Skip to content

Building a Bigger, Better Navy Pt 2

December 8, 2009

The Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Typhoon (PC 5) patrols the waters of the Persian Gulf.

It was numbers and mobility that determined flotilla types rather than armament or capacity for sea-endurance. Their primary purpose was to control communications in home and colonial waters against weakly armed privateers. The type which these duties determined fitted them adequately for the secondary purpose of inshore and dispatch work with a fleet. It was, moreover, on the ubiquity which their numbers gave them, and on their power of dealing with unarmed or lightly armed vessels, that we relied for our first line of defence against invasion. These latter duties were of course exceptional, and the Navy List did not carry as a rule sufficient numbers for the purpose. But a special value of the class was that it was capable of rapid and almost indefinite expansion from the mercantile marine. Anything that could carry a gun had its use, and during the period of the Napoleonic threat the defence flotilla rose all told to considerably over a thousand units.

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, by Julian Stafford Corbett

Behold the Behemoth!

There has been numerous articles written on how the Navy is far more powerful than in decades past, a giant floating missile magazine no doubt. Yet, we concentrate firepower in a handful of large packages, expecting them to do many functions traditionally required of numerous smaller vessels. You can have all the firepower at sea you want, but if it can’t be where it is needed on time, it is of very little use. Here is something we wrote back in 2005 concerning A Navy Second to None:

The numbers of warships in commission do not give an accurate portrait of the fighting power of the modern US Fleet. Since the 1980’s the navy has equipped its cruisers, destroyers and submarines with Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles until it has become one vast missile magazine. Its decks of giant super carriers are filled with warplanes each capable of loading new smart bombs giving them vastly greater bombing capability.

A marvelous capability to fight against a like enemy, but such have been few and far between since the Cold War, or the world wars for that matter. The larger fleet since the demise of the Red Navy has been an object lesson in overkill, while we fail to manage the threats from piracy, and arms smuggling to radical regimes. Our answer has been to discount the threats altogether, or delude ourselves into thinking allies or airpower can take up the slack. But there is a better, more sensible, more economical way.

Taming the Leviathan

America doesn’t need Arleigh Burke superdestroyers chasing pirates, or $2 billion LPD-17s to evacuate an embassy or invade the Island of Grenada. For this she requires an economical low end fleet, with vessels built off the shelf. Call this a Navy version of the “Sys Admin” force, recalling military strategist  Thomas Barnett’s terminology:

The U.S. military’s warfighting capacity and the high-performance combat troops, weapon systems, aircraft, armor, and ships associated with all-out war against traditionally defined opponents (i.e., other great-power militaries). This is the force America created to defend the West against the Soviet threat, now transformed from its industrial-era roots to its information-age capacity for high-speed, high-lethality, and high-precision major combat operations. The Leviathan force is without peer in the world today, and—as such—frequently finds itself fighting shorter and easier wars. This “overmatch” means, however, that current and future enemies in the long war on violent extremism will largely seek to avoid triggering the Leviathan’s employment, preferring to wage asymmetrical war against the United States, focusing on its economic interests and citizenry. The Leviathan rules the “first half” of war, but it is often ill suited, by design and temperament, to the “second half” of peace, to include postconflict stabilization-and-reconstruction operations and counterinsurgency campaigns. It is thus counterposed to the System Administrators force.

So we see we are over-compensating our Leviathan Navy, the carriers, destroyers, nuclear attack submarines, and high end amphibious ships, while almost totally neglecting the low end flotilla which performs the functions of Barnett’s Systems Administrators, but at sea. We would propose that since the Navy tells us their Big Ships are so much more capable now “1 ship replacing 4“, we could build fewer of them, with that portion 1/3 the size it is today. The dramatic savings from limiting our Leviathan forces to match their enhanced firepower would allow the creation of a secondary fleet, more suitable for gunboat littoral warfare in peacetime, and also effective for convoy escort and defending the shallow seas in wartime, recalling the destroyer escorts and frigates of the war years. These would be affordable in many hundreds, greatly easing the strain on the stretched thin fleet, and its over-worked sailors.

