By Dmitry Filipoff
As a part of CIMSEC’s Force Structure Perspectives Series, CIMSEC discussed the Battle Force 2045 fleet design with Capt. Sam J. Tangredi (ret.), currently the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies and director of the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. In this discussion, Capt. Tangredi discusses uncertainties facing the new fleet design, possible intentions behind the Defense Secretary’s rejection of the Navy’s force structure assessment, and alternative means to revamp the fleet for great power conflict.
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?
It is hard not to be cynical about Secretary of Defense Esper’s remarks on a 500-ship Navy given how late it is in this presidential term, how he publicly handled his rejection of the Navy’s earlier proposed force structure, and the fact that he has not identified a plan for acquiring the necessary financial resources. For now, the plan seems more aspirational than actual. And in that particular aspect, it really doesn’t differ much from the previous plans offered by the Navy.
I don’t see that much of a force structure plan, since the details from the study that have been released thus far suggest it is based on unproven and undemonstrated capabilities that require an investment in development and prototyping that dwarfs what is being done today. We have been down that path before with LCS and the Zumwalt class—that is, building ship classes that cannot operate in the ways they are envisioned, and which eventually become cancelled, truncated, or sidelined. We cannot confidently envision a future fleet employing what are, as of today, unproven capabilities, and an autonomous warship that could operate under networked battle conditions is an unproven capability. We cannot build a fleet based on unproven capabilities unless we are willing to first build one-of-a-kind vessels with which to experiment. And that goes against all current DoD acquisition principles, which center around large-program economies of scale.
My critical assessment is based on the fact that SECDEF has been unclear about where the financial resources will come from—and, in particular, he gives no indication of any willingness to reassign budget share within the current DoD budget level. He gives no indication that he is willing to go to the mat with Congress for a larger fleet, or the president for that matter. SECDEF has warned throughout his tenure that the DoD should not expect or plan for any real budget growth. How then can he fund a 500-ship Navy? It would be unkind to suggest that his plan is designed to preserve budget share for the U.S. Army, which is struggling to figure out its role in Esper’s number one planning scenario of potential war with the People’s Republic of China (with the Chinese Communist Party, (CCP) actually). If the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (and U.S. Air Force)—which would bear the operational brunt in that conflict—have an unworkable force structure plan, then there is not a good reason to make tradeoffs within the current budget space that affect the other services and defense agencies.
SECDEF has hinted that somehow the Navy can come up with internal savings through efficiencies to fund a larger fleet, which I find highly dubious. Every SECDEF claims to be able to wring out money from the existing budget if “efficiencies” are enacted. Sometimes sweep-up money can be squeezed out on the margins—but nothing that could ever fund a 320-ship Navy, let alone a 350-ship Navy, and especially a 500-ship Navy. And you generally have to invest more money up front to modernize and digitize existing processes if you are going to gain real efficiencies. That seed money needs to come from somewhere. “Efficiencies” aren’t free.
Given the resources expected, the ideology of jointness which requires all services to be equal in missions and budget, and several decades in which OSD lacked interest in the Navy, the only real way to get to a 500-ship fleet by 2045 is to re-designate very small unmanned systems as ships.
The plan to have a mix of manned and unmanned vessels has been part of the Navy’s conceptual plan for some time, and the Navy has been doing a succession of studies on alternative fleets since Senator McCain put that requirement in the FY2016 defense budget act. SECDEF’s studies seem to merely repeat options from this series of studies. The reason the Navy has had difficulty in putting such ideas into the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan is that the capabilities under discussion—small carriers, arsenal/magazine ships, large-size surface unmanned vehicles, and so forth have yet to be proven, and to base future fleet structure on the assumptions they can be made to work effectively is the same as basing it on LCS or Zumwalt.
Personally, I support experimentation with small carriers, arsenal/magazine ships, intermediate-range ballistic missiles at sea, large-size surface unmanned vehicles, and other platforms. But we need to build a few first before we bet future force structure on them. As the Navy’s second-greatest program manager (Rickover being the first), RADM Wayne E. Meyer, the “father of AEGIS,” would say: “build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” DoD needs to be willing to fully fund one- or two-of-a-kind ships before it redesigns the entire fleet. And I mean full acquisition, program-of-record type funding, not DARPA-scale experiments.
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. The current SECDEF apparently believes that large nuclear aircraft carriers (CVNs) are not part of the answer, but the existing, off-the-shelf Navy studies would not go so far as to justify cutting the number of CVNs in order to fund alternatives.
