Skip to main content
U.S. aircraft assigned to Carrier Air Wing 9 launch from the flight deck of the USS John C. Stennis in the Pacific Ocean, May 1, 2015. (DoD/Released)

"You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat": Principles for Getting the U.S Navy Right

Bryan McGrath

Readers old enough to remember the phenomenon that was the movie “Jaws” in the mid-1970’s will understand the reference in the title of this piece. It is uttered by Amity Police Chief Martin Brody after he first lays eyes on the 30-foot shark that had been menacing his coastal town. Brody says these words after an instantaneous analysis of the threat (the shark) and the capabilities of the small fishing boat and crew upon which he was sailing. Based on press reports in the last week, it seems that something like this is beginning to occur among senior Navy leaders as they reconcile the reality of re-emerging great power competition with the size and composition of today’s U.S. Navy. Metaphorically, they are “gonna need a bigger boat.”

After 10 years of writing about the mismatch between the threat and the size of the Navy, I am encouraged by Navy leadership’s awakening to this reality, albeit belated. By way of entirely unsolicited advice (you get what you pay for), I offer the following “First Principles” to guide the effort to describe the right fleet for the future.

The important thing, is that the important thing remains the important thing. Deterrence of great power conflict is the single most important strategic goal that the Navy should be pursuing. All other interests should be subordinated to this aim. The fleet must be sized and shaped in a manner that permits both combat-credible and presence forces to be globally postured in sufficient numbers to provide deterrence and assurance where our interests are most threatened. An important component of this posture is the ability to maintain it continuously and indefinitely, with overwhelming combat power available to surge forward when needed. Conventional deterrence is a function of the localized balance of power. War-winning naval forces are a function of both forward-deployed power and reserve capacity able to be surged forward in response to crises. Both must be accounted for in the architecture.

This is a Department of the Navy issue, not just a Navy issue. The forces organized, trained, and equipped within the Department of the Navy — the Navy and Marine Corps — provide combatant commanders with a considerable portion of the capability and capacity needed on a day to day basis to provide deterrence and assurance in their theaters. This powerful combination of the world’s most lethal middleweight land force with the world’s most powerful and mobile air force (aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and air wings), and the world’s most commanding surface and sub-surface force, must achieve a higher level of operational and organizational synchronization and integration within those forces for it to deliver upon its promise. Resource trades among the various components of American seapower should be on the table as a fleet architecture emerges to meet the challenges of deterring great power conflict. There is no “Navy” or “Marine Corps” or “aviation” or “submarine” money. There is seapower money, and it should be allocated in a manner that ignores tribal boundaries and, instead, creates a more integrated maritime sea control and power projection force.

Geo-strategy matters. By way of exerting upward pressure on national strategy and policy, Navy and Marine Corps leaders should work to strengthen partnerships with geographically strategic nations such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and India even as existing partnerships with Spain, Turkey, Australia, the Philippines, and Japan are nurtured. Great power conflict will be global, and deterring it demands that we demonstrate in peacetime the operational flexibility to deploy and employ forces that contribute to and impose sea control when and where it is needed, to include land-based maritime patrol and surveillance forces, manned and unmanned.

Be where U.S. interests are most threatened. American seapower largely withdrew from Europe at the end of the Cold War, a rational reaction to the fall of the Soviet Union. It is time for U.S. naval forces to return. Increased Russian aggression in Europe and its garrisoning of air and naval forces in Syria would alone justify a return of credible naval combat power to the Mediterranean, even in the absence of threats elsewhere. However, China’s increasing desire to reduce U.S. influence in the Pacific as well as our enduring interest in stability in the Middle East require additional U.S. naval power forward, where it can quickly swing from theater to theater to respond to tensions and crises. Mediterranean-based naval forces are far better postured for such swing deployments than those based in the U.S. Additionally, naval forces must again become comfortable with operating in the North Atlantic and in Scandinavian home waters, skills that will only build with regular fleet operations in these areas — operations that current force structure does not permit.

Distribute and increase combat power. Navy leadership has enthusiastically embraced the concept of distributed lethality, in which individual platform lethality is increased through the addition of longer range and more capable weapons, even as the force is dispersed geographically in order to create a more difficult targeting environment for adversaries. There is much wisdom in this concept, but it should not become an excuse for force structure cannibalization without a sound architectural basis. What I mean is that there are some navalists who would argue that we should cut the carrier force by a few ships and apply those resources to more numerous (and distributed) platforms — a variation on the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory. I disagree with this approach for two main reasons, the first of which is that in a potential great power war, the carrier force will be a considerable contribution to victory, something my Hudson Institute colleagues and I wrote about last year. Secondly, this approach takes current resources allocated to naval power as a given, something that strikes me as short-sighted as we confront the reality of increasing great power tension.

Logistics, logistics, logistics. Because Navy leadership seems to agree that the Navy needs to grow and be more widely distributed geographically, it is rational to consider the logistics necessary to support such a fleet. Today’s logistics force is pitifully small to support even the peacetime operations of our too small Navy. Should that fleet be called into war, we would quickly realize that our reach exceeds our grasp and that the culprit is insufficient prepositioning, forward-based ship repair and re-arming capacity, and oilers and other logistics ships designed to supply the fleet. Navy leaders must account for both the actual requirement and combat attrition, the latter of which has been (in my experience) consistently hand-waved in previous force structure assessments.

State what you need, not what you think we can afford. While I am not advocating a resource unconstrained approach, I am advocating that Department of the Navy leadership devise a compelling strategic narrative of how naval forces can best serve to deter great power war, articulate where those forces must be arrayed and the desired level of surge capacity to support them, and then balance that force with the warfighting-only requirements generated by the formal, numbered war plans. Go where the analysis takes you and state that number as the requirement. The executive branch and Congress can then determine the extent to which they wish to fulfill that requirement, but do not negotiate with yourselves.

At the recent Future of War Conference, CNO Admiral John Richardson said the following: “I want to be the best at not fighting Russia and China.” This should not be considered a statement of reticence, but resolve. My impression is that Richardson is a serious man with a clear-eyed view of the threat for which he must prepare the Navy. An appropriate force structure requirement is the necessary first step in that process.

Related Articles

Behind Enemy Transmission Lines

Idalia Friedson

The battle to protect our electric grid requires development of quantum cybersecurity ...

Continue Reading

Trump Leaves Future of Iran Nuclear Deal to Congress

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

On October 14th, Rebeccah Heinrichs appeared on Fox Business to discuss President Trump's announcement that he will not recertify the Iran deal...

Watch Now

The New U.S. Iran Strategy

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

The new U.S. Iran strategy is comprehensive, tough, and prudent...

Continue Reading