The Buzz

U.S. Navy 'Fires' Back: A New Strategy to Take on Deadly Challenges

Naval strategy is in the news: Cooperative Strategy 21 (CS-21R) was released in April; the surface warfare community is discussing its supporting strategy,  ‘Distributed Lethality;’ the Secretary of the Navy released his Navy’s Innovation Vision and the HASC  Subcommittee on Seapower and Force Projection has been active with hearings and testimony from strategists.

It is clear the U.S. Navy has identified serious threats to its post-Cold War operating concepts and is altering its strategies and capabilities to adjust to adaptable future adversaries. This adjustment might be summarized in three imperatives: (1) spread out and increase the adversary’s risk, (2) embrace scalability, and (3) clarify difficult tradeoffs with strategic intent.

Spread Out and Increase the Adversary’s Risk. One of the key additions within CS-21R is the concern of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategies, pursued by China, Iran, and North Korea, and others. In response, CS-21R adds an additional essential naval function, “all domain access.”

When the Cold War ended the U.S. military possessed undisputed dominance as the sole superpower. Without a peer competitor, the U.S. Navy increasingly concentrated its offensive strike capability in the aircraft carrier and built a battlegroup of destroyers, cruisers, and submarines into a ring of steel to defend the carrier.   This concentration of naval power defied a century’s long trend of the ever-thinning battlefield.  From the Napoleonic Wars through World War I, the battlefield was packed shoulder to shoulder; battles at sea were relatively compact as well. As weapons range, accuracy, and lethality continued to increase, the battlefield became more distributed with less platforms and people across a larger and larger area.

The current relatively tightly packed carrier battle group offers a single, paramount target—the aircraft carrier— to a massive barrage of large, accurate long-distance weapons. Conversely, distributed lethality responds to the A2/AD threat by spreading the U.S. navy’s offensive strike capability to a broad array of ships across a larger area of the ocean. The objective is to create a more lethal, mobile, and innovatively employed surface force that is less predictable and more disaggregated. This makes it more difficult for the enemy by increasing the enemy ISR challenge and dispersing enemy weapons focus—they have to look harder and longer and have to engage more targets.

On the innovation front, the U.S. Navy is successfully testing ship-to-ship missiles with dramatically increased range and is discussing how to put offensive capability on every class of ship, including amphibious and support ships.  This would make it exponentially more difficult for the enemy to target the U.S. Navy’s offensive strike capability—if and when it is no longer primarily concentrated on the aircraft carrier.  Attack submarines and yet-to-be developed autonomous undersea weapons systems also put the enemy at greater risk and disperse the navy’s offensive capability. When fielded, the laser weapons system and the electromagnetic rail gun will further increase the U.S. Navy’s weapons capability.

Embrace Scalability. Scalability includes the capacity to engage across the spectrum of conflict in an operationally appropriate and fiscally responsible manner. In the mid-1970s then-Chie fof Naval Operations  (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt pursued a high-low mix of capability. It was clear a fleet of only expensive, high-end ships would unreasonably limit the size of the fleet. Numbers matter, as evidenced by the U.S. Navy’s current dwindling fleet (down from nearly 600 ships to 289) and the growing challenge to be in the right place at the right time.  However, a large, low-end navy would be unable to conduct high-end missions against peer competitors.

What is painfully apparent today is that high-end weapons and platforms are prohibitively costly when used for lower-end conflicts.  The cost per smart bomb or missile, the hourly operating cost of advanced ships and planes, and the maintenance cost of these exquisite war machines have made fighting low-tech adversaries exceedingly costly.