All posts by Steven Wills

Retired surface warfare officer. PhD student in military history at Ohio University. Principle interests include Cold War U.S. naval/military strategy and policy, British Imperial naval/maritime policy in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and 20th century U.S. history.

Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman

Sea Control Topic Week

By Steve Wills

The East Indiaman was an iconic vessel from the age of “fighting sail” that combined the features of a robust, long-range cargo ship with the weapons of a frigate-sized combatant. One source defines these vessels as, “large, strongly built vessels specifically designed by the great trading companies of England, France and Spain for the long and dangerous passage to the Far East. They were, as a type, powerfully-armed and carried large and well-disciplined crews.”1 John Paul Jones’ famous flagship USS Bonhomme Richard was such a vessel, formerly of the French East Indies Company.

The great mercantilist trading companies of the age of sail are long gone, but the idea that a heavily armed merchant ship might again more fully participate in naval warfare has new credence. The advent of the large, survivable container ship, with the potential for containerized weapon systems changes the calculus of the last century where merchant ships were soft targets requiring significant protection. If properly armed and crewed, U.S. owned and U.S. government chartered container ships have the potential to become powerful naval auxiliaries capable of defending themselves and presenting a significant risk to those that might attack them. Such ships could free naval escorts for other combat duties and contribute toward short term sea control while otherwise engaged in logistics operations.

The Historical East Indiaman

The East Indiaman was a significant vessel type throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. While designed to carry high value cargo through dangerous waters, they were capable of being quickly up-armed to the point where some could mount as many guns as a major warship. For example, the British Royal Navy (RN) purchased the British East India Company (EIC) vessel Glatton in 1795 for warship conversion. Originally armed with 26, short-range, but powerful carronade weapons, she was up-gunned by the RN to a total of 56 guns and served in several engagements with French, Dutch, and Danish forces, notably the 1802 Battle of Copenhagen when she was commanded by William Bligh; formerly the master of the mutinous Bounty.

Their large size caused pirates and French naval vessels to often mistake them for more heavily armed ships of the line. When actually engaged in battle, the East Indiaman usually performed well if not excessively overmatched. The East Indiaman General Goddard operating with one RN ship of the line and several other company ships captured eight of her Dutch East Indiaman counterparts off Saint Helena in 1795. They were however vulnerable if overmatched. In July 1810, two company ships; the Ceylon and the Windham; both with respectable frigate armament of near 30 guns each were captured by a strong French frigate squadron. The East Indiamen still put up significant resistance to the French attack; allowing a third ship of their convoy; the Astel to escape.

20th Century Armed Merchantmen

The end of the British East India Company after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the advance of modern technology, and the 1856 Declaration of Paris where Europeans powers took a firm stand against privately owned warships helped eliminate the concept of a heavily armed cargo ship. Armed merchantmen returned however in both World Wars as nations sought to protect their trans-oceanic convoys from German U-boats and surface raiders. In the First World War nations armed merchants with old naval weapons as a defense against both surface warships and surfaced submarines. These ships generally gave good accounts in battle; sometimes against similar craft when the British armed passenger ship RMS Carmania sank the German armed liner SMS Cape Trafalgar in a rather bloody battle at close range in 1914. Also active were disguised raiders for surface action and Q-ships to lure submarines to destruction.

Carmania sinking Cap Trafalgar off Trinidad, September 14, 1914. (Charles Dixon via Wikimedia Commons)

World War II again saw all of these auxiliary naval units in action. In the first six months of the war the U.S. lost 350 merchant ships and 3000 merchant seaman. Raiders could sometimes defeat purpose-built warships if they retained the element of surprise and/or disguised themselves as peaceful vessels. The German Raider Kormoron was able to fatally wound the light cruiser HMAS Sydney under these conditions but was lost herself due to return fire from Sydney. The U.S. again assigned naval personnel as weapons crews on U.S. merchants, primarily against air and surface attack. The U.S. Merchant Marine Armed Guard was assigned to this mission during the Second World War and suffered over 1800 dead in the course of its operations.

The practice of arming merchantmen again fell into decline after the Second World War, although naval auxiliaries continued to be armed with defensive weapons through the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union and in the downsizing of the U.S. Navy that followed, nearly all commissioned supply and auxiliary ships were shifted over to the authority of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in an attempt to save money through re-crewing with a smaller number of civil service MSC mariners rather than with Navy sailors. A 1990 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report suggested, “The Navy would save $265 million annually if the service turned over 42 support ships and tenders to MSC.” The study attributed the annual savings to much smaller crew sizes on MSC ships. It reported, for example, that civil service crews on a Navy oiler would be half the crew size the Navy used on those ships. The auxiliaries assigned to MSC were disarmed of weapons upon transfer from the Navy, and those built or added since have not been equipped with them. However some classes such as the Lewis and Clark TAK-E class are, “designed with appropriate space and weight reservations “to allow future installations of self-defense systems as required.

A New Breed of Cargo Carrier

Maritime technology has in effect come full circle with the advent of extremely large container ships that effectively carry half the cargo weight of an entire World War II convoy with a single hull and larger than all of the world’s combatant warships, some even larger than U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Pioneered by the American President’s Line under the leadership of Ralph Davies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, container ship growth in size and numbers has been astronomical with nearly 90 percent of all world commerce moved by these ships and their “twenty/forty foot equivalent length TEU” containers now commonplace throughout the globe. So-called “Panamax” container ships stows 5,000 TEUs and the “Super-Panamax” size supports 13,000 TEUs. The very largest of these vessels support over 20,000 such containers.

The Maersk Line operates better than 600 large container ships (about 15 percent of the global fleet,). 86 ships are ultra-large, Super-Panamax vessels and Maersk builds about 20 ships per year. This creates the opportunity to incorporate underwater signature control and survivability measures including foundations for modular combat systems in huge mass production hulls for MSC habitually chartered ships. The hull speed ratio (~0.6), the ship fineness ratio, and the huge slow speed props gives a sustained sea speed of 24 knots and an acoustically silent speed that with non-cavitating props that may well exceed 24 knots.

21st Century East Indiaman

TEU containers can support more than just cargo. In recent years some nations have developed a variety of “containerized” weapon systems to include guns, mortars, small missiles and even larger cruise missiles. The combination of the very large container ship, vast numbers of containers per ship, and containerized warfighting tools offers the possibility of a 21st century East Indiaman. Such a ship might field several dozen “militarized” containers with offensive and defensive weapons, sensors, and the communications equipment needed to link the ship to larger, regional battle networks. If not already possessed of helicopter facilities, additional containers could support rotary wing aviation. The vessel might carry large numbers of unmanned air vehicles for both offensive and defensive missions. They won’t have large crews for damage control and their container-based combat systems may likely be fragile and not capable of sustained combat as a warship could.  A 7,000-ton frigate’s combat systems could weigh about 1050 tons, about the equivalent of 35 TEU loads and might occupy 70 TEUs of space. If a container load for the modular combat system must supply power as well – figure 100 TEUs – a small fraction on a 5000 TEU PANAMAX ship’s cargo space.  Erecting the modular combat system at sea might constitute a larger challenge unless the ship was designed for the purpose and had self-enablement cranes. That said, such capabilities might be enough to repel an attack on a convoy by light or medium enemy forces. Like their 18th century forebears, 21st century armed cargo ships could in effect escort themselves with significant self-defense capabilities and magazine spaces equivalent to those of medium-sized warships. The Israelis and the Russians are already experimenting with these concepts.

