Category Archives: Force Structure

An Alternative History for U.S. Navy Force Structure Development

By John Hanley

U.S. Navy and Department of Defense bureaucratic and acquisition practices have frustrated innovations promoted by Chiefs of Naval Operations and the CNO Strategic Studies Groups over the past several decades.1 The Navy could have capabilities better suited to meet today’s challenges and opportunities had it pursued many of these innovations. This alternative history presents what the Navy could have been in 2019 had the Navy and DoD accepted the kinds of risks faced during the development of nuclear-powered ships, used similar prototyping practices, and accepted near-term costs for longer-term returns on that investment.

Actual events are in a normal font while alternatives are presented in italics.

Admiral Trost and Integrated Power Systems

Recognizing that electric drive offered significant anticipated benefits for U.S. Navy ships in terms of reducing ship life-cycle cost (including 18 to 25 percent less fuel consumption), increasing ship stealth, payload, survivability, and power available for non-propulsion uses, and taking advantage of a strong electrical power technological and industrial base, in September 1988, then-U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle Trost endorsed the development of integrated power systems (IPS) for electric drive and other ship’s power for use in the DDGX, which became the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyer. He also established an IPS program office the following fiscal year.2

To reduce technical risk, the Navy began by prototyping electric drive on small waterplane area twin hull (swath) ships, including its special program for the Sea Shadow employing stealth technology. Using a program akin to Rickover’s having commissioned the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in just over three years of being authorized to build the first nuclear powered submarine, the Navy commissioned its first Arleigh Burke destroyer with an IPS in 1992. Just as Rickover explored different nuclear submarine designs, the Navy developed various IPS prototypes as it explored the design space while gaining experience at sea and incorporating rapidly developing technology.

Admiral Kelso and Fleet Design

Admiral Frank Kelso became CNO in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Facing demands for a peace dividend. Admiral Kelso noted that the decisions the he made affected what the Navy would look like in 30-50 years and asked his SSG what the nation would need the naval forces for in future decades. The future pointed to the cost growth of military systems producing a much smaller fleet if the practice of replacing each class with the next generation of more expensive platforms continued. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell’s Base Force proposal in February 1991 called for reducing the Navy to 451 ships with 12 carriers by 1995, reducing the fleet from 592 ships (including 14 carriers) in September 1989. Having just accepted this, Kelso’s SSG briefed him that that cost growth would result in a Navy of about 250 ships by the 2010s if the Navy and Defense Department continued to focus on procuring next generation platforms rather than capabilities.

Building upon his reorganization of OPNAV and inspired by the joint mission assessment process developed by his N-8, Vice Admiral Bill Owens, Kelso disciplined OPNAV to employ this methodology. The effort reoriented Navy programs toward payloads to accomplish naval missions in a joint operation, rather than focusing on platform replacement. As restrictions on Service acquisition programs increased,3 Kelso worked closely with the Secretary of the Navy to fully exploit authorities for procuring systems falling below the thresholds for Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) approval to gain experience with prototypes before committing to large scale production costing billions of dollars. Under the leadership of Owens and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, the Navy made significant progress in C4ISR systems needed for network centric warfare that were interoperable with other Services systems.4

Beginning the Revolution

In 1995, Chief of Naval Operations Jeremy (Mike) Boorda redirected his CNO Strategic Studies Group to generate innovative warfighting concepts that would revolutionize naval warfighting the way that the development of carrier air warfare did in World War II.

The first innovation SSG in 1995-1996 identified the promise of information technology, integrated propulsion systems, unmanned vehicles, and electromagnetic weapons (rail guns), among other things. They believed that the ability to fuse, process, understand, and disseminate huge volumes of data had the greatest potential to alter maritime operations. They laid out a progression from extant, to information-based, to networked, to enhancing cognition through networks of human minds employing artificial intelligence, robotics biotechnology, etc. to empower naval personnel to make faster, better decisions, for warfighting command and sustainment. For sustainment they imagined “real-time, remote monitoring systems interconnected with technicians, manufacturers, parts distributors, and transportation and delivery sources; dynamic business logic that enables decisions to be made and actions to be executed automatically, even autonomously; and a system in which sustainment is embedded in the operational connectivity architecture, becoming invisible to the operator except by negation.” Their force design proposed a netted system of numerous functionally distributed and physically dispersed sensors and weapons to provide a spectrum of capabilities and effects, scaled to the operational situation.5