So you would end with :

  • Leviathan fleet-(aircraft carriers, missiles cruisers & destroyers, nuclear submarines, amphibious assault ships) 100
  • Sys Admin fleet-(motherships, high speed vessels, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels, fast attack craft, conventional submarines, mine warfare ships, ect) 400

Thats 1 ship for every 4. I get that!

15 Comments leave one →
  1. CBD permalink
    December 9, 2009 4:21 pm

    Not worried about peer powers, just the desired response times.

    I’d be happy with 8 CVBGs instead of 10-12 and 8 ESGs instead of 10-11, but cutting 2 CVBGs saves you more money than numbers. That just allows 1 of each to be present at 2 strategic regions with ability to temporarily surge a 2 more groups to any location. Influence Squadrons could deal with many of the other crises.

    The real numbers, to cut down the Leviathan fleet, would have to come out of the future group of 50 SSNs, 60+ DDGs, 20 CGs and whatever SSGN/SSBN fleet remains. How many of these vessels would exist in a fleet of 100?

    IMHO, dropping the Leviathan fleet below 150 seems to risk losing future capabilities within that fleet. I’d be happy with 150 Leviathans and somewhere in the range of 300 minor combatants (though I’m not even sure that that many are needed).

    100 vessels barely supports 8 CVBG and 8 ESGs
    Sample ARG/ESG: 1 LHD/LHA, 2 LPD/LSD, 2 DDG: 5 vessels x 8 = 40 vessels
    CVBG: 1 CVN, 3 CG/DDG, 1 SSN: 5 vessels x 8 = 40 vessels
    Leaving 6 SSGN/SSBN and 14 SSN for strategic patrol and deterrence.
    No spare DDGs, SSNs, or other vessels fit.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 9, 2009 1:50 pm

    Actually CBD, I think the 100 ship Leviathan fleet is still much over-kill, but I was trying to be realistic as the Navy is nowhere close to giving up their battlefleet. They will only do so as the budget works against them, but it will be teeth-pulling time when they do!

    The Leviathan fleet is just an incredible capability. Even with my numbers, it is the most powerful fleet in all history, and there is nothing on earth comparable currently. If you are worried about peer powers trying to match us, they’d still have to contend with the small craft, which isn’t a major threat to a well-equipped battlefleet, but must in no way be ignored, like the pirates are greatly distracting the international community. We would swarm them with numbers!

  3. CBD permalink
    December 9, 2009 11:12 am

    Interesting terms for the distinction between major combatants and minor combatants. I’m not sure that I’d be comfortable with limiting the major (Leviathan) fleet that much. I think that you could fit many of the described Sys Admin ships (OPV/FAC/MCM/ASW pickets/Corvettes) into a single family of hulls with variability of installed systems.

    The one tricky matter is the development of a new fleet tender. NASSCO had a plan to build a T-AOE replacement based on the T-AKE design and some of their larger ships. If they could also build a fleet tender based on the T-AKE (to support Corvettes, LCSes, and SSK/SSPs) that supplied armaments, fuel and stores (as well as serving as a local management, maintenance and liberty station), then it would be of tremendous benefit to the idea of an influence squadron.

    The ratio of 1:4 seems like it might be a bit extreme to me. 1:2 seems more reasonable and still provides a lot of capability:

    I’ve projected (as an extension of the ‘Build Your Own Fleet’ experiment) that the currently active or soon to be active fleet of CVNs, LHD/LHAs, LPD/LSDs, CGs, DDGs, SSNs, SSBNs, and SSGNs (c. 2020, as Los Angeles class are all retired, FFGs are all retired) will number just shy of 200 vessels. Allowing for some shifting, it’s difficult to get below 180 let alone 100 while maintaining a similar large fleet availability

    On the other hand, developing 7 fleet stations for Influence Squadrons would require between 200-300 vessels.*

    If we adjust the CVBGs down to 10 groups and ARGs down to 8, maintain some strategic submarine patrols, support some independent DDGs and maintain 8 independent surface action groups (1 CG, 2 DDGs, 1 SSN) on the 7 fleet stations, we’re at about 150 vessels.

