War on the Rocks

Notes of Caution on the Navy's Forthcoming Force Structure Assessment

Former Deputy Director, Center for American Seapower
The USS Carl Vinson pulls into port in Danang, March 5, 2018 (LINH PHAM/AFP/Getty Images)
The USS Carl Vinson pulls into port in Danang, March 5, 2018 (LINH PHAM/AFP/Getty Images)

What happens when the U.S. Navy’s force structure planning is built on strategic assumptions that are superseded by a change in the Oval Office? In the case of the U.S. Navy, the right answer is to conduct a new force structure assessment, and the Trump administration’s recent release of overarching strategic guidance created a question as to whether the Navy would do so. Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems Vice Adm. William Merz answered that question recently while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, revealing that the Navy would perform an updated force structure assessment in response to the new National Defense Strategy. This is welcome news, as the current assessment  — released in the waning days of the Obama administration — called for a dramatically larger fleet of 355 ships (over the previous 308 ships called for in the assessment released in 2012) without definitive executive branch direction to do so. As I wrote in late 2016, the strategic assumptions the Navy used in its assessment were classified (as is the actual 2017 National Defense Strategy), but the assumptions used by the Navy then were not authoritative. And while I and most navalists applauded the bottom line advocated by the Navy, it was clear that there was an element of outgoing Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus thumbing his nose at Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (who resisted Mabus’ emphasis on shipbuilding) in the 2016 assessment.

With the recent release of definitive guidance from the Trump administration in the form of a National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, the Navy has what it needs to produce a useful and authoritative assessment, one that it can then use to build the Navy the nation needs, and to buttress its arguments in internal Pentagon budget battles in the years ahead. As skilled analysts on the Navy staff begin their work, I offer some unsolicited advice to shape their efforts.

It’s About Great Powers, Stupid

Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy make clear that the planning focus of the Navy should be China and Russia, with Iran, North Korea, and violent extremists remaining important, but somewhat de-emphasized. This does not mean a single-minded focus on high end conflict, as both China and Russia are adept in lower-intensity, hybrid activities. It does, however, mean a fleet large enough and possessed of a broad enough spectrum of capabilities to deter likely objects of Chinese and Russian aggression and if necessary, win general wars with them.

The Re-Emergence of Conventional Deterrence

One of the truly interesting parts of the National Security Strategy was the degree to which it directed a change in conventional deterrence strategy from one of punishment to one of denial. The force structure implications of this change for the Navy are important, driving as they must a shift from threatening the dispatch of overwhelming force from over the horizon to dislodge an aggressor after the fact, to one in which the aggressor is deterred by the likelihood of a powerful counter-attack from forces already in position. Additionally, these forces stationed forward must be capable of generating and maintaining a coherent targeting picture without reliance on external forces that must be flowed into the theater.

Numbers Matter, Lethality Matters

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work and I have had some interesting discussions on the relevance of “ship count” (or the size of the fleet as so measured) over the years. These exchanges are useful to gain an understanding of our general positions. To the extent that Work’s view on the primacy of capability over capacity (or numbers) has merit, it is within the overarching context of the Obama administration’s strategic guidance and the fiscal conditions that shaped it. More to the point, the Obama team generally did not embrace great power contention as the central planning factor for their defense program, and to the extent that great power conventional deterrence was featured in their plans, it was deterrence by punishment, rather than denial. Hence, the focus on overall fleet war-fighting capability over the size of the fleet.

The shift to conventional deterrence by denial alters the discussion in a manner that adds additional heft to the “size matters” argument. Namely, to great powers with numerous likely objectives for limited aggression in their maritime near abroad, the U.S. fleet must be postured forward in numbers. Additionally, those forces must be sufficiently lethal to raise the costs of pursuing those objectives.

This approach was at the heart of the Navy’s “distributed lethality” concept, which to his great credit, Work supported as deputy secretary of defense. Distributed lethality calls for the increase of individual platform lethality (by increasing offensive capability) and more widely dispersing those platforms in a way that

requires an adversary to account for many more targets, therein diluting available weapons assignment against any one platform while also stressing the adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

A more lethal and distributed force presents a potential adversary with a more difficult operational problem with which to contend. Keep in mind that the initial distributed lethality focus was a means to increase the deterrence value of forward deployed forces available in what was considered an insufficiently sized Navy that was not focused (primarily and authoritatively) on deterring great power conflict. Now that the Navy is so focused, forward deployed forces should not only be more capable, they should also be more numerous.

Don’t Re-invent the Wheel

Or at least don’t completely re-invent it. The February 2017 CSBA fleet architecture study (to which I contributed) contains within it a force structure proposal that is responsive to the centrality of great power competition, the case for a shift to conventional deterrence by denial, and the need for a force that is optimized to respond immediately to limited aggression by great powers where it is most likely to occur. The Navy would be wise to bring in the lead author of the study, Bryan Clark, for a chat if only to have him restate the methodology behind our conclusions, which could be enhanced by the Navy’s access to classified threat information and system capabilities.  A comparison among the 2012, 2016, and CSBA force structures is included below.

*CSBA’s force structure column represents that portion of the CSBA proposal that is analogous to the two Navy force structure assessments. CSBA’s overall architecture also includes considerable numbers (40 each) of extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles and extra-large unmanned surface vehicles.