Israeli LORA launch test.

While not built to warship survivability standards, the sheer size of modern container ships contributes to their survivability rating. Large merchant ships that have been the victims of attack since the 1980s have shown remarkable resiliency in resisting damage. In 1987 the large oil tanker Bridgeton, a reflagged Kuwaiti vessel being escorted by U.S. Navy ships as part of Operation Earnest Will mounted in response to the 1980s “tanker war,” shrugged off a mine hit and continued operations. A similar weapon disabled the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, a purpose-built convoy escort ship. The 21st Century East Indiaman could free up escorting warships for more offensive actions. The price tag for such a vessel might be relatively low, with most costs being associated with the additional containerized weapons and sensors, as well as the small Navy crew needed to operate the vessel.

The U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) as a Source

While the current MSC fleet has few container ships ready for armament, the Civil Mariners are thinking again about how to operate in a more contested environment than that of the last 30 years. Of the combat logistics force, the T-AO-205 and T-AKE-1 classes already have excellent signature control. They can be given a guided missile frigate (FFG) equivalent combat system as part of their new construction design or for T-AKE at mid-life overhaul. There has also been informed discussion on the legal implications of arming civilian vessels. An armed MSC ship acting as a combatant risks blurring the legal lines between military and civilian personnel. Civil Service Mariners may need to be designated as U.S. Navy reservists under special cases such as active wartime operations in order to avoid having civilians operating weapon systems. Such discussions would likely become academic at best in the midst of a high end war where logistics ships would be a prime target.

Containerized Club-K missile (Wikimedia Commons)

MSC usually charters container ships and tankers from large operators such as Maersk. These operators are continuously building ships in production numbers. Container ships and tankers are much larger than combat logistics ships. The operators can design features into the ships MSC habitually charters such as underwater signature control, side protection systems, and AI controlled robotic damage control and appropriate adaption for modular combat system installations at little additional cost. Many of the features may be suitable for general commercial use in that the ships can approach conflict areas more closely and may enjoy lower insurance rates.

Moving Ahead with Armed Merchantmen

While there remain considerable legal and policy issues regarding the concept of merchant ships armed with shipping container-based weapons, the technology appears ready for use. Such vessels could add to fleet size and free destroyers and littoral combatant ships for other missions other than convoy escort. The question is whether or not the U.S. Navy would embrace the idea of an armed container ship as a combat unit in its own right. Given the current size of the fleet and the potential need for high endurance escorts for the Navy’s replenishment force, a force of 21st cargo ships outfitted with frigate-level armament to escort themselves makes good financial and operational sense.

Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.

References

[1] Jack Coggins, Ships and Seman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, 31.

Featured Image: Chinamax ship Berge Stahl (via Maritime Connector)

A New Gap in the High North and Forward Defense Against Russian Naval Power

By Steve Wills, CNA Analyst

The stand-up of a new NATO Maritime headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, the re-establishment of the U.S. Navy’s East Coast-based Second Fleet and the prospect for a new NATO Maritime Strategy this year have again fueled interest in naval warfare in the wider Atlantic Ocean. One of the most commonly mentioned landmarks in this emerging environment is the iconic Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The scene of the German battleship Bismarck’s passage to the Atlantic and the transit highway of early Russian ballistic missile submarines to their patrol stations near the United States and Europe, the GIUK Gap is synonymous with naval warfare in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, current references to the GIUK gap harken back to a different time and strategic situation that is markedly different from the situation today.

Despite early assessments that the Soviet Union was going to target the sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Atlantic, the Soviets never intended to make interdiction of Atlantic convoys a priority mission. Defense of their ballistic missile submarines, countering Allied aircraft carrier battle groups, and littoral defense and support to the Soviet Army were always their main priorities. Today’s much smaller Russian Navy has similar missions and strategic geography, but now boasts long range cruise missile armament.

The NATO Alliance must return to a deterrent posture similar to that of the Cold War in order to prevent potential Russian aggression, but the locus of action is much further north than Iceland. The real “Gap” where NATO must focus its deterrent action is the Greenland, Svalbard, North Cape line at the northern limit of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas. It is again time to consider deterrent action and potential naval warfare in the “High North.”

Never the GIUK Gap Anyway

While important in the Second World War and perhaps the early and middle Cold War, the GIUK Gap did not have the same geographic significance in the late 1970s and 1980s. While earlier Russian ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) had to first sail close to the U.S. coast and then to the middle Atlantic in order to launch their weapons, the advent of the Delta and Typhoon classes with improved sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) allowed Soviet missile boats to launch their weapons from the safety of Soviet littoral waters. Intelligence gathered by U.S. and Allied sources in the late 1970s suggested that rather than conduct a rerun of the failed German U-boat campaigns of the World Wars, Soviet submarines were to be deployed in a largely defensive posture close to the Soviet homeland. Earlier work by the Center for Naval Analyses had suggested that Soviet attack subs would be prepared to defend their own SSBNs, attack U.S. Navy carrier battle groups, and perhaps venture forth to attack U.S. SSBNs. But attacking logistics and commerce on the Atlantic SLOCs was a fourth-priority mission at best.

The High North region.

By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was planning, in the event of a failure of deterrence, to take the war to the Soviet littoral waters and homeland. This was a global effort that included U.S. and Allied action against the Soviets in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas. U.S. submarines would stalk and sink their Soviet counterparts and SSBNs while U.S. carrier battle groups would attack Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula (as well as other locations around the periphery of the Soviet state) to prevent a correlation of forces that allowed for a successful Soviet land attack in Central Germany.

A series of exercises begun in the early 1950s at the dawn of NATO’s existence had exercised both naval attacks on the Soviet homeland and the defense of Atlantic SLOCs, but the exercise effort moved into high gear in the 1980s. The advent of the aggressive Maritime Strategy meant the Navy would no longer focus on just the defense of SLOCs as it had been told during the Carter administration. Encouraged by Reagan administration Navy Secretary John Lehman and led by experienced flag officers such as Admirals “Ace” Lyons, and “Hammerin Hank” Mustin, a string of aggressive naval exercises in both the Atlantic and “high north” practiced to defend Norway, drive the Soviets back to their home waters, and attack their bases on the Kola peninsula. Instrumented by the SOSUS system and patrolled by aircraft based in Iceland, the GIUK Gap was a strong symbolic barrier, but it was at best the southern signpost of a war to be fought much further to the north. The late Cold War focus on the maritime high north put Norway on both Brussels’s and Washington’s military strategic maps in an unprecedented way.”

The Reality of New Great Power Competition in the High North

The return of a revanchist Russia to the business of great power competition after a quarter century of decline has brought back Norway and its adjacent seas into U.S. and NATO strategic focus. The Russian Navy submarine force is less than a fifth of the size of its Soviet forebear. Many of these units will soon be ready for retirement, and are spread over four fleets. Despite those handicaps, Russian units are now equipped with the 3M-54 (Kaliber) cruise missile, which significantly extends Russian combat capability. This is also why the Russian Navy’s mission set now includes an emphasis on non-nuclear deterrence.

