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A 21st Century Maritime Posture for an Uncertain Future

By and

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Representative Ike Skelton [D-MO] recently expressed his concern about the state of the United States Navy, noting that since the Cold War ended, the U.S. "...forgot that we are a maritime nation. We forgot that lesson of history that only the nations with powerful navies are able to exert power and influence, and when a navy disappears so does that nation's power."

In The Heritage Foundation's Jan 28/09 publication "Quadrennial Defense Review: Building Blocks for National Defense," we argued that:

"The U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers, and that number should increase to 13 over the longer term. The number of cruisers and destroyers should increase from a projected 88 to 100, and the number of attack submarines should rise from 48 to at least 60. This should be facilitated, in part, by reducing the projected number of littoral combat ships from 55 to 20. Further, the QDR should at least consider recommending that the Navy proceed with DDG-1000 procurement instead of extending the construction of DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers by ensuring that the DDG-1000s will have both air and ballistic missile defense capabilities."

This article is set within the context of Heritage's overall QDR recommendations, which were necessarily brief. It expands on the strategic, tactical, and industrial rationales behind the choices that we believe a secure America will require, within the context of Heritage's belief that America needs consistent defense budgets around 4% of national GDP.

  • A Maritime Nation
  • An Inherently Uncertain Future
  • A Navy for Force Projection
  • Building A Global Maritime Constabulary Force
  • A Coast Guard for Constabulary Missions
  • Maintaining a Viable Shipbuilding Industrial Base
  • Additional Readings

An Inherently Uncertain Future

Chairman Skelton's analysis is largely correct. Unfortunately, for the last 2 decades, the existence of American military primacy has been coupled with the belief that our future will likely mirror our present and recent past. This has created an unfortunate and somewhat predictable foundation for the precipitous decline in American naval power.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, in the wake of Reagan's successful approach during the Cold War, changed power relationships around the world. In America, it reaffirmed the nation's confidence in its maritime superiority, while redirecting national attention from the global battle against communism towards a dispersed set of inter-state and intra-state challenges. This realignment of missions gained even more momentum after 9/11, to the point that authors like Robert Kaplan contend that America has become "obsessed with dirty land wars."

The breadth of America's global counterinsurgency campaign, which is currently focused intensely on Iraq and Afghanistan, has convinced many keen observers inside and outside government of a supposedly inevitable future dominated by irregular warfare missions.

The problem with the belief that the future will likely mirror the present and recent past lies with the lessons of history, which suggest that any present holds useful but limited predictive value. The rise and fall of nations can occur in a matter of decades, and events can shock the international system in new and unforgiving directions.

The Pentagon's Joint Operating Environment for 2008 highlights how in February 1872 - just months before Great Britain found itself engaged in 22 years of sustained warfare with France around the globe - British Prime Minister William Pitt remarked that:

"...unquestionably there never was a time in the history of this country when, from the situation in Europe, we might more reasonably expect 15 years of peace, than we may at the present moment."

Similarly, in 1929 many of the world's most powerful nations felt it appropriate to sign on to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, "providing the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy." Less than a decade later, the largest and bloodiest conflict in the world's history began to ravage Europe, Africa, and Asia. The advent and proliferation of new technologies, the rapid expansion of markets and accumulation of wealth, unanticipated economic turmoil, energy demands, and sharp demographic shifts are all variables that can redefine the global balance of power, and redistribute conflict across the map in new and unexpected ways.

These questions concerning our future strategic landscape continue to prompt discussion and debate over the type of capabilities the U.S. military must acquire.

The posture of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction was the Cold War's strategic underpinning for over 50 years. That long exposure played a prominent role in predisposing many western nations toward the notion that the actions of states, and relations between states, are typically defined by rational notions of behavior.

Actual human behavior over the sweep of history is less encouraging. Thucydides' survey of the causes for war between the ancient Greek alliances led by Athens and Sparta taught that the motivation of fear, honor, and interests remain competing factors that shape the decisions of statesmen. On a more modern note, recent work by Jeffrey Record offers a convincing analysis of the role that similar, non-pragmatic factors played in Japan's decision to go to war with America in 1941. Today, it is not unimaginable to foresee Russia or China miscalculating in Eastern Europe, or the Taiwan Strait, in their quest to further some type of cultural or national pride.

