Category Archives: Force Structure

All You Need is a Landing Craft

By Przemyslaw Ziemacki

Amphibious and transport operations can play a vital role at all levels of war, but landing craft can do much more than just move things – they can also shoot. The global growth of anti-access/area denial capabilities favors smaller, harder to find, more numerous, and attritable vessels. At the same time, the potent evolution of missiles can be combined with the open cargo area on small and medium landing craft to shoot back against both sea and land targets. Civilian offshore support vessels suggest what tomorrow’s landing craft might look like, while the missions they could fulfill are only limited by the imagination.

A Question of What and How Many

Western navies with expensive and highly-trained crews typically focus on high-quality vessels as a deciding factor in contemporary naval operations. On the other side, Russian military thought and even Josef Stalin himself espoused that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Both considerations are important: quality plays a key role but there is a minimum quantity needed to perform particular task, particularly when considering combat attrition. A navy can have a single high-end warship, like a French aircraft carrier, that simply cannot be operationally available 365 days a year. The insufficient quantity of modern vessels is a widely known problem for many navies.  Each vessel can only be in one place at a time, which periodically includes the dry dock for planned and unplanned maintenance.

Constructing and maintaining more high-quality and single-mission vessels is rarely the best option due to fiscal constraints. Instead, multi-mission vessels can help fill these gaps. One of the ways to fulfill this concept is to build a hull with possibility of changing its payload, such as the Littoral Combat Ship and Absalon-class support vessels – both frigate-like ships with replaceable modules. A more natural word association with “payload,” however, is “landing craft” rather than “frigate.”

Many naval discussions fixate on large, high-profile navies that mainly need expeditionary vessels to perform operations all over the world and to transit rapidly between theaters. So, even if a vessel class is dedicated for green water or littoral operations, it is usually designed with the range and seakeeping of a typical blue water warship to simply arrive in theater.

Maritime geography is vitally important for both warship and fleet design, but this applies to all navies, both large and small. Many small navies have a more focused area of operations – along their national coasts or within a particular inland sea, many of which are also strategic hotspots (e.g., the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the South China Sea). Naval presence and potential conflicts in these regions require relatively smaller but more numerous vessels. Naturally, this does not mean that frigates, destroyers and cruisers are useless, but to fulfill missions close to coasts, larger numbers of smaller vessels are more optimal in many scenarios. Moreover, many of these smaller countries have land borders with their main potential enemies instead of extensive land or ocean buffers, and so with a more compelling national requirement for a standing army and tactical air force, small vessels may be the only affordable option for small navies.

Even then, truly numerous flotillas with several types of bespoke and single-purpose small vessels is not feasible. Budget cuts often target more complex and expensive warships programs over simpler, less expensive ones. For example, Poland has only 3 vessels of the project 660M (NATO code: Sassnitz-class) fast attack craft. Sweden, which is far wealthier, has a longer coastline, and more focused on naval matters than Poland, has only 5 Visby-class corvettes. They are far from sufficient in wartime. The Baltic States only have mine and patrol vessels.

In these conditions, designing a small naval vessel several roles is an attractive proposition. The basic question is what roles are essential and which of them could be put together in a single small hull that can satisfy the various required operational capabilities. Although major NATO navies have largely abandoned small surface combatants, often called fast attack craft, these vessels remain popular on a global scale because they are simple to construct, inexpensive to build and operate, and have a relatively good size-to-weapon power ratio. Of course, they have many disadvantages, including poor seakeeping and limited sensor suites, but these are not crucial for operations in coastal waters while protected by a land-based air force and receiving off-board targeting data.

However, such combatants have one particular feature that is problematic for countries that share land borders with their main potential enemies. The lack of land attack capability means that these vessels could be entirely useless, or useful only as a “fleet in being” during the most critical phases of a potential war. Although most of the modern ship-launched surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) have a land attack mode, this use is generally sub-optimal because it wastes the expensive and complex anti-ship targeting capabilities and specialized anti-ship warhead to hit a fixed land target. A better solution would be to use containerized versions of missiles, and more carefully pair the missile type with the target. Rather than a dedicated launcher fixed onboard the vessel with one kind of anti-ship missile, containerized missiles launchers in the form of standard 20- or 40-foot containers would allow them to be deployed and launched from nearly any surface platform. There are many simulations and concepts showing how such system could work on the deck of a cargo ship or an ocean-going patrol vessel, but deploying one or more of such containers on a ship-to-shore connector with an open cargo hold would be even simpler. 

Moreover, some of these vessels could also deploy with self-propelled coastal defense missile or rocket artillery systems, rather than craned-aboard containerized missile launchers, allowing this class of vessels to distribute and support mobile long-range fires in addition to launching its own missiles. Although the U.S. Marine Corp’s Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) concept for stand-in forces is mainly envisioned for the Pacific theater, it also could also have application in the Baltic and other confined seas.