Soviet forces operating within their “bastion” defenses in the Barents Sea during the Cold War had to come south in order to engage NATO maritime forces and lacked a land attack cruise missile capability. Today’s Russian Navy can remain within its Barents bastion and still launch accurate attacks against ships in the Norwegian Sea and NATO land targets without leaving these protected waters. If the Russians do leave their bastions it would most likely be on raiding missions enabled by land attack cruise missiles. Russia has a long tradition of raiding for short-term tactical and longer-term strategic gain, and such operations could manifest themselves in the maritime environment.

Possible zones of Russian bastion defense. (RUSI)

NATO faces significant challenges in dealing with this renewed Russian threat. The Alliance’s naval forces are significantly smaller than during the Cold War and the United States Navy is less than half the size of its 1980s counterpart. Norwegian naval force structure is shrinking and even with planned qualitative improvements will not alone be sufficient for potential naval combat in the High North. Norway is set to significantly reduce its surface force through a planned decommissioning of its Skjold-class missile corvettes and remaining mine warfare ships in the next several years. The reductions are necessary in order to pay for new German-built submarines, P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and F-35A aircraft. The submarines and MPA purchases are appropriate force structure for potential combat in the Norwegian Sea south of Svalbard and north of Iceland, but reductions will result in a lack of surface patrol units necessary for maintaining sea control.

The F35A can support sea control, but may be occupied elsewhere in defense of Norwegian shore-based infrastructure. For example, the Russian Air Force has launched a number of mock attacks on the Norwegian Joint Command Center at Bodo in recent years and F-35 aircraft may be largely focused on the defense of Norwegian C4I infrastructure. The Norwegian Coast Guard which contributes significantly to patrol efforts in the region has decreased in strength from 31 to 15 units from 1992 to the present. These Coast Guard units are also lightly armed and insufficient for contesting and retaining sea control in the region.

The only significant Norwegian surface force structure in the next decade is likely to be the AEGIS Nansen-class frigates. These ships are capable multipurpose surface combatants, but their small numbers will require a significant commitment of NATO forces to the Norwegian Sea early in a conflict with Russia to ensure that Russian units, especially nuclear attack submarines, do not transit the Norwegian Sea “SLOC” to the North Atlantic. A key element of the Nansen’s antisubmarine capability, the NH90 helicopter, has failed to deliver on its promised number of flight hours. While there may be enough helicopters for the frigates, there are no NH 90 helos with which to equip the Norwegian Coast Guard for its mission of Norwegian and Greenland Sea patrol and surveillance. The Norwegian Joint force is growing in capability, but even with improvements in air and subsurface units it likely cannot prevent passage of Russian Northern Fleet submarines through the Norwegian Sea.

The Royal Norwegian Navy frigate KNM Roald Amundsen (F311) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 16 February 2018 as part of the U.S. Navy’s Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) while conducting its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Swofford)

Organizing for Maritime War in the High North

Once just the remote operating grounds of Russian ballistic missile subs, the Eastern Barents and Arctic Seas can now serve as bases for cruise missile platforms to threaten NATO units and land-based targets in and facing the Norwegian Sea. The NATO Alliance is moving in the right direction by reinstituting an Atlantic Maritime headquarters but more must be done to prepare for a conflict in the High North.

Increased Alliance submarine operations in the Norwegian, Barents and Arctic Seas serve to operationalize those headquarters changes. The North Atlantic SLOCs are important, but the Russians are not looking at the mid-Atlantic except for perhaps targets of opportunity. Joint and combined Allied activities that make use of the numerous air and port facilities around the Norwegian and Greenland Seas should be the main focus of JFC Norfolk. A NATO Joint Task Force (JTF) element, perhaps forward deployed afloat or ashore, may need to be present in the immediate area to direct operations.

Unmanned systems technology holds the promise of mobile, underwater detection grids that unlike the Cold War SOSUS nets can move themselves to better identify and localize submerged targets. The Norwegian and Greenland Seas are NATO lakes and receding sea ice has made for a wider and more open battlespace that allows for greater use of shore-based facilities in the region over a longer portion of the year. Small surface combatants such as the U.S. FFG(X) and LCS might operate in conjunction with unmanned units and maritime patrol aircraft and submarines to conduct a regional joint and combined antisubmarine warfare campaign.

Conclusion

A revanchist Russia does not directly threaten North Atlantic sea lines of communication, and the place to deter or engage them won’t be the GIUK gap. NATO must prepare to deter and if necessary engage Russian naval forces in the High North long before these units can get into range of resupply ships or NATO nation port facilities on the European mainland. The Alliance has taken positive steps to meet this renewed maritime challenge, but must not be haunted by U-boat and Soviet ghosts from past Atlantic wars. The place to respond to a new Russian naval threat is close to its home base and not astride critical transatlantic communication routes.

Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: Norweigan Navy Skjold-class corvette.

Why Peacetime Naval Buildups are Difficult

By Steven Wills

Introduction

There has been much gnashing of teeth and complaint in response to the U.S. Navy’s slow build toward a goal of 355 ships. Peacetime naval buildups by free societies have never been simple undertakings. Such governments usually retire large numbers of warships in search of “peace dividends,” from which recovery is often a challenge. If ill-timed, they can result in large numbers of warships that are out of date before they complete even a decade of service, or need to be retired before the end of the service lives to cut costs. Getting to the right numbers of ships, especially in a period of tight finance may mean holding onto old ships well past their expected service life. Past examples of peacetime buildups by the British Royal Navy and U.S. Navy suggest that while getting to larger numbers of ships is possible, the costs can be prohibitive; especially in an environment of rapid, technological advancement.

British Royal Navy Buildups

Representative governments have always been quick to reduce expensive naval armaments in peacetime. The British Royal Navy (RN) reduced its force structure in only modest terms in the wake of the victorious French and Indian War. End strength of the RN dropped from 365 commissioned warships of all types in 1763 at the conclusion of those hostilities to 270 vessels at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.1 While still formidable, British lawmakers questioned whether this force that still boasted over 130 “ships of the line” of 50 guns and greater was capable of dealing with the American rebellion. A debate in the House of Commons from 13 February 1775 featured one speaker who stated “Our present naval force was by no means adequate to our professed intentions; for the squadron that we designed for America would answer no purpose of stopping their commerce; or if we did send a sufficient one, our own coasts, comparatively speaking, must be left totally defenseless.”2 The speaker went on to state that Britain’s perpetual enemy France might dispatch 75 or more ships of the line to menace English seacoast communities if the bulk of the available RN went to the Americas to reduce colonial commerce.

The British increased their fleet to 478 warships by 1783, but at great cost with some estimates suggesting an increase from a low of £1,526,357 in 1765 to £8,063,206 in 1782, and where public net debt rose to over 150 percent of GDP. Peacetime naval buildups are not new, and are almost costly affairs. Britain was perhaps lucky in that the increase in the size and capability of the RN in response to the American Revolution served to also prepare it for a renewed period of war with France. The creation of a state bank (The Bank of England) in 1694, and growing public confidence in the solvency of the British Crown allowed Parliament to “Raise immense sums on short notice and at relatively low rates of interest.”3 Unlike its Continental rivals the British also did not have to spend large sums on ground forces to defend vulnerable land borders. This combination of factors allowed for a fairly quick transition from “rusty trident” in the early 1770s to the sharp instrument that soundly defeated the navies of Denmark, Spain, and France during the Napoleonic wars.

