The Future Navy Force Structure
The problem with most proposals concerning the US Navy future warship structure is that all consistently emphasize high end warships over low end vessels, the latter of which can be bought in large numbers, and are more relevant to the wars we are fighting in the Third World. In all these force structure plans, notably from Robert Work, the Heritage Foundation, and the Navy itself, for the most part are unwilling to part with present numbers of exquisite warship types, such as supercarriers, large destroyers, amphibious carriers, and nuclear attack submarines, all of which are a severe drain on shipbuilding funds, and are of dubious value in a littoral environment.
This obsession with high numbers of individually powerful battleships is a bit odd when one considers how much overkill the USN is currently deploying at sea. Bob Work admits as much in his own analysis that “US Navy’s 280-ship ﬂeet likely enjoys no less than a thirteen-navy standard in aggregate ﬂeet combat power“. Meanwhile the Navy says it cannot spare enough ships for an effective crackdown of piracy in the Indian Ocean area, while simultaneously guarding against aggression in East Asia, and maintaining alliances with traditional allies in Europe and South America.
Excessive numbers of exquisite warships fail to take in consideration advances in technology which make individual warships extremely powerful in the Modern Age. Vertical launch systems giving the USN nearly a battery of 10,000 missiles, precision guidance via GPS virtually assuring each weapon of a hit, Aegis Radar able to illuminate the battlefield for more than a hundred miles, smart bombs on carrier aircraft giving each the firepower of a Vietnam era air wing, all have combined to make the USN astonishingly capable against a peer threat (if there is such a fleet in existence).
Literally an act of Congress is required to retire a supercarrier, despite its age, the cost of maintenance, or lack of need. Today, thanks to GPS guided smart bombs like JDAM, one or 2 naval bombers can do the work that once required hundreds of warplanes as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, when unguided “dumb bombs” were the only choice. It stands to reason then that one navy aircraft carrier has the equivalent firepower of several pre-1980’s ships, and if the current force was halved to about 6 ( allowing that 3 carriers makes possible one in service) would result in a negligible decline in capabilities. She could then spend precious funds on other necessities, or at least assure each vessel possessed adequate numbers of aircraft to fill the giant ships’ capacious decks.
With a smaller carrier fleet, a reduction in the number of escorts would also be allowable. Currently the USN deploys about 80 missile battleships of the Ticonderoga and Arleigh Burke classes, all 60 or so of the latter less than 20 years old. In the Cold War, only 30 high end missile ships were required to defend 15 carriers. With less need for so many highly capable warships, we could do with much less, perhaps 25 or so.
Submarine numbers are probably right at about 50 boats. Considering that nuclear power has dramatically increased the capabilities of these undersea stealth battleships, which now surpass the performance of most surface warships, perhaps we could find reductions here as well. With the continued need for submarines today in littoral waters for surveillance purposes among others, small conventionally powered craft (SSK) might perform this dangerous role where a large Blue Water attack boat would be at risk. If 5 small subs could be purchased at the cost of 1 nuclear submarine, numbers might surpass a very sizable and extremely useful 100 boats in commission.
Even with the advent of the littoral combat ship (LCS) in the next decade, low end warships will still be a minority in a fleet called on mainly since the fall of the Iron Curtain to deal with shallow water threats. Increasingly these include pirates sailing in dhows to rogue states in speed boats. Numbers are definitely in demand but most experts say that even a modest number of 313 is out of reach under current shipbuilding plans. Low end ships such as corvettes, patrol craft, minesweepers, or SSKs should no longer be the exception but the rule for the future navy. Considering the individual firepower on battleships as we noted, the High End force might look something like this:
- aircraft carriers-6
- missile escorts-24
- nuclear submarines-25
- amphibious carriers-10
- Total-60 High End Warships
Giving the fleet 60 battle force capable warships, each armed with either smart cruise missiles or smart bomb capable naval aircraft. Then, ample funds could be diverted to the small ship navy, the type of craft vital for the new littoral warfare. Hundreds of such craft including various types and sizes, at least 400 or more would form the bulk of the operating forces. These reasonably priced and expendable hulls would do the dirty work of the fleet that would otherwise wear out more expensive hulls prematurely.
Perhaps then in the near future the true Hybrid Warship will be born, with the firepower of a much larger battleship but the size and cost of a corvette. Until then we need a return to balance in the Navy Force Structure, which this current top-heavy fleet is a long way from.