Even if Navy leadership was committed to reducing CVNs to fund other platforms, they would not make it part of their plan out of fear—a justifiable fear given the ideology of jointness—that any savings from reducing CVN acquisition would not come back to the Department of the Navy. Their fear is that CVNs—a proven operational capability—would be cut, but no alternatives actually funded.
That fear may seem parochial, but it is very realistic given the focus on building a joint force capability optimized and specialized for a short war against the People’s Liberation Army. If that war scenario is the driver in developing U.S. joint force capabilities, then buying land- and sea-based (and air-launched) hypersonic missiles (and their infrastructures) would seem a priority over CVNs. I think that is what SECDEF envisions as far as priorities and tradeoffs, and he needed to shop for a study that can justify that argument to Congress.
I would disagree with the approach of using a short war against the PLA as the driver of future force design (for one thing, such a war would probably not be short), and I fear that trading hypersonic missiles with the mainland of China will result in hypersonic missiles falling on Guam, Hawaii, San Diego, and other territories of the United States.
I would, however, agree with two major ideas that have been linked with SECDEF’s recent study. First, we need to address the issue of combat logistics, which is always an afterthought. The previous Navy studies were grappling with that, but if one assumes a short shooting war, combat logistics (as in the form of resupply) is not in the opening discussion. And yes, the attack submarine fleet needs to be substantially increased.
If SECDEF Esper really wants to significantly improve U.S. joint capabilities based on the likely scenarios that could occur between the joint force and the PLA (particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea), then he should commit himself to work toward reprogramming near-term money from DoD overall to double the size of the attack submarine force (possibly with a supporting large-size unmanned underwater vehicle component—vessels capable of torpedo and missile attack) and buy tons of the most sophisticated naval mines we can develop. That would greatly enhance deterrence without gambling with a trade-Hawaii-for-Hainan force posture. After those commitments, then he could be concerned about the future fleet mix. He will have already gone a good way toward solving the problem.
Do I think there might be a 500-ship navy in 2045? Yes I do, but given current trends, budget realities, and OSD priorities—that fleet won’t belong to the U.S. Navy.
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?
Although these Navy and Marine Corps concepts are promising, they are not mature enough to be the basis for a naval force structure in the near term.
In discussing Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) with proponents and analysts, I have yet to determine a common understanding of what exactly is “distributed.” How far are the ships, aircraft, units to be dispersed? How does one concentrate the effects? What will be done if communications are jammed or degraded? Who is going to command the dispersed fleet? If it is the fleet commander operating out of a Maritime Operations Center, then what prevents the enemy (in a real war) from dropping a hypersonic warhead on their head?
The advantages in having command afloat in a carrier and with the fleet within ultra-high frequency relay range (which we could extend using UAVs) is that it can move and avoid weapons targeted by mere latitude and longitude, GLONASS, or the PRC equivalent, or inertial guidance. Right now we cannot target from long-range with the weapons we currently have in the inventory without relying on satellite data. Is that going to be available? How can one be dispersed if one doesn’t have the systems yet to support it? In what stage is the engineering necessary for this new(ish) warfighting concept and fleet design?
Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), as opposed to forcible amphibious assault, is an elegant concept. But exactly where are those bases proposed to be? In the often war-gamed South China Sea scenario, the assumption is that the Marines are going to be operating out of the Philippines. Putting aside whether the Philippines would allow that, there is nothing in the South China Sea actually worth fighting over. The more probable conflicts would be to the north. As for NATO scenarios, if we can’t defend a NATO ally from contiguous land bases, we will need to do a forcible entry assault to get around Russia forces. Where would there be an archipelagic defense for NATO?
The reason we are grasping for these concepts is because we perceive our “traditional” concepts of operations to be too hard in the case of a naval war against the CCP. Well, that would be a very hard war in any case, and we stand a chance of losing even with being distributed, archipelagic, or concentrated.
The most important task in that scenario is a sea denial campaign in the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea to prevent any CCP ship from reaching Taiwan (or Japan, if it came to that), as well as the air and missile fight above it. That would be an attack submarine-dominated campaign. Of course, we don’t have enough attack submarines right now, which is why, if SECDEF Esper really wanted to deter a conflict over Taiwan, he would be reprogramming resources from the Army and other defense agencies into submarine construction as well as building unmanned air combat (not strike) vehicles in scores. That would do much more in the scenarios he is focused on than a 500-ship fleet. Now is also the time for the Navy to commit to building unmanned air combat vehicles for CVNs and LHA/LHDs.
