US Navy: a looming threat and a hollow force
The US Navy is not ready to fight
By SETH CROPSEY
JANUARY 6, 2023Print
The year 2022 was an underreported but brutal one for the US Navy. The service is in crisis. Retention issues, an aging fleet, the revelation of several command failures, and a blunt inability to articulate its strategic mission in an increasingly hostile bureaucratic environment bode ill for the navy’s ability to meet American strategic needs.
As the US faces a potential Indo-Pacific war that could spiral into a Eurasian conflagration, revitalizing the navy’s command culture and strategic thought is vital to American interests.
The roots of American naval atrophy run deep, far deeper than even the Cold War’s conclusion. American political culture ironically militates against naval power. In the context of Eurasia, the US is a maritime nation. https://31d8893c95107d5ebef30cf5b019baf0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html?n=0
The nation’s founders understood this, and thereby authorized within the constitution the maintenance of a navy without restriction, as opposed to the stringent limitations placed on peacetime ground forces. However, strategic conditions did not bring naval power to the fore until the early 20th century.
The US Navy played a vital role in preserving American access to Eurasian markets, from policing the Barbary Coast to securing Anglo-American trade routes alongside the Royal Navy in the Indo-Pacific. But until 1898, America’s wars were land wars, either of continental expansion or civil pacification.
The Civil War
During the American Civil War, the Federal and Confederate Armies engaged in land battles that resembled European warfare in scale. Nearly 200,000 men fought at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, making each engagement similar in size to Waterloo or Austerlitz.
But there was no great sea fight, no fleet action akin to Horatio Nelson’s victories at the Nile or Trafalgar. Rather, the naval war was attritional and logistical, with Confederate commerce raiders and blockade runners pressing the Federal Navy’s blockade, while Union ships supported amphibious assaults along the Confederate coastline.
The navy played a crucial role in the Union’s victory. Without it, the Confederacy would have received far greater supply from the European powers, seeing no risk in opposing a United States incapable of policing the North Atlantic. Yet after 1865, the US reoriented toward continental expansion once again, de-emphasizing naval power.https://31d8893c95107d5ebef30cf5b019baf0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html?n=0
Even the American relationship to significant naval power is unique. The US has maintained a world-class navy since the late 19th century, and since 1945 has maintained the world’s most powerful combat fleet. This navy defeated Spain in a major fleet action, imposed its will on the German U-Boat threat twice, facilitated an amphibious invasion of Europe, and defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Nevertheless, the United States is an industrial-agrarian power, a unique hybrid of continental traditions. The American founders understood the role of maritime power in the national interest largely because they were northeastern Anglophiles, not southern agrarians.
The Cold War
With the death of the Federalist Party and the rise of northern industry, the US discounted the role of naval power beyond immediate wartime needs. Thus the US maintained a large ground army in Europe throughout the Cold War: American strategic thought is comfortable with massed military engagements despite the American political tradition’s skepticism of permanent military deployments abroad.
The United States’ ability to maintain a globally dominant navy from 1945 to 1990 is the remarkable result of committed political leadership by naval officers and their congressional allies.
So it is unsurprising that the 1991 “Peace Dividend” fell hardest upon the navy. This is not simply a case of numerical decline – US Navy and Army personnel numbers fell by roughly similar proportions between 1990 and 2000, but the navy was nearly half of its Cold War size in 2000 as platforms were phased out rapidly.
The fundamental issue, however, was strategic. The US Army and Air Force had a purpose. In 1991 they fought a decisive combined-arms ground war against a predatory Iraq. Then the USAF, alongside army special operations forces (SOF), fought another messy but low-casualty war in the Balkans. After 2001, US SOF and air power dismantled the Taliban. In 2003, another air-ground invasion dismantled the Iraqi military.
Never mind that in each case the navy played a crucial supporting role. The troops needed to man the barricades were the army and marines, alongside precision-strike airmen. The future, insofar as it seemed in the 2000s, was asymmetric, unconventional, and littoral. It was also joint and transformational – the navy would need to leverage new technologies and re-conceptualize its strategic role.
Hence the first of the navy’s misfortunes, which still bedevil the service today. The F-35 program has finally delivered airframes, and the first Ford-class aircraft carrier has finally reached the fleet, both around a decade later than expected, notwithstanding their cost overruns.
The littoral combat ship debacle is equally embarrassing. The navy designed a small modular warship for various “green water” operations against a poorly defined threat. The resulting ship lacked the defensive capabilities to counter modern anti-ship missiles and the offensive capabilities to pose a threat to targets in the late-2010s.