A Maritime Nation

Beyond the vagaries of history and human behavior, a central element of America's national strength is tied to maritime security and stability.

Only a secure global maritime environment will continue to ensure economic viability, and promote global freedom of trade and the movement of people. America's $14 trillion economy depends on maritime trade as its lifeline. Fully 95% of the nation's imports and 90% of total global commerce are carried by sea. In the last half century, whose defining feature has been a dramatic rise in overall global prosperity, global trade has grown 60% faster than the world's combined Gross Domestic Product.

With over 100 maritime shipping chokepoints around the world, and much of the world economy now operating around a just-in-time delivery business model that requires the steady flow of cargo, the U.S. cannot afford to leave these shipping lanes unprotected. The same imperatives face developing nations like China and India, who see the ability to project maritime power as a rising national security priority. Chinese President Hu Jiantao has referred to his nation's need to secure the shipment of energy resources through the narrow Strait of Malacca as the "Malacca dilemma."

In 2008, the Heritage Foundation conducted a gaming exercise that simulated the effects on world oil supplies, demand, and prices following a series of terrorist attacks in the Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia. The findings demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the global system's capacity to produce and deliver oil supplies in the face of a concerted transnational terrorist threat. This exercise also suggests that major producer and consumer nations ,and key geostrategic allies who can act in concert with one another while protecting their own national interests, can ameliorate the severity of long-term disruptions.

The geographical proximity of a majority of the world's population to the seas (75% live within 200 miles of coastlines) has also ensured that coastal zones will become more immediate security concerns. Further, 65% of the world's oil and 35% of global gas reserves are resident in the littorals. The maritime consequences of weak and failed states have already been demonstrated off the coast of Somalia. Likewise, the trafficking of narcotics and proliferation of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction is almost entirely a seaborne enterprise. U.S. Navy leaders are predicting a disorderly future world whose challenges are concentrated along its coasts. These problems will require a multi-faceted maritime solution that includes cooperation with the private sector, between agencies and services, and among nation states.

States are increasingly looking to the seas as a means to project power and secure their territorial and energy interests. Naval analyst Bob Work has observed the "United States may be on the leading edge of a broader, longer-term global naval competition, with either China or Russia, or perhaps both."

Emerging naval powers like China are beginning to challenge our Shipbuilding capabilities, with indigenous industrial bases that can produce high-quality maritime assets, in quantity. Indeed, China is in the middle of a peacetime naval buildup that is unprecedented in modern history. The People's Liberation Army's (PLA) foreign procurement and indigenous develop of anti-ship cruise missiles adds to the risks faced by America's major surface combatants.

Though Russia has a long way to go, its intent to again project power globally is leading to a national rearmament drive, beginning with the deployment of a more capable navy. Both Russia and China are also building, and in Russia's case, exporting, modern submarines. They are not alone. U.S. Navy leaders project a startling 280% growth in the number of submarines in operation around the world over the next 2 decades alone, with most of that growth occurring outside the United States or Europe. At the same time, today's Navy has fewer sailors than it has at any period since 1941, and is the smallest fleet since 1960.

An American Navy that cold be hedged from vital shipping lanes in times of crisis, or from key maritime theaters of operation, would sharply undercut America's global influence. Yet that is exactly the challenge poses by these and other trends.

The global proliferation of nuclear technology and ballistic missiles also presents challenges. The Chief of Naval Operations recently cautioned that every 3 years since the early 1990s, a nation becomes capable of launching ballistic missiles. Continuing the Navy's evolution into a key component of America's global Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) mission will be one of its primary responsibilities in the decades ahead.

