I spent way too much time yesterday reading this James Holmes report for The National Interest, on what the US Navy would look like if we rebuilt it from scratch. Not totally from scratch — strategic and operational needs must still compete with budgets, public will, and existing technologies in which we’re already heavily invested.
So with those constraints in mind, a new US Navy:
Run silent, run deep. If Congress has indeed capped U.S. maritime means more or less permanently, undersea warfare promises the biggest bang for limited bucks. Nuclear-powered submarines, or SSNs, constitute an enduring U.S. naval advantage. They can deny an adversary the use of the sea. If nothing else, then, submarines could impose a sort of mutual assured sea denial while naval commanders try to neutralize enemy shore-based forces by other means. Subs cannot command the sea, but they can clear it of hostile surface fleets. That’s a major contribution if also a negative one. SSNs, consequently, should have first claim on scarce shipbuilding dollars. But undersea combat need not involve all nukes, all the time. To proliferate subs while holding down costs, why not, say, buy Japanese? The U.S. Navy could purchase some Japanese Soryu-class diesel attack boats — acclaimed among the world’s best — and create a standing combined squadron in Japan. Naval officials should explore such options.
Demote the surface fleet. Traditional prestige platforms such as aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers would find themselves demoted in a rebooted U.S. Navy. Their capacity to spearhead the fight against a capable access denier — a power like China that fields a beatable navy but backs it up with a large shore-based arsenal — appears increasingly doubtful. Surface ships that have to await the outcome of the struggle for command? That sounds like Corbett’s definition of cruisers and the flotilla — large numbers of lightly armed combatants for policing relatively safe waters and projecting power ashore after the battle is won. Let’s act on his guidelines for platforms that exercise command. A mix of workhorse frigate- or corvette-like platforms for peacetime pursuits, combat platforms designed to operate in less threatening wartime theaters, and small missile craft for harrying access deniers in cramped Asian waters looks like the refounded U.S. Navy’s best bet. Naval leaders should fund the most capable, most numerous surface force they can — on a not-to-interfere basis with units that compete for maritime mastery.
Read the whole thing if you can spare the time; it’s fascinating stuff.
The need for the unequaled presence an aircraft carrier battle group provides won’t be going away in our lifetime. And the only way to provide that presence is with enough anti-missile destroyers, submarine hunters, and tenders to keep them supplied, afloat, and effective. I’m not sure what kind of amphibious capabilities we still need, given that another island-hopping campaign seems remote at best. And the V-22 Osprey changes in a very fundamental way what it means to assault a beach — why not go inland and grab an airfield first, then take the beach from behind, from land and well-supplied?
But the idea of using increased numbers of SSNs to perform the old sealane-control mission, safe from land-based antiship missiles…
…well, that’s just lovely.
Our Virginia-class boats can perform easily missions that were once difficult or dangerous for the Los Angeles-class subs they’re replacing. But we’re building too few of them to take on the role Holmes has envisioned.
Fewer destroyers and cruisers, more subs — is that a sane future for our fleet?