President-elect Donald Trump has set a goal of a 350-ship navy, an increase of nearly 80 ships. The conventional wisdom is that it will be achieved through the construction of larger combatants such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. An increase in the number of those platforms are important and necessary for the long-term ability of the United States to meet Combatant Commander’s demands for overseas operations. Absent a flexible acquisition cycle to implement a major shipbuilding plan soon after the inauguration, however, the administration may want to consider a more immediate option. It may be time for the U.S. Navy to go smaller in order to get bigger, sooner while waiting for the warm lines of present production to turn hot on longer lead time ships. The question of how to do this has been answered before in our history: use commercially proven hulls and adapt them to Navy use in nearly every conflict from the American Revolution to World War II. This surge in smaller, commercially-built vessels not only has historical precedence but satisfies growing global maritime challenges as well as domestic employment.
Achieving the goal of 350 or 355 ships will be challenging. From the time a contract is let, it can take up to five years or more to complete construction. Industrial capacity is limited in the near- and mid-term with only a few shipyards are capable of building capital ships. Changing work shifts to twenty-four hours a day or opening an additional shipyard or two might increase the possibility but each of additional shift or shipyard requires additional skilled workers. Again, that requires time. Finally, these ships could not put to sea until additional sailors are recruited and trained. While these factors were not insurmountable during the comparatively short World War II. Escort carriers, destroyers and Liberty ships could be constructed quickly and manned because the country already had the industrial capacity in place which could be switched from commercial to low-tech military production.
Considering these factors, reaching these goals are unlikely in a possible second presidential term much less by the end of the first. Nor are capital ships necessary for all missions. Were billion dollar warships necessary for combating piracy off the Horn of Africa? In a Navy where the only tool is a hammer most every solution is an overly-excessive naval force. Such was the case in 2011 when an aircraft carrier, a cruiser and two destroyers surrounded the ill-fated sailing vessel QUEST which had earlier been captured by Somali pirates.
Instead of continuing to use the wrong tool for the job, it is logical to develop a diverse force of smaller naval ships to handle numerous, smaller missions, leaving the blue water navy to pursue the larger, vital warfighting role that it was designed to do. Smaller navy vessels working in squadrons may be more cost-effective in responding to global maritime incidents, patrolling coasts, and deterring similar forces. While the threat of Somali piracy has diminished the destabilization of other economies and nations could cause new threats to shipping to emerge as off Venezuela. Larger threats continue to loom as small Iranian boats swarm U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz and China’s maritime militia in the South China Sea have harassed ships in the past . Rather than offering larger, single targets of opportunity, dispersed squadrons of smaller vessels provide greater opportunities to counter asymmetric operations.
The U.S. Navy has built small combat vessels before, but to have an immediate impact on numbers, capabilities and shipyard/boatyard employment, it must shift from the standard acquisition cycle that takes years to design, build, launch, test, and deliver. The PEGASUS-class took more than five years from concept to delivery of the first ship during the 1970s. By the 1990s the CYCLONE-class took nearly a decade.
To eliminate these short-term challenges the new administration could increase the size of the naval force to meet its goals with smaller vessels whose purpose is the myriad of low-intensity operations. Simultaneously, it could pursue long-term design, contracting, and construction of larger combatants. This could be accomplished with already-proven and available boatyards in a wide range of states in the south, east, Great Lakes and even along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This objective not only has historical precedent in the U.S. Navy, but the platforms have already been proven elsewhere.
The distribution of boat building has advantages and disadvantages. Joshua Humphreys failed to centralize construction and oversight of the Department of the Navy’s original six frigates due to congressional apportionment. These super-frigates performed admirably during the Quasi-War, Barbary War and War of 1812, but they did not achieve uniformity in either design or construction. Following the Barbary War, Thomas Jefferson decreased the size of the navy and its larger ships in favor of a construction program of small gunboats for coastal protection in 1807 . Nearly 170 gunboats were eventually constructed, albeit without quality control or standardization. Several used in the Battle of Lake Borgne during the War of 1812. During that battle, Thomas Catesby Jones’ five gunboats operating in open, shallow water were eventually overwhelmed by forty British barges. According to historian Dr. Gene Smith of Texas Christian University, “The action successfully delayed the British giving General Jackson information on the direction and timeframe of the advancing enemy force, time in which he was able to prepare his defenses,” he notes. Smith contends that “Jefferson had a sound vision for a multifaceted force of capital ships and gunboats, but a parsimonious Congress would not provide the capital ships.” At least one of the gunboats was part of David Porter’s mosquito fleet in his operations against pirates along the shallow coasts of Caribbean islands.