A Navy for Force Projection

The future US Navy will require the ability to achieve and maintain access above, on, and below the seas, specifically in the blue waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. We believe that aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, attack submarines, and converted trident submarines should make up the bulk of this force. The enhanced strike platforms China is developing as part of a sophisticated anti-access / battlespace-denial strategy ensure that the United States should be more concerned with fighting and protecting naval and allied forces far out to sea, rather than in Asia-Pacific's littorals.

The carrier strike group (CSG) remains the U.S. Navy's preeminent power projection strike-platform. The current Shipbuilding plan calls for 11 aircraft carriers (CVN). Between 2019 and 2037, this number should increase to 12, and potentially even 13 in the long-term. This level is adequate to meet combatant commander requirements, and will offer substantial surge capacity. A consequence of the reduction of America's carrier fleet and tightened budgets in recent decades is the rushed trend towards acquiring multi-mission aircraft and loss of specific capabilities. The F/A-18 Super Hornet is a primary example. In the future, however, with the development of naval unmanned combat air systems (N-UCAS), carrier strike groups could be turned into global strike platforms. While the feasibility of unmanned N-UCAS platforms to perform air superiority missions are decades off and not a high priority, N-UCAS equipped to strike targets at long range could potentially allow a small reduction in the CVN fleet.

The development of enhanced naval strike platforms, including anti-ship cruise missiles and both diesel and nuclear submarine, will require a renewed focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), area-wide anti-air warfare (AAW), and ballistic missile defense (BMD). The Navy testified in July 2008 that based on new threat assessments, these mission capabilities were important enough to justify truncating the next-generation destroyer DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class in favor of building additional DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Class ships, which the Navy said was more optimized for blue-water AAW/ASW/BMD.

The anti-submarine mission should be led by a fleet of about 60 fast attack submarines (SSN). Even though Navy leaders have called for a requirement of 48 SSNs, this number will fall into the low 40s in the late 2020 timeframe unless production is increased. As the Navy continues to build Virginia Class SSNs to replace the 45 Los Angeles Class SSNs that currently make up the bulk of the fleet, it should consider moving to either a 2-2-2 or 2-3-2 production rate over 3 each 3-year period. The Virginia Class, one of the few defense acquisition programs considered to be on time and under budget, can operate effectively in the littorals, and is being procured in blocks that allow emerging submarine technologies to be incorporated into the platform.

The immense distance separating the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters from Naval Stations in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Diego, California, makes the region prime for enhancing force presence through the forward homeporting of additional SSNs. The three attack submarines currently operating out of Guam benefit from a different operating cycle than other Pacific submarines, generating more days on station and reducing the total number of submarines needed to fulfill day-to-day requirements. Indeed, it is estimated that one homeported submarine in Guam is equal to the equivalent of about 3 submarines homeported elsewhere. Capitalizing on this by homeporting an additional 8 SSNs in Guam should provide a means to help deal more efficiently with current mission shortfalls, and potential near-term budget restraints.

The ASW mission will also benefit from increasing the number of DDGs from the current requirement of 69 to approximately 73 hulls. The DDG-51 Flight IIA's sonar is optimized for the blue water and littorals. Like the Zumwalt Class, the Arleigh Burkes retain the ability to launch torpedoes from its tubes, from its SH-60/MH-60 helicopter, or via the Vertical Launch Antisubmarine Rocket (VLASROC). Although the Navy testified that the DDG-1000's Lightweight Broadband Variable Depth Sonar and Multi-Function Towed Array sonar suite are more tailored to the cluttered littorals, the feasibility of equipping it with a sonar better suited for open-ocean ASW is necessary before a final decision is made on the Zumwalt Class. Only after this analysis is complete can Congress weigh the proper mix of DDG-51s vs. DDG-1000s to fill out the destroyer fleet.

Procurement of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) could be reduced from the planned number of 55 hulls to between 20 and 30. As designed, the LCS can be outfitted with 3 different mission packages: mine warfare, surface warfare (anti-boat, or close-in naval fire support), and anti-submarine warfare. With the development of enhanced strike platforms, there is a reduced demand for littoral ASW surface combatants that are unable to provide the same open-ocean capabilities as the DDG-51s. This is especially true in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A fleet of between 20 and 30 LCS hulls -- combined with approximately 24 mine and anti-submarine packages and 8 "surface warfare" packages, and outfitted with helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, and unmanned surface vehicles -- is sufficient to combat enemy craft, quiet diesel submarines, and mines in the littorals. Furthermore, many of these littoral missions are better suited for a maritime constabulary force led by the Coast Guard.

