U.S. Navy’s Quantity Problem


As naval technology gallops on, can fleets execute the same missions with fewer assets?

Eminent people say so; I have my doubts.

Officials like U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work point to scientific and technical advances that supposedly render numbers of ships and aircraft less meaningful than in bygone decades. Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft able to detect, classify, and track hostile contacts across wide sea areas and feed targeting information to U.S. Navy task forces represent one such innovation. Sea-service leaders also point out that warships now entering service are far more technologically advanced than the ones they replace.

The message, seemingly, is that quantity no longer has much quality of its own.

Yet there’s an otherworldly feel to such claims. It’s certainly true that each new generation of ships, warplanes, sensors, and weaponry is far more capable in an absolute sense than the generations that went before. True, but not especially meaningful.

One of today’s Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers, for example, would surely outclass an Aegis cruiser from the early 1980s, when that combined radar/fire-control system first went to sea on board USS Ticonderoga.

So what?

In most respects the Ticonderoga (in which I spent two happy months cruising the Baltic Sea in 1989) vastly outmatched its ancestors from Adm. Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet, or from Adm. George Dewey’s flotilla at Manila Bay. Such comparisons tell us little about our prospects in battle today. We build against present-day competitors, not our Cold War, World War II, or Spanish-American War selves.

Combat power is a relative thing, then, not an absolute one. We may be more capable. So are our competitors.

The only standard that matters is how well ships, aircraft, and weaponry perform against today’s adversaries in today’s tactical setting – not on battlegrounds of yore. As prospective antagonists mount fiercer, more sophisticated defenses of offshore seas and skies, navies must keep improving just to keep pace with the competition. By that unforgiving standard, it’s far from clear that American men-of-war have vaulted past their predecessors.

Furthermore, the fleet’s complexion is changing. In some cases, the Navy is replacing retired vessels not with like vessels of new design but with lesser – and less capable – ship types. Speaking at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue last month, Secretary Panetta announced that the Navy will take delivery of forty new warships in the coming years. That sounds impressive. But what kinds of hulls comprise that forty? The single-mission Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), for example, aren’t descendants of the multi-mission Oliver Hazard Perry frigates they replace. The Perrys were built to perform picket duty with the battle fleet, fending off aerial, surface, and subsurface threats. The lightly armed LCS has important diplomatic and maritime-security uses. It is no frigate.

This uneven shipbuilding program will dilute the fleet’s aggregate combat power at a time when the threat environment has grown increasingly stressful – witness the proliferation of air-independent diesel submarines, stealthy missile craft, antiship cruise and ballistic missiles, and other hardware useful for disputing U.S. access to “contested zones” around the world. Secretary Work’s boast that the low-end LCS will “kick [the] asses” of foes it encounters may be true. But it misleads. It’s one thing to apply a boot to the posterior of a pirate in a skiff, quite another to enter the lists against the likes of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The LCS is eminently qualified to do the former, but ill-suited to the latter.

Sea power is an interactive business in which prospective opponents may attempt to veto U.S. actions, and increasingly possess the wherewithal to make their veto stick. Whether the United States can accomplish the same globe-spanning goals it has pursued for decades with fewer assets is doubtful. A mismatch among policy, strategy, and forces looms.

Carl von Clausewitz advises statesmen and commanders to undertake campaigns in “secondary” theaters only if the likely gains are “exceptionally” promising, the enterprise contributes to success in the principal theater, and it does not imperil efforts in the principal theater. Only “decisive superiority” in the main theater justifies secondary efforts. Abiding by this formula requires setting priorities – namely, determining which zones on the map are critical and which are not. The corollary is that a nation should wind down military commitments in nonessential theaters in order to concentrate resources where needed most.

But declaring that some regions or missions are more important than others evidently demands that global powers make a hard mental leap. Few and far between are leaders like Adm. Jacky Fisher, the British first sea lord who brought home – and mostly scrapped – the Royal Navy’s detached squadrons of gunboats and light combatants a century ago. Fisher’s decision freed up resources and manpower in the Far East and North America that the navy sorely needed to gird itself for its arms race with Imperial Germany. Staying ahead of the German High Seas Fleet, which threatened the British Isles, constituted the greater priority by far.

Fin de siècle Britain pivoted homeward, largely evacuating U.S. and Asian waters and trusting to local powers to guard its interests there. It accepted risk while unloading foreign commitments. By contrast, I could retire comfortably tomorrow if I had a dollar for every time in recent weeks I’ve heard a U.S. official or pundit insist that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s metaphor of a “pivot” to Asia had to be discarded because it implied that America was turning its back on regions outside Asia. Hence the switch to the more neutral, less evocative term “rebalance.” But it’s worth rediscovering Clausewitz’s remorseless logic and Fisher’s clear vision and pugnacity. Washington ought to reacquaint itself with setting priorities.

