Thought I forgot about this series, didn’t you?
Well, I didn’t forget about it. But in case you hadn’t noticed, global events over the past few months had distracted me some. While the war in Ukraine is by no means over and we should still pay close attention to it, I think I at least have sufficient breathing room right now to write about something else for a bit (I don’t want to become a single-issue commentator anyway). So, now seems as good a time as any to return to imagining how I would restructure the U.S. military in a hypothetical future where it was being used to more appropriate ends (if you’re new to this, I’d suggest starting back at part one and working your way up to this).
We’ve already talked about everyone’s favorite green machine, the U.S. Army. Now it’s time to take to the waves and try to unfuck what is currently the most fucked of all the services: the U.S. Navy. Oh, don’t get me wrong: all branches of the military are fucked up, but to put an Orwellian spin on it: some are more fucked up than others (and the some in this case is the Navy). So, anchors aweigh and full speed ahead: let’s kick this pig.
The U.S. Navy: America’s Floating Disaster Factory
Oh, U.S. Navy. You’re such a glorious trainwreck of an armed service. Whether you’re driving your ships into other ships, getting embroiled in massive and now infamous corruption scandals, or engineering procurement boondoggles that would make all the other services blush by comparison, you really are leading the pack when it comes to being the problem child of the Armed Forces. Add in the fact that out of all the services, you’re the one that’s gone the longest (since the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944) without actually fighting anyone who can give you a run for your money, and you’re just a recipe for disaster (beyond the minor ones you cause just by existing).
While it may seem tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, in a world where wars do unfortunately need to be fought and your military needs to move vast distances in order to fight them, a Navy is essential. In the event of a large scale war, the vast majority of the military’s heavy equipment and supplies will have to be moved by ship – as does the vast majority of the world’s trade in general. While air travel may be good for rapid deploying light forces and some equipment, moving an entire force by air is highly inefficient in terms of time, energy, efficiency, and more. As long as you’re going to need to move most of your forces and supplies by sea, and most of what keeps the world running moves by sea, you’ll need forces to control the sea and do battle on and from it as needed.
With that requirement laid out pretty clearly, how do you solve a problem like the U.S. Navy? I’ll give you a bottom-line up front on that now: cutting back in some areas and doubling down on others in terms of types of ships, and adopting a completely different strategic mindset.
The Carrier is Dead; Long Live the Carrier
I’m going to tell you right now: if you’re a big fan of aircraft carriers and carrier aviation, you’re probably not going to like what I have to say next.
However, I will give anyone of that disposition some small reassurance now: I don’t think aircraft carriers are obsolete, per say. I think they still have a use case. However, I think that use case has become – and will continue to become – far more limited as new capabilities and concepts in warfare are developed (and I’ll get more into why I think that in a few paragraphs).
The aircraft carrier was a game changer when it first saw combat in World War II, after having been developed between the two World Wars. It quickly rendered the battleship – the previous capital ship of naval warfare – all but obsolete and has dominated the high seas ever since. But now, crucial developments in military technology threaten to knock the carrier off its throne.
This is not to say that carriers have always been invincible. A quick peek at all the carriers lost in combat by all participants in World War II will show you that was never the case and that the carrier has always had threats. But those threats have evolved significantly to a point where the push and pull of advantage between the carrier and its counters is shifting in the latter’s favor.
The biggest threat to the carrier – and warships in general today – are anti-ship missiles (AShMs). These aren’t exactly new and have been a threat for a long time, but to be a true threat meant getting a platform carrying them – be it a ship, an aircraft, or a land-based launcher – close enough to fire and then getting the missile past all the carrier’s defenses (such as the AEGIS Combat System or Close-In Weapons Systems gatling guns). But missiles have increased dramatically in sophistication in recent years, extending their range and their precision. When you compare the range of the U.S. Navy’s standard anti-ship missile for the past forty years – the Harpoon – to the YJ-18 of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Harpoon is rapidly becoming outclassed (which is part of why the Navy has been working feverishly to deploy an anti-ship variant of the longer-ranged Tomahawk cruise missile to the fleet in recent years). There’s also the unfortunate fact that, whatever defenses you have – or are building – they could always be saturated by more missiles.