The same force-development issues persist today. If all goes according to plans, the navy will deliver two Constellation-class frigates a year from 2026. But it took the service well over two years to authorize construction once an initial contract was awarded because the navy, predictably, pushed the Constellation class into the same bureaucratic processes and capability reviews as every other ship.
With the first ship only beginning construction in late 2022, the navy will be fortunate if it receives its 20 new ships by 2040. Meanwhile, the navy receives on average two new Virginia-class submarines a year, while it retires two Los Angeles-class boats. The submarine fleet, then, is static year-on-year, while various maintenance and overhaul delays disrupt deployment schedules even further.
And under the options articulated in its NavPlan – which overlooks how to implement it – the navy will shed large surface combatants, replacing them with still-notional unmanned ships. All this points to a shrinking fleet at least through the early 2030s.
The US Navy is nevertheless asked to do more with less. Operational tempo has increased since the Cold War. At any given time, around 30% of US Navy ships are deployed. Yet the US Navy has far fewer ships, and it will have even fewer in the coming decade.
Sailors are overworked without nearly enough rotation and training time. The results have not been good. Basic seamanship standards slipped throughout the 2010s, leading most notably to the two Indo-Pacific destroyer collisions. Navy ships routinely return to port shedding rust.
These difficulties are translating into wholesale command failures. The USS Bonhomme Richard disaster demonstrates the situation’s severity. The Bonnie Dick, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship – the backbone of American amphibious capabilities and the most flexible ship in the fleet – burned nearly to the waterline in July 2020. The navy formally accused a single sailor of arson and punished 20 others. Yet when the case went to trial, the accused was acquitted in just two weeks.
The command investigation had found that the Bonnie Dick’s damage-control facilities were non-functional: The ship’s automatic fire responses and firehoses were almost all in disrepair, and the Bonnie Dick’s hatches held open to enable shoddy power lines to snake throughout the ship. The navy sought, and failed, to concentrate its harshest punishment on a single sailor for a colossal command failure.
The Bonnie Dick and the attack submarine USS Miami, its predecessor in a fiery peacetime demise by eight years, were both scrapped. The two ships’ fate is a cautionary tale: The US faces its first naval peer competitor since World War II. The US lacks the secure repair facilities to receive and repair battle-damaged ships. If the navy could not repair Miami and later Bonnie Dick, what will happen if many more ships are damaged at once, or within weeks of each other, in a West Pacific war?
Just as the navy’s training standards fall and its deployment tempo remains the same, it also faces a recruiting dilemma. This is true throughout the military – the navy barely met its 2022 recruiting targets, while the US Army missed its objectives – but the navy has taken several radical steps to remedy its woes.
Most notably, it will increase the number of sailors it recruits from low-aptitude score brackets on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. This, combined with larger bonuses and a modified career progression scheme for senior sailors, may keep force numbers above their targets. But the quality of the individual sailor likely will decline, as will discipline, seamanship, and long-term military capacity.
Most distressing, however, is the navy’s total inability to articulate its strategic mission and ensure congressional support in the face of an unsupportive executive. Exercises at sea, training, logistics and planning all suggest an admiralty that is insufficiently bold in the face of a gathering storm. The pace of shipbuilding and virtually every other category of naval preparedness demonstrate that the most critical service in a West Pacific conflict does not believe that war is possible within the next decade.
Consistent with this, the current administration’s Defense Department actively seeks to ransack the military budget to pay for domestic priorities. The navy is first in the firing line for bureaucratic reasons. The defense secretary and chief of naval operations have been unable to withstand the political/bureaucratic winds.
Congressional intervention saved 12 ships and authorized additional funding for the US Navy and Marine Corps. But this was despite acrimonious exchanges with Congress throughout the year when the navy could not or would not produce a coherent long-term strategic vision.
The issue here is bureaucratic, strategic, and political. As it successfully did in the Cold War, the navy must articulate a strategic vision that it can take to Congress, one that includes a structured fleet plan capable of meeting the country’s defense needs. This, in turn, requires far greater funding, both for ships and personnel to attract and maintain real talent.
The US spends on defense a proportion of GDP similar to that of the late 1990s, a completely unacceptable state of affairs given the accelerating threat from China. A clear strategic vision will allow the navy’s allies in Congress to push back against President Joe Biden’s administration and allocate for it the funding it needs to grow the force.