Admiral Boorda passed away just as the SSG was preparing to brief him. After he became CNO, Admiral Jay Johnson decided to continue the SSG’s focus on innovation focus when he heard the SSG’s briefing.6 The next SSG in 1997 advocated many of these concepts in more depth, emphasized modularity, and added a revolutionary “Horizon” concept on how the Navy could man and operate its ships that in ways that would increase the operational tempo of the ships while changing sailors’ career paths in a manner that would provide more family stability and time at home.7 The following SSG worked with the Naval Surface Warfare Centers on designs for ships using IPS armed with rail guns that could sustain and tender large numbers of smaller manned and unmanned vessels for amphibious operations and sea control; among other enhancements.8 Subsequent SSGs extended such concepts, added new ones and enhanced designs for the future.9

Despite pressures on Navy budgets, OPNAV created program offices to pursue naval warfare innovations at a rate of about $100 million per year for each effort, though some programs required less.10

Building on the U.S. Army’s efforts to develop a rail gun for the M-1 tank, the Navy began heavy investment in prototyping rail guns in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By 2005 prototypes had been installed in Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Since only warheads were required, magazines could hold three times as many projectiles as conventional rounds. The ability to shift power from propulsion to weapons inherent in IPS also stimulated more rapid advances in ship-borne lasers and directed energy weapons.

Rather than designing new airframes, the Navy automated flight controls to begin flying unmanned F/A-18 fighters and A-6 attack aircraft as part of air wings to learn what missions were appropriate and what the technology could support. This led the fleet rapidly discovering ways to employ the aircraft for dangerous and dull missions, reducing the load on newer air wings. Mixed manned-unmanned airwings began deploying in 2002. It also led to programs for automating aircraft in the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard to allow rapidly increasing the size of U.S. air forces in the event of war. Using lessons from existing air frames, the Navy began designing new unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

The Navy prototyped lighter than air craft for broad area surveillance; secure, anti-jam communications, and fleet resupply. These evolved to provide hangers and sustainment for unmanned air vehicles.

Figure 1: The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ (Alamy stock photo/Used by permission)

Figure 2: Sea Shadow (IX-529), built 1984 (U.S. Navy photo 990318-N-0000N-001/Released)

Building on the success of the 1995 Slice Advanced Technology Demonstrator11 operated by two people using a computer with a feeble 286 processor and lessons from the stealthy Sea Shadow, the Navy began prototyping similar vessels of about 350 tons designed for rapidly reconfiguring using modular payloads of that could be for different missions including anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine warfare, sea control and air-defense using guns, strike, and deception.12 These prototype vessels used IPS and permanent magnet motors for high speed in high sea states. Initial modules employed existing systems while the plug-and-play nature of the modules allowed rapid upgrades. By 2005 the Navy had a flotilla of this version of optionally-manned littoral combat ships forward stationed in Singapore, refining tactics and organizational procedures. By 2010 the Navy had built a prototype of the SSG’s stealthy UCAV assault ship with a squadron of UCAVs.

Figure 3: SLICE ACTD 1996 (about 100 tons). (Pacific Marine & Supply Co. photo)

Figure 4: UCAV Assault Ship concept in 1997

The Navy replaced the Marine’s existing Maritime Prepositioning Force and redesigned the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force, with a cost saving $17 billion over 35 years using a common hull form using an integrated propulsion system, electric drive, and electromagnetic/directed energy weapons in a logistics and expeditionary ship variants. The electric drive freed space for unmanned surface, air, and undersea vehicles to support both combat and logistics functions. The expeditionary ships were capable of sustaining operations for 30 days without resupply and large enough to configure loads for an operation, rather than having to go to a port and load so that equipment came off in the appropriate order, which was the extant practice. The logistics variant could accommodate a 400-ton vessel in its well-deck to serve as a tender for forward deployed flotillas. The force was designed to project power up to 400 nautical miles inland using a larger tilt-wing aircraft than the V-22, which could fly at 350 knots.

