Photo Credit: US Navy
By: Michael Daly, Columnist
President-elect Trump assumes office at a time of increasing geopolitical complexity. In order to fulfill national objectives, Mr. Trump should task the Navy with developing a strategy and associated capabilities to deal with increasingly capable state and non-state actors. The burgeoning capacity of both groups to challenge US interests underscores two key findings from the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report, namely, that power will continue to diffuse and individuals will become increasingly empowered in the international system.[i] In order to maintain global influence and deny the emergence of a regional hegemon in such an environment, naval strategy must emphasize the requisite anti-submarine warfare (ASW), amphibious assault, and electronic, cyber, and ISR capabilities to thwart key adversaries’ advances and enhance U.S. maritime power.[ii]
The Navy faces four principal threats in today’s environment. First, China’s navy has rapidly modernized and is now a near-peer competitor. This naval power undergirds China’s growing threat to US primacy in Asia.[iii] Beijing currently deploys a fleet of four to five ballistic missile submarines and 60 attack submarines. The offensive capabilities and stealth of these vessels are steadily improving, in some cases dramatically, and the fleet may continue to grow in size in the coming years.[iv] Additionally, China has developed advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, notably the DF-21 “carrier killer” ballistic missile. Beijing has also bolstered its mine warfare capability and has acquired its first aircraft carrier, jumpstarting China’s indigenous carrier development program.[v] These assets propel China’s “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) strategy to “prevent other military forces from entering a given area.”[vi]
Second, Russia maintains a fleet of approximately 25 operational submarines that, while lagging well behind Cold War levels, augment its A2/AD capabilities.[vii] The Russians often sail these submarines in contested waters and engage in “tacit revelations” that seek to deny the US and NATO allies access to critical waters, prevent adversarial forces from launching sea-based strikes, and assert its traditional sphere of influence.[viii] Moscow also possesses a new generation of small surface combatants armed with highly lethal cruise missiles capable of striking naval and land targets from great distances.[ix]
Third, the Iranian navy deploys a mix of submarines, small craft and mine warfare capabilities that are designed to limit or prevent U.S. access to the Persian Gulf.[x] Additionally, Iran has recently harassed US vessels in the region with several fast attack craft, elevating the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation.[xi]
Fourth, the Navy must contend with a broad range of non-state threats, including piracy, illicit trafficking, and terrorism.[xii] Systemic “governance gaps” could exacerbate these problems by creating unstable and weak states that foster conditions conducive to sub-state actors flourishing.[xiii] For example, the Houthis in Yemen have capitalized on the chaotic internal situation and have fired missiles at UAE and US vessels.[xiv]
Principal Areas of Focus for the US Navy
In light of these threats, the Navy should adhere to four overarching strategic directives to maintain primacy. First, given a diffusion of power the Navy must maintain its presence in key global theaters. This requires both peacetime power projection and wartime “forcible entry operations” to seize and hold a designated territory and “preclude enemy anti-access measures.”[xv]
Second, we must bolster cooperation and interoperability with allies because the US Navy is most effective when it operates jointly with allies and partners.[xvi] Cooperation can also prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon by cultivating balancing behavior.[xvii]
Third, the Navy must protect and develop its traditional functions: deterrence, sea control, power projection, and maritime security.[xviii] We must maintain the sea-based leg of our nuclear triad; control vital sea lines of communication; maintain force projection capacities to reassure allies and provide decision options; and provide maritime security to prevent piracy and illicit trafficking.[xix]
Fourth, we should ensure dominance in the electronic, cyber, and information domains. This directive is similar to the suggestions outlined in Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ 2015 maritime strategy, but heightens the emphasis on dominance, not just access.[xx] Dominance in these domains draws on the notion that in a world of diffusing power structures and increasing multipolarity, technology will be the “great leveler.”[xxi]
These strategic directives necessitate investment in three key areas. First, the Navy must significantly bolster its ASW capabilities. It should procure additional Virginia-class attack submarines to maintain overmatch against China’s and Russia’s subsurface capabilities. While attack submarines are expensive, they significantly enhance deterrence, sea control, power projection, and maritime security.[xxii] Additionally, as many adversaries lack substantial ASW capabilities, these vessels will provide the Navy with a relative advantage at sea.[xxiii] Moreover, the Navy should continue acquiring Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. These vessels provide important ASW, AAW, and ballistic missile defense functions to counter the high-end threats posed by China and Russia.[xxiv] Other specialized ASW platforms, such as MH-60R helicopters, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), and unmanned surface vessels (USV) should likewise garner greater funding as budgets allow.[xxv]
Second, the Navy should continue modernizing its amphibious ships to provide assistance in crisis and humanitarian response operations, both of which will enhance goodwill toward America as climate change accelerates.[xxvi] Amphibious capabilities also provide flexible options for responding to various contingencies, especially in the East and South China Sea.[xxvii]
Third, the Navy should invest in advanced electronic warfare, cyber, and ISR capabilities. Technologies such as solid-state lasers, electromagnetic railguns, and hypervelocity projectiles can help defend surface ships from enemy missiles and will therefore be crucial in the future to maintain our technological edge vis-à-vis near-peer competitors.[xxviii] These weapons demand substantial electrical and power generation capacity, so the Navy will likely need to consider future surface combatants other than the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.[xxix] Furthermore, superior cyber capabilities can mitigate the threat posed by China, Russia, and others to afloat networks, while ISR will enhance US and allies’ situational awareness.[xxx] In sum, technological superiority will provide a game-changer as power diffuses and US hegemony declines.[xxxi]
These directives and investments can maintain US primacy and competitiveness in an era of increasingly diffusing power. This does not entail discarding highly capable assets the Navy already possesses, such as littoral combat ships needed for counter-piracy operations or aircraft carriers still needed for power projection. These assets must be maintained and, as finances allow, modernized. However, the future threat landscape calls for these new strategic and budgetary priorities to continue US dominance at sea. As maritime power remains a vital component of national power, this maritime strategy will continue American influence well into the 21st century. [xxxii]
[i] National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, December 12, 2012, ii.
