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A Brown Water Navy?

In this latest installment of my occasional series highlighting those super-sharp folks shaping the new strategic dialogue, I look at Frank Hoffman’s take on the Navy’s maritime strategy and shipbuilding plan. Hoffman is a retired Marine and analyst at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Va.

There are few better than Hoffman at adding meat to the debates on future conflict. He is out with a new paper on maritime power in the 21st century.

Hoffman dissects the Navy’s current maritime strategy and finds it wanting, particularly in terms of resources, which the strategy barely mentions. The most important part of any strategy is how it’s tied to resources, otherwise, what good is it. The strategy, “clarifies neither the type nor the priorities for future investment,” he says. Getting the design of the fleet right is critical, Hoffman explains, because unlike ground forces, “[navies] are not as fungible and are far more platform oriented and capital intensive.”

While he acknowledges that the Navy's current shipbuilding plan is unrealistic, Hoffman considers hyperbolic the commentary by some that the U.S. is embarking on unilateral naval disarmament. The fleet has certainly shrunk in recent years, by 60 ships during the Bush administration. But, as he points out, the aggregate tonnage of the U.S. Navy’s roughly 275 combat and support ships, “is the equivalent of the next 17 international navies, of which 14 are U.S. allies,” and with the proliferation of missile launch cells on Navy ships the fleet retains a 4:1 advantage in missiles.

Where the Navy’s new Cooperate Seapower Strategy got it right, Hoffman contends, is by embracing the notion of what he calls “Off Shore Partnering,” an approach aimed at securing the global commons, or shipping lanes. It’s a proactive strategy to head off instability and conflict that “presses U.S. naval forces past being merely deployed forward to engaging forward.” The fleet should be sized and shaped to keep the global commons open and work with partners, he says.

The degree to which the global commons is threatened, I would argue, is debatable. At a maritime strategy conference last year, a top executive with Maersk, which operates the world’s largest shipping fleet with more than 1,000 ships, said from their perspective, they did not see a threat. Certainly piracy off the coast of Somalia has been getting a tremendous amount of press lately. But as the Maersk guy said, that’s a coastal waters problem and there’s a big difference between a small freighter plying the coasts carrying cooking oil and an ocean-going container ship.

Hoffman gives the Navy’s new strategy kudos for not getting too wrapped around the “China as rising threat” idea that so many in the Beltway have rushed to embrace. There is little question that China is adding to its naval fleet. It has bought more than 30 submarines in the last decade. But it would be wrong to think China is close to becoming a serious open ocean threat, and, he notes, “the Chinese are not going to oblige us in a conventional fight in blue water.” Against U.S. carrier battle groups and long-range precision strike any surface group they could put together wouldn’t survive for very long. If it came to it, the Chinese would more likely focus on asymmetrical approaches emphasizing submarines and cyber war, Hoffman says.

Hoffman’s prescription for the Navy boils down to less focus on fighting Soviet surface action groups on the open ocean and more focus on the brown water fights in the littorals. Shipbuilding wise, that translates into less emphasis on the big costly carriers and more LCS type smaller ships with adaptable payloads. To hedge against the highly unlikely rise of a challenger blue water navy, continue to modernize and buy new attack subs which, because of their stealth and strategic agility, are really the capital ships for the 21st century.

The U.S. needs a “tri-modal fleet,” Hoffman argues, that can rapidly project power, that is expeditionary, to offset dwindling forward basing, and a fleet that can operate in the world’s littorals. While the carrier will remain the centerpiece of a power projection fleet, it is also the most costly component, at around $10 to $14 billion a pop, and it is tough to justify the need for 11 carriers. Hoffman recommends the Navy reduce down to 8 carriers.

The DD-1000 is too costly and should be cancelled and funds shifted to the DDG-51s and the CG-X, to provide a sea-based missile defense platform. The expeditionary side of the fleet should have 36 amphibious ships, as opposed to the Navy’s plan for 31. For fighting in the littorals and partnering with foreign navies, Hoffman urges a higher number of smaller “streetfighter” type ships, which would include 48 LCS and at least 40 1,000+ ton surface combatants. He also says the Navy needs 40 attack submarines, down from the 48 called for in the current Navy plan.

His option would reshape the Navy to a fleet of 310 ships by 2030, and would do so with more reasonable funding targets of roughly $20 billion per year, 25 percent less than the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan. Hoffman’s strategic rationale makes a lot of sense, but his lower price tag for modernizing and expanding the fleet might even be too much in the looming defense budget crunch the new Obama administration is about to inherit.

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