Command decision programs emphasized the use of algorithms to inform repeated decisions. Building on combined arms ASW tactics employing surface, air, and submarine forces that proved successful in the 1980s, the Navy developed an undersea cooperative engagement capability for the theater ASW commander, exploiting maps of the probability of a submarine being at a particular location in the theater. This included development of advanced deployable arrays that allowed the Navy to surveil new areas on short notice. Additionally, capabilities to surveil and deliver mines using undersea unmanned vehicles were enhanced to allow maintaining minefields in adversary ports and choke-points.

One of the biggest advancements was in fleet sustainment. Technologies and policies that industry and had applied provided a roadmap for changing the Navy’s maintenance philosophy. Netted small, smart, sensors; networks; and on-site fabrication enabled the development of a cognitive maintenance process. By 2010 watchstanders no longer manually logged data and neural networks predicted times to failure. Platform status could be monitored remotely. Detection of anomalies in operating parameters would trigger automatic action in accordance with business logic. Using data from computer aided design both provided tutorials for maintain equipment, and identified parts needed to conduct repairs; allowing automatically generating parts requests. Inventory control systems ordered replacement parts as they were used. Sharing this data across the fleet and the Navy made much of the manpower involved in supply redundant. Ship’s force was freed from supply duties to focus on fighting the ship. Providing the data to original equipment manufacturers allowed them to track failure rates and update designs for greater reliability. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) allowed deployed ships to make parts needed for rapid repairs and reduced costs for maintaining prototype equipment and vessels. Only a few years was required to return investments required to transition to sustainment and inventory practices used by industries such as Caterpillar, General Motors, and Walmart (and now Amazon). Sustainment practices allowed ships to remain forward deployed in high readiness for much longer periods. Advances in employing AI for sustainment contributed exploiting AI for weapons systems.

The Navy began experimenting with the Horizon concept which called for creating flotillas of ships with the majority forward deployed with departmental watch teams rotating forward to allow sailors more time at home in readiness centers where they could train and monitor the status of ships to which they would deploy. Sailors would spend 80 percent of their careers in operational billets, advancing in their rating from apprentice, to journeyman, to master as they progressed. Assigning sailors to extraneous shore billets to give them time at home was no longer required.13 Readiness centers were established originally for smaller classes of ships, and the concept was in place for Burke-class destroyers and incoming classes of surface combatants in 2008.14 The advantages to this operational approach included: (1) the number of deployment transits were substantially reduced; (2) gaps in naval forward presence coverage in any of the three major theaters was eliminated; (3) two of the three ready platforms remaining in CONUS were operationally “ready” platforms 100% of the time, and all three over 90% of the time.15 New non-intrusive ways of certifying the platforms and crews as “ready” for operations freed them from the yoke of the inspection intensive inter-deployment training cycle and joint task force workups. This allowed the Navy to move away from cyclic readiness and towards sustained readiness.

The U.S. Navy in 2019

Using extensive prototyping of small manned and unmanned vehicles, weapons, combat, and C4ISR systems enhanced by AI with human oversight and control, the Navy in 2019 had a diverse set of capabilities to deal with rapidly emerging security challenges and opportunities. Forward stationed and deployed flotillas with their tenders provided surface and undersea capabilities similar to aircraft flying from a carrier.16 The agility provided by this approach over past acquisition practices developed for the Cold War allowed the Navy to enhance budgets for those prototypes that proved successful while accelerating learning about how to integrate rapidly changing technology. The success of rail guns and directed energy weapons as standard armaments on dispersed forces flipped the offense-defense cost advantages for air and missile defense. Implementing the sustainment and readiness concepts removed large burdens from ship’s forces that allowed them to concentrate on warfighting rather than maintenance and administration.

The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy in 2019

One downside was that the PLA Navy closely observed and copied the USN. Through industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property, the PLAN acquired USN designs as the systems were begin authorized for procurement. With process innovation, China was able to field many of these systems even more quickly than the U.S., resulting in greater challenges even than the rapid build-up of Chinese maritime forces and global operations over the past decade. This taught the U.S. to think through competitive strategies, considering more carefully the strategic effects of adversaries having similar capabilities, rather than blindly pursuing technological advantages.


Captain John T. Hanley, Jr., USNR (Ret.) began his career in nuclear submarines in 1972. He served with the CNO Strategic Studies Group for 17 years as an analyst and Program/Deputy Director. From there in 1998 he went on to serve as Special Assistant to Commander-in-Chief U.S. Forces Pacific, at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and in several senior positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on force transformation, acquisition concepts, and strategy. He received A.B. and M.S. degrees in Engineering Science from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in Operations Research and Management Sciences from Yale. He wishes that his Surface Warfare Officer son was benefiting from concepts proposed for naval warfare innovation decades ago. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or his institution.