But extended range models of standard anti-ship missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) aren’t the only worry on the high seas. Now you also have to contend with a burgeoning new class of anti-ship missile: the anti-ship ballistic missile – like China’s DF-21D with a potential range of over 1300 miles. While ASCMs like the YJ-18 and Maritime Strike Tomahawk already have generous ranges, a ASBM puts an ASCM to shame with its range. An adversary with ASBMs on mobile launchers could position them all along its coastline – or even further inland depending on how extensive its range is – and fire on targets thousands of miles out at sea. And if you deployed an ASBM onboard a surface ship or submarine – as China reportedly may be planning on? Then you’d have even fewer places to hide that were out of range.
Obviously, these weapons aren’t infallible or invincible – no weapon is. Even if you have a fancy missile with a long range, you still need to find and fix your target before you can engage it, and the oceans are vast. But technology is improving on that front as well, especially when it comes to space-based sensors. What this all adds up to is a much harder time for large surface fleets in a major war at sea. While war on the ocean’s surface isn’t going anywhere, its certainly undergoing a rethink.
The carrier requires the biggest rethink in light of these changes, seeing that for any nation that possesses them (like the United States which possesses eleven – more than any other carrier possessing country), is going to be the largest and most conspicuous target on the water. If you do lose one, you stand to lose – in the case of a Nimitz-class – upwards of over 5000 officers and crew and as many as ninety aircraft and helicopters on top of the nearly 10 billion USD carrier itself. While the carrier will still have defenses both on board and in its accompanying battle group, as mentioned before those defenses are less certain in the face of technological developments and also potentially with sheer numbers. An AEGIS missile-defense system may be good, but if you keep firing enough relatively cheap anti-ship missiles at a group of ships, sooner or later one will get through (or the defender will just potentially run out of ammo first).
Again, carriers aren’t completely obsolete. Having a mobile platform capable of launching and retrieving both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft at sea is still useful. Not every potential adversary in the future will have the advanced anti-ship capabilities that some of the most sophisticated militaries in the world are developing or even marketing. There’s still a number of countries around the world that see value in having carriers – including China, which has a third on the way with a fourth possibly in the works. However, maybe like how most other countries in the world that have carriers only have one, two, or at most a handful, we don’t need ten or twelve. It’s an asset that is useful in some situations, but not in all situations. I can’t say for sure how many carriers we should have, but I can say we definitely don’t need as many as we have now and that the final number should ultimately be based on the scenarios we see as most likely and the carrier’s actual role in them.
The few carriers that you’ll hang onto don’t have to be as big as a massive Nimitz or Ford-class “supercarrier” either. Take for example the French Charles de Gaulle-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – the only other currently operational conventional “flattop” carrier not in U.S. Navy service. Though at full load it is less than half the tonnage of a Nimitz class carrier, it still carries an air wing of up to 40 aircraft, including multirole fighters, support helicopters, airborne early warning and control aircraft, and more. It does all this with less than half the compliment of a Nimitz class. In a much-reduced role for carriers for the U.S. Navy, several of this size would still go a long way. And this is before we even go down the rabbit hole of STOBAR and STOL carriers – which most other countries have, but I just don’t have time to get into right now. Basically, you got proven options to go smaller and fewer with.
The bottom line for carriers is that they are not obsolete, but their application will become more limited and focused. One way or another, they’re going to have to operate in more permissive environments – either in warzones where extensive anti-ship threats are less pervasive, or in warzones where the anti-ship threat from all domains has been degraded enough to allow them to come in and support the forces that are already doing battle. Carriers still have a use, but more and bigger is not the way forward. The way forward is fewer, smaller, and more smartly used.
“Haha Missile Go ‘Woosh’”
The Navy doesn’t appear to be blind to the changing landscape in maritime warfare, which is why it’s been pushing its concept of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). As with most military concepts, a lot of it is pedantic and inscrutable, but the basic idea of DMO is to spread ships out further rather than concentrating them in easier to find and target groups – keeping them connected and coordinated as they do so. The idea is to create targeting problems for an enemy with a large – but not infinite – number of long-range missiles of various types; to make it harder to find and fix targets and make it more difficult for them to choose where to utilize finite resources and munitions.
This is a good first step, but the Navy is doing this while still clinging to the concept of the carrier as it continues to forge ahead with the new Ford-class to replace the Nimitz (which is just as large and has been rife with problems throughout development as all recent Navy ships have been). Meanwhile, the Navy continues to debate with itself and Congress just how many ships it should have (or how many it can really afford instead of giving us all health care and forgiving my student loans – FORGIVE MY FUCKING STUDENT LOANS, JOE).
