You mention the Navy, and the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets . . . it's not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships.
- President Obama, Presidential Debate, October 22, 2012.
President Obama didn't come to his job as commander-in-chief as an expert on military policy. His background is as an anthropologist's son, a community organizer, a sharp law student, a law school professor, a respected Illinois politician first in the state legislature and then in the U.S. Senate, and finally, as President.
He didn't serve in the armed forces. As a Senator, military policy issues came before him, but he never made these issues his focus in that body.
Four years later, he's learned a lot and it shows.
The U.S. Navy's investment in warships is overkill.
The single greatest waste of money relative to military benefit in the U.S. military is its overinvestment in large naval surface combatants.
The United States has the world's largest fleet of war ships and for that matter, the world's largest military by almost every measure except number of men in uniform, where it is still among the largest. The United States Navy dwarfs any potential naval rival and realistically, in any major future naval conflict, the U.S. Navy would have allies who could bolster its naval resources further in any particular conflict. In the only live naval conflict at the moment, the fight to suppress pirates from Somolia, were even have Chinese naval allies.
This ships are incredibly expensive - updated versions of the proven 1980s destroyer designs that we are still purchasing cost something on the order of $1 billion each - and are expensive to operate. They unnecessarily put large numbers of crew members in harms way - new warship designs require about a third as many crew members to operate a comparable ship as they did in 1980s designs. Also, typically only about a third of the ships in the U.S. Navy are actually available for use in combat at any one time. And, redeployments of ships to a new conflict take place at about 20 miles per hour by a route considerably less direct than the crow flies.
In particular, almost every nation in the world that has a navy has deliberately chosen not to invest in large surface combatants: aircraft carriers, destroyers, and cruisers, or in nuclear powered submarines, in anything approaching the number of ships that the U.S. has chosen to purchase.
Few nations have more than two or three ships larger than a U.S. frigate (about 3,000-4,000 tons), and primarily invest in fairly small diesel-electric submarines (the higher end models have "air independent propulsion") for a fraction of the price of a nuclear attack submarine. Many nations devote a substantial proportion of their naval resources to "missile boats" a class of small (generally under 1,000 tons), fast, short range naval surface combatants that carry a small number of powerful missiles.
Moreover, the ships that the U.S. has aren't always strictly comparable to foreign warships that are commonly described as belonging to the same class. Most of the world's "aircraft carriers" are closer to the U.S. Marine Corps' "Harrier Carriers" than to the supercarriers of the U.S. Navy. The handful of Zumwalt class destroyers under construction at the moment at about 14,000 tons, are the size of World War II battleships.
These are not your father's warships.
The nature of large surface combatants and their strategic role has changed as well. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, warships fought each other primarily with canons and then large naval guns, firing shells as much as sixteen inches thick distances of perhaps twenty-four miles. Destroyers focused on other surface combatants, while cruisers provided defense against enemy aircraft.
Now, almost all of the surface combatants in the U.S. Navy - destroyers, cruisers and frigates - serve essentially the same roles with similar weapontry. The naval guns, delivering shells of three or five inches in diameter perhaps a dozen miles, are backup weapons that are the bayonetts and swords of naval warfare. The primary armaments on a U.S. Navy surface combatant are large, powerful missiles - some for bombarding land based targets, some for destroying other warships, and some for destroying enemy submarines. Secondary armaments are smaller missiles designed to take on aircraft, incoming missiles, and soon, small missile boats. Almost all carry a military helicopter or two, which are particularly effective against submarines and small craft, as well.
The primary role of all of these surface combatants in the U.S. Navy is to escort U.S. supercarriers as part of aircraft carrier groups. They are supposed to find and destroy incoming surface combatants, submarines and missiles so that aircraft carriers don't have to. Their secondary role is to provide missile batteries in places where the U.S. doesn't have nearby Air Force bases (e.g. off the coast of Libya) and to dramatically "show the flag."
These trends are driven by a couple of key, largely technologiallly driven factors:
* Surface combatants are highly vunerable to attacks from swarms of missile boats, to high speed aircraft to high powered antiship missiles, to submarines, to sea mines. They are large, unmanuverable, slow targets that are hard to hide. Offensive technologies have largely overcome static defensive technologies (i.e. armor), and improved satellite and drone reconnaisance technologies have largely overcome naval stealth efforts for surface combatants.
* Missiles are more accurate at longer ranges and deliver more explosives to targets than dumb shells from naval guns, and given their accuracy there are few plausible scenarios where there are so many targets that the number of missiles carried is insufficient for a major military engagement. For example, there is no need to have a great many more anti-submarine missiles in any naval theater than there are submarines in the forces of potential adversaries.
Warplanes are better suited than ships to many modern surface combatant tasks.
In many cases, the jobs that are currently done by warships could be done by military aircraft that put far fewer people in harm's way (since they don't carry their support and maintenance crews on missions, nor the air crew's long term lodgings), are faster, are more manuveurable, more stealthy, can be more swiftly redeployed to another theater of combat, and can carry missiles and sensors that are similarly effective against enemy surface combatants, land based targets, and submarines.
One class of aircraft often proposed for this kind of task is often called a "cargo bomber" that would start from the foundation of existing commercial cargo aircraft. The Navy's new P-8 aircraft is also capable of serving in these roles. An investment in airborn refueling aircraft could extend the range of these aircraft to places far from where the U.S. Air Force (or Navy) has air bases. Cruise missiles also present plausible alternatives to the role of existing major surface combatants as little more than missile bases.