1. As CNO, Admiral Tom Hayward established a Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in 1981 with the SSG as its core. His aim was to turn captains of ships into captains of war by giving promising officers an experiences and challenges that they would experience as senior flag officers before being selected for Flag rank. He personally selected six Navy officers, who were joined by two Marines. The group succeeded in developing maritime strategy and subsequent CNOs continued Hayward’s initiative. Over 20% of the Navy officers assigned were promoted to Vice Admiral and over 10 percent were promoted to full Admiral before CNO Mike Boorda changed the mission of the group to revolutionary naval warfare innovation in 1995.

2. This decision, however, was subsequently reversed due to concerns over cost and schedule risk with DD-21 (Zumwalt Class) being the first large surface combatant with IPS. The Navy established the IPS office in 1995 vice 1989. (O’Rourke 2000).

3. The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 restricted Service acquisition authorities and created significant challenges for the Navy (Nemfakos, et al. 2010).

4. Owens and Cebrowski were assigned to the first SSG as Commanders and shared an office. Their concepts for networking naval, joint, and international forces to fight forward against the Soviets significantly influenced the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s and led to changes in fleet tactics and operations. Owens went on to serve as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Cebrowski as his J-6 continuing their efforts. Cebrowski later directed OSD’s Office of Force Transformation in the early 2000s.

5. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XV 1996). Imagine distributing the weapons systems on an Aegis cruiser across numerous geographically dispersed smaller vessels to cover more sea area while providing better mutual protection; elevating the phased-array radar to tens of thousands of feet using blimp-like aircraft; all networked to enhance cooperative engagement while providing a common operational picture covering a wide area.

6. Jay Johnson had served as an SSG fellow 1989-1990 and initially was unsure whether to return to the previous SSG model.

7. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XVI 1997)

8. Most of the detailed descriptions below are statement from what the SSGs envisioned would happen.

9. The SSG focused solely on naval warfare innovation beginning in 1997, substantially changing the mission from making captains of war, until CNO John Richardson disestablished it in 2016.

10. 1997 was the nadir for Navy procurement budgets following the post-Cold War peace dividend. Focused on the Program of Record, OPNAV decided not to pursue SSG innovations.

11. Though OSD had programs for Advanced Technology Demonstrations (ATDs) to demonstrate technical feasibility and maturity to reduce technical risks, and Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations (ACTDs) to gain understanding of the military utility before commencing acquisition, develop a concept of operations, and rapidly provide operational capability, acquisition reform beginning with the Packard Commission and Goldwater-Nichols and belief in computer simulation gutted the use of prototypes in system development.

12. The decision that the Littoral Combat Ship must self-deploy resulted in increasing the ship’s displacement by about an order of magnitude. Roughly ten of the smaller vessels could be purchased for each LCS. The missions in normal font are included in LCS modules.

13. Horizon sought to make 80% of Navy personnel available for deployment. In contrast, less than 50% of the Navy’s personnel were in deployable billets in 1996.

14. In 1997 the surface combatant 21 program which became the LCS and Zumwalt-class destroyers was scheduled for initial operational capability in 2008.

15. Based on a three to six-month depot availability once every five years.

16. Professor Wayne Hughes, Captain USN (Ret,) calls these a two-stage system.

Feature photo: Artist’s conception of DD-21: a low-signature and optimally-manned warship featuring railguns and an Integrated Power System (IPS). Public domain image.

Force Structure Perspectives Series Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week, CIMSEC launched a series of articles and interviews on the new Battle Force 2045 fleet design unveiled by the Secretary of Defense. In this series, contributors shed light on why the Defense Secretary may have felt compelled to seize the fleet design process from the Navy, the tactical and technological trends that drove the fleet’s composition, and whether the new fleet is fiscally feasible.

Several themes emerged. The Navy’s prior shipbuilding plans and force structure assessments may have remained too wedded to existing platforms, and not moved out aggressively enough on fielding new ship types that would better reflect the evolving nature of high-end conflict. This inclination on the part of the Navy as well as other underlying assumptions may have caused the Secretary of Defense to seize the fleet design process and push the Navy toward a different outcome.

