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The United States Navy:Quo Vadis?

Decisions in Washington always have important consequences for Canada

While the world is fixated on Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, another contest of enormous consequence is unfolding in Washington. There, the United States Navy (USN) is in a dangerous state of indecision about the future size, composition and roles of the service in the event of hostilities with the People’s Republic of China. That indecision – and all of the delays and uncertainties attendant thereto – is the product of a wide variety of factors: institutional culture, changing technologies, congressional politics, personalities, geography, competition for budgetary resources, and industrial capacity just to name a few.

This is an issue of important consequence for Canada as well.  Our recently released Indo-Pacific strategy, already seemingly in tatters given the recent diplomatic row with India, was clear in that China is regarded as “an increasingly disruptive global power.” Indeed, the Indo-Pacific strategy noted that Canada would augment its naval presence in the region, including the number of frigates deployed on forward naval presence operations designed to “push back against any unilateral actions that threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the East and South China Seas.” 

When it comes to the future of the USN, the story begins more than thirty years ago. The Cold War was bracketed by two intellectual bookends: the American diplomat, George Kennan’s, celebrated Long Telegram of 1946 in which he advanced the idea of the strategic containment of the Soviet Union and the Harvard-educated political scientist, Francis Fukuyama’s, essay, “The End of History and the Last Man” published in 1992. 

Of course, Fukuyama did not foresee the termination of historical forces. Rather, he saw the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy as the end of a long, evolutionary process. His view, and indeed the view in America in the decade between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, was triumphalist. The Cold War, a period both raw and incomprehensibly lethal, was over. Russia was prostrate; broken and bloodied. 

Commentators hailed the 1990s as America’s unipolar moment. This was always an exaggeration, a cartoon, but apart from China there appeared to be no rivals on the horizon. Even China, whose economic achievements were not just stellar but mesmerising, would, it was thought at the time, seamlessly integrate into the existing rules-based-international order. Certainly, that’s what a generation of China specialists maintained. As for the Chinese navy, back then known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN, it only had about one third of the vessels in the USN. Furthermore, Chinese submarines were considered old-fashioned and noisy and the PLAN had no aircraft carriers while the USN had a dozen nuclear-powered behemoths.

However, 9/11 was one of those powerful inflection points that set, in this case, the United States, on an entirely new course. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were supremely ingenious and audacious. That a band of amateurs from Saudi Arabia could bring the greatest nation on earth to its knees beggared imagination. Whatever the case, the War on Terror had begun and would absorb American wealth and attention for two decades. And if there were any concerns about China, they vanished in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

For decades, the USN, the world’s mightiest maritime force, enabled Washington to project power and influence to almost every corner of the globe. The country basked in a sense of exceptionalism, but it was a dangerous narcotic that blinded them to the speed with which the Chinese, breaking entirely with their own past, had continued to build up the PLAN’s “blue water” or ocean-going capabilities. By 2005, the PLAN was reported to have 200 warships; a testimony to the astonishing growth of Chinese commercial shipyards. 

On the other hand, and in the seven decades since the Eisenhower administration, the number of American shipyards capable of building large naval or merchant ships had fallen from 60 to seven. The inverse was true in China. Today, whereas the United States builds about 10 large commercial vessels a year, China builds about one thousand. Thus, by 2017 the PLAN boasted 300 warships, surpassing the number of vessels in the USN. 

The other implications of reduced shipyard capacity, particularly when you take into account specialised yards like the ones that build nuclear submarines or nuclear carriers is there is  almost no ability to expand production rates dramatically. Alarmed by the relentless growth of the PLAN, which could have at least 100 more warships than the USN by the mid-2030s, naval experts have campaigned for a significantly increased production rate in US yards but this is highly unlikely, particularly in view of nagging shortfalls in skilled labour. Furthermore, the US merchant marine is so small, counting less than 200 ships out of a global total of 44,000, that defence planners are also deeply concerned about the ability of that fleet to support sealift requirements in wartime, especially over the vast distances of the Pacific. 

To address the situation of falling warship numbers, in 2002-2003, the USN began construction of a new class of fast, lightly armed, relatively cheap vessels with only about forty crew members. The idea of reducing the size of ship’s companies was popular among policy makers at the time for at least three reasons: the difficulty of meeting USN recruiting targets, which is an ongoing phenomenon; the cost of personnel; and the seductive example of merchant ships that operate with very small crews compared to warships.

