operations and vice versa?

The problem here centers on the question of who controls what. Knox observed post-World War I events, for example, the Washington Naval Treaty. Those events inspired Knox to write his first substantial book called “The Eclipse of American Sea Power.” He’s reeling against the fact that the average American policy maker is not educated enough to understand what they were doing when they were cutting the Fleet. After that fight in 1923, Billy Mitchell arrives and is fixated in creating an American equivalent to the British Royal Air Force, and Knox is reeling against this during his whole career because Knox is saying that the army needs airpower as much as the Navy needs airpower. But airpower for the sake of airpower is nothing. We don’t need a separate air force, he says. That’s Knox’s position for the remainder of his career.

Knox, I was interested to read, was quite the historian. In fact, one of your selections is his piece titled “Forgetting the Lessons of History.” And in my copy of your book, I underlined a section where he says he was quite frustrated with the lack of accessibility to naval archives — in particular, private collectors upset him. Why?

Knox recognized that private collectors are a major source of material that really doesn’t belong to them. They may have paid for it and they might have acquired these items for investment purposes, but from Knox’s point of view these items belonged to the nation. He became very frustrated with some of them because they liked to hang the painting on the wall or have the original commission of John Paul Jones just sitting there on the fire mantle, and Knox said that something like that does not belong on your mantle piece. It belongs to the Navy and to the nation. Through the good offices of FDR a lot of these pieces were acquired by the Navy at Navy expense for the purpose of preservation. And I must say, in the contemporary context, we have a lot of work to do in that front.

On Knox’s writings on naval leadership, he seems, at least to me, to have a reasonable position on naval ceremonies and etiquette. Why did he think that over-emphasizing naval etiquette was more dangerous than under-emphasizing it?  

I think over-emphasizing on anything can be dangerous. Knox is trying to say we should be proud of our naval service and celebrate our traditions. We have to live up to the image that we want to paint for ourselves as naval professionals — that’s what he is trying to say. Etiquette for Knox does not equate to naval proficiency. For instance, you could still wear white gloves and wear a sharp naval uniform but be a terrible naval officer. That’s what he is saying. You look at some of the things we emphasize in the contemporary context: can you do enough push-ups, can you run a mile and half in the right amount of time? Knox would have said ‘that’s ridiculous – who cares?’ Knox would have said if the guy can do the job and do it well, and if they are willing to serve, and as long as they are medically fit to be under-way, I don’t care if he has a beer-belly. If he is a good sailor then he is a good sailor – and he is a shipmate. So what are we doing throwing people out that are good sailors. That’s what Knox would have said. I’m channeling his ghost as I speak. There are these superfluous bureaucratic things that Knox and his generation would be reeling against – general training, that sort of stuff. You can follow the manual all day, but you are still not going to get it, in terms of being a naval professional.

When he is talking leadership, what he is saying is ‘look, if you are getting into the weeds, the details of some poor enlisted man’s job, you are not being a leader, you are trying to be an enlisted man. Let the enlisted people do the jobs that they’ve been assigned and develop a sense of teamwork.’ He would have said you have to develop that sense of cohesion and common vision.

As a historian yourself, I want to talk a bit about your writing and research process. Where did you end up going to do most of your research on Knox? 

As an analyst, I looked at his associations, and from there I looked at repositories where papers might be that make references that refer to Knox. The U.S. Naval Academy, The Nimitz Library has some great material, the Library of Congress has a gold mine of material. There’ papers in the National Archives from his official work that are hard to find, but they’re there. And of course, at the U.S. Naval War College, we have a substantial collection of interesting papers that relate to Knox and his associates. Specifically, the post-war efforts to develop professional military education standards under the Knox-King-Pye board. It was Dudley Knox and his associate Tracey Barrett Kitridge who helped Sims expand the library collection at the U.S. Naval War College from roughly 1,000 books to over 45,000 books within about a three year period – breaking all the rules and regulations required to get the job done.

(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.
(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.

The Knox-King-Pye board was another piece that I was unable to fit in this collection. I make some references to it other areas. One of the big things the board highlighted, and the reason it caused so much controversy, is that the board concluded that your average U.S. Navy flag officer was only educated to the lowest commissioned grade. If you think about that, in 1919 they are making the assertion that the average American naval professional went to the naval academy, graduated, became ensigns, and that’s the last time they had any education besides the life at sea. What Knox, King, and Pye concluded was one of the problems in the navy was the poor education of high ranking admirals. One of the people they had in mind when they wrote this was Hugh Rodman, who commanded a battleship division in the First World War. Rodman celebrated the fact that he didn’t read Clausewitz and Jomini – he thought he was just a darn good sailor. King and Knox thought he was a dullard. So in essence what Knox, King, and Pye are trying to do is say, ‘hey, flag officer, you might have the rank, but we are smarter than you.’

Also, as a writer and historian, how did you decide to organize this book? How do you organize your notes and thoughts when you are writing?   

