by DAVID AXE
Same ships, different concept.
In 2006, the U.S. Navy announced its intention to build a bigger fleet, boosting its main battle force from 280 ships to at least 313 by the 2020s. “We need to stop getting smaller,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, then Chief of Naval Operations. His emphasis was on “presence” — that is, a large number of ships forward-deployed across the globe as a deterrent against pirates, smugglers, rogue states and potential peer competitors … a constant reminder of America’s naval might. It was a Navy designed for preserving the peace.
Just six years later, that plan is dead. Rising costs and budget cuts prevented the Navy from ever boosting ship numbers. Today the combat fleet is roughly the same size as it was in 2006. Last fall the Navy began backing away from the 313 number. And with the simultaneous release of the Obama Administration’s new Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2013-2017 budget outline, it’s official: the Navy will no longer pursue a bigger fleet, now or in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert has stated the Navy is likely to shrink from its current level by 2025. Over the next five years the Navy wants to decommission early seven cruisers and several amphibious and auxiliary ships — a move that will require Congress’ consent. Planned shipbuilding rates have been cut, too, with several new submarines and auxiliaries bumped beyond 2017. For the next few years the Navy will maintain a force of around 90 major surface warships plus 11 aircraft carriers, nine large-deck assault ships and 50 or so attack submarines. Small combatants, amphibious docks, auxiliaries and ballistic-missile subs will round out the fleet.
Instead of building a larger fleet capable of constant, global presence, the plan is to boost the sensors, communications and weapons of a reduced fleet, allowing it to defeat increasingly powerful enemies at ever-greater range. Read: China and Iran. The Navy is building a long-range strike complex for focused warfare rather than a constabulary force. “Presence” missions will suffer. High-end combat will benefit.
In short, the Navy of the near future will be optimized for war rather than peace. The shift reflects the parallel development of the so-called “AirSea Battle” plan, which charts ways the Navy and Air Force can better share information and resources during major combat.
The Navy outlined its revamped vision in a pair of high-profile forums. Greenert wrote an article for the December issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine that advocated “payloads over platforms.”
“We will need to shift from a focus on platforms to instead focus on what the platform carries,” Greenert continued. The future fleet “will incorporate faster, longer-range, and more sophisticated weapons from ships, aircraft and submarines.” He called out Raytheon’s Tomahawk cruise missile (deployed on ships and subs) and the Lockheed Martin-built Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missile (fired by aircraft) as examples. The Navy has also been tinkering with hypersonic missiles.
And robots, too. Greenert praised the Navy’s experiments with the Northrop Grumman X-47B carrier-capable drone demonstrator– part of an initiative aimed at fielding an armed, jet-powered, stealthy unmanned warplane by 2020. He also highlighted Northrop’s MQ-8B Fire Scout drone helicopter, which experienced its major combat debut over Libya last year and could gain weapons in the near future. Finally, Greenert advocated adding armed underwater robots to the U.S. submarine fleet. All three systems could extend the reach of the Navy’s sensors and weapons, allowing fewer vessels to control larger swaths of sea.
At the Surface Navy Association conference in Washington, D.C., in January, Navy Undersecretary Bob Work insisted a smaller fleet equipped with new payloads and electronic systems can have the same combat power as a less sophisticated fleet that’s more than twice as large. He said today’s 280-ship Navy is at least as powerful as the 600-ship Navy planned during the 1980s. “The numbers don’t matter,” he said.
That’s true only inasmuch as the Navy’s strategy has changed. Numbers do matter when presence is the goal. But Work is right: numbers matter less in the construction of the long-range strike complex that represents the Navy’s current preoccupation. Robots and missiles will make up the difference.