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Vision for the Future US Fleet I: Concepts & Organization

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Vision for the Future US Fleet I: Concepts & Organization

An influential Washington think tank has released a key fleet architecture study.

Vision for the Future US Fleet I: Concepts & Organization
Credit: US Navy

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has released its new Fleet Architecture Study, which includes recommendations for what kinds of ships should make up the future U.S. Navy fleet, and how it should be organized.

CSBA’s report is one of three separate Fleet Architecture studies ordered by Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Together with reports from an internal Navy group and the MITRE corporation, the plan is intended to inform future shipbuilding numbers and plans, capabilities, and fleet organization. Here I examine the new operating concepts proposed in the study, as well as its recommendations on fleet organization (where ships are stationed and how they are grouped together). In Part II, I will examine the CSBA’s recommended fleet composition.

CSBA’s recommendations look familiar to many existing capabilities and operating constructs, and its recommended fleet size is very close to the current official Navy recommendations. Some concepts have new names and integrate new capabilities, but with a few exceptions are functionally indistinguishable from many current or emerging fleet practices.

The major contribution of the report is its extraordinary integration of large, armed, unmanned ships and submarines to complement existing manned platforms that will be discussed in greater detail in Part II. The plan also advocates moving away from the general purpose, jack-of-all-trades approach to the current fleet’s training and division-of-labor into many more discrete, highly specialized groups with dedicated missions and regions for which they would receive extensive tailored training.

The report proceeds from the view that the age of small regional wars against minor countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is being eclipsed by a new threat of potentially devastating great power war from Russia and China. CSBA believes that the U.S. Navy specifically is postured to be the principal force to either deter or if necessary win such a conflict. “The U.S. Navy is leaving a period in which it was a supporting element of the American military and entering one in which it will form the first line of deterrence and response against great power aggression.”

Anchoring CSBA’s recommendations is the idea that Russian and (especially) Chinese advances in air defenses and long-range strike capabilities make it less likely that the United States would be able to marshal forces to successfully dislodge either from conquered territory after the fact. Instead, they argue the U.S. Navy must be postured less to operate efficiently in peacetime than to exert maximal deterrent effect, and if hostilities do break out, be able to deny an aggressor their objectives or, at minimum, administer sufficient punishment to compel them to cease. CSBA believes that accomplishing this will require reorganizing the way the fleet is postured and deployed, and arming it with new or modified warfare concepts.

The Deterrence Force and Maneuver Force

The plan proposes dividing the fleet into Deterrence Forces and Maneuver Forces.

Deterrence Forces would be forward or rotationally deployed to specified regions, and possess tailored capabilities and training to counter the specific great power threats faced in them. In the Pacific, Deterrence Forces would be focused on the East China and South China Seas and Western Pacific. In addition to the substantial forces already based in Japan, the plan would also base ships or unmanned units in South Korea, the Philippines, and even Vietnam.

Maneuver Forces would be based in the United States and deployed forward, more generically trained, and comprise multiple aircraft carriers to provide sustained combat support either to Deterrence Forces engaged in a conflict, or to handle other contingencies while Deterrence Forces are focused on a main effort elsewhere in the region.

In practice, the Deterrence/Maneuver Force concept is very similar to the fleet construct already emerging in the Pacific. The United States divides the Pacific Ocean into two fleet areas of responsibility, to the east and west of the International Date Line. The Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, has its own forces permanently forward deployed to the western Pacific, is trained and equipped optimally for potential threats in that region, and operates at a much higher rate with much shorter training and maintenance periods than what units based in the United States typically enjoy. Forces belonging to the California-based Third Fleet often deploy to the western Pacific to support the missions of the Seventh Fleet.

Under the existing Third Fleet Forward concept, many ships deploying to the Seventh Fleet’s area of responsibility will remain under the Third Fleet’s operational control, unlike in the past when ships shifted to Seventh Fleet control when they crossed west over the International Date Line. In the event of a major regional conflict, for example involving North Korea, the intent is for the Seventh fleet to focus exclusively on that conflict. The Third Fleet would then take responsibility for all other requirements in the region, like patrolling the South China Sea. The first carrier group to deploy to the western Pacific under this arrangement, the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group, left Hawaii last month and conducted additional specialized training en route before beginning its patrol of the South China Sea, similar to the region-specific training and carrier-based Maneuver concept CSBA is proposing.

New Warfare Concepts

New Force Packages also look similar to existing constructs, like Carrier Strike Groups, or dedicated Anti-Submarine or Anti-Surface groups, but are provided with more specialized capabilities and especially integrating unmanned systems. Other more specialized groups like counter-ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) for adversary sensor-jamming and decoy missions, have antecedents as well, but would be outfitted with specific capabilities and provided more specialized training than the ad hoc groups assembled in the past.

The most significant departures from the way the Navy currently operates are CSBA’s recommendations for air-defense and the Marine Corps’ role in naval operations.

The backbone of shipboard defense against attacking aircraft or missiles has been the SM-2 missile, which has approximately a 90 nautical mile range. The SM-2 is being complemented with the SM-6, which takes the capabilities of the SM-2, but with an increased range of at least 150 nautical miles, and adds a limited ballistic missile defense as well as anti-surface ship capability.

But instead of engaging air threats further out, CSBA recommends sacrificing range and integrating new electronic, laser, or radio-frequency weapons to provide greater flexibility in the number and type of missiles ships carry. The authors recommend swapping most SM-2s for the smaller Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), which has about one-third the range. The generic vertical launch cells on U.S. warships can each hold one SM-2 (U.S. destroyers have about 90 cells), but can fit four ESSMs in special ‘quad packs.’ This would allow U.S. ships to notionally quadruple the number of air defense missiles they carry, or to free up launch tubes to carry additional offensive weapons like cruise missiles for attacking targets on land.

CSBA also envisions significant new amphibious missions involving the U.S. Marine Corps. CSBA believes that Anti-Access/Area Denial systems will become increasingly mobile and distributed, requiring the Marines to be able to conduct raids on small Pacific Islands to neutralize these systems to permit the fleet access to contested waters and airspace. The report also has the Marines adopting bases and new offensive capabilities to transform the Pacific’s small islands and archipelagoes into barriers that would hem in air and naval forces from the Chinese mainland. This would require Marines to set up Expeditionary Advance Bases in remote locations to provide both logistics and Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities directed back at the aggressor. Marines would also adopt new anti-ship capabilities of their own to support the navy, as well as leveraging land attack and anti-air weapons.

Next week I will examine the size of the future fleet that CSBA proposes and the new ships and systems that would make it up.