Remaking US Naval Power for the 21st Century

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Remaking US Naval Power for the 21st Century

Insights from Brent Droste Sadler.

Remaking US Naval Power for the 21st Century
Credit: U.S. Navy photo

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Brent Droste Sadler – senior research fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology in the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation and author of “U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century: A New Strategy for Facing the Chinese and Russian Threat” (Naval Institute Press 2023) –  is the 373rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Delineate the scope of the threat that China and Russia pose to the United States. 

As China’s economic heft and military power has grown, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has been less inclined toward accommodation. Meanwhile, China has been building a world class navy with a vengeance, and Western nations have been heading in the opposite direction. It is imperative for the free world to meet this challenge in a way that deters war, ensures freedom of commerce, bolsters maritime security, and anchors a rules-based order that respects the rights of large and small nations alike. Failing this, it could be the United States and the free world that endures 100 years of humiliation.

Explain the correlation between naval statecraft and great power competition. 

Navies exist to assure access to markets and influence events on land for political ends. The navy’s role in warfighting is well known; less appreciated is its ability to shape the environment in which security, diplomacy, and economics interact. This is a role the U.S. Navy has performed throughout its history, and if applied in a deliberate fashion against our competitors, affords a more effective approach to protecting and advancing the nation’s interests. 

In 2014, a study was conducted to investigate the potential implications on trade if U.S. military forward presence was measurably reduced. A strong correlation was found between mutual trade and the existence of security agreements that reduced the cost of trade via air and shipping. A reduction of 50 percent in overseas security commitments (troops overseas and agreements) would result in a drop in bilateral trade of 18 percent, or according to 2015 trade data, a loss of $490 billion to U.S. gross domestic product.

The nation is beyond a so-called inflection point; the strategic initiative must be seized in a new approach. This requires enhancing U.S. and like-minded nations’ strengths while leveraging weaknesses of competitors China and Russia. As a consequence, naval operations must be conceptualized in a wider diplomatic and economic context. This would involve a new naval statecraft that leverages and enables naval presence while demonstrating the economic benefits of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Describe the key elements of a New Model Navy. 

A New Model Navy, featuring profound new capabilities and relationships, is made possible by exciting advances in nanotechnology and bioengineering. Today’s trends point to a future fleet composed of large numbers of autonomous, and likely even bioengineered platforms. Making this possible are tremendous gains anticipated in the near future in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum computing  ̶  the mighty trio. Some elements of this New Model Navy include:

  1. The draft will return – just not how you expect, instead involving robotic systems as well as technical experts.
  2. There will be an AI “fog of war” to contend with.
  3. The navy will sport globally networked (on-demand) fleets with smaller/optional human crews.
  4. Energy weapons will become the standard armament of U.S. Navy ships.
  5. Distributed production and autonomous repair will change repair and logistic needs of the fleet.
  6. New classes of ships will emerge to meet new naval missions and take advantage of unmanned systems – e.g., unmanned mothership, factory ships, etc.

Examine the relevance and timeliness of instituting a National Maritime Initiative. 

The world is at the cusp of a dangerous decade, and the difference in whether it becomes a violent peace or worse is a function of how we as a nation choose to respond. And the United States is vulnerable in ways it has not been in over a hundred years. Annually, thousands of foreign-owned and operated ships conduct U.S. trade that keeps the lights on, grocery stores stocked, and cars on the road. To get some sense of how dependent the United States has become on foreign shippers, consider that in 2015 there were 82,044 visits to U.S. ports conducted by thousands of commercial vessels – and less than 200 were U.S. flagged and crewed.

A successful National Maritime Initiative relies on more than a strategy or crafty oration; action is needed to get a lethargic sector moving in the right direction. On day one national leadership must articulate its vision and commitment to a long-term endeavor to regain global competitiveness in shipping and shipbuilding – a modern-day Trafalgar declaration. But institutions and political leadership will only be galvanized by an early and visible success. 

With that in mind, within six months visible demonstrations of proof of concepts for a new inter-modalism for commercial shipping and a new naval exercise demonstrating new concepts of operations such as with manned-unmanned team platforms will be required. In tandem with this early effort, the foundations for changing current institutions and structures like the Goldwater-Nichols Act need to be set. Once this foundation is set, it can be acted on within two years and a clear direction given to change how national security is done.

Assess the long-term consequences of delaying fortification of U.S. naval power vis-à-vis the China and Russia threat.

Failing to act today in a comprehensive and serious manner will signal weakness at a time that our adversaries are becoming most confident in challenging the United States. 

In the final analysis, and chance aside, the outcome of a future major war will be determined before the fighting actually starts. The better postured, better resourced, and better trained fleet is the nation that wins. Ensuring that the U.S. Navy remains ready, vigilant, and postured forward is the best way to deter war and perpetuate the rules-based order that has safeguarded the liberty and prosperity of the United States and others for decades. Executing such a program is ambitious, but the consequences of not rising to the challenge are dire. The United States needs to avoid ceding the world’s maritime and associated prosperity away from future generations.