Whether this new fleet is affordable is highly dubious in the eyes of some. But whether a 500-ship fleet could be afforded is less relevant in the near term. What is more significant is that new ship types have been called for, and how the final number matters less than beginning to build sooner rather than later. But new ship types will require sufficient experimentation and margin for adaptation, and recent shipbuilding experiences with surface combatants has affected the skepticism of Congress. Whether this new fleet can be made real remains uncertain.

During the series, we received some reports of readers experiencing technical issues when accessing the articles and interviews. Please email us at if you would like to have the pieces sent to you as attachments.

Below are the articles and interviews, with excerpts. We thank these contributors for their excellent contributions.

Capt. Trip Barber (ret). on Building a New Fleet

“This level of change is institutionally very hard to accept and will never earn an internal consensus. It threatens community beliefs and disrupts the shipbuilding industrial base. However, multiple outside evaluations of the Navy’s fleet design over the preceding four years had said that the time had come for this level of change, and OSD finally stepped in to make it happen when the Navy did not move aggressively enough.”

Capt. Jeff Kline (ret.) on Bringing the Fleet Into the Robotics Age

“As the new fleet design is incrementally introduced, and the advantages and limitations of new technologies are better understood, tactics can be modified along with concepts to effectively employ them. The greatest risk, of course, is to the networks and communications that tie this fleet together. In a way, this transforms the Navy’s “capital ship” from the aircraft carrier to the fleet network, a natural outcome of distributed operations enabled by the Robotics Age.”

Capt. Sam Tangredi (ret.) on Shopping for Studies

“If the Navy itself has been debating these same issues, why did SECDEF ‘take away’ future fleet design from the Navy (as it has been described in the media and elsewhere) and commission his own study? I will play the cynic—but it is based on 30-plus years of being involved in DoD analytical studies. SECDEFs do these things when they already have an answer in mind, but existing studies don’t really justify their answer. SECDEFs need to intellectually justify their answers to Congress, hence they need a ‘study’ to support it.”

CDR Phil Pournelle (ret.) on Chasing Legacy Platforms

“This is unique in the fact that the Secretary of Defense did not defer to the Navy staff. The writing was on the wall several years ago when Congress demanded multiple perspectives on future fleet architectures, suggesting dissatisfaction with continuing to build the same fleet regardless of trends shaping the future combat environment. Further, I don’t think the Navy really addressed the National Defense Strategy’s four-layer construct of contact, blunt, surge, and homeland defense when they submitted their planned architecture. They appeared to have shoehorned in the same force design and not make the fundamental changes called for.”

Col. T.X. Hammes (ret.) on Experimenting for Adaptation

“…the concepts are not mature. Nor should we expect them to be. They are an initial attempt to respond to what the Secretary noted is a fundamental change in the character of warfare as it expands into new domains. The intellectual logic has been debated and gamed quite a bit, but the ultimate proof is in experimentation and adaption. A key attribute must be flexibility so that the concepts can quickly evolve as the Navy and Marine Corps experiment and learn.”

Capt. Robert Rubel (ret.) on OSD Seizing Fleet Design

“Ideally, in my view, this episode will break up the Navy’s fixation on the aforementioned force structure concepts and approaches, and it will adopt a new approach to fleet design that is freed from the strictures of machine-based campaign analysis based on canonical contingency scenarios. There has been a struggle for the last several decades within the Navy between the strategy shop and resource shop over this, with the resource shop always winning. I hope SECDEF’s intervention will alter that balance of power.”

A Decisive Flotilla: Assessing the Hudson Fleet Design,” by Capt. Robert Rubel (ret.)

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

Congresswoman Elaine Luria on Getting Congress Involved

“…Congress needs to understand the requirements being proposed and why. Most members of Congress don’t understand specifically the needed mix of ships, aircraft, and missiles required to prevail in a conflict with China. Congressional buy-in will be critical as we determine funding levels for each acquisition program, maintenance, and readiness requirements.”