The Multi-Role Landing Craft

The concept of using a ship-to-shore connector as a missile launching platform suggests an evolution into a multirole vessel based on the hull of a medium landing craft – a vessel with obvious utility for small coastal states outside of combat operations. Such a multirole vessel should have enough space and displacement for a single main battle tank or 3 – 4 lighter vehicles, or at least two 40 foot containers, along with permanently installed weapon systems, passive decoys, and sensors adequate for basic self defense. Conceptually, this means a single light naval gun, short-range self-defense missiles, and a light rotary 3D radar system. With that in mind, the hull should be on the larger side of ship-to-shore connectors, around 130 – 170 feet, or 40 – 50 meters long, have shoal draft, high speed, moderate range (as compared to a fast attack craft) and moderate seakeeping. The proposed multirole vessel could fulfill three main missions:

  • Tactical landing and transport operations
  • Surface attacks with standard container versions of both anti-ship and land attack missiles, including rocket artillery
  • Mine laying

A landing craft-based vessel would be capable of refueling and reloading from unprepared beaches and navigating rivers.

Traditional displacement-type landing craft are not known for their speed. However, recent shipbuilding trends suggests a suitable approach for the proposed vessel, called a surface effect ship (SES), or less often, a sidewall hovercraft. Such a vessel is a mix of a hovercraft and a catamaran, forming an air cushion between twin hulls to minimize resistance. The most famous naval design is the Skjold-class corvette, but with the full displacement of 274 tons and remarkable speed, this design is better classified as a fast attack craft. With its speed of 60+ knots, draft of 1 m, a range of 800 Nautical miles at 40 knots, and relatively wide beam, the Skjold-class corvette is an attractive basis to design the proposed multirole vessel. Moreover, it has an option of transporting 50 combat-equipped soldiers instead of missiles. Norway also has two older SES naval designs, the Alta-class and Oksoy-class minesweepers. Any of these vessels would lend a promising basis upon which to design the proposed vessel, but the civilian Aircat 35 Combi, designed for offshore service sector, would be even better. Although it is a civilian design and it is slightly shorter than the envisioned design, it shares the most valuable features – speed, range and draft – with the Skjold-class corvette and also has a large cargo space on a near-waterline level deck. A militarized variant could be easily adapted from it.

The proposed SES concept – essentially a landing craft upgraded with self-defense capabilities and offensive options, so call it a fast multirole craft – would be an attractive solution for most Baltic and Black Sea navies. Sweden and Finland have many islands that require fast deployment of high mobility troops between them as well as capable and flexible anti-ship capabilities to counter enemy landing operations. The concept would also incorporate minelaying capabilities, which is strong emphasized in Finnish naval strategy. For the Baltic States, the proposal for small naval vessels with survivable and long-range land attack capabilities could provide strong fiscal justification for acquiring vessels beyond inshore patrol and mine warfare vessels – vessels which would provide Baltic navies with significant combat capabilities.

Unfortunately, the geopolitical situation of certain Baltic Sea states may also require a reverse landing operation, or evacuation, which is yet another factor in favor of a fast landing craft. In Poland there is an opinion that mobile land batteries of anti-ship cruise missiles are more optimal than shipborne ones because of the exposed seacoast where a fast attack craft does not have many places to hide. However, the proposed fast multirole craft moves faster than a truck, but is always ready to launch a missile. Landing capabilities may be required by the Polish Navy to support its Baltic Allies if Russia captured the Suwalki Gap or otherwise interdicted land lines of communication with the Baltic States. In such case, moving troops across the south east part of the Baltic Sea would be much more risky in the large, slow Lublin-class (project 767) landing ships, which the Polish Navy operates today, than in a numerous flotilla of small and very fast vessels. Poland, Romania, and Ukraine could use such flexible vessels on their big rivers – Vistula, Odra, Dnieper, and Danube. Finally, these vessels would be well-suited for inland seas.

Bigger Applications for Small Craft

Bigger navies could also deploy these vessels in green and brown waters as well – either by transporting them in amphibious warfare ships or permanently forward-deploying them in-theater. Although the U.S. Navy, needs more true blue water warships, it should be remembered that during WWII the U.S. Navy had large numbers of motor torpedo boats and all sizes of landing craft – including those equipped for shore bombardment with rocket artillery. A future war would likely require a similarly large, dispersed, and hard-hitting force. As previously proposed on CIMSEC, missile-equipped SES landing craft would bring the perfect mix of speed and flexibility.

