If one had the wherewithal to do everything and there was no competition, strategy would hardly be necessary. The global maritime environment approached something like that for the U.S. Navy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite a force reduction from almost 600 ships to today’s fleet of less than 300, the lack of serious competition on the high seas allowed the Navy to focus almost exclusively on presence; its default “strategy” being to fulfill the requests for forces by the regional combatant commanders as best it could.
A series of documents widely viewed as strategies (the “…From the Sea” series, and 2007’s “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” and its successor) had more to do with strategic communication than with the deployment of forces or their size and characteristics. But the resurgence of Russia and the rise of China with its increasingly powerful navy, along with budgetary constrictions brought about by sequestration, have forced the Navy into a situation requiring difficult choices. The latest was just revealed in the 2020 budget—a controversial decision to forego the midlife refueling of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75).
There have been differing reports on how the Navy and the Department of Defense arrived at the decision, but regardless of what happened, the strategic choice is to take more risk with day-to-day presence so investments can be made to develop the ability to defeat the Chinese Navy if war breaks out. Such a decision probably should have been made 5–10 years ago, but it is now absolutely necessary.
China is building an advanced military, including what is becoming a powerful, blue-water navy, to keep the United States from effectively intervening in an invasion of Taiwan; contesting Beijing’s territorial claims to the South China Sea; preventing China’s seizure of Japanese islands—in essence elbowing the U.S. Navy out of East Asia. Up to now the U.S. Navy has enjoyed a clear edge—enough, presumably, to deter any overt military aggression—but that edge is eroding in both quantity and technological capability. China has deployed thousands of land-based and sea-based missiles aimed at neutralizing the carrier battle groups that constitute the core of the Navy’s striking power. This has spawned considerable discussion about the continued viability of U.S. aircraft carriers. For its part, the Navy has been working on a new operational concept it calls distributed maritime operations (DMO), diversifying its striking power through the increased use of various kinds of missiles and a variety of unmanned platforms and systems. Ostensibly, DMO better permits the Navy to match risk and reward. That is, taking carriers into a heavily defended littoral or antiaccess/area denial zone in a fight that may only have regional implications represents a mismatch between strategic risk and gain. Regardless of whether carriers are viable or not, this mismatch is a strategic vulnerability for the United States, and could hamstring a President’s decision-making.
The problem with a DMO concept that relies on advanced weaponry and systems is that nobody knows exactly how it would work. It is one thing to conduct wargames and computer simulations, but in the end, prototypes must be built and fleet exercises run. This will require a lot of money that previous budgets have not included. The Navy has to find the money somewhere, and its answer in the 2020 budget was to forego the Harry S. Truman’s midlife refueling. If Congress insists on refueling the Harry S. Truman and adds money to the Navy’s budget for it, there would be little objection. But if it forces the Navy to do it within the current budget, there should be strenuous objection from anyone who understands the gravity of the emerging threat from China and Russia.
The Navy faced an analogous situation in the 1920s. At that point Japan was the thundercloud on the horizon and the emergence of the airplane portended the eclipse of the battleship as the main capital ship. With the Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922 facilitating the decision, the Navy stopped constructing two large ships as battle cruisers and instead completed them as aircraft carriers to allow experimentation and development of sea-based aviation. That turned out to be a timely strategic investment as events in the Pacific subsequently demonstrated. There is no equivalent of the Washington Naval Treaty to channel Navy investment today, so the decision to trade the Harry S. Truman for experimentation and development took some courage and was bound to elicit objection from both traditionalists and from those who have equity in nuclear aircraft carriers.
But there still remains the issue of presence. At some point in the next decade the Harry S.Truman will be retired, limiting the CVN fleet to 10, with only 8 or 9 available due to potential delays in new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers achieving operational readiness and at least one Nimitz-class carrier undergoing midlife refueling. Thus, geographic combatant commanders no longer will be able to use aircraft carriers as they have been; a new strategy for forward presence will be needed.
Forward presence has been the Navy’s principal mission since the onset of the Cold War, and the carrier strike group has been the unit of choice due to its ability to project power ashore on short notice without the United States having to seek permission from another country for forward basing. However, in many cases a carrier’s power was latent, a threat that would not be put to use. Moreover, the Navy increasingly employs Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles when the application of firepower is required. This avoids the risk of aircraft shoot-downs and prisoners of war, such as occurred in the 1983 Lebanon raid, and is more responsive since there usually are Tomahawk-equipped submarines or destroyers in position to deliver a response sooner than an aircraft carrier can. Another factor is the deployment of the new F-35Bs on board large-deck amphibious ships, effectively turning them into light aircraft carriers. As the F-35 populates these decks, the ships could be used in lieu of CVNs. Finally, the Royal Navy is in the process of building two sizeable aircraft carriers, and, along with France’s nuclear-powered carrier, also could fill certain gaps in presence, understanding they would not be under U.S. control. Finally, the U.S. geographic combatant commanders may have gotten so used to having aircraft carriers at their disposal they naturally take their presence for granted when security problems arise in their areas of responsibility. However, combatant commander demand is not the same thing as strategic necessity from a global perspective.
I directed the Naval War College research project that supported the development of the 2007 Cooperative Seapower 21 document. In our various games, discussions, and research we could not establish a clear link between Navy day-to-day forward presence and desired political outcomes. Being able to do so would be of great value to the Navy as it would constitute a compelling basis for justifying force structure. In the end, we came to see forward presence as “faith-based”—a massive exercise in strategic hedging that had become so embedded in U.S. strategic culture its efficacy was taken as axiomatic. There are certainly some tangible benefits to forward presence, such as having forces readily available if something occurs, but there is little hard evidence that deployed naval forces have actually deterred anything or coerced anyone into doing something they would not have otherwise done. Thus, the fleet has been allowed to shrink to half its Cold War size and lapse into a state of disrepair and poor readiness from overuse without either national outcry (prior to the two fatal collisions in the Pacific) or strategic catastrophe. There now seems to be sufficient strategic wiggle room to retire a Nimitz-class carrier early, especially if doing so frees funding to develop new kinds of high-end warfare capability.
The decision to defer the Harry S. Truman’s refueling coupled with the two-carrier buy of the Gerald R. Ford class reflects a focus on high-end warfighting. With its electromagnetic launch and advanced arresting gear systems, the Ford class will be able to operate a wider variety of aircraft. This will be critical as new types of unmanned aircraft are developed. In another analogy, during the interwar years the Navy developed the Yorktown-class aircraft carrier with a larger displacement and flight deck in anticipation of larger and heavier combat aircraft. This turned out to be a timely strategic investment as well. There is reason to think that carriers will continue to be a critical warfighting asset, perhaps not as central as in the past, but still providing a key edge in forward operations, and the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, even if there are fewer of them, could provide the needed edge.1
The Navy has two fundamental functions—forward presence and combat readiness. When the necessary form of combat readiness consisted of power projection from forward presence, and when the fleet was of sufficient size, the Navy had no need to make zero-sum strategic choices between presence and combat capability. Now it does, because combat readiness is taking on a new and not well understood nature. At this point combat readiness must be the priority, and the Navy’s decision to pursue it at the expense of some forward presence is the right one—and long overdue.
1. See Robert C. Rubel, “Use Carriers Differently in a High End Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 9 (September 2018); and “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2011.