A lack of such an immediate conflict can serve to create whole generations of warships that are out of date before they ever fire a shot in anger. The Royal Navy again reached such a low point in the late 1880s as it struggled to deal with a resurgent France and a rising Russian naval threat that imperiled both the British isles and multiple, overseas British possessions such as the imperial “crown jewel” of India. The Industrial Revolution was also in full swing with new grades of steel armor and improved steam engines entering service as often as new smart devices and software builds do today. British warship construction in the previous two decades had been slow to keep up with technical advances and many newspapers suggested the Navy was in poor condition to take on France and Russia. A series of articles in September 1884 in the Pall Mall Gazette by the muckraking journalist W.T. Steed described the Royal Navy as unready for war against Russia and France based on shrinking budgets, a lack of protection for Britain’s global naval logistics hubs, and an antiquated fleet of small craft for the defense of the British Isles.4

The British response to these conditions was the Naval Defence Act of 1889; a £21,500,000, 5-year program designed to produce 10 battleships, 42 cruisers, and 18 torpedo gunboats.5 According to naval historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida, the program was a resounding success in terms of finance and construction in that most of the program was completed on schedule with little cost overrun. The 1889 program also marked the beginning of an official “two power standard,” where Britain officially declared that its sum of first class fighting vessels (namely battleships) would be superior to the combined fleets of the next two naval powers (France and Russia). While a firm declaration of the importance of British seapower, it was at best a political measure rather than an accurate estimation of British naval strength. Naval historian Nicholas Lambert asserts that many uniformed senior Royal Navy officers believed the two-power standard was not enough and that it best represented a minimum level of strength.6 Britain’s primary political parties in the late 19th century (Conservative and Liberal parties,) however accepted the two power standard as a benchmark.

This decision would have significant consequences in the following decade as Britain’s burgeoning economic growth slowed and with it the funding for a larger fleet. Political scientist Aaron Friedberg asserted that British naval spending in the 1890s was made by possible by three factors. A general increase in national prosperity and with it consumer spending, especially on tea, tobacco, and beer, provided additional tax revenue. The British income and estate (death) taxes also provided generous sources of spending for both defense and for a rising tide of British social spending.7 Unfortunately, British economic growth slowed dramatically over the last quarter of the 19th century as the economic output of Germany and the United States dramatically increased.8 This process of British relative decline served to offset its naval superiority as the cost of replacement battleships dramatically increased over the same period. The pioneering battleship (then known as an ironclad) HMS Devastation cost £360,000 in 1869, but by 1898 the battleship HMS Implacable was £1,100,000.9 These increasing costs would make replacement of the existing foundation of British naval supremacy a significant challenge.

To this financial setback was added the rising costs of new technology; first in the form of new armor, weapons, and steam-powered equipment, but later by the introduction of asymmetric warfare systems such as the side armored cruiser. This ship, with long range, medium-sized weapons and armor sufficient to withstand the shells of the British cruisers traditionally assigned to defend imperial trade routes, represented a direct threat to British finance from trade and key sea lines of communication to overseas possessions like India.10 The French Navy also financed submarine and torpedo development as additional countermeasures to traditional British maritime superiority.11 The very expensive ships of the Naval Defence Act of 1889 were, by contrast, too slow and short-ranged to overtake and destroy armored cruisers, despite being better armed. They were also poorly protected against the torpedo as employed by the submarine and the surface torpedo boat. Improvements in armor manufacture, especially the Krupp steel process that resulted in much lighter yet stronger protective plates, enabled much more armor to be used over a wider area of even cruiser-sized ships. This gave the armored cruiser class its edge over earlier ships that could not support side armor. The new armor was less expensive than past versions, but that improvement was lost in the rush of other expensive steam propulsion and gun systems that combined to double the cost of a modern battleship over the period from 1895 to 1905.12 In fact, technological advancements ensured that the ships from the Naval Defence Act of 1889, notably the eight Royal Sovereign class battleships that were state of the art in 18991, had at best 15 year effective service lives before being out of date.13

HMS Royal Sovereign in 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, the international situation and unexpected war in South Africa added to the financial problems of relative decline and rapid technological advancement. The Second Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902 put further strain on British finance and with it plans to renew naval supremacy. While early estimates by the British government suggested that costs for the South African conflict might be maintained below £21 million, army-related spending rose quickly in the first two years of the conflict from £21 million to £44.1 million and, and overall British government spending finally grew to a figure of £205 million during the last two years of the war.14 The British national debt also rose from £14 million in 1899-1900, and later to £53 million in 1901 and 1902.15 It was inevitable that these figures would affect Royal Navy expenditures. Over roughly this same period (1897 to 1904,) the Royal Navy expended £29.6 million on new battleships and £26.9 million pounds for the new armored cruisers. Such expenditures could not be sustained without a major increase in taxes which neither British political party would countenance. By 1902 it was clear to the British political establishment that some economy was desperately required and the new Prime Minister Arthur Balfour created the Committee of Imperial Defence to seek joint (Army/Navy) solutions to Britain’s global defense posture. The First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy,) Lord Selborne advised his flag officers to “Cease to say ‘this is the ideal plan and how do we get enough money to carry it out,’ to ‘Here is a sovereign (UK coin,) how much can we squeeze out of it that will really count for victory in a naval war?’”16

Ultimately, despite significant expenditure, the Naval Defence Act of 1889 failed to deter continued naval expansion of France and Russia, and also later Germany, Japan, and the United States.17 Rapid technological advancement quickly made the fleet of the 1890s obsolete in the next decade. Britain’s own relative decline and the expenditures for the Boer War further weakened the Royal Navy’s efforts to keep pace with advancing technology and the rising fleets of other nations. The end result was the ascent of the eponymous Admiral Sir John Fisher and his radical program of what today would be called “transformation” where the battlecruiser would replace the battleship and the armored cruiser for high seas combat, and littoral combatants such as destroyers and submarines would be responsible for the United Kingdom’s homeland defense. The Fisher regime, while innovative and fiscally responsible, is seen by some as the beginning of the end of British naval supremacy as Fisher’s program required major reductions in presence forces scattered around the empire in favor of the combat-capable force to defeat rising European competitors. This reduction in direct imperial influence and dependence on other powers, notably the United States and Japan to secure British interests in North America and the Western Pacific, was seen as perhaps the beginning of the end of the British Empire and with it the need for an expanded Royal Navy in its defense.18 This decline might be traced back to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and a desire to build a significant peacetime fleet in specific numbers over those of opponents.

