Toward a Balanced Navy
Note the graphic above as the Navy’s idea of a “balanced fleet”. These future plans are top-heavy with high end, multi-purpose ships towards the goal of a 313 Ship Navy, further taking America away from a large force structure which it traditionally has been proven necessary in all its wars of the recent past. Paying for this modest fleet has been dubbed “fantasy” by Congress and others, but we will use the Navy’s numbers for the sake of argument and see where we get.
One of our favorite naval authors, Milan Vego, writing in Proceedings Magazine, gives us the details with Finding Our Balance at Sea:
In a February 2006 report to Congress, Acting Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter stated that 313 ships and 3,800 aircraft were necessary to meet all demands and face the most advanced technological challenges. This force level would be reached in FY 12.2
Specifically, the new plan envisaged the following battle force: 11 aircraft carriers, 69 guided-missile destroyers, 19 guided-missile cruisers, 55 littoral combat ships (LCSs), 48 SSNs, 4 guided-missile submarines, 14 ballistic-missile submarines, 31 amphibious ships, 12 future maritime prepositioning force ships, and 50 logistics and support ships.3 Yet the Navy will not be able reach its goal of 313 ships over the long term.
The Navy’s promised emphasis supposedly has been in the littorals since the demise of the peer naval threat from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It plans are for new littoral combat ships to deal specifically with operations in the shallow seas:
The Navy’s littoral-warfare capabilities are expected to improve somewhat with the LCS. In 2004 the service anticipated having 13 LCSs in service or under contract by 2009, with a pending request for 6 more by 2010. But only 4 have been built or are under contract.
Recently the decision was made to choose only one of the currently developed two designs for the construction of the remaining 51 LCSs. The winner will receive a contract for up to 10 ships to be built through 2014.5 But the LCS, even if designed as the true littoral combatant, will not by itself solve the Navy’s problem of improving drastically its capabilities for fighting in the littorals.
The LCS will perform several functions in the USN, specifically anti-mine warfare, anti-small boat, and anti-submarine escort. It will be replacing the functions of three older types, the Perry class frigates, the Cyclone patrol craft, and anti-mine warfare ships. This is a tall order to be asked for an untried design, especially in shallow seas where large ships are vulnerable.
Lets return now to the Navy’s future force structure. If you look at the graph, you notice that it is heavily skewed for high end operations, traditional conventional warfare on the oceans. A low tech adversary would only have to make a splash against this top-heavy force to cause it to sway to the left or right, meaning, as small as our forces are, it is easily upset by the least disturbance. An example would be Chinese auxiliary ships harassing our government vessels, forcing us to deploy a guided missile cruiser or destroyer. Likewise are the pirates affecting this top heavy structure. Given the LCS’ delay in entering service, we are forced to use our most powerful ships to do sundry low tech escort duties, a waste of their extreme cost and immaculate abilities. It is even doubtful these new ships will fare any better than the warships we already deploy in the Gulf of Aden, which are far more capable and better armed, but more ships would certainly help.
The view that the number of platforms is not as important today as it was in the past is based largely on misplaced confidence in the powers of technology. It also ignores the ever-important factors of geography and distance. A ship or submarine cannot be at two widely separated areas at the same time. A properly balanced battle force composed of large surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines as well as small surface combatants and advanced conventional submarines is far more effective, because it can be tailored for conducting diverse missions across the range of conflict and in all environments.
Experience conclusively shows that a much larger fleet has decisively impacted ultimate victory. In all the wars fought in the 20th century, the U.S. Navy had to embark on large construction programs for destroyers, destroyer escorts, and frigates-just the type of ships the Navy lacks today in its inventories. Small surface combatants were the workhorses of the service in both world wars and Korea. In Vietnam, the service extensively used destroyers and destroyer escorts to patrol the coast. It also had to build a rather large riverine force.
Mr. Vego offers a better force structure, one more suited for dealing with current threats, without wasting high end warships in low tech operations. It is a bigger, more effective Navy, less susceptible to the whims of the occasional rogue dictator or bold buccaneer:
These numbers are from an earlier New Wars post, but they seem to reflect his ideas accurately. Note also the reduced number of auxiliaries, since the motherships would perform this role for smaller ships in most cases (i.e., it would be a less dependent force). Plus, the lack of need for forward deploying large fuel-hogging battleship types, except under the most grave circumstances, would garner much savings, far more than the Navy’s current ambitious “Green Fleet” plans, which will more likely add to the costs of already exquisite large warships.
Also, you can see the fleet as a whole is less suitable to “upsetting”, from minor threats such as those we detailed. To deploy a single carrier group you are talking about 1/10th of the entire fleet, but a corvette or two already deployed can manage most threats until help arrives, and usually before it is required. The stretched thin anti-piracy fleet in the Gulf, with the best warships in the world but unable to stem the tide of lawlessness, should be proof that capability is no substitute for numbers.