Of course, not all of these small, fast, and heavily armed vessels would necessarily be manned. The proposed vessels could be easily designed as optionally manned and become incorporated into the U.S. Navy’s fleet architecture plan. The US Navy’s need of fast attack craft was discussed in the June 2019 USNI Proceedings article, which proposed a very interesting concept of using LHDs and LPDs as corvette-carrier mother-ships for Skjold-class-like vessels.

Both China and Russia, the main potential enemies of the United States and its Allies, invest in fast attack craft and small landing craft, for example the Houbei-class and the Dyugon-class. Now especially the PLAN has great numbers of true blue waters vessels as well as the fast attack craft. To counter these threats, the United States and its Allies may need both kinds of vessels as well. The SES design seem to meet the needs of numerous green and brown waters flotillas nearly perfectly.

In 1982 none other than Tom Clancy himself proposed firing strategic nuclear missiles from hovercraft – repurposed ship-to-shore connectors that could scatter on alert. The vessel concept described above is not revolutionary or even wholly novel, but an evolutionary case of form following function. 

Przemysław Ziemacki is a freelancer journalist and photographer from Poland. He currently writes for Polityka, one of the largest Polish weeklies. He previously worked for the local press and has also published in National Geographic Poland. He has a long-standing avocational interest in naval matters as reflected in his first CIMSEC piece, “Is the Moskva-class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?”

Featured Image: Skjold-class fast attack craft KNM Storm of the Royal Norwegian Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

Let the Navy Retire LCS and Build a U.S. Maritime Constabulary Instead

By Bryan Clark and Craig Hooper

News recently leaked that the Navy’s Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships suffer from hull cracking, a long-rumored problem that constrains the ships to slow speeds and low sea states to prevent further damage. Along with the need for an expensive class-wide fix to Freedom-class LCS combining gears, these new disclosures suggest the Biden Administration’s proposal to send nine LCS to the scrapyard in FY2023 is likely only the first salvo in the Navy’s effort to eventually retire the entire 32-ship LCS fleet. The Congress should let the Navy do so and shift small-ship missions to services committed to doing them.

After initial shock at the Navy’s plans to retire the nine LCS and 15 other ships during the coming year, some in Congress are coming around to the potential wisdom of the move. After all, each LCS costs more than $60 million a year to operate and support, compared to about $80 million for a much larger and more capable destroyer. And the design problems with both LCS classes will constrain their operations, making them undependable contributors in conflict. 

The Navy spent nearly $30 billion developing and building LCS, on top of more than $25 billion for the three Zumwalt-class destroyers that were envisioned as LCS’ high-end counterpart when the new family of surface ships was conceived during the late 1990s. For this investment, taxpayers have received about a dozen overseas LCS deployments.

But the LCS debacle reveals a deeper issue that should drive action by Congressional and Pentagon leadership the Navy, after operating more than 100 small combatants at the height of the Cold War, is clearly no longer committed to the role of small surface combatants like LCS. At the same time the service is seeking to begin cashiering LCS, it is also retiring the minesweepers and patrol boats LCS was intended to replace and is stopping construction of amphibious transport docks that support peacetime crisis response and humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, the Constellation-class frigate that was originally envisioned as a small combatant counterpart to LCS has grown from the 4,000-ton Perry-class of the Cold War to be a nearly 8,000-ton warship only 20 percent smaller than the Navy’s Burke-class destroyers.

Historically, small surface combatants patrolled waterways for pirates and traffickers, trained smaller partner navies, or escorted commercial shipping. Today, missions like protecting merchant vessels from missile attack and searching for submarines are, in general, beyond the capability of small warships or are better done by unmanned systems. But maritime security, training, surveillance, and presence are increasingly important to build alliances and counter Beijing’s “gray-zone” aggression across the East and South China Seas.

The Congress and DoD leadership should embrace the Navy’s focus on high-end warfare by shifting security and training missions to ships operated by other services, specifically the Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command. Congressional leaders have expressed interest in adding defense-related spending to the White House FY2023 budget proposal, which could build more of the existing ships the Coast Guard and MSC would use. And to operate them, the up to $2 billion in annual LCS sustainment, basing costs, and manpower funding could be moved to these new mission owners. If the Navy sheds the small boat mission, the costs should be taken out of the Navy’s budget.