History is unkind to sea powers that invent fudge factors – golly-gee technology, tactical mastery, indomitable élan – to explain away numerical shortfalls. The interwar Imperial Japanese Navy had boundless faith in Japanese seafarers’ resolve and tactical virtuosity. Commanders talked themselves into believing that these intangibles would negate superior U.S. Navy numbers. Their navy now litters the bottom of the Pacific – in large part because Rosie the Riveter and her comrades turned out warships and merchantmen like sausages during World War II, overwhelming Japan with insurmountable numbers. Quantity does matter. Let’s not succumb to the sort of thinking that beguiled Tokyo in those fateful years.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. He is writing a history of the US Asiatic Fleet. The views voiced here are his alone.

September 19, 2012 at 11:20

Having served aboard one of those aging Ticonderogas for the last fours years, I'd say it's a little unfair to pit one in direct conflict with an Arleigh Burke as they were built with different purposes in mind.  Destroyers, in general, are direct surface combatants.  Their sole purpose in life is to destroy other surface vessels while absorbing significant amounts of damage.  The "G" in "DDG" was almost an afterthought, to give them an added capability.  On the other hand, the Aegis cruiser, with its two masts bristling with radar antennae and arrays, was built with air-defense in mind.  It's purpose was to protect strike groups from airborne threats.  The replacement of the GMLS with Tomahawk/VLS gives it an immense strike warfare capability.  Whereas the DDG would be in close combat, trading 5" rounds with the enemy, a A CG would be far-removed from the direct threat and is armored accordingly.

July 18, 2012 at 07:30

America is broken and the fleet is a reflection of that. We have more Admirals then we have ships, the enlisted force has been cut and then cut and then cut yet again. Ships that 10 years ago commisioned with 350 personnel now sail with a third less people. Our fleet is stretched thin and we run at an exhaustive pace to get it all done.
America was once the greatest manufacturing haven ever, but now could never hope to duplicate what we did in WWII. We still field the greatest and most technologically advanced force, but as some one stated we will run out of ammo far before we sink our adversaries ship's/aircraft/subs.
Most American's are either to stupid or just don't care about this. Very few serve and even fewer have the desire too. It's sad what America has morphed into but I blame the Hippe generation. Most were cowards and sell outs and this is what we get when they are in charge.

July 7, 2012 at 10:53

Jobjed wrote,
"Oh my goodness, you Americans actually believe that Asia will assist you in fighting a war."
No. This is an Asian issue. China is trying to steal the property and resources of Asian countries, not American property or resources. China is threatening the future and survival of Asian countries, not America.
As reyAragon points out, all that is needed is to stop the world's trade with China. Given the geography of the area, this is trivial and cheap for the affected countries involved to do. All America needs to do is agree to allow the blockade and prevent China from launching it's nuclear weapons against the non nuclear nations of Asia.

July 3, 2012 at 07:55

The EU, the US and the rest of the world would only need to stop trading with China to contain it from becoming a military power and making the world less secure for its inhabitants. Its rhetorics about peaceful co-existence are nothing but empty words. Just look at what it did to Tibet. And to what it is presently doing against its Asian neighbors and their sovereignty. China is bullying them, usurping these countrys' exclusive economic zones and shooting them dead if they resist. Ask Vietnam. What did China do to its poor fishermen? When they refused to stop fishing on their own sea, China's navy machine-gunned them!
China is absolutely nothing militarily if the world doesn't trade with it. To avert a future war against this what-turned-out- be a Frankenstein, it would perhaps be sensible for the EU, the US and the world to remove and relocate its factories somewhere else or re-develop its own on their own turf while providing jobs for its own people. And conduct trade with those less pre-disposed to waging wars. And not with this SOB.These countries should realize that the financial opportunities it gives to China isn't worth its salt. It is just  fueling the growth of its military might. Trading with China and making it an economic and military giant is doing the world more harm than good.

July 2, 2012 at 19:09

Oh my goodness, you Americans actually believe that Asia will assist you in fighting a war. Japan and Korea definitely wouldn't, your troops are raping their girls and you even nuked Japan, and yes, Japan remembers that with utmost disastisfaction. The only reason the current Japanese and Korean governments even do your bidding is because of the troops you have in their country. Vietnam might assist you but would just as likely turn on you halfway through, the Italy of the East. Singapore will definitely not assist you, 70% of the population is Chinese, same with Malaysia albeit a smaller percentage. Phillipines definitely will assist you, so Chinese missiles will wipe it off the map and Indonesia will have a hard time cooperating with 'non-Muslim infidels'. Thailand will actually be on China's side. It's military contracts etc are all from China and inter-military and inter-government relations are top notch. Russia's conventional army is irrelevant in any Asian-Pacific conflict. It's dated Soviet fleet is expendable. Onlly power Russia has now is its nukes, and they''re not going to start chucking them anytime soon. Now with all these factors counted in, in addition to targetable ballistic missiles and the advanced, although small navy China has, your navy is getting nowhere near the Chinese coast. Only way you'll defeat China is with nukes although that would mean a retaliatory strike from the 'Great Underground Wall of China'. Read up if you don't know that that is. Any WW3 will mean armagedon or at best, a Pyrrhic victory. 

July 2, 2012 at 13:36

YO FUNNY YOYO! I've been hearing about the fall of the dollar for like 5 yrs. now…China will have a real estate collapse well before we really have to worry about your paper dragon becoming the world currency.

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