U.S. Naval Buildup Challenges

The final example of difficult peacetime buildup also deals with the political calculus of fleet size. The U.S. Navy’s 600 ship fleet goal of the 1980s had its origins, like that of the Royal Navy of the 1880s and 1890s, in an enemy’s (Soviet) increased fleet size, rising welfare state expenditures, and a distant land conflict (Vietnam) sapping of funds that might have been used for modernization. The United States Navy of 1970 was a Vietnam War-focused fleet in dire need of recapitalization and modernization. The incoming Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. set out to begin those processes, but at the cost of the retirement of significant numbers of ships; most of World War II vintage and diminished capability. The fleet had already undergone significant reductions during the tenure of Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO, with the overall number of ships dropping from 932 to 731.19 Zumwalt had to impose further reductions in order to gather enough resources and potential crews for new construction. He later said:

“We were, on the average, technologically obsolescent. Our fleet was over 20 years of age, on the average. One of the things that impressed both Secretary Chafee and Secretary Laird in my preliminary meetings with them when, as it turns out, they were looking for who should be the next CNO, was that I said that given the budget limitations, we simply had to reduce the numbers of ships in order to begin the process of building new ships. We needed to reduce the expenditures for men and ships and start building ships.”20

Like Fisher in 1904, Zumwalt also needed to cut obsolescent ships before building new ones. While such processes delay growth and in fact result in reductions, they are necessary for subsequent fleet growth. Zumwalt worked hard to ensure existing, authorized classes like the Spruance-class destroyers were built and pushed to get what became the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates added to the fleet, but mass retirements of old ships further reduced the fleet size.21 Overall numbers of ships decreased to 530 by 1980.22

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 17, 2011) The decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer ex-Paul F. Foster (EDD 964) conducts a successful demonstration of shipboard alternative fuel use while underway in the Pacific Ocean on a 50-50 blend of an algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum F-76. Paul F. Foster has been reconfigured as the Self-Defense Test Ship to provide the Navy an at-sea, remotely controlled, engineering test and evaluation platform without the risk to personnel or operational assets. (U.S. Navy photo by Charlie Houser/Released)

The Presidency of Jimmy Carter was an especially dark period for the Navy with the former naval officer president content with an objective force of only 400 ships.23 Carter and his land warfare-focused subordinates such as Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy Bob Komer sought significant reductions in naval expenditures through most of his administration.24

Studies for rebuilding U.S. Navy force structure began during the Ford Presidency and gained maturation during the Carter administration thanks to the efforts of Carter’s own Navy Secretary Graham Claytor, a World War II naval officer who opposed the Defense Department’s naval reductions. Claytor sponsored a study known as SeaPlan 2000 that recommended a 585 ship fleet that could be purchased and maintained with regular, four percent growth in the Navy’s budget; a figure then within accepted spending limits of the Navy.25 Like the British “Two Power Standard,” this figure was also a political measurement in that multiple studies on 400, 600, 900 and 1200 ship fleets had been undertaken with the 600 ship version seen as most economical and that it represented a minimum rather than an ideal force structure to meet the global Soviet naval threat.26 

Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the new administration both adopted and altered elements of SeaPlan 2000. Led by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr, a new 600-ship Navy (an easy round-up from 585) figure was introduced as the benchmark for U.S. Fleet strength. An aggressive building program was introduced to meet the 600 ship figure by the close of a hypothetical 2-term Reagan presidency. The 600 ship Navy was paired with a new Maritime Strategy that justified and detailed the fleet’s use in combat with the Soviet Navy as well as routine presence and other operations. Navy Secretary Lehman also stated that 600 ships was the minimum fleet size to support the 15 carrier battle groups needed to provide the geographic, peacetime naval presence.27 The whole package of fleet size, strategy, and employment was offered at the same four percent rate of growth.

The weak point of the 600-ship navy buildup, however, was its retention of older, steam-powered surface warships in significant numbers in order to bridge the gap between existing and future force structure while maintaining the 600 ship number goal. The navy of the period had ships propelled by steam, diesel, nuclear, and most recently gas turbine engines. Of these types, nuclear power supported a growing portion of the Navy’s carrier strength and a dozen guided missile cruisers built as carrier escorts. Diesel engines were auxiliaries on many ships and propelled a growing number of mid-sized amphibious warfare ships. Gas turbine engines had become the new choice of propulsion for combatant ships including the Spruance-class destroyers, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Steam power, however, still served the bulk of the existing surface combatant fleet, some of the aircraft carriers, and large number of auxiliary ships. Many of these ships were older units and they were not aging well; a condition that made their retention as part of the growing 600-ship force a challenge.

In terms of one warship category, guided missile destroyers (DDG,) the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 1985 that only five of 67 such ships in 1989 would be classed as “modern,” which the CBO defined as constructed after 1970.28 The most numerous frigate/guided missile frigate (FF and FFG) category was better, but still saw 65 of a possible 111 ships as pre-1970 construction in 1989.29 The vast bulk of these older units were steam-powered units, whose manpower and maintenance-intensive 1200 psi, 950 degree steam plants became more challenging to maintain as they aged. Numerous oil leaks and fires plagued these aging units over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s. While the steam cruisers received significant combat systems upgrades in the form of the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) system, only a few of the steam destroyers received such improvements and the steam-powered frigate classes remained largely unaltered with the exception of the addition of the close in weapon system (CIWS) for some.

The modernization and retention of the steam-powered surface combatant force, and many other steam powered navy warships became a moot point at the end of the Cold War in 1991. As early as 1989 when it became evident that the Soviet Union was in a period of decline, 16 frigates of the Garcia and Brooke class frigates and guided missile frigates were decommissioned as a cost-savings measure.30 The manpower cuts determined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in the creation of the post-Cold War “Base Force” further accelerated the retirement of the personnel-heavy steam warship fleet. The 34 units of the Adams and Farragut-class destroyers followed into retirement in 1990 and 1991, and the upgraded steam cruisers of the Leahy and Belknap followed in the early 1990s.31 The numerous Knox-class frigates were also decommissioned by the mid 1990s, with an abortive attempt to retain some as reserve frigates ended in 1994.

In all, 114 steam-powered cruisers, destroyers, frigates were retired in the period 1989-1995. It is open to debate how long these ships could have been retained had the Cold War continued, but given their age and maximum thirty year service life, it is improbable that enough could have remained in commissioned long enough to be steadily replaced by newly constructed Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the 1990s and 2000s.32

Conclusion

Peacetime naval buildups are difficult and face uncertain sustainability if the force structures they create are not soon called to active combat. Like the British in 1889 and the U.S. in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy is attempting a significant peacetime naval buildup without an immediate conflict on the horizon (unlike the U.S. “Two Ocean Navy” buildup of 1938 to 1940 when World War 2 was already underway.) Like the Royal Navy of the middle and late 18th century, it now finds that even modest reductions can inhibit low-end presence and limited war operations. The U.S. Navy may also discover that rapid technological advances in data processing, artificial intelligence, hypersonic and directed energy weapons can render much of any fleet additions obsolete less than 10-15 years into a 30-40 year life span. Open architecture systems and the modular weight, space, and connectivity of the unfairly maligned littoral combat ship (LCS) might allow that ship type to deploy capabilities yet unplanned or conceived when they were constructed. Such ships can also be constructed in larger numbers than their larger, much more technically complex cousins. It may still be difficult to maintain a fleet of any relevant size given these challenges.