The Coast Guard has an improving track record of building and fielding a family of new cutters that are well-suited to the missions associated with protecting sea lanes from criminals or China’s maritime militia. The 4,500-ton National Security Cutter is reaching the end of its production run and can be extended by several ships to support an increased South China Sea presence and advance a rules-based order in the maritime domain instead of LCS. They could be joined by the handful of Independence-class LCS that are able to continue operating, albeit at slow speeds and in calm seas, with Coast Guard crews. Congress should also expand production of the Coast Guard’s new 4,000-ton Offshore Patrol Cutters, which could be forward-stationed in Japan and Guam or deploy from Hawaii to the Western Pacific.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf participates in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), July 29, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class David Weydert)

After taking over the Navy’s sealift and prepositioning fleets following the Cold War, MSC now operates with military detachments the Navy’s expeditionary staging bases and expeditionary support docks that host maritime security and counter-terrorism missions around the world. Civilian mariners also operate the more than a dozen expeditionary fast transports, or EPFs, that support Navy and joint assistance and training missions across Africa, Asia, and South America. Congress could continue construction of EPFs to enable MSC and its uniformed teammates to assume the Navy’s engagement mission. Since fewer civilian mariners are needed to crew a ship compared to Navy sailors, MSC vessels cost a fraction to operate compared to LCS. And the added demand for mariners would help bolster the ailing U.S. Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Navy’s twelfth Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) vessel, USNS Newport (EPF 12), successfully competed Integrated Sea Trials, July 30. (Austral USA photo)

Another benefit of using EPFs to take over the Navy’s small ship mission-set relates to the Navy’s conceptual challenges with the planned Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle program. Plagued by Congressional concerns about its ability to operate independently and carry a magazine of missiles, LUSV has a rocky path to fielding. As an interim step, the Navy could replace the LUSV with an EPF equipped with a vertical launch system magazine, as recently proposed by Representative Elaine Luria. With the crew aboard, the EPF could conduct maritime security and training missions. In high-risk situations, however, EPFs can offload their crews and revert to Navy control, operating autonomously for a day or more to launch missiles remotely.

The Navy and DoD leadership seem perfectly happy to abandon the constabulary missions that are a global fleet’s bread and butter. But as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s adventures in the Pacific remind us, gray-zone operations can result in real gains on the ground or water and provide a jumping-off point for a larger conflict. Congress should step in to ensure the United States confronts low-level aggression at sea with an appropriate force that is committed to the mission.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Dr. Craig Hooper, PhD is a defense analyst and Founder and CEO of the Themistocles Advisory Group.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 18, 2021) The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Jackson (LCS 6) and embarked MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Wildcards of Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 23, operate with the German navy frigate FGS Bayern (F 217) and embarked Super Lynx Mk88A helicopter in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the German navy)

20 Years of Naval Trends Guarantee a FY23 Shipbuilding Plan Failure

By Matthew Hipple

“About 300 ships, achieved in FY2018, will provide a force capable of… assuring access in any theater of operations, even in the face of new anti-access/area-denial strategies and technologies.” —Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels, June 2014

In 2014, before the scale of Chinese naval development was widely appreciated, the Navy reported to Congress a Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 near-term requirement of 300 ships for “conducting a large-scale naval campaign in one region while denying the objectives of an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” In the time since, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) added more than 120 battleforce ships and countless maritime militia – while the U.S. Navy still remains short of the lapsed 300-ship goal, and 57 ships short of its current 355 ship requirement. In the past 20 years the Navy’s ideal battleforce goals have all exceeded 306, but the fleet has not broken 300 ships since 2003 (Figure 1).

Though glaring, the fleet’s numerical crisis is merely a symptom of the Navy’s 20-year institutional inability to overcome the pressures driving down fleet numbers and ship production. The nature of the financial, material, programmatic, institutional, historical, and political pressures suppressing fleet growth are up for debate – but the extrapolated results of these downward pressures are not, as seen in the Navy’s failure to meet the various Shipbuilding Plans. However, those missed shipbuilding plans also represent the Navy’s resistance to the significant pressures that would degrade or trade away the fleet.

Since 2016, even enshrining the 355-ship fleet in law only produced a net battleforce increase of 19 ships over seven years, a rate by which the Navy would gradually reach 355 ships by 2041. Unfortunately, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan eliminates what upward pressure contributes to a modest improvement in fleet size trajectory. The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan proposes a 10-year drop in fleet numbers that deviates in spirit from every shipbuilding plan since 2012. During this dangerous decade, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan returns the fleet to a size that precipitated the period of panic that inspired Congress to enshrine the 355-ship goal into law (Figure 2). The FY23 Long Range Shipbuilding Plan will miss the defunct, minimum goal of 300 ships by another decade, and is less likely to meet the Navy’s legal and operational 355-ship requirement

The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s change in course is doubly precarious as its dangerous decade fleet reduction also embraces the downward pressures the shipbuilding plans struggled to resist. This resistance is comparable to the navigational concept of “crabbing” – where a ship is driven at odd angles up a channel to resist currents driving it into danger. The Navy, with the wheel hard over to increase the size of the fleet, had only achieved marginal success. Driving with that downward current into a fleet reduction would be disastrous, and likely drive fleet numbers lower than anticipated.