Of course, surface combatants also provide persistent sites for sophisticated sensors, but this could be accomplished with much smaller drone aircraft.
U.S. warships are filling new roles.
Of course, there are exceptions to this trend.
Aircraft carriers (rarely deployed with full complements of fighter jets) deploy fighter aircraft rather than missiles, although we are on the verge of transitioning to an era where a large share of these fighter aircraft will be unmanned drones. This capability remains relevant to projecting U.S. power across the world in places where the U.S. may lack local air bases.
The Marines have a number of ships that deliver Marines and their gear to distant locations and serve as off shore bases for them. They are particularly attractive for showing the flag off the shores of conflict ridden Third World countries with pitiful navies from which they can evacuate U.S. citizens and citizens of our allies, or intervene in small scale conflicts that threaten to destabilize friendly countries.
A number of new designs that have just entered naval service that do not merely support air craft carrier groups.
* The two or three Zumwalt class destroyers that are under construction give greater emphasis to a role supporting ground troops fighting in coastal areas with a powerful naval gun that fires guided artillery rounds that aren't quite full fledged missiles (the original design had called for a rail gun, but that technology wasn't ready for prime time when it was time to build the ships). They also reduce the radar and visual profile of the ship, although to call the design a "stealth" design, somewhat overstates its effectiveness. To some extent, these ships will be obsolete before they ever enter military service.
* A new class of Littoral Combat Ships, one of two designs that are about 3,000 tons each, lack both large missiles and a large naval gun and are faster the existing surface combatants. They have modules for a variety of missions from antisubmarine warfare, to locating and destroying sea based mines, to patrolling the seas and supporting ground troops. The extreme price advantage these ships had over prior surface combatants has turned out to be underwealming, however.
* A new class of ballistic missile submarines, converted from nuclear missile carrying submarines, used in the Libya conflict, is a way to deploy missiles without the vulnerabilities associated with surface combatants.
A proposed next generation surface combatant cruiser design would primarily serve a missile defense role, intercepting small numbers of nuclear missiles fired by rougue nations like North Korea or Iran.
Diplomatic and Strategic Alternatives.
There Are Few Major Naval Adversaries
The size of the U.S. Navy is largely driven by just a handful of foreign navies: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Conflicts with China and North Korea are plausible possibilities mostly along the Asian eastern coast from Taiwan to Japan. Iran is a naval threat pretty much exclusively in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf.
Russia is the only global naval power that is a potential adversary that like the United States has a meaningful "Blue Sea Navy." It is split between multiple military theaters (Arctic-Baltic, Pacific, Atlantic, Black Sea, Mediterranean). And, it hasn't really fully defined a mission for itself yet other than showing off Russian military power to the world.
Naval Weapons Should Be A Priority For Conventional Arms Control Talks
Diplomatic progress on limiting the small number of conventional weapons from these small number of potential adversaries in well defined geographic areas could dramatically reduce the need for U.S. military spending and military spending by U.S. allies, on naval forces. A treaty that is effective in limiting the use of submarines near the East Asian coast, or in the Persian Gulf, for example, could dramatically reduce the need to invest in naval forces.
We Should Look For Opportunities To Turn Potential Adversaries Into Allies.
So could progress in overall diplomatic relations with these nations that makes them no longer threats to the U.S. and its allies. For example, if a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan no longer becomes a plausible military scenario, perhaps because Taiwan agrees to accept a status similar to Hong Kong as an autonomous region within a modernizing and moderating China, then much of the justification for the size of the U.S. Navy and U.S. military presence in Japan collapses. Similarly, if the current regime in North Korea is replaced by a less militarized and embattled one that seeks unification with South Korea, another key justification for U.S. naval forces could be eliminated.
Increased economic ties with China and Russia in the post-Cold War era have already had this effect to a considerable effect. It is not clear, for example, whose side China would take if North Korea were to ramp up its use of military force, even though in the past, it was clear that China would back North Korea as a fellow communist nation. North Korea has not done a good job of maintaining strong ties to either Russia or China, both of which have progressed beyond early Cold War style communist regimes in the meantime.
Policy initiatives designed to change public opinion in places like China and Russia and even Iran (North Korea is a lost cause on this front) deserve more attention from U.S. diplomatic resources.
We Should Set Realistic Goals For U.S. Military Capabilities In Force-Size Driving Potential Conflict Areas
Likewise, considerable progress could be made by setting realistic goals about what the U.S. would hope to accomplish militarily in military conflict with these countries. For example, military plans based on securing regime change in China or Russia, or embargoing these countries, are unrealistic. More realistic goals for these regions would be (1) to protect both U.S. territories (Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa), and U.S. allies like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Phillipines from Chinese or Russian naval invasions, (2) to keep commercial shipping flowing in this vicinity of the Pacific Ocean and in the Persian Gult, and (3) to provide resources to address intermediate and long range missile strikes by nations like Iran and North Korea.
We Should Adopt Strategies That Rely More Heavily On The Naval Resources Of Local Allies
U.S. military planners also need to stop assuming that the norm will be that the U.S. takes naval action without the involvement of our allies in a particular region who also have naval forces. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and the nations of Western Europe, for example, all have naval forces of their own that would be allied with the U.S. in any signficant future naval war.