I studied with Carl Boyd and the late Craig Cameron at Old Dominion University a long time ago – and both of them had different writing methods. First and foremost as a methodological point, I was conditioned by people like Carl and Craig to study the works of great historians like Michael Howard and Peter Paret. I have been so fortunate in my past studies, as Carl personally made it possible for me to interact with Peter Paret, John Keegan, and Admiral Bobby Inman. Because of Carl, I also had the opportunity to work with and develop close friendships with historians like the late Jürgen Rohwer and Edward L. “Ned” Beach.

Since my studies at Old Dominion all those years ago, I have subsequently had the unique privilege of studying under the immediate supervision of John Hattendorf at the Naval War College and Andrew Lambert at the University of London, King’s College. Hattendorf and Lambert loom very large as inspirations for the type of historian I would like to be. Michael Howard also inspires me to focus on the human dimension, as I consider the strange phenomenon of war. If anything, my studies of past wars have convinced me that contemporary strategic thinkers ought to take the approach that, unlike armies or air forces, Knox argued that navies provided unique means, “not to make war but to preserve peace, not to be predatory, but to shield the free development of commerce, not to unsettle the world, but to stabilize it through the promotion of law and order.”

From my education as a historian, I strive to employ the method that is more closely associated with Leopold von Ranke. Through primary archival research and documentary history, I try to replicate the conditions of the time in order to understand why people acted in the way that they did at the time. I strive not to superimpose 21st century concepts upon personalities like Knox or King. I’m trying to understand why they did things in 1919 within the context of 1919. I do take sort of a broadly humanistic approach in examining historical questions.

Now, it does cause some problems for me, because I was not actually there in 1919 and I will never actually get to meet people like Knox or King. By reading their papers and by placing them into their proper historical context, however, I must say that one can get a visceral sense of what made them tick (so to speak). Since they were able to navigate the unforeseeable cybernetic challenges of technology and the collapse of empires during the unprecedented upheaval of two world wars, I must say that Knox and King would certainly have something to say about the contemporary challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

When I’m talking to contemporary strategic thinkers at the Naval War College, I also have to help them understand why the past is still important within the contemporary context. Obviously, I want people to read my writing. So, one of the challenges is to make it such that these people that are no longer with us – people like Knox and King – that they resonate with contemporary readers. I look for things that provide connections to the contemporary reader, which of course helps us discussions about the future. 

I begin with that methodology. I pick people to focus on and then I look for their papers. Of course, I try to read everything I can possibly get my hands on about these people. There’s not much on Knox, unfortunately. Soon you realize that you are dealing with these complicated personalities — and you are dealing with myths in the historiography, all the while trying to figure out what made these people tick. The more you know the more complicated it gets. You have to be disciplined to focus on the themes that are the most important to understanding the person you are dealing with, but also how that person continues to be important to the contemporary reader.

Once I have all my information together I’ll rough out an outline of the themes that I want to hit on. Those then become your chapter headings, and then each chapter has its own focus. Next, you do your best to try to tie all the chapters together into a comprehensive narrative with a strong opening argument in the beginning and a strong conclusion in the end, telling the reader what it means.

My last questions have to do with Knox’s legacy. What do you think, if anything, he anticipated as future challenges for the U.S. Navy? And second, what is the single most important thing you want readers to takeaway from Knox’s work?

Knox is part of that generation of naval officers who followed the vision of the “navy second to none.” He did it through two world wars and he did it during peacetime in efforts to avoid wars in the first place. Arguably, the navy you have today is the navy that Knox and his associates built. If we don’t recognize that then we run the risk of losing what they built. I would argue that Knox is with us everyday when a U.S. Navy warship gets underway. If anything, I would hope that contemporary U.S. Naval professionals just take some time to think about the rich history and traditions of our service. In some respects I am channeling the ghosts of Knox and King in stating that I firmly believe that we must recognize our responsibility of being the curators and caretakers of our U.S. Navy for the future interests of American seapower and in framing an informed approach to the future military policy of the United States. As an aside, I was pleased the other day that they got rid of the blue navy working uniforms. It was a uniform that Knox would have taken time to write about in a negative way. It would be great to see us get back into proper naval uniforms.

 Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960. 

I am chagrined that some bureaucrat, probably sitting in a cubicle in the Pentagon, decided to abandon centuries of naval tradition by abandoning our enlisted rating system in favor of the air force and army models of focusing on rank. The rating system was really emphasized by Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce who thought that military rank was ancillary to the mastery of a more focused professional trade, such as the quartermaster masters of navigation, the boatswain masters of seamanship, and the medical master corpsmen. If it is the last thing I do, our navy will someday return to its historical roots and develop a better understanding of why our U.S. Navy became what it now is within the contemporary context.  