In an attempt to assess the downward current and potential results of the reduction, we must assess the difference between the Navy’s ordered and true course for fleet size. As with a large ship, the Navy can take time to respond to rudder orders – so we extrapolate the impact of shipbuilding plans by looking to their effects five years in the future. The average gap between ordered and achieved battlefleet size over the last five years was roughly 10 ships. Integrating the precipitous drop from 2022 to 2023 and loosely projecting that magnitude of 50 ships over five years shows a battleforce of 275 ships or smaller (Figure 3).

During a decade that many U.S. Department of Defense leaders have characterized as particularly dangerous for deterrence of China, the conventional PLAN may outnumber the total USN by 50 percent. The United States nor its Navy would fight China alone – but the rapidly worsening margins remain a concern. The majority of U.S. allies in the region fall well within the PLA/N/AF’s collective weapons engagement zone, the PLAN retains significant mining stockpiles alongside fielding a vast maritime militia, and the PLAN benefits its regional focus with even greater numerical superiority compared to U.S. warships immediately present in WESTPAC. That the Navy has struggled to improve fleet growth in the face of such grave circumstances bode poorly for a post-FY23-reduction recovery.

Further, buried within the FY23 capacity gap is a lethality gap. To avoid the appearance of unfairness in comparison, we look at the FY17 Shipbuilding Plan which represents a conservative mid-point between the Obama and Trump administrations’ more robust FY15 and FY19 shipbuilding plans (Figure 4). Before the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s proposed courses of action begin to significantly deviate in 2032, battleforce shortages are primarily restored by support and logistics ships, with a smaller number of attack submarines. The strategic decision to shift resources to the long-neglected logistical tail is sound. Nonetheless, failing to fix cruiser modernization or increase production leaves this better-supported fleet gapped by a number of surface combatants that is roughly the equivalent of the forward deployed 7th Fleet at a time when the PLAN will exceed a battleforce of 420 ships.

Though the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan anticipates recovery in the early 2030’s, the signal to industry is an average ships-per-year rate lower than the FY19 Shipbuilding Plan and only marginally higher than the past decade of plans (Figure 5). Given the immediate downward trajectory planned by the Navy and the Navy’s track record of falling short of its plans, shipbuilders may be reticent to make the major capital and labor investments necessary to sustain the current industrial base, much less expand and modernize it.

Previously, the Navy’s shipbuilding plans made evolutionary progress (Figure 6). The Obama administration’s post-sequestration FY15 plan appropriately departed from the FY13/14 plans by increasing the fleet’s status-quo, pushing for a de-facto baseline of 310 ships. As the threat of the PLAN evolved and long-awaited silver-bullet technologies did not appear, the Trump administration’s FY19 plan replaced previous plans’ period of stability from 2031-40 with a fleet increase. In retrospect, both plans failed – but both plans applied necessary upward pressure and both ensured a minimum fleet size was retained. The FY23 plan will kill that pressure – and must be revised to improve on FY15 and FY19’s positive movement rather than embrace the false promises of divesting capacity today to gamble on solutions a decade or more away.

While the FY23 shipbuilding plan accepts a third gapped decade, the PLAN’s size, skill, and industrial base will continue to grow. With global commitments and the tyranny of distance, the United States faces a Port Arthur problem with being able to respond to the CCP’s maritime behemoth much like a split Russian fleet was defeated by Imperial Japan’s modernized and regionally-focused Navy. We must provide serious focus to the lagging Pacific Defense Initiative while the USN maximizes its efforts to retain working warships until replacements come online and the supporting maritime industries sufficiently expand. In developing replacements, the Navy must make clear commitments that signal to industry a sea change in ship demand that will justify the intensive investment needed for new and/or expanded shipyards, like the Lordstown-Lorain project – if not pursue new yards of the Navy’s own.

The time has passed for the resets and divestments of the past revisited by the FY23 shipbuilding plan. The currents ahead are strong, and the Navy must resist them rather than be driven up onto the shoals. Decline is a choice we must resist.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty naval officer and  former President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG-61) in a floating dry dock at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia (USA), on 25 May 2012. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Rightsizing the Fleet: Why The Navy’s New Shipbuilding Plan Is Not Enough

By Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA)


The Navy recently released its long-awaited 30-year shipbuilding plan, which provided three alternatives for future fleet force structure. The first two alternatives assume “no real budget growth” and “do not procure all platforms at the desired rate.” Good on Navy leadership for acknowledging the elephant in the room — that their plans do not meet desired goals. However, option three, which one assumes is presented as an alternative that will procure platforms at the desired rate, is unrealistic in the Navy’s own words because “industry needs to demonstrate the ability to achieve [this plan].” All three alternatives reduce capability and capacity in the near to mid-term, and introduce unacceptable risk to our ability to counter a rising Chinese threat in the Western Pacific.