The U.S. Navy has however taken some positive steps to increase fleet size and simplify the process of maintaining that fleet longer and at best cost. The Cold War-era classification of surface warships (cruiser, destroyer, frigate, patrol,) is giving way to one of large and small surface combatant (LSC and SSC.)33 Historically, a reduction in the number of individual classes by merger has been a good way to reduce costs. The British Royal Navy combined the predreadnought battleship and fast armored cruiser into first the battle cruiser and then the fast battleship. The introduction of open architecture combat systems and vertical launch capability for weapons has made the process of updating much easier than in the past. The Navy has requested that the new FFG(X) class have as much commonality with current ships as possible.34 More reductions in the acquisition and test and evaluation bureaucracy can help this process as well. The LCS, for example, must undergo another round of operational testing every time one of its mission modules gets a new piece of equipment. This sort of endless testing only delays programs and results in cost increases as do the additional layers of “oversight” added to an already over-burdened Navy.

Peacetime naval buildups in periods when war is not imminent are historically difficult, and no one should expect immediate results in the absence of large budget deficits. As history shows, sometimes a reduction in overall numbers of ships is required in order to build new construction necessary to grow the fleet. Solutions for managing such efforts include not reducing the fleet to a point where even a modest increase is difficult; avoiding the pitfalls of rapidly advancing technology that can make today’s force structure rapidly out of date, combining classes of ships into fewer types of ships with more commonality, and avoiding politically-driven fleet sizes that cannot be retained without herculean efforts. The U.S. Navy can increase in size and capability, but it won’t happen overnight in what remains a peacetime environment.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. These views are his own.

References

1. Jack Coggins, Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, p. 22.

2. Ibid, p. 19.

N.A.M Rodger, Command of the Sea, A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1845, New York, Norton, 2004, p. 644.

3. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914, Annpolis, Md; The Naval Institute Press, 1993, p. 5.

4. W.T. Steed, “The Responsibility for the Navy,” The Pall Mall Gazette, 30 September, 1884, electronic resource, https://attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/responsibility.php, last accessed, 01 March 2018.

5. Sumida, p. 13.

6. Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, The University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 20, 21.

7. Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton , NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 98.

8. Ibid, p. 81.

9. David K. Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, Warship Design and Development 1860-1905, Barnsley, UK; Seaforth Publishing, 2010, p. 203.

10. Lambert, p. 25.

11. Ibid, p. 27.

12. Sumida, pp. 19, 20.

13. Lambert, p. 105.

14. Friedberg, p. 106.

15. Ibid.

16. Lambert, p. 36.

17. Friedberg, p. 153.

18. Ibid, pp. 201-205.

19. “U.S. Ship Force Levels; 1886-Present,” Washington D.C.: The U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, electronic resource, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#1965, last accessed 10 April 2018.

20. Alfred Goldberg and Maurice Matloff, “Oral History Interview with Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr,” Washington D.C,; The Defense Department Historical Office, 22 October, 1991, pp 11, 12.

21. Ibid, p. 16.

22. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 2007, p. xiii.

23. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, p. 9.

24. Edward C. Keefer, Harold Brown, Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge 1977-1981, Washington D.C.; The Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, 2017, pp. 233-239, 425.

25. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 200, p. 121.

26. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, pp. 10-13.

27. Ibid, p. 50.

28. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” Washington DC, The Congressional Budget Office (CBO,) September 1985, p. 15.

29. Ibid, p. 16.

30. “Navy to Place 6 Frigates Based in S.D. in Mothballs,” The Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1988.

31. Kit and Carolyn Bonner, Warship Boneyards, Osceola, WI; MBI Publishing, 2001, pp. 115, 116.

32. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” p. 56.

33. Ron O’Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans; Background and issues for Congress, Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 3.

34. Ron O’Rouke, “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,“ Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 4.

Featured Image: CVN 76 under construction (Wikimedia Commons)

A New Administration, A New Maritime Strategy?

By Steve Wills

Introduction

The incoming Trump administration has called for a 350-ship navy as one of its core defense goals. This number is a good start for adding capability to the U.S. Navy after nearly two decades of force structure reductions. The call for 350 ships, however, is not enough. Such a call must be supported by a new global maritime strategy that draws inspiration from the 1980s Maritime Strategy created to oppose the Soviet Union on a global maritime battlespace. Any ship count by itself is prone to criticism on the grounds of cost or capability. The 1980s Maritime Strategy offers an example on how to intertwine strategy and necessary fleet strength in order to achieve a desired capability that supports national military strategy. The incoming Trump administration should follow the 1980s blueprint in its quest for a U.S. Navy capable of meeting present and future threats.

Arguing for Ships and Strategy

U.S. Naval strategy since 1991 has in effect been the management of desired and financially supportable force structure over time. In June 1990, incoming Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank Kelso famously put the 1980s Maritime Strategy “on the shelf” and in response to a question on naval strategy from Senator John McCain replied, “I think we need an enemy in order to have a strategy.” The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the U.S. without a significant naval opponent around which to build a global strategy. The case in 2016 is very different. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff now say the U.S. faces “4+1” potential opponents (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremism) a threat lineup unequaled since the early days of the Cold War. Admiral Kelso’s requirement for an enemy in order to require a strategy seems to have been met.

Calling for more ships alone in the absence of a defined strategy guiding their employment is not enough. There were several fleet strength analyses done in the 1970s to determine the best fleet size that could be sustained within a given budget. CNOs Admiral James Holloway and Admiral Thomas Hayward, and Navy Secretary Graham Claytor and his deputy R. James Woolsey, analyzed fleets ranging in size from 400-1000 ships. The results of their work all tended to center around 580 ships. At the same time, Admiral Hayward was experimenting with new naval strategy concepts as the Pacific Fleet commander to take a global fight to the Soviet Union rather than just shepherd parts and supplies across the Atlantic in support of NATO; a mission the Navy described as hauling “ash and trash.” Neither concept — whether larger fleet size or new strategy –was likely to go far by itself. Any ship number was open to financial or capability criticism from analysts or members of Congress asking, “won’t 550 ships or 540 ships work just as well and at less cost than 580 vessels?” Likewise, new naval strategy concepts have been previously dismissed by Congressional budget analysts as not reflective of financial reality. The label of “not cost constrained” was enough to limit the influence of new strategic concepts to wargames and think tank discussions rather than actual application.

Navy Secretary John Lehman famously combined these ideas: a global naval strategy and a specific number of ships at a reasonable cost required to achieve their purpose. Lehman’s June 1985 presentation to the House Seapower Subcommittee stated that the 600-ship navy had to be affordable as well as meet strategic requirements. Affordability was to be achieved through more competition among industry providers, more efficiency within the Navy Department, and decentralization of Defense bureaucracy as a means of achieving these goals. High technology should be exploited, but not at the expense of what Lehman called, “Research and Development Rainbows” that created a situation where, “perfect became the enemy of good enough.” There was also an expectation that fleet operational tempo would be decreased.