Nobody knows what the future holds, but historical understanding provides means to anticipate and adapt to the unforeseeable future. Historians frequently face challenges in dealing with people who are more interested in bureaucratic routines, or mathematically framed engineering processes, or empirically clear solutions. Historians are unable to do this, because they do not tend to offer clear answers in black and white terms. All they can really do is offer contemporary strategic decision makers an informed perspective or a recommendation for a given course of action. Historians can only stand upon the foundations provided by historical understanding, but are not very good at articulating their ideas within the contemporary context as the engineers, lawyers, politicians, and policy-types tend to dominate the contemporary discussions of future strategy.  

Basically, I think it is important for us as naval professionals to consistently seek an informed understanding of the past in order to know in clear terms the influence of history upon seapower and in shaping the future military policy of the United States.

Dr. Kohnen, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. All the best to you.

Thank You, Chris. I enjoyed it.

David Kohnen earned a PhD with the Laughton Professor of Naval History at the University of London (Kings College London). As a maritime historian, he concentrates on naval strategy, organizations, and organizational group dynamics. Focusing on these general themes, he edited the works of Commodore Dudley W. Knox to examine historical foundations in contemporary maritime affairs in, 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, 2016). In his previous book, Kohnen focused on the transatlantic alliance between the British Empire and United States in, Commanders Winn and Knowles: Winning the U-Boat War with Intelligence (Enigma Press, 1999).

Outside of his scholarly work, Kohnen’s naval service in the active and reserve ranks include two deployments afloat in Middle Eastern waters, two ashore in Iraq, and one supporting landlocked operations in Afghanistan. Balancing work as a Naval War College civil service instructor, Kohnen also serves in the U.S. Naval Reserve with the Executive Programs faculty at  the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. The comments and opinions in this interview are his own and do not represent the opinions of the U.S Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer currently stationed in the Pacific. The questions and comments above are his personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

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)

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

Alternative Naval Force Structure Week

By Jan Musil

Rather than the usual discussion of what the U.S. Navy has and how to get Congress to fund more and better ships and systems, this article concentrates on the fleet we ought to be constructing in the decades ahead. 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. 

A New Transoceanic Frigate Design

The retirement of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates has left a substantial hole, both in terms of surface ship numbers and ASW capability in the U.S Navy’s warfighting capabilities. An understandable move on our part given recent budget pressures, but this author is convinced that we are going to have to replace the transoceanic escort and ASW capability the class provided the fleet.

Perry Replacement

Building a class of frigates that are 21st century versions of the Perry class is an obvious alternative for us to consider. I suggest designing a slightly larger version, say 3800 tons, with a fighting ability heavily focused on the ASW mission. Since the Navy is building plenty of littoral capability in the various LCS classes, this new design should be expressly built to operate effectively in the high sea states the North Atlantic and North Pacific are notorious for generating at regular intervals.

Using the larger turbine engine already in use with the LCS in the new design is expensive, both in construction and operating costs, but not so much more that it makes sense to retain two support and maintenance trails in the fleet and shipyards. Yes, the extra speed will be nice, but in reality is not really necessary. But with the larger engine already baked into the Navy’s operating budget it is better to stick with it even if the operating advantages of more speed in deep blue waters are marginal.

Foremost is the wider beam the bigger turbine will force on the designers. Make a virtue of this fact by making the focus of the new frigate design its helicopter deck, hanger, assigned Seahawk, two Fire Scouts, and ten to twelve TFS buoys. This ship class will exist to provide ASW escort to the CSGs, ARGs and transoceanic convoys in the deep blue.

There will be a 5″ gun to put aboard, the basics of AAW self-defense and plenty of VLS capability for ASW, AAW and the developing distributed long-range strike abilities the Navy has decided it requires. Other than that though, this ship exists to screen against or out and out hunt, submarines.

Those concerned over such a design’s lack of more substantial AAW and offensive capabilities should understand the same argument used to defend the purchase of the original Perrys. Neither the Navy nor the nation can afford to put all three capabilities in substantial measure aboard this small a ship build. We couldn’t afford it with a fifty-six ship build against the Soviet Union and we cannot afford it with the thirty plus frigates we need to build of this new design in the decades ahead.

Hull Design Opportunity

This author shares in the lack of enthusiasm for the use of aluminum in the hulls of the Independence class. But the potential capabilities of the trimaran portion of that class’s design are intriguing.

Whether made of steel or the still-to-be-proven aluminum, a trimaran hull properly designed could provide substantial improvements in stability for helicopter operations in high sea states.

Traditionally Mediterranean navies, the Italians in particular, turned to trimaran designs for speed to use against heavier gunned opponents. With the U.S. Navy speed is never going to be first on a skippers mind in heavily rolling waters, but safely operating the ships ASW equipment, helicopters, and buoys, frequently will be.

So let’s take the time in the design phase to see what can be designed into the new class by utilizing a wide beamed trimaran design, possibly a few more missile tubes and AAW assets can be squeezed in topside if the extra beam is available forward of the hangar deck, even if merely above the waterline. Finally, the offshore oil industry has had some recent success reducing instability in their workboats by moving the bridge all the way forward to the very front of the ship. The result is a vertical, or nearly vertical brow topside with the amidships area given over to work, or in the Navy’s case, fighting space.