This brings us to the second half of why fewer and smaller carriers are better – aside from them just becoming more vulnerable targets that offer an adversary a lot of gain from their destruction while offering their operator less and less utility. By having fewer and smaller carriers, you free up a vast amount of resources to put into areas where you get more bang for your naval buck (or send some of that money back to us peasants to build roads, schools, hospitals, etc. but what do I know I’m just a dumb socialist).
Basically, if modern naval warfare is a glorified missile duel, you’re going to want more missile slingers, and right now carriers are taking up resources that could not only be freed up for missile-launching ships but would get more value per ship if you chose to focus on that. You could buy a larger number of smaller ships like frigates and destroyers that present a harder to find target but still have considerable firepower. This applies not just to surface ships, but also missile submarines that could fire land-attack missiles and AShMs as well as torpedoes, and are even more difficult to find in the open ocean (I could go on a whole thing here about anti-submarine warfare but just rest assured that even under the best of conditions ASW is extremely difficult to do; oh, and seeing how ASW is hard to do, maybe if carriers weren’t sucking up so much manpower and resources you could focus on more ASW ships and aircraft)
The aircraft are another part of the equation on why cutting back on carriers gets you more, because not only do you no longer have to worry about the carrier but then also about supporting the numerous aircraft that it carries with munitions, fuel, maintenance, etc. Again, that’s resources you can divert elsewhere for more effectiveness (or again, back to actually trying to improve civil society somewhat). If your carrier is so vulnerable that moving close enough to an operational area to deploy its aircraft poses too much of a risk to the carrier, then maybe you’re better off hitting whatever you would have hit with aircraft with missiles delivered by ship, land-based launchers, or long-range bombers and other aircraft that can carry missiles to a stand-off distance and then fire them and turn right back around. Maybe the aircrews and maintenance crews might be better used in another capacity rather than sailing around on an airstrip that is only useful if it risks making itself a gigantic target.
Also, while I’m always the guy who cautions people not to make Skynet real, this is an area where unmanned vehicles could play a critical role. While I’m very much against making drones that can think and operate on their own, I think a more sensible road forward in this area for all domains is “manned-machine teaming,” where you have several unmanned vehicles that respond to the orders of a human or humans in a manned system and share information between the systems. In this case, instead of having a surface action group of three manned warships, you could have one where there’s one manned warship acting as the command ship, with a handful of unmanned ships essentially acting as floating, self-propelled missile launchers. Not only does not having to have crew on board those ships help you cut back on numerous costs and feel the potential loss of a ship less, but you could also send an unmanned ship into areas that would be more of a risk for a ship with personnel on board. I’m never in favor of creating weapons that operate without any human control, but this is an area where they can act as a force multiplier.
Putting An End to “Everywhere and Nowhere”
I don’t want anyone to be under the illusion that if you just got rid of most of the Navy’s carriers and bought a bunch of ships that just fired missiles that everything would be peachy keen with the service. While that would go a long way in pushing the Navy towards what it ought to be, it is only one part of the equation. There are obviously many other issues that the Navy – as the military as a whole – struggles with. I can’t go into all of them here, but I can go into one big issue that has led the Navy to where it is today and that’s it’s the idea at the core of how it currently operates: the obsession with presence.
At the end of the Cold War with the “peace dividend” that was bought and the cutbacks and drawdowns that ensued, the Navy was faced with a difficult choice with how it would structure itself and operate going forward in the post-Cold War world. For a myriad of reasons, the choice that it ultimately made was to prioritize a global presence above all else, rather than an actual ability to fight a war at sea. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work lays this out in a piece for the U.S. Naval Institute (and while he immediately loses credibility in my book for referencing Samuel Huntington, he does make some good points). In a more ideologically aware reading of Work’s analysis, presence was seen as critical to demonstrating the Navy’s worth in a post-Cold War world without a major adversary, preserving American influence around the world by constantly being a reminder of American military might, and also potentially even deterring wars from breaking out through the constant presence of substantial military power.
Obviously, this did not work out. Countless wars have broken out since the end of the Cold War (some of them by our own doing) that were not deterred by constant U.S. Navy presence. Likewise, the degree to which the United States holds influence over the world compared to its fleeting moment of hyperpower in the 1990s is debatable. All the Navy has to show for it in return is a service pushed to the limit. A service that, despite being among the largest and best equipped navies in the world, many times seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, jumping back and forth between places like a 90s sitcom character trying to be with two dates at the same restaurant. A service that, despite having several hundred thousand personnel, runs them ragged to the point they’re crashing ships into one another out of exhaustion and poor training. The U.S. Navy may not be to the point of the Russian Navy (yet), but on a long enough timeline without serious change it’s not hard to imagine it getting there.
