Maybe Soviet Fleet Adm. Sergei Gorshkov had it backward: quantity doesn’t have a quality all its own. Instead the speed, mobility, and striking power of U.S. naval ships and aircraft render mere numbers largely moot. The U.S. Navy can do the same, or more, with less. Or at least that’s the message Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work seems to be sending. One hopes he’s right. Budgetary exigencies mean that the size of the American navy will remain stagnant at around 285 ships — even under the most upbeat forecasts. Work struck an ebullient note during the Surface Navy Association National Convention in Washington last month, maintaining that naval commanders “have” Ronald Reagan’s fabled 600-ship navy for all intents and purposes. “We span the globe,” declared the under secretary, despite fielding the smallest number of warships since World War I.
No navy official should convey defeatism. And he’s right in a narrow sense. Ships outfitted with the gee-whiz Aegis combat system — a combined radar, computer, and fire-control system — now comprise the hard core of the surface fleet. And if you pitted today’s Aegis guided-missile ships against their first-generation ancestors from the early 1980s, bet on today’s vessels every time. This has been a refrain in Work’s analyses since his days as a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, before he assumed political office. But piling the latest technical wizardry onto ships and planes doesn’t tell the whole story.
Historian Julian S. Corbett offered a useful yardstick for thinking though such matters. The best way for an oceangoing fleet to attain maximum geographic coverage while remaining ready to concentrate for battle was through a sort of “elastic cohesion.” That is, the fleet should spread out as widely as possible to monitor broad sea areas. But fleet units should remain close enough together that they could swiftly “condense” at the vital point to engage a navy that offered battle. This rubber-band approach to concentration was a function of sensor and command-and-control technology, which enabled navies to monitor their surroundings and coordinate their movements. Work is quite correct to trumpet the U.S. Navy’s leaps-and-bounds advances in these areas.
But Corbett’s mode of concentration is also a function of old-fashioned attributes like the reach and hitting power of naval weaponry; the numbers of rounds in the magazine in this age of expensive high-tech missiles; the speed of ships and aircraft, which has advanced little since World War II despite the advent of nuclear and gas-turbine propulsion; and, you guessed it, sheer numbers of combat assets. A fleet with few assets can absorb few combat losses, while policymakers and commanders will be increasingly reluctant to hazard these precious assets in battle — even if the strategic circumstances warrant. Prudence about risk could morph into strategic timidity in critical theaters like the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.
The outlook, then, is cloudier than Undersecretary Work — not to mention such dignitaries as recently retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — lets on. The U.S. Navy may boast the combat potential of the 600-ship navy despite shrunken numbers. But prospective adversaries haven’t stood passively by while the service extends its technological lead — witness the proliferation of submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles, and other hardware designed specifically to strike at American vulnerabilities. The threat environment is more difficult in important respects than it was in Ronald Reagan’s day.
Spanning the globe with fewer assets, furthermore, turns the logic of concentration on its head. Today as for many decades, the navy disperses ships and warplanes to many far-flung theaters despite its avowed focus on Asia. Theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Corbett’s north star for military strategy, countenanced opening secondary theaters of operation only under very stringent conditions, namely if the likely results were “exceptionally rewarding,” and if commanders could spare the necessary forces while preserving “decisive superiority” in the main theater. Armed forces that span the globe not only open secondary theaters, but tertiary and even — heck, what comes after tertiary? — regions of interest. Clausewitz’s, Corbett’s, and Gorshkov’s inexorable logic of concentrated force can’t be repealed simply by invoking quality. Numbers matter — and no exotic technology in the fleet or on the drawing board promises to change that.
And some of the technologies navy commanders are counting on to extend the navy’s striking reach — for instance, the new Long-range Anti-ship Missile weapons engineers are currently developing — remain far from proven. Even if the navy manages to stabilize the overall number of ships in the inventory, the makeup of that inventory is shifting toward lower-end assets such as the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which would be worth little in a major sea fight. Numerically speaking, each LCS will replace a more capable cruiser, destroyer, or frigate destined for mothballs or the scrap heap. Seven serviceable Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers — the ships with the greatest missile capacity — are reportedly slated for early retirement from the battle line owing to budget cuts.
This is a time for introspection, not triumphalism, about the navy’s future. It may be true, as Work proclaimed, that the navy can rush LCSs and Joint High-Speed Vessels — in effect, high-speed ferries converted for military use — to trouble spots at sprint speeds given adequate refueling support. That’s different from staging “credible combat power” at such places, as the latest U.S. Maritime Strategy pledges to do throughout maritime East, Southeast, and South Asia. Corbett would disapprove. And even by Robert Work’s standard, the fleet’s combat power appears fated to drop below that of the 600-ship navy.
As the strategist Mr. Miyagi — the wizened sensei from the 1980s film The Karate Kid — might put it, “Focus power!” at the decisive place on the nautical chart at the decisive time if you want to demonstrate the ability to strike a telling blow, deter prospective opponents or reassure friends and allies, and thus spare yourself a trial of arms. Corbett would doubtless turn in his grave at being dubbed the Mr. Miyagi of naval warfare! But the wisdom of setting priorities and focusing naval might at decisive places stands — fictional source or not.
This past week, I lectured to a class of international students about “America’s Undersea Offensive” during the Pacific War. Students find it unfathomable, as do I, how much faith the Imperial Japanese Navy vested in quality to overcome superior American numbers of heavy combatants. The martial ethos, believed navy commanders, more than made up for numerical inferiority. Japanese mariners learned the error of their ways through hard experience. Let’s not repeat their mistake, succumbing to interwar Tokyo’s mysticism toward maritime strategy. Of that, Mr. Miyagi would certainly approve.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.