This sized frigate should cost the taxpayers under 400 million dollars, probably well under that figure, making the construction of thirty plus ships over the years ahead an affordable investment for the Navy in both the number of ships and our ASW fighting capabilities.

A Flexible New Cruiser Design

In the decade ahead, the U.S. Navy is facing the need to extend and eventually replace the Ticonderoga class CGs now in service. We should look to a flexible new cruiser design that can be adapted for varying purposes through the mid-21st century.

By using a basic class design incorporating the same propulsion plant installed across various  adopted designs we will generate very substantial lifetime cost savings. Additional lifetime savings can be gained by using the same bow and forecastle steel framework across the ship classes. A third, smaller, but still meaningful set of savings can be derived from using the same bridge and AAW working spaces layout. This will provide a great deal of flexibility in what sorts of guns, radars, VLS loadouts, helicopter deck and hangar layout details are selected to serve the purposes of a particular cruiser class.


To meet the substantial electrical power needs of the fleet of the future, energize a single railgun if installed, provide plenty of length and beam for the radars of today and tomorrow, enough space to house computers and operators, adequate AAW warfare capability, something from 15,000 to 20,0000 tons is needed. Since every ton added adds significant construction and maintenance costs this author suggests considering a 17,000 ton modern version of the Baltimore-class cruisers built during WW2. Utilizing a proven sea going design like the Baltimore’s for a proven bow and forecastle design for all of the cruiser classes will provide a cost effective way of providing ships with good sea keeping abilities, with fewer design-from-scratch headaches and lower lifetime costs.

Engine Room

A non-nuclear electric power system such as the permanent magnet motor (PMM) originally planned for the Zumwalt class is another important design parameter that needs to considered and decided upon from the very beginning of the design process. Whatever the power plant settled on, it needs to provide enough electrical power to operate one railgun and associated radars, or the extensive radars, computers and refrigerated working space required by the CGs of tomorrow, or the power needs of a long range ballistic radar if installed. All that generation and conversion equipment needs the space provided by a 17,000 ton sized design.

Bridge, CIC, and Working Spaces

This issue comes to the forefront for the AAW class of cruiser that will replace the Ticonderogas. Computers are wonderful tools, capable of providing multiple ways to enable a fighting sailor. They are also demanding, down right finicky and demanding, pieces of equipment that simply ‘just have to be’ at the right temperature, humidity level, amount of electrical power provided and discharged, and are highly intolerant of any variation in these conditions. Sailors are much easier to provide working space for.

But to be effective, the CGs of the future will also need plenty of  thoroughly refrigerated space in the bridge, CIC, electronic equipment spaces, and working space for the sailors operating and maintaining all this wonderful gear. And let us not forget the multiple radars that will be installed, ever growing in size and number, that also require space, power, and cooling inside the hull.

Therefore, designing a large, as uniform as possible set of working spaces behind the forward gun and before the ventilation stack, helicopter deck, and hangar is strongly recommended as a third set of crucial design criteria.

This author suggests applying the suggestions above in the cruiser classes listed and briefly described in the following sections.

CS – Scout Cruiser

Putting one railgun on a scout cruiser, with plenty of VLS and helicopter space for needed ISR drones, ASW oriented Seahawk, two Fire Scouts, and ten TFS buoys while completely independent of a CSG is a very useful addition to NATO we can make at a far lower cost than any aviation oriented asset. Particularly since there is a very useful mission for the cruiser class to perform, namely Backfire and Bear hunting in the North Atlantic, North Sea, or potentially even the Barents Sea.

CG – AAW Cruiser

The Navy is going to need fifteen plus AAW cruisers as replacements for the Ticonderoga-class as those Cold War veterans wear out. This class design is easily described as simply upsizing the Ticonderoga to 17,000 tons. Give the class the space and power the radars of today and tomorrow demand to be effective, plenty of CIC and electronic room space for the computers and sailors aboard, and as many VLS as practical and this ship class is ready to go.

CBD – Ballistic Missile Defense Cruiser

This author is far from convinced that putting a long range ballistic missile radar to sea is a wise and prudent idea. It almost certainly is not when in close proximity to a CSG, ARG, SSG or transoceanic convoy, at least on a routine basis.

That said, the majority of the worlds seas are, almost by definition, not in close proximity to our primary ocean going assets. There very well may be occasions in the future when the U.S. Navy can provide a cost effective alternative for the president to consider making use of by building three CBD class cruisers.

This cruiser design is obviously dominated by the enormous radar mast mounted amidships. It is unlikely that a non-nuclear power plant will generate enough power for both radar and a railgun, so it will go to sea with our standard 5” weapon, as much of the base bridge, CIC, and electronic working spaces that can be accommodated once the huge ballistic radar requirements are met. It will also include as many VLS tubes that can be squeezed in, and a standard, one Seahawk-sized helicopter deck and hangar.