The 1980s Maritime Strategy, combined with an effective 600-ship navy that could be purchased at reasonable cost, proved to be a stable foundation of effort for the naval services in the 1980s. Fleet strength neared 600 ships by the end of the decade and the Maritime Strategy saw multiple updates that made it in the words of one of its authors, “more joint, more allied and with more forces and explanation in support of its purpose.” How sustainable the 600-ship goal would have been past the 1980s is open to interpretation, but the basic premise of Lehman’s argument was enough to convince Congress of its efficacy while the legislative body was still in a hawkish Cold War military expansion mindset. In 1985, Congressman Charles Bennett (D-FL) of the House Seapower and Strategic and Critical Materials subcommittee wrote to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-WI) and stated, “The subcommittee finds that the maritime strategy is, in fact, a proper naval component to national-level military strategy, and that the 600-ship navy as currently described is a reasonable and balanced approach to meeting the force structure requirements of that strategy.”

Navy Secretary John Lehman greeting President and Mrs. Reagan aboard the battleship Iowa for 100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1986 in New York Harbor.
Navy Secretary John Lehman greeting President and Mrs. Reagan aboard the battleship Iowa for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1986 in New York Harbor. (U.S. Navy)

It is debatable whether the Maritime Strategy or the 600-ship goal would have done so well as separate entities. There were plenty of influential opponents to both including former CIA director and naval analyst Admiral Stansfield Turner, former Carter administration Undersecretary of Defense for Policy “Blowtorch” Bob Komer, and renowned University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. Despite the efforts of these individuals and others, the Maritime Strategy and the 600-ship navy endured until the collapse of the Soviet Union consigned both to the past in a post-Cold War era without a peer competitor.

The Current Strategic Foundation

The holiday from history of the last 25 years is over and it is time to get back to the business of properly preparing for global great power competition. A Trump administration 350-ship navy could be part of the process by which the U.S. operates in the new, post-Cold War world. Numbers alone, however, are vulnerable to cuts by analysts seeking the lowest common denominator navy. Likewise, naval strategies without specific ship counts and powerful civilian and uniformed leaders to explain them to Congress also tend to run aground on the shoals of Congressional analyses offices. As naval historian CAPT Peter Haynes, USN (ret) has suggested, “A strategy without a resource plan isn’t one.” Congress does not always understand or support naval strategy, and instead talks in terms of platform numbers and line items. The legislature will, however, support a given number if good strategic arguments are leveled in its support. Any new ship count proposed by the incoming Trump administration must be accompanied by a strong, well-articulated global maritime strategy.   

Solid foundations already exist on which to construct a new maritime strategy. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” is the first step in that process. More than a mission statement, but less than a full strategy, it commands the Navy to:

“Make our best initial assessment of the environment, formulate a way ahead, and move out. But as we move, we will continually assess the environment, to ensure that it responds in a way that is consistent with achieving our goals. Where necessary, we will make adjustments, challenging ourselves to approach the limits of performance.”

CNOs have written such documents in the past. Admiral Kelso’s first foray into the post-Cold War era was entitled, “The Way Ahead,” a document co-authored with Marine Corps Commandant General Alfred Gray and endorsed by Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett. It had a similar goal to Admiral Richardson’s guidance in that it exhorted its readers to, “maintain maritime superiority well into the 21st century,” and to accomplish this through, “our full range of skill and knowledge as practitioners of the art of naval warfare.” Finally, it suggested that, “The old excuse—‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it’— no longer will do. We must work to shape and guide the forces of change in the direction that best serves the needs of our nation.” Clearly the “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” and “The Way Ahead” both serve to inform the Navy that while the mission remains much the same, new challenges await and old methods of doing business may not work. The Navy must be able to adjust and do so boldly.

The current Navy “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower”(CS21R) is a strong step toward a maritime strategy with operational warfighting components, a key element of the success of the 1980s Maritime Strategy. This document and its 2007 predecessor (CS21) both sought to describe the global commitment required by the U.S. to secure the global commons for safe and free trade. The 2015 version gave more detailed descriptions of force structure, specific forward locations required to achieve U.S. and Allied goals, and explicitly identified key competitors such as Russia and China.

Upgunning Strategy

What is required now is “the next step.” This new document should be a global maritime strategy that in the words of former U.S. Naval War College Dean of Naval Warfare CAPT Robert C “Barney” Rubel, USN (ret) would serve as “A contingent warfighting doctrine,” that proposes how the U.S. Navy will combat the “4+1” cohort of current and potential opponents across a global battle space.” The 1980s Maritime Strategy performed this role and laid out specific strategic and operational goals for U.S. Navy, Joint, and Allied forces in a global war against the Soviet Union, and all the phases of conflict leading to that eventuality. The Maritime Strategy cited national military strategy, regional command war plans, and specific Presidential national security directives as its core principles. It cited specific geographic objectives, Allied strategy, and specific war aims across the full spectrum of potential conflict with the Soviet Union. Later versions of the Maritime Strategy included contingency plans for operations against regional opponents that might not be mere Soviet surrogates. The level of detail within the 1980s Maritime Strategy crystalized the role of naval forces within the joint force, justified naval power within higher-level national security guidance, provided clear and consistent operational goals to guide war planning, and was unabashedly offensive in taking the fight to the enemy. These specific traits should animate the next maritime strategy.  

Integrating the Joint Force

Such a strategic undertaking will likely be more challenging in the present era. The 1980s Maritime Strategy was largely produced before the passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that decreed all U.S. military operations were to be “joint” in character. While the Maritime Strategy was joint in design and execution and its drafting team included members from the other services in the latter 1980s, it was the frequent target of interservice criticism that accused the Navy of “going it alone” in its plan to wage global war against the Soviets. A new maritime strategy must be a joint one, but the other services must also recognize the differences between the 1980s and the present. There are no longer any large U.S. ground force formations deployed on hostile borders needing resupply as in the 1980s. While the seat of purpose may be on land and Eisenhower may have once proclaimed the end of separate ground, sea and air warfare in the future, those paradigms may be shifting. The existence of predominantely maritime hotspots such as the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, and the waters of Yemen warrants innovative thinking in employing the joint force with specific attention on incorporating ground forces in maritime conflict.

A U.S. Army AH-64D Apache helicopter takes off from Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15), during an exercise. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock ship, was converted and reclassified to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jon Rasmussen/Released)
A U.S. Army AH-64D Apache helicopter takes off from Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15), during an exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jon Rasmussen/Released)

Employment of U.S. ground forces is more likely to be part of a larger maritime operation as suggested by British strategist Sir Julian Corbett and more bluntly stated by British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey who famously suggested that the British Army, “should be projectile to be fired by the Royal Navy.” PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris has suggested the U.S. Army can support operations in the Pacific region by fielding land-based anti-ship missiles, a powerful capability that Russia and China already field in abundance and in forward locations. This image of U.S. Army coastal artillery “on steroids” would need to be balanced with larger national strategic needs that require an effective expeditionary ground warfare capability that includes both Army and Marine Corps units when needed. This changed vision of ground operations as auxiliary to war at sea must be considered in a new joint maritime strategy.

Strengthening Operational Alliances

Today’s opponents are a more diverse and capable group requiring an allied vice just a U.S. response. A 21st century maritime strategy would no doubt be a more complex document than its 1980s-era predecessor. The 1980s strategy dealt essentially with one opponent (the Soviet Union), while its 21st century cousin would have to assess multiple combinations of the 4+1 group across several different continuum of conflict. Different sets of active opponents would require differing desired outcomes and end states, as well as preparing for widely varying contingencies. The urgency of the threats posed by the U.S. 4+1 list of opponents might not also have the same urgency across allies and partners.

