Asia Defense

Vision for the Future US Fleet II: The Numbers

New light carriers, missile craft, and unmanned platforms.

Steven Stashwick
Vision for the Future US Fleet II: The Numbers
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos

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 that were ordered to inform decisions, design, and procurement for the future fleet. Part I looked at the new fleet organization and operating concepts CSBA proposed. Here, I examine their recommended fleet composition, the numbers and types of ships that should make up the future fleet.

The New Fleet by the Numbers

The U.S. Navy’s current plans, based on a Force Structure Assessment (FSA) updated last fall, calls for 12 aircraft carriers, 104 large surface combatants (cruisers and destroyers), 52 frigates or small surface combatants, and 66 nuclear attack submarines contributing to an overall battle fleet of 355 ships.

The CSBA’s proposed fleet is very similar to the existing Navy plan in many respects such as numbers of aircraft carriers and submarines, but diverges significantly with the addition of light aircraft carriers, the number of large surface combatants, and the integration of major unmanned platforms. CSBA’s proposed fleet of 340 ships is smaller than the Navy’s stated requirements, but tops 380 if an expanded fleet of 42 patrol craft is included (which do not meet Navy criteria to count as part of the Battle Force).

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The study also calls for 80 extra-large unmanned surface and underwater vehicles to operate both independently and integrated into the specialized groups discussed in Part I, like Surface Action Groups, Anti-Submarine Groups, and Intelligence Reconnaissance and Surveillance Groups.

Return of the Light Carrier

Like the FSA, CSBA recommends 12 supercarriers. However, they recommend ten conventionally-powered light carriers of between 40,000 and 60,000 tons (the nuclear-powered Nimitz and Ford carriers exceed 100,000 tons) in place of the existing large-deck amphibious ships.

The U.S. Navy’s nine large-deck amphibious ships (with a tenth under construction) are already small aircraft carriers of about 40,000 tons but optimized to support the U.S. Marine Corps mission to assault adversary beaches. They are configured to support both landing craft and Marine aviation assets like vertical-takeoff jets, helicopters, and tilt-rotor aircraft. CSBA proposes eschewing that amphibious mission and equipment to carry additional vertical-takeoff variant F-35 fighter jets armed for strike and sea control missions instead of providing close air support to Marines on the ground.

The repurposed large deck amphibious ships would be realigned from amphibious groups to the regionally-assigned Deterrence Forces discussed in Part I. These light carriers would provide power projection and sea control capabilities mirroring the supercarriers, but on a smaller scale. The supercarriers would be part of the heavier Maneuver Force intended to reinforce the “first responder” Deterrence Forces. As the existing amphibious carriers are retired, they would be replaced by purpose-built light carriers.

No More Cruisers, Fewer Destroyers

CSBA’s plan calls for only 71 large surface combatants, down from the Navy’s current requirement for 104. It does agree with the current Navy plan not to replace the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers with new cruisers as they are retired. This will leave destroyers as the largest surface combatant in the fleet and taking on the air-defense role currently held by the cruisers.

In practice, the Navy does not lose much with no follow-on cruisers. While nominally larger and more senior ships to destroyers, the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have virtually the same displacement. The cruisers do have about one-third more vertical missile-launching tubes and an additional main gun, but, consistent with the Navy’s Distributed Lethality concept, CSBA envisions proliferating vertical launch tubes on ships that have not traditionally had them, like frigates and even amphibious ships, making up for the loss of the cruisers’ higher missile capacity.

It is not only the role of unmanned vehicles that allows for 30 fewer large surface combatants in CSBA’s plan, but also transitioning most of the Navy’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) mission from ships to shore-based facilities. Navy plans currently call for at least at least 40 BMD-capable cruisers and destroyers, up from about 33 today.

Not all those ships are or would be exclusively dedicated to the BMD mission at all times, but CSBA envisions transitioning the Navy’s ship-based BMD mission to shore-based facilities, especially in the Pacific. This would make those warships available for deterrence, strike, and sea combat instead of potentially being held back to support missile defense requirements.

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Better Frigates and a Mission for Missile Craft

CSBA sees a large role for small surface combatants and patrol craft. CSBA would cut the number of Littoral Combat Ships the Navy wants to purchase and procure a new, larger, purpose-built frigate instead of the Navy’s controversial plan to supplement the weapons systems on existing LCS designs and redesignate them as frigates. The frigates CSBA envisions would carry more missiles, and have more robust anti-submarine capabilities than the current “up-gunned” LCS proposals.

But CSBA also recommends procuring 42 fast missile patrol craft. These small vessels would have limited endurance but have some air defense capability and carry four to eight missiles capable of both strike missions against land targets and sinking heavier adversary warships. The U.S. Navy’s current inventory of 13 patrol craft do not carry missiles or have air defense capabilities.

The proposed fast missile craft would not be able to defend themselves in a protracted fight against heavier frigates or destroyers but their speed and missile armament would provide a critical supplement to the Deterrence Forces’ ability to effectively threaten and engage other great power navies like Russia’s or China’s. The idea harkens back to a class of high-speed anti-ship cruise missile carrying hydrofoils that the Navy operated in the 1970s and ’80s, intended to strike quick blows against heavier Soviet ships in a clash. Only six were ever completed.

Unmanned Support

CSBA’s most radical recommendations for the future U.S. fleet’s composition is to integrate 40-each “Extra Large” Unmanned Surface (XLUSV) and Underwater Vehicles (XLUUV). XLUSVs like DARPA’s prototype “Sea Hunter” would provide persistent surveillance, electronic warfare, and anti-submarine support to manned vessels while significantly reducing risk to lives and more expensive platforms from hunted adversary submarines.

The “extra large” unmanned vehicles as well as a suite of smaller unmanned systems would significantly improve and extend the sensor range of manned ships, and even engage with their own weapons systems. But they can also extend communications links in an environment where an adversary may have degraded or denied the U.S. Navy’s traditional communications networks, and act as decoys to confuse adversary long-range sensors designed to target ships with long-range A2/AD systems.

Tempering CSBA’s recommended mix of manned and unmanned vessels is the recognition that “unmanned vehicles may not have the same deterrent effect as a manned platform.” Unstated, however, is the principal reason that unmanned vessels do not match the deterrent value of a manned one. For an adversary considering using force against the U.S. Navy, killing U.S. sailors in pursuit of its objectives all but guarantees the conflict will escalate. On the other hand, a plan that can be achieved by exclusively (or even mostly) engaging unmanned vessels lacks the same escalation peril, and an adversary might believe it can accomplish its objectives without drawing the U.S. into a wider conflict.