Aircraft Carriers or Submarines? The Navy Has a Tough Decision to Make

August 18, 2021 Topic: U.S. Navy Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Aircraft CarrierSubmarineNavyU.S. NavyMilitary

Aircraft Carriers or Submarines? The Navy Has a Tough Decision to Make

Sizing up the strategic surroundings, then, represents the beginning of wisdom.


But denial is not the same thing as command. Wrestling command from antagonists isn't simply about defeating an enemy fleet. It's about defeating enemy sea power as a whole -- including that land-based component of which Corbett could scarcely have dreamt. Shore-based sea power radiates from an enemy's homeland. That leaves navies operating off enemy coasts an uncomfortable choice. They can strike hard at sites on land, and risk escalating the conflict. They can refrain from hitting targets on enemy soil, and grant a major portion of enemy sea power sanctuary from which to lash out at U.S. task forces. Or they can try to break the opponent's "kill chain" though some mix of deception, electronic warfare, and other measures that inflict little physical damage on opposing forces yet yield decisive effects.

None of these options is especially palatable. Winning command in future conflicts promises to demand a slow grind rather than the knockout blow that so captivates seafarers and maritime theorists. Which is where Corbett furnishes a helpful algorithm for the inferior force. For Sir Julian, maritime warfare is about denying command (which he terms "permanent general control" of important expanses), winning command, and exploiting command. Deftly handled, a lesser fleet can deny an antagonist command of the sea while striving to shift the balance in its favor. It can shift the balance by building new forces, massing existing forces, fighting alongside existing allies or courting new ones, or encouraging adversary commanders to fritter away their strength across the map or do stupid things. This leads, at last, to some specific pointers for rebooting the U.S. Navy:


-    Find out what the American people and government will support. Sea power is a conscious political choice, not a birthright or something that happens in a fit of absence of mind. George Will hints that Americans are too distracted and war-weary to make the choice for sea power. If that's true, then future naval operations will amount to campaigns limited by "contingent." War-by-contingent is Corbett's way of describing an endeavor whose dimensions are determined not by the goals sought but by the amount of resources a society is prepared to spend. This way of executing policy assigns commanders a fixed amount of assets and manpower and instructs them to do great things with it. The founders of a rebooted U.S. Navy must undertake some soul-searching about what they can achieve with stingy means. Preferred methods may be unaffordable.

-    Run silent, run deep. If Congress has indeed capped U.S. maritime means more or less permanently, undersea warfare promises the biggest bang for limited bucks. Nuclear-powered submarines, or SSNs, constitute an enduring U.S. naval advantage. They can deny an adversary the use of the sea. If nothing else, then, submarines could impose a sort of mutual assured sea denial while naval commanders try to neutralize enemy shore-based forces by other means. Subs cannot command the sea, but they can clear it of hostile surface fleets. That's a major contribution if also a negative one. SSNs, consequently, should have first claim on scarce shipbuilding dollars. But undersea combat need not involve all nukes, all the time. To proliferate subs while holding down costs, why not, say, buy Japanese? The U.S. Navy could purchase some Japanese Soryu-class diesel attack boats -- acclaimed among the world's best -- and create a standing combined squadron in Japan. Naval officials should explore such options.

-    Demote the surface fleetTraditional prestige platforms such as aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers would find themselves demoted in a rebooted U.S. Navy. Their capacity to spearhead the fight against a capable access denier -- a power like China that fields a beatable navy but backs it up with a large shore-based arsenal -- appears increasingly doubtful. Surface ships that have to await the outcome of the struggle for command? That sounds like Corbett's definition of cruisers and the flotilla -- large numbers of lightly armed combatants for policing relatively safe waters and projecting power ashore after the battle is won. Let's act on his guidelines for platforms that exercise command. A mix of workhorse frigate- or corvette-like platforms for peacetime pursuits, combat platforms designed to operate in less threatening wartime theaters, and small missile craft for harrying access deniers in cramped Asian waters looks like the refounded U.S. Navy's best bet. Naval leaders should fund the most capable, most numerous surface force they can -- on a not-to-interfere basis with units that compete for maritime mastery.

Reinventing America's navy, in short, could involve reshuffling priorities for future acquisitions, tactics, and operations. A strategy premised on starting with sea denial, deploying unconventional techniques to incapacitate adversaries' sensors and weaponry, and relegating the surface navy to secondary status would have seismic impact not just on the navy's warmaking methods and force structure but on its very culture. But a cultural revolution may be what the service needs to fulfill its ends while operating on a shoestring budget in a menacing world.

Needless to say, lots of assumptions are at work here. Every system of logic has its givens and its theorems. For one thing, is anti-access just a moment in naval history? I assume not. Prospective Asian competitors outrange U.S. Navy men-of-war for the moment. It's conceivable, nonetheless, that some combination of technological wizardry -- shipboard lasers, electromagnetic railguns, unmanned combat aircraft -- and inventive tactics could restore mobility and superior striking range to fleets. If so, the surface navy could regain its accustomed nautical mastery. Or, lawmakers and administration officials could make the pitch to the electorate for more resources. A bigger navy could withstand combat losses in an anti-access setting and keep fighting. Better a surplus of assets than a deficit. And so forth.

Don't like my thought experiment? Run your own. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

This article first appeared in 2014.

Image: Flickr / U.S. Navy