Still, there is great potential for global maritime strategic action. The recent US/UK/Japanese Trilaterial Maritime Talks resulted in an agreement where these three maritime powers, “Recognized this opportunity to strengthen maritime contributions for achieving mutually desired strategic effects,” (emphasis added). The United States and the United Kingdom already share one of the closest military relationships of any two independent sovereign states, where only British officers may fly F-18 Super Hornet strike missions and the Royal Navy’s “Perisher” submarine training course is the only non-U.S. curriculum eligible for qualifying U.S. Navy submarine commanders. This relationship might further develop in terms of global strategic cooperation with Britain and perhaps France providing a rotational aircraft carrier presence in support of a global Allied maritime strategy. The UK’s Royal Navy has already made a step in this direction with the opening of HMS Juffair, a naval installation in the Kingdom of Bahrain that marks the return of British naval installations in the Middle East after an absence of four decades.

14681378874_bbe723666d_k
WATERS TO THE WEST OF THE KOREAN PENINSULA (July 17, 2014) Lt. Donghoon Lee, Republic of Korea Navy, right, and Lt. Vincent Simmon stand watch in the combat information center of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG 100) during bilateral operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released)

No one state can effectively maintain the command of the commons necessary for free trade over maritime highways, and nothing will increase force structure faster than building meaningful operational relationships with allies. Maritime security was recognized as a global concern a decade ago in the U.S. 2007 Cooperative Maritime Strategy and general concepts like the “1000 ship navy” must evolve into operational and tactically competent formations.

The Global Maritime Partnerships initiative focused on performing constabulary missions such as maritime security, counterpiracy, and drug interdiction with a broad set of partners irrespective of capability. While undoubtedly valuable, this line of effort was devised in a time when great power competition was not so marked and partnership with less capable navies would not come at the expense of conventional deterrence. The emphasis should now shift towards honing high-end warfighting capabilities by strengthening interoperability with treaty allies. This could be accomplished through more frequent and complex joint exercises, technology transfers, wargaming, and increasing the proportion of officers from allied nations in international resident programs. This push for greater interoperability will support the incoming administration’s intent to increase allied burden sharing while still demonstrating tangible American commitment to alliances. These cooperative steps cited here are hopefully the first of many leading to the return of unified Allied maritime commands such as the Cold War-era Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

Communicating Strategy

Navy Secretary John Lehman described strategy as, “The logical set of allocations and priorities that guide how the Navy Department spends its money and trains its people.” Lehman and the maritime strategy authors campaigned vigorously and effectively to further its goals and meet its requirements. Lehman published widely on the Maritime Strategy in print and defended it in media outlets. Uniformed officers took on critics and published extensive works on its genesis and evolution. These efforts continue into the present day long after Admiral Kelso retired the Maritime Strategy. A new document will likewise require an aggressive and comprehensive communications campaign across multiple formats including print, video, and digital outlets. It must educate a global audience and key decision makers on 21st century strategic geography, how naval power contributes to the national interest, and the need to protect the world-wide maritime trade routes that sustain not only U.S. but global economic prosperity and security.

Keeping it Affordable

The leadership of the 1980s navy was fortunate in that much of the technological advancement needed for the 600-ship navy such as the AEGIS system had been completed in the previous decade. Most of the 600-ship navy building programs had commenced before the passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, enabling the service to have greater control and less bureaucratic interference in its overall maritime design. Recent defense reform efforts have identified excessive bureaucracy as an impediment to cost effective military platforms.

An expansion of the fleet today will be more challenging in that many fields of technological advance are still struggling toward maturity. The naval service has been somewhat neglected over the last 25 years in terms of maintenance and operational costs. Assessments such as the Balisle report of 2010 and more recent examinations suggest the situation may not immediately improve. In addition, many new technologies and concepts such as electric drives, modular systems, greater automation and smaller crews remain operationally immature to a degree. Other emerging systems such as directed energy weapons and railguns are on the cusp of operational capability, but will require more funding and testing in order to join the fleet’s future arsenal. A new Maritime Strategy and associated force will need to navigate a series of choices from among these capabilities and decide which are “R&D rainbows” not worth producing, and which can become operational parts of the strategy-supporting force structure.

Reorganized for Strategy

The Navy is perhaps now better prepared to create a new maritime strategy than at any point since 1992 due to Admiral Richardson’s recent reorganization of the OPNAV staff. It is also better prepared to resist critics than its predecessor. The Navy Staff (OPNAV’s) new N50 Strategy Division combines the strategy experts of the N3/N5 Deputy CNO’s office with analysts from the N81 assessments divison. This union of disciplines should result in geography and international relations forming the foundation of a naval strategy that is also within the nation’s financial means to execute over time.

One of the most persistent claims leveled against the 1980s Maritime Strategy was that it was not “cost constrained” and assumed that a large and complex naval force could be sustained with limited funding. The Strategy and Assessments divisions of the OPNAV staff have been arguing this point for nearly half a century. Strategists argue for the importance of geography, history, and international relations as primary determinents for the development of successful naval policy. Their preferred force structures such as the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s respond directly to threat assessments and the geographic conditions that shape them. The analysis community often responds by suggesting that national resources do not support what the strategists wish to accomplish. They have advocated a policy of force structure and capability management over time as the best means of achieving a force that spends only what is absolutely required to achieve those goals. The 30-year shipbuilding plan is a product of this effort. The combined strategist/analyst composition of the newly formed N50 Strategy Division will serve as an excellent vehicle for wedding a new strategy to a new ship count and subsequently updated shipbuilding plan.

Conclusion

The election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States represents a break with past policies as did that of Ronald W. Reagan in 1980 and offers the Navy an opportunity to make a fresh argument for a global warfighting strategy. Past U.S. joint force constructs that emphasized ground forces over naval forces are not as relevant as they were during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at their heights. The present strategic situation suggests that the time is right for the U.S. Navy to come forward with a modern successor to the 1980s Maritime Strategy. The price tag for this endeavor will also have to be acceptable to the legislature and the public. The Navy must decide which of its emerging technologies and capabilities will be part of the strategy-supporting force and which will be cancelled or relegated to limited experimentation. The OPNAV staff is better organized now than in past decades to articulate and advance such a strategy. A 350-ship navy might be the right size to accomplish this goal, but it must have a strategy in close cooperation in order to convince Congress that 350 ships or even greater numbers are required. The incoming Trump administration should demand a global naval strategy to accompany its proposed increase in fleet strength in order to achieve its goal of a superior U.S. Navy.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941.

Featured Image: 161014-N-OI810-449 WATERS SURROUNDING THE KOREAN PENINSULA (Oct. 14, 2016) The Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), steams in formation with ships from Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) during Exercise Invincible Spirit. Invincible Spirit is a bilateral exercise conducted with the ROKN in the waters near the Korean Peninsula, consisting of routine operations in support of maritime counter-special operating forces and integrated maritime operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke/Released)