The area-wide anti-air warfare and ballistic missile defense missions are tasks equally critical to ensuring the Navy can provide fleet and forward basing protection from enhanced sea-skimming ant-ship missiles, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. In addition to the strategic disadvantages, enemies that possess anti-ship missiles can gain a unique asymmetric advantage by forcing a vulnerable U.S. fleet to remain much further out to sea in the event of a conflict. For this reason, the 62 DDG-51s in service should undergo the planned life extension program, and upgraded to perform the ballistic missile defense mission.

In addition to expanding the number of DDG hulls to approximately 73, the Navy should raise the number of cruisers (CG) in the fleet from the requirement of 19 to about 27. The mid-life modernization effort for 15 of the 22 Ticonderoga-class CGs should also be completed. Most importantly, the delayed next-generation cruiser program known as CG (X) should be the Navy's highest acquisition priority. While the Navy's FY 2009 budget submission sought to have the first CG (X) built beginning in FY 2011, reports now have that timeline being pushed out to FY 2017 or beyond. Although major issues remain outstanding regarding the future cruiser's radar, propulsion, and hull design, the severity of emerging wide anti-air and BMD threats warrants moving CG (X) toward the middle of the next decade.

Delaying the procurement of CG (X) beyond the middle of the next decade will create considerable shortfalls that will leave the fleet and U.S. forward bases unnecessarily vulnerable. Even with the service-life extensions for the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the retirement age for the remaining 15 cruisers will fall between 2026 and 2034. With just 15 cruisers at sea in 2025 that were originally built in the 1980s, Navy leaders will be forced to operate under unacceptable risk levels. Choosing not to build an advanced radar and instead improving the CG (X) radar system incrementally, may offer the best course for Navy leadership by reducing technical risks associated with the program.

Finally, in a world where America's ability to project power ashore has become reliant upon a variety of state actors that may not share liberal-democratic values and have proven increasingly unreliable partners, the high seas will continue to replace traditional basing as a means to guarantee access. Basing issues with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in recent years have forced the U.S. to scramble to find alternative means. Even obtrusive bases in allied nations like Japan or South Korea may generate negative feelings amongst the populace, creating counterproductive political friction.

The global commons offer a solution to offsetting these difficulties. Aircraft carriers presently provide tactical air capabilities with limited mobility. Amphibious forces will also remain critical to provide sea-based forward presence of personnel and equipment.

Building A Global Maritime Constabulary Force

Solutions to complex maritime problems require a proper strategic conceptualization of the roles and missions and division of labor required by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to protect America's security and economic interests on the high seas. Building global constabulary maritime power to achieve this objective will require the use of law enforcement and military capabilities to maintain law and order at sea, enforce compliance with domestic laws and applicable treaties, and protect vital national interests. "Constabulary" refers to the hybrid roles and missions that involve both military power and law enforcement capabilities. The use of "maritime" instead of naval is also an important distinction because it aims to include more than 1,900 ports around the world, as well as the world's "brown water" navies and coast guards.

The variable nature of future events combined with the long-term industrial requirements for designing, building, and deploying new surface and subsurface craft, necessitate long-term strategic planning. Seapower advocate Alfred Thayer Mahan once aptly noted that:

"The creation of material for war, under modern conditions, requires a length of time which does not permit the postponement of it to the hour of impending hostilities."

Attempting to predict what the future may hold, or allowing defense budgets to sway with the tide of Washington's latest conventional wisdom, is a strategically inept force planning model.

The constraints of future calculation and time means that the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard must build budgets and field forces that can allow them to retain a set of core capabilities to meet a range of enduring missions while adequately prepared for a variety of future contingencies.