The reader can easily come up with alternative cruiser class designs of their own, whether improvements on the three suggestions above or for other mission requirements not considered in this article. But having a flexible base cruiser design to hand, available for development or alternation as the world changes around us seems to be an excellent investment in capabilities for the decades ahead.


The author has explored a variety of other ship designs in previous articles that form a part of the fleet design described here. 

The CVLN (carrier aviation light, nuclear powered) is intended to operate with carrier task forces, providing a home for the many ISR drones, UUVs, UAVs and buoys needed in the increasingly dangerous A2/AD environment and to prosecute ASW.

The AORH (auxiliary oiler replenishment helicopter) is a ship class based on a modified AOR-sized and double hulled design without a full flight deck, approximately 25,000 tons and oil powered. This class is intended to provide very substantial helicopter and VTOL launching and servicing capabilities, for ASW, amphibious, special-ops or other missions and then executing these missions  alongside a large variety of allied nation navies; hence the built in patrol boat capabilities as well as at least one UNREP station port and starboard.

The CARN (cruiser gun armor, nuclear powered) will accompany the fleet’s capital ships to provide defensive AAW capabilities with a primary armament of twelve railgun in order to realize favorable cost exchanges.

Strategic Demands of the Threat Environment

For discussion purposes, this author assumes the usual conventional wisdom about the strategic intentions, announced and anticipated fleet construction plans and patrol utilization patterns of the various major Eurasian major powers are mostly true and applicable.


Russia has been consistent in describing her intentions in fleet building and disposition. Given her need to disperse naval assets to four widely separate parts of the world, establish and maintain her strategic ballistic missile force, and meet the need for substantial littoral forces. There is only limited Russian ability to impact U.S. interests far from her shores, certainly nothing like in Soviet days.

The Russians have been quite open in their intent to field enough attack submarines to reestablish a 21st century version of the old Soviet anti-convoy abilities in the North Atlantic. They also are aware of the opportunities that present themselves in disrupting trade and generating geopolitical influence in Northeastern Asian waters as well as the North Pacific; though they are frank that pursuing such a strategy in Pacific waters is some distance down their priority list. Given the many needs the Russian fleet has, having enough assets to operate effectively in the North Pacific may always remain a hope and intent rather than a reality.

As always with Russia, from the days of Ivan IV or Peter the Great onward, there is an enormous difference between Moscow’s perceived military needs and her ability to fund them. This will remain true far into the 21st century, regardless of how much or little change Putin manages to introduce as a response to sanctions and the fall in the price of oil.

That said, Russian naval ambitions and intentions have been clearly stated and certainly include creating and maintaining a substantial nuclear powered attack submarine force to be deployed in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Arctic as needed. In addition, Moscow clearly intends to continue fielding enough A2/AD protected assets in the Eastern Mediterranean.


China has been consistently and thoughtfully expanding the PLANs capabilities and mission choices for years now. This expansion has been quite focused, foremost on improving China’s home defense situation. The PLAN has also established abilities to protect and pursue her interests in and around the two island chains. Finally, China has developed modest naval expeditionary capability for ongoing use in the Indian Ocean.

A map of the Asia-Pacific with the first and second island chains indicated. (Consortium of Defense Analysts)
A map of the Asia-Pacific with the first and second island chains indicated. (Consortium of Defense Analysts)

To date there does not seem to be any interest in creating additional substantial capabilities in order to operate far from home waters, much less on the global scale like the U.S. Navy.

Unlike Russia, China does have the financial capability to expand the PLAN if desired, both today and in the decades to come. This capability, if exercised to construct substantial additional surface and attack submarine assets that could be targeted far out into the Central Pacific, beyond the Second Island Chain, would be the single greatest change in world conditions requiring a revision of the fleet building plan presented here.

Ships, and mission requirements, are flexible and can easily be targeted in different areas, and the waters from Taiwan/Okinawa to Guam to Hawaii are an obvious alternative for PLAN planners to study for opportunities. This author is not especially concerned about China’s current fleet in this regard, but if future PLAN submarine building includes plentiful nuclear attack submarines beyond current needs and tasking then the U.S. needs to seriously reassess how it will get fuel and munitions delivered to Guam or Okinawa. 

The interlinked issues that Taiwan and China’s substantial A2/AD capabilities raise can be largely mitigated by adding the suggested CVLN and CARN assets on an ongoing basis to the CSG operating in the Western Pacific. A significant amount of deterrence can be obtained by making the necessary additional investment in these two new ship classes and the associated equipment and doctrine adjustments.

Other challenges presented by China’s increasing presence and differing intentions in the region should be manageable, at least from the Navy’s point of view, by appropriate deployment of the AORH, LCS, and other smaller ship classes that need to be built.

Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean

The many complicated rivalries that rend this part of the world show no sign of dissipating, meaning that the U.S. Navy will need to operate substantial assets on an ongoing basis in the area for decades to come.