I have repeatedly criticized the Navy for not having a strategy and I look forward to hearing how producing three separate shipbuilding plans aligns with their “strategy.” It does not seem to align with former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s idea of the budget process: “first strategy, then requirements, then the POM [Program Objective Memoranda], then budget.” Also, within the shipbuilding plan, the blatant manipulation of how data is displayed masks the true extent of the crisis we are facing in capability and capacity in the coming decade. I will address that here.

Right-Sizing Force Structure for Deterrence

In the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress codified into law the previous year’s Navy force structure assessment that called for an increase in the size of the fleet from 308 to 355 ships. In the final months of the Trump administration, the Navy released another force structure assessment calling for between 382 and 446 manned ships and an additional 143 to 242 unmanned ships. That assessment, unlike previous years, was driven mostly by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and aligned with the Trump administration’s strategic policy of deterrence by denial as outlined in the 2018 National Security Strategy:

“We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them—not just punish them if they attack the United States. We must ensure the ability to deter potential enemies by denial, convincing them that they cannot accomplish objectives through the use of force or other forms of aggression.”

In a denial strategy, a nation seeks to prevent the belligerent from initiating aggression by introducing significant doubt in their mind about whether the ultimate military objective can be achieved. This doubt is based on the threat of overwhelming military force being brought to bear at a time early in the conflict that will make the goals of the aggressor unachievable. A denial strategy requires the will of the defending nation to back up its rhetoric with action when necessary. In advocating for a denial strategy, the Trump administration expressly rejected the alternative, deterrence by punishment. A punishment strategy seeks to deter an aggressor by the threat of pain if they take an aggressive action. But this strategy implies that a nation will not or cannot decisively foreclose objectives to the adversary, and instead hopes that an adversary’s pain threshold can be overwhelmed into submission (an ambiguous proposition). Put simply, denial attempts to prevent the aggressive action from succeeding through instilling doubts about feasibility, while punishment attempts to prevent the action, as the name implies, through the threat of punishment. (Bryan McGrath, managing director of the FerryBridge Group, has an excellent analysis of this in a recent posting.)

In contrast, the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategy moves away from both a denial and a punishment strategy, and instead focuses on “Integrated Deterrence” and “Campaigning.” Although these terms have somewhat unclear definitions, they most likely are an outgrowth of an idea telegraphed in a 2020 Foreign Affairs article by the current Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. In “Getting to Less,” Hicks writes:

“For too long, Washington has had an overly militarized approach to national security. A world in which the United States’ primacy is fading calls for a new approach, especially as authoritarian competitors pursue new strategies to hasten the decline of American power. The time is right, then, for a grand strategy that expands the range of foreign policy tools well beyond what defense spending buys.”

Even before details of the 2022 National Defense Strategy become public, stark differences between the deterrence approaches of the Trump and Biden administrations are reflected in the 2023 budget submission, and are especially clear in the proposed Navy budget. Favored by the Trump administration, a denial strategy is more expensive because it requires more ready, deployed forces, and it may also require the will to potentially use these forces in pre-aggression phases of conflict, where some in the administration and Congress may be unwilling to grant this authority. My impression is that the Biden administration favors a punishment strategy, which is cheaper because it requires fewer forward-deployed forces, thus less force structure, and is more politically palatable because popular support will be more forthcoming after adversaries initiate aggression.

Which strategy is correct? The answer is both, depending on the situation. The problem we face today however is the Biden administration appears to have chosen punishment primarily over denial as evidenced by the two defense budgets submitted from this administration and the recently released 30-year shipbuilding plan. In each, a “divest to invest” strategy has been the overwhelming theme. This divestment strategy gets rid of existing, older (maintenance intensive) platforms and funnels the savings into research and development of high-end platforms that will not be fielded in meaningful numbers for decades. In the ensuing years, the capability and capacity of the current force dwindles, substantially increasing risk in the interim. If the administration were pursuing a denial strategy in concert with punishment, force structure and capability in the near-term would be prioritized over potential future capabilities. This is evidenced across the services, but most explicitly by the Navy. Although obligated by law and its own force structure assessments to grow the fleet, the Navy will instead shrink from 298 ships today to 280 ships in the coming years.

To counter this narrative, the Chief of Naval Operations has shifted from talking about fleet size to talking about capability. “We need a ready, capable, lethal force more than we need a bigger force that’s less ready, less lethal, and less capable,” he recently said at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium. Specifically, he refers to budget priorities in the bins of readiness first, followed by capability and capacity. To meet the budget topline and maintain readiness while investing in the future, capacity must be reduced. The problem is that by reducing the fleet size we are reducing capability along with capacity. Last year, both the outgoing and incoming Indo-Pacific Commanders testified that China could be prepared to take Taiwan by force in the next six years (i.e., around 2027). Admiral Aquilino went on to say, “We’ve seen things that I don’t think we expected, and that’s why I continue to talk about a sense of urgency. We ought to be prepared today.” The planned reduction in fleet size is not just about loss of capacity, but more importantly, loss of capability in the timeframe Admiral Davidson assessed the threat to be greatest, now known colloquially as the “Davidson Window.”