The new warships, known as Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) promised to fulfil a wide variety of roles. Modularity lay at the heart of the design. The plan was to have anti-submarine, mine detection, and surface attack modules that could be interchanged rapidly thereby transforming the vessel’s function within days. Roughly 50 of these 3,400-ton vessels were planned at a cost of $220 million a piece. At a stroke, the numerical gulf between the USN and PLAN would be cut in half.

However, the USN decided to have two prototypes built; the American defence contractor, Lockheed Martin, together with Martinette Marine, would build a monohull version in Wisconsin, while General Dynamics and the Australian shipbuilder Austal, would build a trimaran version in Alabama. At first glance this made good sense; have a competition between the two vessels, pick a winner, and proceed. This would guarantee that the USN got the very best warship going forward. 

But when it came time to choose between the two designs defence bureaucrats lost their nerve. Congress men and women began lobbying for the projects in their congressional districts and the media began highlighting the potential loss of jobs. The compromise was to build both classes, a decision which meant no commonality of spares or repairs and the natural evolution of ship’s companies that could not be transferred from one class to another. 

The result was the price per unit began to soar towards $700 million and more and more of the new ships began to experience embarrassing and inconvenient breakdowns. Cultural norms within the USN also led young captains to succumb to pressure to take their ships to sea when their vessels were not ready for operations. In many cases it was impossible to affect repairs because the contractors refused to share proprietary data with ship’s engineers. 

At more senior levels, officers were reluctant to be forthright with their superiors about the shortcomings of the LCS. As one naval veteran observed, there was a “…cancerous lack of candour” involved. The press began to pick up the scent describing the entire exercise as “one of the worst boondoggles in the military’s long history of buying overpriced and underperforming weapons”. 

Fifteen years into the LCS debacle the USN began decommissioning the vessels, like USS Sioux City, that was barely five years old. The “Little Crappy Ship”, as the LCS came to be known derisively, was not the only example of a navy that seemed to have lost its way. At the same time that the USN was struggling to realise the potential of the LCS, it was also committed to another class of ship, the giant, futuristic, 15,000 ton Zumwalt-class guided missile stealth destroyer. But as the cost of each ship reached $8 billion, the number on order was cut from 32 to just three that entered service between 2016 and 2021. 

This tale of acquisition woe is not singular. It would be manifestly unfair to imply that the USN is the only navy in the world that has failed abjectly with projects or has seen its carefully calculated plans upset by changes in enemy technologies, by pork-barrel politics, or inter-service rivalry. 

In the case of the USN, it decided to fall back on what was tried and true and build more Arleigh Burke-class, 9,700-ton destroyers. The lead ship in that class was launched in 1989, thirty-four years ago, so the Burkes could hardly be said to be cutting edge vessels even though it is possible to upgrade the “software” within an established hull.

While the Burkes, supplemented by a new build of Constellation-class frigates, may prove to be a welcome “fix” in the aftermath of the LCS and Zumwalt experiments, the USN is still confronted with a host of very serious challenges. Predictably, every twenty years or so, the opinion that large aircraft carriers are doomed to extinction also rears its head. Instead, the argument goes, why not have mini-carriers instead? This line of thought has been discredited repeatedly.  There is, for example, the problem of the marines, an arm of the USN. They have, by their very nature, requirements that most ship captains don’t face. They operate afloat and ashore and require specialised equipment. Accordingly, they need ships that can support these activities. 

And then there is the fact that the USN, like every other service, is on the brink of Star Wars; the unmanned revolution that will see robotic vehicles in the sky, on the surface, and underwater. Indeed, we are witnessing this in the Black Sea where the Ukrainian navy has had considerable success in sinking or containing the Russian Black Sea fleet. Some analysts suggest that robotic vehicles are the way to close the numbers gap with the PLAN. Others express concern about the ways in which the networks linking these vehicles are vulnerable to interference.  

Not matter what the future may bring, conflict at sea involving the PLAN will oblige the USN, and the Canadian Navy for that matter, to operate more than 10,000 kilometres from the West Coast of North America and the war in Ukraine has also brought home just how voracious modern warfare is when it comes to consumption. 

These problems are as old as the age of warfare and the USN, as a service, may be doing about as well as most other navies around the world. And yet, an examination of recent developments suggests a disturbing sense of irresolution and uncertainty about the way forward in US naval circles. The same might be said of Canada, and for both Washington and Ottawa, the stakes are particularly high.

Source : Opencanada