    For 150 Leviathan vessels and 300 SysAdmin vessels (including some DDGs, etc), we have a 1:2 ratio that strongly represents USN interests abroad while sustaining a reasonable ship budget and expand capabilities.

    These counts exclude many support ships (HSVs, T-AKEs, T-AOEs, T-OEs, MPFs, etc.), which would be about 60 vessels (or about 0.3). Providing a Support:Leviathan:SysAdmin ratio of 0.3:1:2.

    *- Based on the idea of 7 Global Fleet Stations as forward bases for Influence Squadrons and other local activities. These stations would provide reserve force for ARG and CVBG activities and would carry out independent patrols and fleet tasks. This yields a ship count of about 250 vessels (allowing for an 8th fleet station’s worth of vessels for training and swaps).

    An Influence Squadron (as I see it) consists of:
    1 DDG
    1 LPD/LSD (large mothership)
    2 LCS (small mothership)
    12 Corvette/PCs (8 constantly on station),
    2 SSPs
    1 patrol tender
    (Influence Squadron deployed as Command Group and 2 Patrol Groups)

    Accordingly, a fleet station might consist of:
    2 DDG
    1-2 LPD
    18 Corvettes
    4 LCS (small mothership)
    4 SSPs
    2 tenders
    (1 Surface Action Group: 1 CG, 2 DDG, 1 SSN and perhaps 1 SSGN)

  4. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 9, 2009 2:17 am

    @D.E. Riddick,

    Well then…

    Let’s get it on!

  5. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 8, 2009 6:18 pm


    Since April 23, 1949 and the Air Force inspired / sponsored cancellation of the first USN super-carrier USS United States (just five days following her keel-laying on April 18, 1949) the USAF has been persistently and exceptionally high on the targeting list of the USN.

  6. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 8, 2009 4:26 pm


    I’ve thought about this one, too, actually. I’d buy tickets…

  7. December 8, 2009 3:13 pm

    Hello Graham Strouse,

    the United State Navy is most unlikely to go to war with itself.
    It’s fleet of combat aircraft dwarfs the air forces of most nations yet it still sees the need for a vast fleet of surface ships optimised for air defence.
    There is only one logical conclusion which may be drawn from this.
    The United States Navy is preparing for an all out war with the United States Air Force.


  8. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 8, 2009 12:14 pm


    One thought you haven’t considered. Given that the Navy is still obsessed with blue-water fleet actions & is chomping at the bit for a peer enemy to fight, why not have the USN declare war on itself? Like, for real.

    Who kicks more butt? The fifth fleet or the seventh fleet?

    Isn’t it about time we REALLY see whether those cocky submariners claim that the rest of the Navy is really “The Target Fleet”?

    How useful are those CVNs in a real armed conflict against a peer enemy?

    We’ll make it into a reality show. What do you think?

  9. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 8, 2009 11:53 am

    One of the biggest causes of cost overruns & useless warfighting vessels is parochial nature of the US Congress, particularly (but not exclusively) the Senate. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Bath Iron Works) & her colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, are two examples of Congress Critters who continue to lobby for the production of strategically useless & financially ruinous naval assets. Why? Bath Iron Works is pretty much Maine’s biggest employer. Ergo, we get a couple DDG-1000s & more Burke’s at outrageous cost. Hey, the Burke is a good ship, but as I recall it was four Navy SEALS with sniper rifles crouched in the stern of this 10,000 ton missile destroyer who fragged the pirates. The F-22 was the same kind of boondoggle. Jon Stewart pointed out that maybe those Raptors might not have carried $122 million dollar price tags & taken forever to build if they hadn’t been built in fragments across 46 different states. ‘Cause, y’know, all the Congress critters want their constituents to get a piece of the action. I don’t want to even think about the Gerald Ford class….