If China attempts to take Taiwan by force, the defense of Taiwan will be markedly different from what we are observing today in Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO were able to increase and sustain shipments of arms and aid after the conflict started, enabling Ukraine to reverse Russian advances and impose significant costs, both denying the Russians their objectives and making them pay a heavy price. In a China-Taiwan scenario, no such resupply will be possible for an island nation so near to China. Additionally, if the U.S. chooses not to intervene in the direct defense of Taiwan, the human suffering will be considerably worse than in Ukraine, as no viable routes for humanitarian evacuation or aid would exist.

Since being elected in 2018, I have spent much of my time in Congress focusing on the real risk China poses to the U.S. and our allies. That is why I asked the Chief of Staff of the Army, General James McConville, during the Army budget hearing, what winning with China looks like. His response: “Winning with China is not fighting China.” That statement sounds very much like a strategy of deterrence by denial, but for a denial strategy to work, the U.S. must have the capability, the capacity, and the will. The current policy of “strategic ambiguity” opens the possibility that the U.S. will only engage in a punishment strategy if China attempts to take Taiwan by force. But, if China is unsure whether they will be successful because of early and forceful U.S. and allied involvement, then conflict will likely be avoided, or denied. Thus, a denial strategy is the only viable option for the defense of Taiwan.

Reinvigorating Capacity and Capability

In order to use a denial strategy in the case of Taiwan, the U.S. should explicitly express its will by changing the policy of strategic ambiguity to one of strategic clarity, making it clear we will come to the defense of Taiwan, and increase, or at least not shrink, the Navy’s capability and capacity in the near term. One example of this loss of capability is the reduction in the number of MK41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, one of the primary weapon systems aboard guided missile Cruisers (CG) and Destroyers (DDG). The MK 41 VLS can carry a variety of missiles for self-defense and offensive attack for surface, sub-surface, and land targets.

June 21, 2018 — The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) departs Kiel, Germany. The warship’s VLS cells are visible behind the 5-inch gun. US Navy photo.

Because of the failures in shipbuilding programs over the past two decades, the Navy has not built replacements for ships that will come to the end of their service lives in the upcoming decade. The result is a distinct fleet-wide drop in missile capacity. The construction of the new guided missile frigate with only 32 VLS cells, or submarines with the Virginia Payload Module, will do little to stem this steep reduction. However, in its 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy displayed the VLS data such that it appears there is no reduction in the near-term and that it will experience growth in the long-term as displayed in the graphic below (red area highlighted for emphasis and discussed below):

Source: Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year, 2023, April 2022. Click to expand.

By using a 0-12K scale, starting in 2025, expanding the time horizon, and separating surface and sub-surface VLS cells, it masks the true loss of VLS capability and capacity in the “Davidson Window.” I took the same data, combined surface ship and guided-missile submarines (SSGN), and narrowed the timeframe to 2021-2035, which is the critical window for potential Chinese action against Taiwan. The resulting visual is quite different than what the Navy produced.

Figure 2: Total VLS Cells for Surface Ships and Guided Missile Submarines from 2021- 2035. Click to expand.

The current budget proposal to decommission five cruisers, along with last year’s budget proposal to decommission seven cruisers, will result in a loss of 756 VLS cells by the end of 2023. In the 2021-2027 timeframe, the “Davidson Window,” the Navy will lose 1,668 VLS cells and 1,980 cells by 2035 even while building the Constellation-class frigates and additional DDGs. For comparison, all European NATO countries combined have 2,394 VLS cells. If Admirals Davidson and Aquilino are correct about the near-term risk, reducing capacity makes a denial strategy impossible and reducing capability makes a punishment strategy hardly credible.

Last year, Congress stepped in to provide an additional $29 billion over the requested defense budget and forced the Navy to retain several cruisers and build additional DDGs. Adding additional force structure and appropriations is important, but comes at additional cost for manning and maintenance in later years. To counter the downward trend in VLS cells, several options are feasible with a modest increase in the Navy budget or by reducing spending on unmanned surface vessels. The following suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive, but instead are the kind of solutions I would like to see presented to Congress alongside their budget. By their current plan to reduce capability and capacity in the next decade, the Navy is accepting undue risk if conflict with China does occur over Taiwan.

Several options are readily available to prevent the catastrophic loss of VLS cells. First, if the Navy decreases to 12 Cruisers in FY 23 but retains these 12 for a 42-year life, VLS inventory will be reduced only slightly in the Davidson Window, but still fall by 1,980 cells in 2035 as shown in Figure 3. Considering the billions of dollars already spent on upgrading and modernizing cruisers in the last decade, this would seem to just be good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Figure 3: VLS Capacity with Cruiser Life Extension. Click to expand.