[ii] Michael McDevitt, “U.S. Naval Strategy in Peacetime and War,” Lecture, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., November 21, 2016.; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” Foreign Affairs 95.4 (2016): 73.
[iii] National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” 77.
[iv] Bernard Cole, China’s Quest for Great Power: Ships, Oil, and Foreign Policy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 59-64; Dave Majumdar, “Could the US Navy Really Hunt Down Russian or Chinese Submarines?” The National Interest, August 12, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/could-the-us-navy-really-hunt-down-russian-or-chinese-17346; Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Naval Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, May 31, 2016, 11-16.
[v] Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Naval Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, May 31, 2016, 9.; Cole, China’s Quest for Great Power, 64-69.
[vi] Cole, China’s Quest for Great Power, 64-69, 105.
[vii] Majumdar, “Could the US Navy Really Hunt Down Russian or Chinese Submarines?”
[viii] Kathleen Hicks, Andrew Metrick, Lisa Sawyer Samp, and Kathleen Weinberger, “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2016, 6-7.
[ix] Garrett Campbell, “Russia’s Military is Proving Western Punditry Wrong,” Brookings, October 23, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/10/23/russias-military-is-proving-western-punditry-wrong/.
[x] GlobalSecurity, “Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,” GlobalSecurity.org, August 4, 2015, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.
[xi] Barbara Starr and Olivia Beavers, “Iran Escalates High Seas Harassment of US Navy,” CNN, September 7, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/06/politics/iran-us-navy-confrontation/.
[xii] Ray Mabus, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” United States of America Department of the Navy, March 2015, 4.
[xiii] National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” 48-55.; Susan Rice, “The Threat of Global Poverty,” The National Interest, Spring 2006, 76-82.
[xiv] Lolita Baldor, “Official: Yemen Rebels Fire 2 Missiles at U.S. Ship; Both Miss,” Military Times, October 12, 2016, http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/official-yemen-rebels-fire-2-missiles-at-us-ship-both-miss.
[xv] McDevitt, “U.S. Naval Strategy in Peacetime and War.”; Mabus, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” 19; National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” 15-18, 77; Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Forcible Entry Operations,” Defense Technical Information Center, November 27, 2012, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_18.pdf, I-5.
[xvi] Mabus, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” 2.
[xvii] Mearshimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 73.
[xviii] Mabus, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” 2.
[xix] Ibid, 22-24.
[xx] Ibid, 19-21.
[xxi] National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” 19.
[xxii] Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan,” Congress of the United States, October 2015, 22
[xxiii] Anthony Cordesman and Joseph Kendall, “The PLA Navy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 21, 2016, 6.; Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan,” Congress of the United States, October 2015, 22.; O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization.”
[xxiv] Cordesman and Kendall, “The PLA Navy,” 56-57.; “United States Navy Fact File: Destroyers,” America’s Navy, January 13, 2016, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=900&ct=4; Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Shipbuilding Plan,” 48.
[xxv] “Top 10 Anti-Submarine Warfare Helicopters,” Military Today, 2016, http://www.military-today.com/helicopters/top_10_asw_helicopters.htm.
[xxvi] Jennifer Moroney, Stephanie Pezard, and Laurel Miller, “Lessons from Department of Defense Disaster Relief Efforts in the Asia-Pacific Region,” RAND Corportation, 2013, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR100/RR146/RAND_RR146.pdf, 7, 48, 104.; Anthony Bergin and Athol Yates, “Thinking Beyond the ADF in Preparing an Amphibious Capability,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, November 13, 2013, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/thinking-beyond-the-adf-in-preparing-an-amphibious-capability/.
[xxvii] Mabus, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” 28.
[xxviii] Cordesman and Kendall, 58.
[xxix] Patrick Frye, “U.S. Navy Railgun, Laser Cannon Deployed on Zumwalt Destroyer USS Lyndon B. Johnson By 2018?” Inquisitr, February 15, 2016, http://www.inquisitr.com/2798846/u-s-navy-railgun-laser-cannon-deployed-on-zumwalt-destroyer-uss-lyndon-b-johnson-by-2018-video/.
[xxx] Jeevan Vasagar and Geoff Dyer, “Chinese Hackers Targeted US Aircraft Carrier,” Financial Times, October 21, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/b03bc7f0-9745-11e6-a1dc-bdf38d484582.
[xxxi] National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” 19, 77.; Cordesman and Kendall, 58.
[xxxii] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (New York: Dossier Press, 1914): 20.