Dr. John T. Kuehn On Designing for the Long War

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

The Navy Should Stop Talking About the Future and Start Building It,” by Frank Goertner

“What happened next highlights why strategy in today’s Navy is too fragile for hope. The admiral who signed the Future Fleet Design and Architecture for 2045 transferred within one week of its approval. The Office of Future Strategy lasted less than nine months beyond completion of the report. The CNO who sponsored it retired two years hence. And in the meantime, there were countless executive turnovers within the Navy staff directorates, program offices, and fleet commands on which its recommended reforms relied on for execution and support.”

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

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 10, 2018) The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transits the Pacific Ocean while participating in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)

The Navy Should Stop Talking About the Future and Start Building It

Force Structure Perspectives Series

By Frank T. Goertner

Four years ago, the U.S. Navy began talking seriously about future fleet design. Directives were released, forums were held, studies were commissioned, roadmaps were constructed, and long-range plans were drafted – each of which called for innovation at scale and reform at speed. Six Navy Secretaries, five Defense Secretaries, four federal budgets, three elections, two Congresses, and one Chief of Naval Operations later, the Office of the Secretary of Defense finally added its voice with Battle Force 2045.

Now it is time to stop talking about the fleet’s future and start building it. This is why.

Words are Cheap 

Naval leaders have a way with words. Flag officers scrutinize them, commanders study them, selection boards interpret them, and staff officers labor over them. Hours of every Navy day are spent molding words into scrupulous emails, formulaic memos, transmittable orders, prosaic strategy documents, and immemorial PowerPoint slides. For better and worse, contemporary naval careers are about surfing words as much as making waves.

But as indispensable as they are to bureaucracy and stricture, most words are cheap, especially in the Pentagon. The shelf-life of a typical action memo or decision brief not required by a program of record or operational order is less than a year. With personnel tours rarely aligned to program requirements or project aims, it proves impossible for staff officer teams to aggregate, iterate, and advocate new ideas beyond the few overlapping months they have together.

The predominance of email and PowerPoint as standard communication mediums only makes matters worse. Once sent or briefed, the words they contain struggle to hold value amid torrents of other communications each day. Emails become guarded or siloed in personal inboxes. Slides, if saved, are uninterpretable once divorced from the briefer. And the obsession with brevity cultivated by both mediums dissuades the critical, memorable, and lengthy learning-based discourse rich topics deserve. 

On some level, the Pentagon knows this, and so does the Navy. The antidote is often thought to be strategy. It is not. 

Strategy is Fragile

When I reported to the Pentagon in 2016 for my final Navy orders, it was to a newly created “Office of Future Strategy.” Established by then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson as part of his Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, we were a small team tasked with identifying vectors and markers to move the Navy from words to action on future fleet design. The result was an internal report, Future Fleet Design and Architecture for 2045, that set strategic design priorities and architectural attributes for a future fleet that closely match those endorsed by Defense Secretary Esper in recent weeks. That report was published three years ago.

What happened next highlights why strategy in today’s Navy is too fragile for hope. The admiral who signed the Future Fleet Design and Architecture for 2045 transferred within one week of its approval. The Office of Future Strategy lasted less than nine months beyond completion of the report. The CNO who sponsored it retired two years hence. And in the meantime, there were countless executive turnovers within the Navy staff directorates, program offices, and fleet commands on which its recommended reforms relied for execution and support.

Most of this was expected. Even in calm seas, the sprint of Navy flag officers through posts at the Pentagon, alongside the persistent tinker of senior Navy executives within service staff structures, can capsize a Navy strategy. What was unexpected was how rough the seas would become.

Adrift, roiled, crippled, struggling, unclear: each is a published descriptor of America’s naval leadership in the past three years of continuous turnover among appointed and acting Secretaries of Defense and Secretaries of the Navy, questionable fleet fires and firings, on-again off-again Navy approaches to education reform, Pentagon wrangling over naval force structure assessments, and unplanned changes in CNO accession.

It was a perfect storm to sink a fragile future fleet design. That any remnants of it survived is a testament to one thing: the future is here.

Building is Everything          

When words are cheap, strategy fragile, and the future now underway, there is only one path to enduring impact. The Navy needs to stop talking, writing, and strategizing for the future. It needs to start building it now, and it needs to build to last.

Whether the goal is 355 ships or 500 ships by 2045, those tasked to pursue it need to acknowledge that between today and mission completion stand 25 federal budgets, a dozen new Congresses, up to seven different Commanders-in-Chief, at least a half dozen CNOs, and a full generation of naval officer careers. What will it take to build a fleet to ply those waters?