A second option to significantly decrease risk in the near to mid-term is to convert 13 of the existing Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) ships to be VLS capable with a 64-cell capacity and build eight additional ships. Because the EPFs are crewed by Military Sealift Command (MSC) civilian mariners, they operate at a fraction of the cost of the nine Littoral Combat Ships that the Navy proposes to decommission this year. Additionally, the ships are available for deployment at a higher rate than other Navy ships and their funding profile can be scaled to match need. An additional eight VLS-capable EPFs could be built and operated for the cost of around one new DDG. Further, as examples of distributed and low-cost arsenal ships, these EPFs can be a reasonable incremental step toward providing an autonomous capability in the 2040s. This modest investment would increase the number of VLS cells above 2021 levels within the Davidson Window and maintain a reasonable capacity through 2035 as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4: VLS Capacity with CG Life Extension and EPF Conversion/Build. Click to expand.

There are legal implications to consider in using civilian mariners to operate offensive-capable ships, just as there are legal implications to using unmanned arsenal ships, however, with a dedicated military detachment and designation as a United States Ship (USS) versus United States Naval Ship (USNS), these obstacles can be overcome. Known hull cracking problems on the EPF must be addressed, but for the cost of building one Flight III DDG, the Navy can build eight additional EPFs, and because the ship is operated by MSC, can operate 14 EPFs for less than the cost to operate one DDG annually.


The Navy fiscal year 2023 budget calls for building eight ships, while decommissioning 24, reducing the fleet size to 280 ships within the Davidson Window. In addition to reducing capacity, the budget reduces capability and introduces unacceptable risk in the Indo-Pacific theater of operations to deny China a fait accompli over Taiwan. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Security Strategy correctly identified the faulty thinking now being repeated in the Biden administration’s two most recent defense budgets:

“We also incorrectly believed that technology could compensate for our reduced capacity—for the ability to field enough forces to prevail militarily, consolidate our gains, and achieve our desired political ends. We convinced ourselves that all wars would be fought and won quickly, from stand-off distances and with minimal casualties.”

I have proposed two modestly priced alternatives to provide additional VLS capacity in the near-term during the vulnerable “Davidson Window.” Each year the Navy continues down a path of divest-to-invest, resulting in unacceptable reductions in capacity and capability when we need them most—all in the hope of fielding new capabilities that will level the playing field with our adversaries in the far distant future.

One key element not fully explored in this article is the latent capability that VLS cells offer is dependent upon what payloads fill their magazines. The U.S. Navy is suffering a clear disadvantage in anti-ship weapons with respect to China, which is fielding supersonic anti-ship weapons across its surface forces, bombers, land-based forces, and undersea forces in high numbers. By comparison, almost all the anti-ship capability of the U.S. armed forces resides in a limited number of surface and air-launched Harpoon missiles, whose fundamental design is 45 years old. The surface fleet’s launch cells are mostly filled with defensive anti-air weapons, but newer weapons such as Naval Strike Missile, Long-Range Anti-Surface Missiles, Maritime Strike Tomahawks (MST), and SM-6 missiles, if procured in higher numbers in the near-term, could close the ASCM gap that currently exists between the PLA(N) and U.S. Navy. However, the budget submission of the Navy across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) does not buy these weapons in sufficient numbers to close the anti-surface weapon gap. The Air Force, for its joint contribution, appears uninterested in procuring enough LRASMs for the B-1 bomber fleet and is instead developing other capabilities such as QUICKSINK. The bottom line – even if the U.S. Navy has a strong advantage in VLS cells, it will hardly be able to punish or deny adversaries in a maritime conflict if those cells barely hold any anti-ship weapons.

The 355-ship Navy appears to be a pipe dream, as fleet size has not surpassed 300 ships since 2002 in the Bush administration. I propose a way to stop the Navy’s hemorrhaging at an acceptable cost. But what I would prefer most is for the Navy to develop appropriate triage measures itself instead of relying on the Congressional emergency room every year.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria represents Coastal Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base. Before running for Congress, Elaine served two decades in the U.S. Navy, retiring at the rank of Commander. A Surface Warfare Officer who operated nuclear reactors, she was one of the first women in the Navy’s nuclear power program and among the first women to serve the entirety of her career on combatant ships. Of all members in the House Democratic Caucus, she served the longest on active duty, commanding hundreds of sailors and deploying six times to conduct operations in the Middle East and Western Pacific. Congresswoman Luria is the Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee and serves on the Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Committees as well.

Featured Image: STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR (March 31, 2015) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) transits the Strait of Gibraltar as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Anna Van Nuys/Released)