The increasingly difficult challenges presented by the rise of Al Qaeda, Daesh, and Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz suggest the need for routine deployment of a task force. operating independently of the CSG, centered on a AORH, one to two LCS, a LSD, and whatever associated or Allied assets are locally present at any given time for years to come.


The renewed challenge to NATO that is being made by Russia should be met with a different set of assets than were deployed during the Cold War. Modern day challenges in A2/AD capabilities, a more substantive Eastern Mediterranean presence, resumed Backfire and Bear patrols, and the intent to resume routine attack submarine patrols in the North Atlantic require a different set of fleet assets now and in the future.

Much of these changes will have to come ashore in various locations across Europe. As always the substantial littoral assets needed should be provided by our allies in NATO.

We do have unique abilities to provide, particularly the Aegis system whether at sea or installed ashore, and the new railgun. Establishing a routine  task force centered on the suggested scout cruiser (CS) class and a handful of U.S. or other NATO nation frigates in the North Atlantic or North Sea as Backfire and Bear hunters would be powerful way to reinforce NATO, and at a far lower cost than deploying already very busy CVN assets.

Convincing the German Navy to build and operate two or three ships similar in design as an AORH in Baltic waters or around the North Cape of Norway would also substantially improve NATO’s ability to deal with the challenge Russia presents.

Ever Expanding A2/AD Threat

Threats posed elsewhere, which will almost always be less powerful than what China has built, will have to be met with a mixture of the new anti-drone, anti-missile weapon systems under discussion, the assistance of shore based assets or wide dispersal when operating in deep blue waters. All of our new assets should be built with the ability to flexibly add or subtract as needed new weapon systems as they are developed over the decades to come.

Suggested Fleet

The following fleet should be able to handle these challenges and threats well into the middle of the 21st century.

Ship TypeCurrent FleetProposed 2045 Fleet
SSN (Seawolf-class)30
SSN (Virginia-class)1224
SSN (Virginia-class extended)012
SSN (Los Angeles class Flights I, II, 688i)380
SSN (Los Angeles class Flight III)024
CVLN (carrier aviation light, nuclear powered)06
AORH (auxiliary oiler replenishment helicopter)09
AORH (ice strengthened)02
CS (scout cruiser)03
CBD (ballistic missile cruiser)03
CG (Ticonderoga replacements)2215
DDG (Zumwalt class)33
FF (new transoceanic frigate)030
FF (ice strengthened)05
FP (new LCS frigate)1616
FM (Freedom class)1212
FM (Independence class)1212
EPF (formerly JHSV)1212
LSD (replacement LSD design – 12k tons)1218
ESD (formerly MLP)24
ESB (formerly AFSB)24
T-AKE 1212


At just over 340 ships this suggested fleet plan provides the U.S. Navy with an adequate number of vessels, while simultaneously adding needed new high-end surface ship designs and providing the numbers of smaller ships the nation needs now and will need into the future. As always, the time to start planning ahead is now.

Jan Musil is a Vietnam era Navy veteran, disenchanted ex-corporate middle manager, and long time entrepreneur currently working as an author of science fiction novels. He is also a long-standing student of navies in general, post-1930 ship construction thinking, design hopes versus actual results, and fleet composition debates of the twentieth century.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 22, 2016) – The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) conducts a vertical replenishment with the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Rainier (T-AOE 7) during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Ryan J. Batchelder/Released) 

Augment Naval Force Structure By Upgunning The Coast Guard

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By Chuck Hill

The Navy has been talking a lot about distributed lethality lately, and “if it floats, it fights.” There is even talk of mounting cruise missiles on Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships, even though it might compromise their primary mission. But so far there has been little or no discussion of extending this initiative to include the Coast Guard. 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.  

Why Include the Coast Guard?

A future conflict may not be limited to a single adversary. We may be fighting another world war, against a coalition, perhaps both China and Russia, with possible side shows in Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and/or Latin America. If so, we are going to need numbers. The Navy has quality, but it does not have numbers. Count all the Navy CGs, DDGs, LCSs, PCs and PBs and other patrol boats and it totals a little over a hundred. The Coast Guard currently has over 40 patrol ships over 1,000 tons and over 110 patrol craft. The current modernization program of record will provide at least 33 large cutters, and 58 patrol craft of 353 tons, in addition to 73 patrol boats of 91 tons currently in the fleet, a total of 164 units. Very few of our allies have a fleet of similar size.

Coast Guard 82 foot patrol boats interdicted coastal traffic off South Vietnam. (USCG Photo)

Coast Guard vessels routinely operate with U.S. Navy vessels. The ships have common equipment and their crews share common training. The U.S. Navy has no closer ally. Because of their extremely long range, cutters can operate for extended periods in remote theaters where there are few or even no underway replenishment assets. The Coast Guard also operates in places the USN does not. For example, how often do Navy surface ships go into the Arctic? The Coast Guard operates there routinely. Virtually all U.S. vessels operating with the Fourth Fleet are Coast Guard. There are also no U.S. Navy surface warships home based north of the Chesapeake Bay in the Atlantic, none between San Diego and Puget Sound in the Pacific, and none in the Gulf of Mexico with the exception of mine warfare ships.