The 2016 CSBA force structure — which is based around deterrence by denial of China and Russia — places a premium on more numerous, smaller surface combatants (including 40 missile patrol vessels) compared to the Navy’s 2016 force structure assessment. Additionally, CSBA advocates construction of a new, smaller class of aircraft carrier that would shoulder the load of most day-to-day naval presence missions around the world, while the large, nuclear carriers focus on preparation for high-end warfare with China or Russia.

The Fleet Architecture Will Change

CSBA deliberately used the term “fleet architecture” in its study. This is a broad term used to describe not only the force structure, but also relevant operational concepts, how the force is postured, required maintenance cycles, and the training cycles required to generate sufficient force forward from a given total force. Change any one variable in the architecture, and the force structure will change to achieve a given level of overall naval capability.

One such change seems evident from the new National Defense Strategy:

Be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable. Deterring or defeating long-term strategic competitors is a fundamentally different challenge than the regional adversaries that were the focus of previous strategies. Our strength and integrated actions with allies will demonstrate our commitment to deterring aggression, but our dynamic force employment, military posture, and operations must introduce unpredictability to adversary decision-makers.

This requirement for increased operational unpredictability will place considerable strain upon the current Navy fleet architecture, in which forces are trained and maintained under a readiness model known as the “Optimized Fleet Response Plan.” This approach began in 2014 in response to the perception that in the previous ten years, “high operational tempo [had] reduced the predictability of ship deployments for sailors and for the industrial base that supports ship repair and maintenance.”  To the extent that OFRP has been successful, it has been in delivering additional predictability. It is unclear whether this approach can remain useful in pursuing a strategy focusing on great power deterrence through an increased emphasis on unpredictability.

Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

The Navy should begin today — with the programs it already has — to move toward a fleet that is more capable of conventional deterrence against China and Russia. Two programs are worth mention: one as a good news story and one as something less positive.

The Navy is currently working with five competitive industry teams on conceptual designs for a new small surface combatant known as “FFG(X)”. This ship arose out of a growing sense that the Littoral Combat Ship class — while capable of performing the missions it was planned for — lacked the lethality and resilience necessary for the “stand and fight” requirements of conventional deterrence by denial, and the operational range and air defense capability required for high value/convoy escort. The Navy put considerable thought into the solicitation, and the ship it describes fits well into a naval force structure optimized for conventional deterrence by denial. Unlike the Littoral Combat Ship, the FFG(X) will be built with a specified set of government-provided, largely proven sensors, weapons, and command and control systems which when taken together, form the building blocks of a future fleet full of powerful, networked, and cooperative platforms. Able to prosecute adversary surface ships and submarines at extended ranges, FFG(X) will also field a cousin of the Navy’s SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar and variants of the Standard Missile family. These air defense upgrades (over the Littoral Combat Ship) will provide robust air and missile defense to itself and ships in company.

The Navy is on the right path with this ship, but to be successful, it will have to tightly control its own tendency to expand requirements so that it can afford to buy this ship in quantity. Given the Trump administration’s emphasis on conventional deterrence by denial, the current plan to build 20 FFG(X)(with 32 Littoral Combat Ships rounding out the 52-ship small surface combatant requirement) should be revised upward, even as the existing Littoral Combat Ships are upgraded to deliver additional combat punch. However, care must be taken to ensure that the FFG(X) does not increase in scope to the point where it begins to resemble a destroyer in size, capability, and cost. The fact that the Navy is specifying the major combat systems and weapons creates a situation in which the ship itself can be competed primarily on its acquisition cost.

A less successful acquisition program is the Navy’s carrier based unmanned air vehicle known as the MQ-25 Stingray, and in this case, the Navy has violated the first stanza of the mariner’s prayer often attributed to Sir Francis Drake:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore

Simply put, the MQ-25 sails too close to the shore, in that fear of failure appeared to cause the Navy to define an overly conservative requirement for the vehicle (the exact requirement is classified). While this requirement addresses a pressing need for modern carrier air wings (aerial refueling), it reportedly lacks capability for stealthy, contested strike. My colleague Jerry Hendrix has written eloquently about the MQ-25 and how its requirement has evolved.

While it fills an important need of the carrier air wing (aerial refueling), it does not build on the promising future of contested unmanned strike demonstrated by the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System from 2012 to 2015. Both China and Russia are pressing U.S. naval forces farther from the shore through a variety of anti-access and area denial capabilities, and the Navy needs to regain longer-range strike capabilities it gave up in the post-Cold War era. Deterring these powers means operating carrier-based aircraft that can conduct strike missions in the contested zone with an acceptable level of risk. It is unclear when the Navy will step up to this requirement.


The release of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy provide the Navy with clear, strategic guidance that can inform a new force structure assessment. The centrality of conventional deterrence in these documents and the shift to deterrence by denial should cause some change from the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, perhaps not in total fleet size so much as how that fleet is comprised.

The joy among many navalists at the prospect of a larger Navy fueled by the President’s campaign promises of the same has been somewhat dampened by the reality of how expensive digging itself out of the readiness hole will be and the glacial pace of the Navy’s plan to grow. That said, the Navy has a responsibility to do the analysis and put forward a new force structure assessment that flows logically from governing strategic direction and that states the requirement without budget-based self-editing. What then gets funded and built is up to the politicians. What should get built is the job of naval officers.