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?
The reason there is not more shipbuilding infrastructure (or defense industry infrastructure overall) is that it is considered almost criminal in defense acquisition for a shipbuilder to make over a 10 percent profit margin. Since software companies routinely make over 30 percent profit, what are larger, diverse corporations going to invest in? Shipbuilding or software? Why does one think Northrop Grumman spun-off Huntington Ingalls? Not because they thought it is a particularly profitable sector in the long-term.
If the Navy and the nation want a stronger shipbuilding base, we need to bring back the construction capabilities of public (Navy) shipyards. We were building attack submarines in them into the 1970s. That would also bring back those high-paying blue collar jobs that almost every politician claims should be a national priority. Would that be expensive? Of course. But you are not going to get industry to ramp up without giving them a greater profit incentive. Over the long run, that will cost even more than a public-private mix in shipbuilding.
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?
SECDEF went shopping for a study that matched his established conclusions. You tell me who is doing the study and I can tell you (based on their previous studies and their analysts) what their study is going to say (at least roughly). So can most analysts in OSD.
Of course, any Navy staff-written study will be conservative, and it is their job to be conservative. The Navy has to maintain a multi-mission, multi-scenario, multi-capability fleet that can be re-purposed in a changing future security environment, a fleet that will last beyond the next ten Defense Secretaries. That means we have to be biased toward what already works, not what might work if enough resources are spent. SECDEF should expect—and respect—that sort of study. And the resources will likely not be spent—or at least not enough to make the planned major change effective. We experienced that with LCS and the Zumwalt class.
That is not to say every idea in SECDEF’s preferred study is bad, in fact it identifies some changes that should be made in a patient, thoughtfully, and fully engineered manner. But taking away the study from the Navy and including the OSD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office (CAPE) and an outside think tank so prominently indicates that there was impatience that the Navy would never conclude what OSD wanted concluded. Otherwise, SECDEF could simply turn it back to the Navy and say, “this is what I want also included”… and also, “these are the resources I will put up for these new systems/changes.”
As soon as I heard CAPE had a prominent role, I knew a prominent recommendation would be to cut nuclear aircraft carriers. Why? Because the CAPE staff consists of programmers and budgeteers, not strategists. Carriers are frightfully expensive, and if you want to cut budget there is no bigger target.
And perhaps carriers should be cut—but I have seen no thorough study that goes option-by-option through all the alternatives, whether from hardening land air bases or through mobile offshore platforms. That is the sort of study that needs to be done first, before such a proposal to cut carriers is put forward.
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?
Since it is doubtful we will build it so soon, that is a bit of a moot question. But the gap between long-range national security strategy and the navy is in the number of long deployable, long-range, self-sustaining multi-mission platforms, and not just capabilities for a short war with the CCP. Any shooting war with the CCP won’t be short—it will be more like World War II in the Pacific than anything we faced since the Cold War. Unless we give up. They are not going to without a serious fight, especially when the future “legitimacy” of CCP control over China will be on the line. And they would see time as being on their side, not ours. To deter them requires a fleet that can operate globally and continuously project a global presence. I don’t think that is what SECDEF envisions—though I would be happy to be proven wrong.
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?
Unless we want to designate small units as ships, this study is also overoptimistic. If OSD is not willing to break the ideology of jointness that dictates 25 percent of budget share goes each to the Navy, Army, Air Force, and defense agencies, then the Navy is going to stay the size it is and possibly even shrink. Conceptually, OSD currently thinks of a navy as if it was an army, which it is not. That’s part of the tyranny of the ideology that “jointness” (as necessary as it was in the 1980s and 1990s) has become in the past two decades.
Professor Sam J. Tangredi was appointed as the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in March 2019, and since May 2017, has served as the director of the Institute for Future Warfare Studies. He initially joined the Naval War College as a professor of national, naval and maritime strategy in the Strategic and Operational Research Department, Center for Naval Warfare Studies in October 2016. He has published five books, over 150 journal articles and book chapters, and numerous reports for government and academic organizations. He is a retired Navy captain and surface warfare officer specializing in naval strategy. He held command at sea and directed several strategic planning organizations.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@CIMSEC.org.
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