In the initial phase of a conflict, there will be a need to round-up all the adversaries’ merchant ships and keep them from doing mischief. Otherwise they might lay mines, scout for or resupply submarines, put agents ashore, or even launch cruise missiles from containers. This is not the kind of work we want DDGs doing. It is exactly the type of work appropriate for Coast Guard cutters. Coast Guard ships enjoy a relatively low profile. Unlike a Carrier Strike Group or Navy SAG, they are less likely to be tracked by an adversary.

If we fight China in ten to twenty years, the conflict will likely open with China enjoying  local superiority in the Western Pacific and perhaps in the Pacific in general. If we fight both China and Russia it may be too close to call.

Coast Guard Platforms

National Security Cutter (NSC)

This class of at least nine and possibly ten, 418 foot long, CODAG powered, 28 knot ships, at 4,500 tons full load, are slightly larger than Perry-class frigates. Additionally, they have a 12,000 nautical mile cruising range. As built they are already equipped with:

  • Navy certified helicopter facilities and hangar space to support two H-60 helicopters,
  • A 57 mm Mk110 gun,
  • SPQ-9B Fire Control Radar
  • Phalanx 20mm Close in Weapon System (CIWS)
  • SRBOC/ 2 x NULKA countermeasures chaff/rapid decoy launcher,
  • AN/SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare System,
  • EADS 3D TRS-16 AN/SPS-75 Air Search Radar,
  • A combat system that uses Aegis Baseline 9 software,
  • A Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF)

In short, they are already equipped with virtually everything needed for a missile armed combatant except the specific missile related equipment. They are in many respects superior to the Littoral Combat Ships. Adding Cooperative Engagement Capability might even allow a Mk41 equipped cutter to effectively launch Standard missiles targeted by a third party.

USCG National Security Cutter BERTHOLF (USCG Photo)
USCG National Security Cutter BERTHOLF (USCG Photo)

The ships were designed to accept 12 Mk56 VLS which launch only the Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles (ESSM). Additionally, the builder, Huntington Ingalls, has shown versions of the class equipped with eight Mk41 VLS (located between the gun and superstructure) plus eight Harpoon, and Mk32 torpedo tubes (located on the stern). Adding missiles to the existing hulls should not be too difficult.

LRASM topside launcher concept. The size and weight are comparable to launchers for Harpoon. (Lockheed Martin photo)

The Mk41 VLS are more flexible in that they can accommodate cruise missiles, rocket boosted antisubmarine torpedoes (ASROC), Standard missiles, or Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles (ESSM). Using the Mk41 VLS would allow a mix of cruise missiles and ESSM with four ESSMs replacing each cruise missile, for example eight cells could contain four cruise missiles and 16 ESSM, since ESSM can be “quad packed” by placing four missiles in each cell. Development of an active homing ESSM is expected to obviate the need for illuminating radars that are required for the semi-active homing missiles. Still, simpler deck mounted launchers might actually offer some advantages, in addition to their lower installation cost, at least in peacetime.

Cutters often visit ports where the population is sensitive to a history of U.S. interference in their internal affairs. In some cases, Coast Guard cutters are welcome, while U.S. Navy ships are not. For this reason, we might want to make it easy for even a casual observer to know that the cutter is not armed with powerful offensive weapons. Deck mounted launchers can provide this assurance, in that it is immediately obvious if missile canisters are, or are not, mounted. The pictures below show potential VLS to be considered. 

The relatively small footprint of the Mk56 VLS system (pdf) can be seen here on a Danish Absalon-class command and support ship (beam 64 feet, by comparison the National Security Cutters’ beam is 54 feet). Two sets are visible in the foreground, one set of twelve with missile canisters with red tops in place to the right, on the ship’s centerline, and a second set of twelve without canisters to the left. The Absalon-class has three twelve-missile sets, with the third set off camera to the right. (Royal Danish Navy)
12 earlier Mk48 mod3 VLS for ESSM seen here mounted on the stern of a 450 ton 177 foot Danish StanFlex300 Flyvefisken-class patrol boat. The Mk56 launchers replace the Mk48s with an approximate 20% weight savings.
Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC)

The OPC  program of record provides for 25 of these ships. A contract has been awarded to Eastern Shipbuilding Group for detail design and construction of the first ship, with options for eight more. The notional design is 360 feet long, with a beam of 54 feet and a draft of 17 feet. The OPCs will have a sustained speed of 22.5 knots, a range of 10,200 nautical miles (at 14 knots), and an endurance of 60 days. Its hangar will accommodate one MH-60 or an MH-65 and an Unmanned Air System (UAS).

