The Buzz

Pacific Commander Says U.S. Needs More Submarines, Ships to Counter North Korean Threat

The US Commander, US Pacific Command told lawmakers the fast-increasing threat of North Korean military action underscores the need for a larger number of submarines, precision-guided weapons and surface ships in the Pacific theater.

"That's why the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group is back on patrol in Northeast Asia. That's why we must continue to debut America's newest and best military platforms in the Indo-Asia-Pacific," Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services' Committee.

Harris went on to testify that as the only nation to have tested nuclear devices in this century, North Korea has vigorously pursued an aggressive weapons test schedule with more than 60 listed missile events in recent years.

"With every test, Kim Jong-un moves closer to his stated goal of a preemptive nuclear strike capability against American cities, and he's not afraid to fail in public," Harris said.

Harris' comments echo alongside many of his prior remarks that the number of submarines and surface ships in the Pacific theater is insufficient to meet operational demands. The tensions with North Korea have only served to intensify this need, many observers have suggested.

Discussions and plans for a larger fleet have long been the subject of Navy deliberations; the service is now vigorously advancing findings of a completed “Force Structure Assessment” which underscores what Navy leaders have been saying for quite some time - - that the current fleet size is insufficient to meet global demands from combatant commanders.

The assessment could likely mean more carriers, submarines, destroyers and amphibious assault ships, among other things.

The Navy assessment for 2018 calls for a sizeable jump up to 355 ships, including 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants and 66 attack submarines. In the meantime, the services’ near term 2017 proposed fleet size seeks to increase the current 274-ship fleet up to 308.

On the heels of the completion of this assessment,  the Vice Chief of Naval Operations has also called for a much larger fleet, while specifying that the exact number should depend upon global service activities, threats and the needs of combatant commanders.

"355, 350, mid-300's: I think we all run the risk of identifying a number and saying that's the number, when it could change up or down over time.  What's more important is that you have sufficient numbers to do what you're being asked to do today, and then you continue to modernize and build out capability so you're a better force in the future," Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran told ABC 7 news in recent months.

The CNO's comments lend further emphasis to a recently determined plan to increase the Navy fleet size by adding more new attack submarines, carriers and destroyers is - “executable” – and that early conceptual work toward this end is already underway.

Although various benchmarks will need to be reached in order for this new plan to come to fruition, such as Congressional budget allocations, Navy officials do tell Scout Warrior that the service is already working – at least in concept – on plans to vastly enlarge the fleet.  Findings from this study are expected to inform an upcoming 2018 Navy Shipbuilding Plan, service officials said.

“274 ships. We undoubtedly do not have enough Navy to meet the demand,” Adm. Bill Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said in January at the Surface Naval Association symposium.   

he new fleet is an emerging element of the Navy’s “Distributed Lethality” strategy which, among other things, seeks to better arm the fleet with offensive and defensive weapons.

“Our ability to protect the homeland, strategic interests, and national values around the world are no longer without major competition. From non-state actors operating with high-end weapons –- think Mason and Nitze in the Bab El-Mendab recently -- to growing regional threats and higher-end adversaries in the world in which we operate has changed extensively since 2012,” Moran added.

Following more than a decade of land wars during which the serve was concentrated upon counterterrorism, counterpiracy and Visit Board Search and Seizure operations, the Navy’s approach in recent years is to better prepare the services’ “open” or “blue water” combat abilities. Naturally, this need stands in clear parallel to the technological emergence and aggressive tactics of both Russia and China.

While Moran did not specifically cite Russia and China, growing Navy and Pentagon concern about their behavior is often cited by senior leaders. He did, however make a specific reference to the South China Sea in an unambiguous reference to Chinese actions in the area. In fact, a 2014 Congressional report estimated that China's Navy is on track to be larger than the US Navy by the mid-2020s In addition, he cited recent provocations of Navy ships by Iranian vessels in the Arabian Sea.

“I’ve got to tell you once again, our CO, the crews, are making great smart judgments [and decisions]. And we’re not seeing escalation. I’ve got to hand that to the leadership and the training that’s going on out there. But we’re really proud of what we’re seeing,” Moran said.

With a new Congress and administration, senior Navy leaders have cited hope that the defense-budget pressuring “sequestration” may come to an end.

Part of the apparent reason for the planned increase is the well-known challenges for the Navy regarding the previously determined plans for submarines and surface vessels.

The chart here was released by the Navy as an essential summary of the Force Structure Assessment, detailing the jump in planned size from 2014 to 2016.