The US Navy’s surface fleet is too small and lacks the resilience and offensive capacity to support the US national defence strategy, according to a new report from the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).
The report criticises the US Navy for being too slow to respond to the emerging naval threat picture created by advances in sensors, submarines, anti-ship missiles and “smart mines”.
Authored by Senior Fellow Bryan Clark and Research Fellow Timothy A. Walton, the report explains that the surface fleet is “weighted” too heavily behind large vessels like destroyers that strain personnel levels and make it harder to achieve distributed operations.
The report explains that in a hypothetical conflict with China, the sensors these ships rely on would “likely be unavailable or create unacceptable vulnerabilities during combat”, hampering the ships’ combat abilities.
The analysts’ report adds that the financial requirements of the ships alone would also continue to present challenges for the US Navy. It says: “Perhaps of most concern is the fact that the current fleet is fiscally unsustainable due to the escalating costs to the crew, operate, and maintain today’s highly integrated manned surface combatants.”
The report details how the current structure of the US Navy means that in a potential conflict with China, the structure and capitalisation of the force would spark challenges. One of these being the inability of aircraft carriers to get close to adversaries to allow carrier air wings. The report says: “Carrier air wings will be constrained in the number of weapons they can deliver because they will need to operate at least 1,000 nm from significant enemy missile threats, such as those on the Chinese or Russian coasts.”
The biggest threat to the US Navy from China is that of its missile forces, which would deny the US Navy access to an area of operations in the event of a conflict.
The report says: “The balance between surface combatants’ proximity to targets and the need to defend surface forces from missile attack can be viewed in terms of a salvo competition.33 In this competition, surface forces operating close to an adversary’s territory will have to defend against larger potential weapons salvos because shorter-range ASMs are less expensive and likely to be more numerous than longer-range strike weapons.
“Furthermore, enemy weapons platforms like submarines, ships, and aircraft are able to launch more attacks closer to shore because they can rely on protection from mainland-based defences and more easily reload.” The report adds that in a conflict scenario the US Navy could find itself the target of up to 4,500 across a single day from a mix to land-to-sea, air-to-sea and ship-to-ship ordnance.
Developing a new force
To counteract the mix of budgetary, force, and threat challenges to the Navy, the CSBA report recommends a number of changes to help the US regain an advantage, adding that the challenges faced though “formidable”, are not “insurmountable”.
The report recommends that the US Navy’s surface fleet could effectively maintain its dominance by changing how it approaches naval operations. It says: “Instead of focusing solely on attrition, surface forces should pursue forms of manoeuvre warfare in which they seek to impose multiple mutually insoluble dilemmas on adversaries. Manoeuvre warfare is more appropriate than attrition-centric warfare for the operating environment of today’s US surface fleet, in which adversaries like China can achieve local superiority in salvo size and fleet capacity.
“Furthermore, the goal of US naval forces is primarily to deter conflict by convincing adversaries their aggression could be unsuccessful, not to seek attrition as a means of punishment only after the initiation of hostilities.”
This manoeuvre warfare approach would overwhelm the enemy through a “high operational tempo” and challenge decision making by creating multiple challenges to respond to at any given time. The report says this approach could be particularly effective against an adversary like China, saying: “Such an approach could challenge the PLA’s concept of System Destruction Warfare, in which PLA forces would attempt to disintegrate what the PLA considers a relatively fixed US system of system (SoS) architecture.
“Instead, US surface forces could generate numerous fluid effects chains that would be difficult for adversaries like China to assess and counter.”
Diversifying the fleet
In terms of the physical composition of the fleet, the report recommends a new mix of vessels for the US Navy, which would increase the complexity of the force and grow its offensive capabilities. The force proposed by the CSBA would include a large number of unmanned systems and reduce the number of large surface vessels that currently form the backbone of the US Navy.
The US Navy currently uses 104 large surface combatants like the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer; however, the report recommends shrinking this number to 78 to free up to the recourses and personnel to bolster over capabilities.
Like the Navy’s current force, the authors suggest maintaining a force of 52 fully manned small surface combatants. The report diverges from the current navy planned force however by recommending a huge push to develop and unmanned surface vessels. The report recommends a force mix of 96 unmanned corvettes or large unmanned surface vessels coupled with 110 medium unmanned surface vessels.
CSBA’s proposed fleet in comparison with the US Navy.
|Vessel||Proposed Fleet||US Navy|
|Large Surface Combatants||78||104|
|Fully Manned Small Surface Combatants||52||52|
The report explains that the proposed force would be cheaper to build and maintain once deployed than the US Navy’s current and planned force, saying: “CSBA’s proposed shipbuilding plan balances the need to implement a new surface fleet architecture with the imperative to manage expenses. It costs nearly $28bn less than the Navy’s FY 2020 plan with almost half the savings occurring during the first decade of the plan.
“Furthermore, CSBA’s proposed plan requires approximately $34bn less in operation and support funding than the Navy’s plan, primarily as a result of retiring cruisers and destroyers at the end of their service lives and fielding few large combatants that use automation and employ smaller crews.”
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