Notional design characteristics and performance of the OPC. (USCG Image)

It will have a space for a SCIF but it is not expected to be initially installed. As built, it will have a Mk38 stabilized 25 mm gun in lieu of the Phalanx carried by the NSC. Otherwise, the Offshore Patrol Cutter will be equipped similarly to the National Security Cutter. It will likely have the same Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 combat management system as the LCS derived frigates. It is likely they could be fitted with cruise missiles and possibly Mk56 VLS for ESSM as well. Additionally these ships will be ice strengthened, allowing the possibility of taking surface launched cruise missiles into the Arctic.

Fast Response Cutter (FRC)

The FRC program of record is to build 58 of these 158 foot, 28 knot, 365 ton vessels. 19 have been delivered and they are being built at a rate of four to six per year. All 58 are now either built, building, contracted, or optioned. They are essentially the same displacement as the Cyclone class PCs albeit a little slower, but with better seakeeping and a longer range. Even these small ships have a range of 2,950 nm. They are armed with Mk 38 mod2 25 mm guns and four .50 caliber M2 machine guns. 

The first Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter (FRC), USCGC Bernard C. Webber. (USCG photo)

They are already better equipped than the Coast Guard 82 foot patrol boats that were used for interdiction of covert coastal traffic during the Vietnam war. If they were to be used to enforce a blockade against larger vessels, they would need weapons that could forcibly stop medium to large vessels.

Marine Protector Class 

There are 73 of these 87 foot, 91 ton, 26 knot patrol boats. Four were funded by the Navy and provide force protection services for submarines transiting on the surface in and out of King Bay, GA and Bangor, WA.

File:US Navy 090818-N-1325N-003 U. S. Coast Guardsmen man the rails as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sea Fox (WPB 87374) is brought to life at Naval Base Kitsap.jpg
Photo: KEYPORT, Wash. (Aug. 18, 2009) U. S. Coast Guardsmen man the rails as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sea Fox (WPB 87374), one of four of this class assigned to Force Protection units. (U.S. Navy photo Ray Narimatsu/Released)

If use of these vessels for force protection were to be expanded to a more hostile environment, they would likely need more than the two .50 caliber M2 machine guns currently carried.  The four currently assigned to force protection units are currently equipped with an additional stabilized remote weapon station.


Cruise Missiles

The U.S. Navy currently has or is considering four different surface launched cruise missiles: Harpoon, Naval Strike Missile (NSM), Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), and Tomahawk. Of these, LRASM appears most promising for Coast Guard use. Tomahawk is the largest of the four and both Harpoon and NSM would be workable, but they do not have the range of LRASM. The intelligence and range claimed for the LRASM not only makes it deadlier in wartime, it also means only a couple of these missiles on each of the Coast Guard’s largest cutters would allow the Coast Guard’s small but widely distributed force to rapidly and effectively respond to asymmetric threats over virtually the entire U.S. coast as well as compliment the U.S. Navy’s efforts to complicate the calculus of a near-peer adversary abroad.

Small Precision Guided Weapons

It is not unlikely that Fast Response Cutters will replace the six 110 foot patrol boats currently based in Bahrain. If cutters are to be placed in an area where they face a swarming threat they will need the same types of weapons carried or planned for Navy combatants to address this threat. These might include the Sea Griffin used on Navy’s Cyclone-class PCs or Longbow Hellfires planned for the LCS.

Additionally, a small number of these missiles on Coast Guard patrol craft would enhance their ability to deal with small, fast, highly maneuverable threats along the U.S. coast and elsewhere

Light Weight Anti-Surface Torpedoes 

If Coast Guard units, particularly smaller ones, were required to forcibly stop potentially hostile merchant ships for the purposes of a blockade, quarantine, embargo, etc. they would need something more than the guns currently installed.

The U.S. does not currently have a light weight anti-surface torpedo capable of targeting a ship’s propellers, but with Elon Musk building a battery factory that will double the worlds current capacity and cars that accelerate faster than Ferraris, building a modern electric small anti-surface torpedo should be easy and relatively inexpensive.

Assuming they have the same attributes of ASW torpedoes, at about 500 pounds these weapons take up relatively little space. Such a torpedo would also allow small Coast Guard units to remain relevant against a variety of threats.


Adding cruise missiles to the Coast Guard National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters would increase the number of cruise missile-equipped U.S .surface ships by about 40 percent.

Coast Guard Patrol craft (WPCs) and patrol boats (WPBs) significantly outnumber their Navy counterparts. They could significantly increase the capability to deal with interdiction of covert coastal traffic, act as a force multiplier in conventional conflict, and allow larger USN ships to focus on high-end threats provided they are properly equipped to deal with the threats. More effective, longer ranged, and particularly more precise weapons could also improve the Coast Guard’s ability to do its homeland security mission. 

Thanks to OS2 Michael A. Milburn for starting the  conversation that lead to this article.

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

Featured Image: Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard high endurance cutter USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717) launching a RGM-84 Harpoon missile during tests off Oxnard, California (USA), in January 1990. by PAC Ken Freeze, USCG