One of my oft returned to concepts is the idea that empire is actually toxic to a military. Maintaining empire by necessity requires putting pressure and stress on a military that continuously erodes its effectiveness, professional culture, morale, equipment, and more. You see this in the case of the Navy’s focus on presence in the post-Cold War era, scattering its ships to the four corners of the globe, often with a mission no more specific than “to be there.” Now, even as it’s faced with a potentially serious challenger in the form of the ever-growing Chinese PLAN, the Navy still has this presence mindset that hinders it from returning to that original purpose of fighting a war at and from the sea. It just further reinforces that not having an imperial mindset and approach to the rest of the world is not only betters for the soul ideologically, but also sound military sense if you want a more healthy and capable force.
If you’re not constantly focused on having a ship in every single potential crisis zone or place you have an interest throughout the world, when the shit hits the fan and a crisis becomes serious enough to risk escalating into a war, you may actually have ships available with crews that might actually be well rested and know how to do their jobs that can respond to that crisis and be ready to fight. If you’re not focused on presence for the sake of influence, when an ally or partner comes under attack by an aggressor and requests help, you’ll actually have a naval force that is in good enough shape to assist them. Maybe its overly simplistic to me as someone who’s never served in uniform or taken a class at the Naval War College, but maybe also its just hard to wrap your head around these ideas when you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid your entire career.
As much as I’m sure many on the Naval staff would love a return to the 600 ship Navy of the Cold War, that’s never going to happen even with the most generous of defense budgets under the current system – let alone under the system we’d rather have in place. Accepting that, then the Navy needs to step back from the obsession of being everywhere at once if it wants to be in one or two places when its really needed and then be able to actually engage in combat to a useful end. It needs to accept that it cannot on its own act as a deterrent and that at the end of the day its role is to fight a war when it is called upon to do so.
Semper Fortis (but for real this time)
A navy will remain a crucial component of the military even under a democratic socialist system, if we want to carry out the strategy I outlined in part one and actually military exercise solidarity with other peoples around the globe. A navy is necessary not only to keep hostile forces from the controlling the seas, but to support forces operating on land and in the air. An effective navy carrying out our strategy not only needs to divest of less useful systems and invest in more practical, efficient, and effective ones, but needs to completely reconceptualize what its purpose is. It needs to not only refocus on fighting a war at sea, but rethink the entire reason its fighting a war at sea to begin with. It needs to understand it is doing so not for the sake of its own influence or the influence of a particular country or flag, but to do so in order to play its part in protecting others that are in danger when war erupts. To ensure that the supplies necessary not only to fighting war but maintaining peace and life are able to flow freely.
For centuries, Navies have been seen by empires as critical to guarding the lifelines of capital and imperial power. For ensuring that an unbroken connection was maintained between the imperial core and its various markets and dependencies. That perception must be broken and replaced with a different concept of lifelines. That the Navy is instead responsible for guarding the lifelines that link together working peoples that are dedicated to building freer and more just societies for all who live in them. Lifelines that allow peoples and nations that are working to create a better world for themselves and others to defend one another from forces of reaction and authoritarianism. In this hypothetical better world that I imagine to keep myself from going batshit crazy, navies must play the role of helping to keep empire and fascism at bay, not working as an active agent to facilitate their spread. As with our perception of war in general as leftists, we have to flip the narrative on the Navy. We have to make sure that when warships put to sea, they’re doing so to defend others, not to facilitate their oppression.
Ok, alright, I’m dipping into the purple prose a bit too much now so I think it’s time to wrap this one up as I’m already over 4000 words (constantly setting new personal “bests” with these). In our next installment in this series, we’ll be looking at the Navy’s own private Army – the United States Marine Corps, and hoo boy I hope you’re not too attached to them because I have plans (don’t worry Marines, the plans I have for you are much like my plans for carriers; you’ll still be around, there’ll just be much, MUCH fewer of you). Also, if you thought I forget about amphibious assault ships in my rant on carriers – that’s where I’m gonna cover them. For now, though, anchors aweigh on my end. Until next time, stay safe out there, folks.
Photo credit: United States Navy