The historical relationship between the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard has traditionally been one of superior-subordinate. A true constabulary force must delineate roles and missions while ensuring both services are mutually cooperative and supportive of one another. The Navy does not have to broaden its portfolio to maintain its core competencies of blue-water deterrence (power projection) and warfighting. Sea control and forced-entry into contested waters have historically been and should remain the Navy's primary focus.

A Coast Guard for Constabulary Missions

Alternatively, the Coast Guard is best suited to take the lead in constabulary missions, including maritime smuggling, defending exclusive economic zones (EEZ), humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, port security, and riverine warfare missions. This is true even when Navy assets like the LCS provide support. Although analysts such as Frank Hoffman have proposed a navy fleet designed solely for managing the clutter of the littorals, the Coast Guard's unique capabilities - including law enforcement and intelligence, maritime interception and domain awareness, port operations and security, coastal sea control, and theater security cooperation - are ideally suited for green-water and brown-water missions.

Building and fostering the constabulary capabilities of other nations - specifically those in key regions like West Africa, the Horn of Africa, East Asia, the Black Sea, and the Caribbean - should be a central mission of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard's North Pacific and North Atlantic Coast Guard Forums, which build relationships with other nations on combined operations, illegal drug trafficking, maritime security, fisheries enforcement, illegal migration, and maritime domain awareness, are an example of the type of effective multilateral information sharing operations that enhance global constabulary power.

To meet this mission, the Coast Guard must procure a much larger and modern fleet of national security cutters (NSC) and move ahead with the development of the offshore patrol cutter (OPC). This would then allow one national security cutter to deploy with each carrier strike group and expeditionary strike group. This increase would satisfy the growing demand of Combatant Commanders for more Coast Guard assets in theater following recent deployments by the USCGC Dallas last year in support of Africa Partnership Station and relief efforts in Georgia.

Moreover, the NSCs and OPCs, joined by a mixture of helicopters, smaller craft, and unmanned vehicles, could provide the backbone of a force built for global constabulary missions. Because it still reflects the pre-9/11 world in which it was crafted, the Coast Guard's Deepwater program has pursued a more limited version of this vision. The Deepwater program should be expanded, along with the Coast Guard's budget and end strength, to meet a growing mission set with greater international requirements.

Maintaining a Viable Shipbuilding Industrial Base

The Navy and Coast Guard's ability to effectively design and field ships with the capabilities necessary to meet their mission requirements and hedge against potential scenarios is inextricably linked with the long-term health of the Shipbuilding manufacturing industrial base. Limited design and building opportunities have placed increased pressured on a reduced number of shipbuilders, calling into question the future of the industry, and thus the future of America's maritime capabilities. Decisions concerning future Navy and Coast Guard force structure must therefore equally weigh the impact they have against the viability of the Shipbuilding industrial base.

Ultimately, a closer acquisition relationship between the Navy and the Coast Guard, particularly in regard to the Navy Littoral Combat Ship program and Coast Guard Deepwater program, is necessary to ensure coordinated requirements for homeland defense and global constabulary missions. With China's Shipbuilding industry at a level that can now be said to rival the United States', nurturing this national security asset is vital to the preservation of American maritime power.

Shipbuilding funds cannot be gauged on a series of high-stakes bets that only littoral or conventional capabilities will be required for the future. The U.S. military does not have the luxury of focusing solely on conventional and state versus unconventional and non-state actors. Rather, it must be able to counter myriad threats and possess unmatched capabilities in varying contingencies. The United States must possess not only the most capable fleet - including aircraft - but also a sufficient number of weapons systems and suppliers to meet national security requirements.

Avoiding budget spikes affords more than platforms, however; it provides stability in defense planning and offers a steadier workload for those constructing them. When budget requests change so dramatically year to year, particularly when requirements stay the same, the industrial base cannot plan ahead. This inability to plan increases the cost of individual systems. The national security of the U.S. is well-served by a competitive industrial base, and defense budget predictability will contribute to this effort.

Mackenzie Eaglen is Senior Policy Analyst and Eric Sayers is a Research Assistant for National Security at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Defense Industry Daily

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