First, the Navy needs to build a new Navy Staff structure (OPNAV) that biases the future over the present. This will no doubt incur risk to current operations, impact readiness, and be decried by advocates for fleet platforms that have served our nation well for decades. But a future fleet cannot be cast, shaped, and hardened from a naval staff structure built to focus on the present. The Navy needs requirements directorates, programs of record, and assessment directives aligned to future fleet goals rather than current fleet demands.

This can take several forms. OPNAV N8 and N9 can be rebuilt around future fleet mission-sets, cross-community force packages, integrated kill-chains, or networked decision loops. Which vector is chosen matters less than that it shatters stove-pipes and breaks the horizon.

Second, the Navy needs to build learning momentum. The standup of a new 3-star OPNAV N7 Directorate dedicated to warfighting concept development and education, along with the assignment of a former fleet commander to its helm, was a step in the right direction. VADM Franchetti’s nomination to move jobs less than two months after reporting was not helpful, however. Nor is the failure to replace the Navy’s Chief Learning Officer or mirror the Army Futures Command’s collaborative approach toward capability innovation that goes beyond strictly military sources of thinking. If the Navy is serious about growing into its future fleet, it needs to build leaders with tenure and partners to prove it, and staff structures whose missions can withstand rapid leadership turnover.

Third, the Navy needs to build a maritime manufacturing base for the future fleet. It is always tempting to assume that the U.S. industrial base is up to any task. But a plan to nearly double the number of hulls in the U.S. fleet and boost nuclear submarine construction by a third is no easy feat for a shipbuilding industry that has been in steady decline for several decades. There may be some solace that as ships turn autonomous, and thereby smaller, the number of private shipyards able to build and service them will expand. Yet there is less solace in the fact that autonomous ships like Sea Hunter have yet to be fielded beyond an experimental capacity, or built at scale for the weaponry needed in contested seas. There remains much to be studied on both sides of the public-private relationships that fuel U.S. sea power, and the only way to learn fast is to build and experiment fast.

Fourth, the Navy needs to build interoperability with future allied navies. Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, SM-3 missiles, AEGIS, MK 46/48 torpedoes, F/A-18 jets, H-60 helicopters – each is among the most enduring and cost-effective fleet platforms of recent decades. These platforms have also been popular acquisitions by U.S. allies as assurance that freedom of the seas and defense of our nations is a joint venture. This is no coincidence, as much of the U.S. Navy’s success in the Cold War and since has derived from the degree to which foreign navies were attracted to its standards. America’s is not the only allied Navy building up in NATO or sizing up future fleets in the Pacific. Combined, these forces already have over 500 blue water hulls. By 2045, they could produce over 1,000. But across international borders, tactical and technological futures should converge by design more than by chance.

Finally, the Navy needs to build civic enthusiasm for its mission and future. A 40 percent boost to the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget is an audacious goal. The projected $27 billion shipbuilding budget request Defense Secretary Esper hinted at for 2022 is more than 40 percent what the executive branch requested for spending on education next year. That is a tall order in any year, but a towering one in a government struggling to redesign schools and reskill workforces for the digital and pandemic disruptions of our age.

As gratifying as it is to see defense leaders embrace the future fleet and the resourcing it requires, the stakeholders that really matter are the American taxpayers, voters, and representatives who must fund it. That will take a concerted effort to engage them as beneficiaries of its outcomes and missions. It will take educating and including their representatives on decisions about not just what is needed to build the fleet, but how and where it will be used and why. It may even take a bipartisan U.S. Maritime Commission, akin to the one launched in 1936, to tend to the public will of a maritime nation in distress.

All of this is to say that it is time for the Navy to stop relegating the future to words. Building the fleet of 2045 needs to become a top priority for 2020. There are not another three years, or even three months, to lose.

Frank T. Goertner, a retired U.S. Navy commander, is director for military/veteran affairs and national security programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. His final uniformed contribution to the Navy was as lead author of a 2017 report on Future Fleet Design and Architecture for 2045. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

Featured Image: NORTH SEA (Sept. 28, 2020) U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Chris Streicher with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, launches from the deck of the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) armed with a Gun Pod Unit (GPU) – 9/A, at sea, September 28, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by 1st Lt. Zachary Bodner)

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

Force Structure Perspectives Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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