    Leave national defense to the people who know how to fight wars. Keep parochial interests out of defense acquisitions. This is a national priority. Regional interests & parochial Congress critters need to be kept out of these matters. We can’t afford their nonsense. I mean, we REALLY can’t afford it.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 8, 2009 8:56 am

    Distiller wrote “the U.S. is no empire builders”

    Yeah, absolutely. We like to “get in, get out”. The British were much better at this and probably still would be if their economy hadn’t tanked after WW 2. They were always in it for the long haul and we are just learning. The politicians keep hoping for the UN to step in, then reality returns. I am amazed how much the armed forces are against expansion! The Media tends to paint our troops as power hungry for conquest, but if we were to have some sort of Third World style coup, I think the admirals and generals would bring all the troops home!

    Again, reality sets in. Isolationism is less an answer than it was in the 1930s, unless you want to be like North Korea, starved and backward.

  11. Distiller permalink
    December 8, 2009 8:26 am

    I think the core problem is that the U.S. never figured out how to stabilize (foreign) military conquests. Despite, or even perhaps because of the rapid expansion of their influence the U.S. is no empire builders, and was for the last 100 years too reliant on military force. The Cold War with an asiatic despotism on the other side of the fence that everybody ran away from given the chance, also made things too easy and gave the wrong ideas. Anyway. Overexpansion is now followed by contraction, including undershooting, before a new lower level of stability is found, that might be, say, 60% of the current level (educated guesses welcome!). The choice of type and and amount of national security tools should be brought in line with that lower level already now. Besides refocusing the geostrategic ambitions and priorities, the whole national security complex needs to be streamlined and unified, without regard for grown structures, history and traditions. I feel that one third of the current overall budget could be saved just by doing that, and without loosing capability in the field.

    For the fleet that might mean
    — The SSBNs. Let’s see what the new Russian treaty will look like (and probably it will not be open to other powers — big mistake!). In any case I estimate that ~1000 sea-based strategic warheads are the lower threshold, whatever that means for the boats – missiles – warheads arrangement. Besides some SSN escort, they are basically independant from the rest of the Navy.
    — An open ocean battle component of at least 60 SSN. The big boys which keep the competition from unfolding their trans-oceanic power projection capability.
    — A policing component. Roaming the shipping routes, foreign coats, and choke points. Mostly eyes, and ears, and the flag on a high mast. As for offensive weapons systems: None beyond what a paramil policing mission requires. But nevertheless capable of close-in defending itself from sub/surface/air threats. How many, how large? Maybe also around 60 vessels, with around 4000ts.
    — A limited capability for cooperative international interventions. Could be commercial-hull based, like that Maersk concept.
    — The Coast Guard for enforcing the EEZ, for S&R, some tugs, some icebreakers …
    — And an airborne component for maritime patroling, ASW, and S&R.
    Something like the above would be the basic requirements even for an isolationistic grand strategy, and there shouldn’t even be a questions about financing it.

    Further down the line things are getting expensive. If the U.S. is running around looking for fights, the carrier battle groups are needed (carriers, escorts), the amphib assault groups are needed (amphibs, fire support, escorts), and a fleet of Ro/Ro, Flo/Flo, container ships, tankers, crane ships, hospital ships, aviation support ships, &c &c, all the toys to put X number of ground combat units onto a foreign shore and sustain it there for X periode of time. But that is a politcal question and if the folks inside the beltway want to have an offensive, aggressive foreign policy, they will have to pay for it. And I think it would be the job of the Navy’s top echelon to make that very clear!


  1. The Balisle Report and the Navy’s Future Pt 1 « New Wars
  2. LCS Alternative Weekly « New Wars
  3. Pirates+Terrorists=Trouble « New Wars
  4. Toward a Balanced Navy « New Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: