The US Navy's Real Enemy: Math
Before we turn to the number of fighting ships the U.S. Navy needs in wartime, let’s close out our excursion into peacetime ship totals. The measuring stick for wartime fleets is straightforward: the doughtiest opponent they’re likely to encounter in some important theater. Easy standard to set, hard standard to meet. Likewise, the arithmetic of peacetime naval presence is “simple”—deceptively so.
As noted last time, peacetime presence is mainly about deploying X number of ships and other assets near potential trouble spots to deter wrongdoing. Successful naval diplomats are showmen, but the best showmanship in the world means little without capable hardware in sizable numbers. Capability, then, constitutes the sine qua non of any war of perceptions.
In any event, if naval magnates’ political overseers direct them to keep X assets on foreign station, it’s a fairly straightforward matter to set up a deployment regimen. The U.S. Navy permanently forward-deploys some ships and squadrons to allied countries like Japan, Bahrain, and Spain. These expeditionary forces are the Woody Allens of sea power. They show up. Better yet, they stay.
Forward-deployed carrier and amphibious groups call allied seaports home for long stretches of time. Ships undergo routine upkeep there while fanning out within—or sometimes beyond—the theater to execute their missions. Heck, sailors’ families often move to places like Yokusuka or Sasebo, spending entire tours of duty there. Putting down roots in friendly countries is how a 275-ship navy manages to keep 94 vessels on deployment (as of March 20). Simple.
But don’t be taken in by the schoolboy arithmetic. Mounting a standing presence in faraway waters is no easy feat. The entire fleet can’t leave the homeland behind, so units rotate from American seaports into overseas theaters periodically to augment forward-deployed forces. That’s when the strain mounts. Observes Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O’Rourke, it takes from 4 to upwards of 8 U.S.-based men-of-war, depending on the ship type, to maintain one on station overseas.
For example, to keep one Norfolk, Virginia-based DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer in European waters, the navy has to build and maintain 4.4 Burkes. It takes 4.8 San Diego-homeported DDG-51s to keep one in Japan. These ratios, known as “station-keeping multipliers” in Pentagon-speak, determine workup, deployment, and maintenance schedules. Dividing the total number of U.S.-based ships by 4, then, yields an optimistic estimate of the fleet’s reserve force.
At present the navy lists 32 vessels as forward-deployed. The remaining 243 are either on cruise already or somewhere in that rhythm of overhaul, training, and transit to or from distant theaters. Divide 243 by 4, as O’Rourke urges, and you get a reserve of about 61 vessels available for foreign duty. Add that to the permanently forward-deployed contingent and you get a total of 93 ships fully ready for combat service.
That means 94 ships are on deployment today while 93 are available on a good day. Simple math hints at a sea service that’s running itself ragged and has little if any extra surge capacity. And again, this all assumes that our mythical X—the number of ships cruising overseas at any time—is a figure that’s not just workable in terms of operational and personnel tempo but also imposing enough to harvest the desired strategic and political gains.
Is X = 93, or 94, the right number for strategic purposes—or just the most the U.S. Navy can manage under budgetary constraints? Think back to Edward Luttwak’s observation: the victor in peacetime showdowns is the force onlookers conclude would have won in combat. Is 94 ships parceled out among the Western Pacific, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean enough to convince competitors and other influential audiences that a trial of arms would go America’s way?
It’s far from obvious that the answer is yes. No longer do these far-distant squadrons inhabit “permissive,” more or less safe zones where the United States and its allies rule sea and sky. They now square off against prospective adversaries that are operating off their own shores, in close proximity to their own bases and supplies. Worse from the American standpoint, such competitions unfold under the shadow of rivals’ land-based fire support—missiles and warplanes that pound away from shore batteries and airfields.
So to those of you who crow about an invincible U.S. Navy flush with assets: do the facts warrant boosterism once you account for operational and strategic reality?
Our navy has gotten X wrong before. Think about the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, a motley assemblage of cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and warplanes that made its home in the Far East—chiefly the Philippine Islands—a century ago. The Asiatic Fleet clearly wasn’t big or impressive enough to deter Japanese aggression in Japan’s backyard: the fleet met its doom at Japanese hands in 1941-1942. Deterring a great navy on its home ground with a fraction of your own navy is just hard.
Nor, as its bitter fate attests, was the Asiatic Fleet’s fighting strength enough to ward off Japanese invaders long enough for the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii and North America to steam to its rescue. Even had the raid on Pearl Harbor never transpired, it’s doubtful the battle line could have fought its way across the Pacific under fire before the Philippines—and the Asiatic Fleet—fell. Plainly, then, naval officials set X too low to deter or win.
Such errors were commonplace in those years, owing to what foreign-policy guru Walter Lippmann termed the “monstrous imprudence” besetting prewar U.S. maritime strategy. The United States, observed Lippmann, took on vast Pacific commitments following the Spanish-American War (1898) yet chronically shortchanged the navy and army forces entrusted with upholding them.
Strategy is a plan for using resources to fulfill some big aim. Conversely, a strategy unbacked by sufficient resources amounts to a wish. Clicking your heels together three times and hoping for the best represents an unpromising approach to strategic competition—especially against a remorseless opponent like Imperial Japan.
And today? The navy leadership is rearranging deployment patterns to sustain the overseas presence ordained by administration officials. That’s all to the good. But the question remains: is that presence big and bad enough to overawe foreign audiences—allies, prospective foes, bystanders that might swing either way—with American resolve and battle capacity? Answering it demands more than drawing up feasible timetables for ship overhauls and maintenance. It demands political judgment. Faulty judgment begets suspect strategy.
If deterrence appears increasingly wobbly, what about the U.S. Navy’s capacity for fighting and winning? Navies of yesteryear experimented with simple rules pegging shipbuilding to competitors’ strength. Among the most famous was the Royal Navy’s “Two-Power Standard.” Under the Two-Power Standard the 19th-century Royal Navy, the reigning maritime hegemon, maintained a fleet equal in numbers and combat power to the next two strongest navies combined.
The logic of the Two-Power Standard: Britannia would outnumber each rival in a one-on-one tussle while assuring it had a fighting chance should they gang up.
As they might. France and Spain had joined forces during the Napoleonic Wars, and before that during such conflicts as the War of American Independence. Rivals jealous of British mastery might do so again. But if the Royal Navy fielded as many ships as the most formidable likely opponent, it could trust to the human factor—seamanship, gunnery, hard-won experience riding the waves—to make the difference amid the clangor of sea combat.
World-beating navies like Britain’s of yesteryear have the luxury of planning for the worst. What about weak navies? Historian Alfred Thayer Mahan sketched a logic of local supremacy that could empower an inferior navy to rule its immediate environs. Washington wanted to master the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, the expanses American navalists truly cared about. That was attainable. Indeed, Mahan saw little need for the U.S. Navy to outbuild the Royal Navy, the German High Seas Fleet, or anyone else to accomplish modest goals.
Rather, declared America’s sea-power evangelist, America needed a modest battleship fleet able to “fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it” there. Likely being his keyword. No European great power was likely to commit most or all of its navy to battle in a secondary theater like the Gulf or Caribbean. European navies competed furiously against one another in Europe and throughout far-flung empires in Africa and Asia. Defending European homelands while seeking new colonies trumped mischief-making in the Americas.
Being a relative backwater in great-power politics was the United States’ advantage.
For instance, the Royal Navy—its reputation as mistress of the seas notwithstanding—had to police an empire on which the sun never set while facing down a German battle fleet whose big guns menaced the British Isles from across the North Sea. How much of the Royal Navy could London spare for secondary ventures in the West Indies? No more than twenty battleships, calculated Mahan, judging from his reading of the politics of sea power and empire.
That part of British sea power—not the whole—was what the U.S. Navy needed to plan, build, and train against. So the United States cared a great deal about what transpired in the Gulf and Caribbean, and was prepared to concentrate the bulk of its naval assets there. Europeans were distracted and dispersed, and thus halfhearted about events in American waters. Wanting something more than your opponents is a powerful thing in politics and strategy.
Bottom line, fin de siècle America had little need to match any rival navy in a ship-for-ship arms race. It only needed the wherewithal to duel the most lethal detachment some troublemaker was likely to dispatch to the Western Hemisphere. That was a manageable problem for the home team.
But the U.S. Navy circa 2015 now finds itself the weary titan. It’s playing the part of the Royal Navy circa 1900. It’s the sea service scattered hither and yon in an effort to handle countless commitments while overmatching regional contenders off their own coastlines. Call it role reversal. In other words, the United States is now the global sea power that’s reluctant to mass the bulk of its fleet near any single hotspot for fear of forfeiting interests elsewhere.
And like the Royal Navy a century ago, our navy is squaring off against single-minded rivals. That casts China’s navy and other aspirants to regional hegemony in the role of the U.S. Navy a century ago. It lets them harness Mahan’s logic of the lesser navy. Small wonder would-be hegemons have become some of Mahan’s most ardent fanboys. America’s ancient mariner tells them they can win so long as they keep their aspirations in check.
That’s an appealing message. Gaze at the strategic problem through Beijing’s eyes. How big and fearsome a fleet does China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) need to fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest American force likely to be brought against it?
It might get by with less than people assume. Sea battle is no longer strictly about fleet pummeling fleet on the high seas—on a featureless plain like the game board in Battleship, remote from outside support or interference. Think about it. Any probable U.S.-China sea fight will take place within reach of shore-based Chinese air and missile forces. It will pit the U.S. Navy against a PLA Navy backed by the PLA Air Force and Second Artillery Corps, or ballistic-missile force.
A navy against a navy, army, and air force—that hardly sounds fair. But that’s how the military balance shapes up in East Asia.
So sure, the PLA Navy lags in aircraft-carrier construction, and probably by other indices as well. But that hardly matters. Mainland airfields and mobile missile sites comprise a substitute. In effect, then, the mainland constitutes a vast, unsinkable aircraft carrier that overshadows likely scenes of conflict and—if some Western commentators get their way—could be ruled off-limits to American counterstrikes to forestall escalation.
One wonders what Mahan would make of this. It would be rather like sending the Great White Fleet he helped inspire into action while forbidding its gunners to strike back against part of the enemy fleet that’s raining death down on American heads.
One hopes U.S. naval leaders grasp all of this, and are conducting realistic wargames behind closed doors to probe such dynamics. And one hopes they’re candid with themselves and their political masters about results that could prove sobering. To lend rigor to this self-scrutiny, they should find ingenious devil’s advocates to play “red teams” like China or Iran. Mock opponents of this ilk have afflicted the U.S. Navy before.
The leadership, moreover, must resist the urge to wish away unpleasant realities. Better to get pounded on a game floor, in a hypothetical high-seas war, than in real-world Pacific or Indian Ocean combat. The navy should conscript the best devil’s advocates available. And while we’re at it, let’s consult the masters of fleet tactics about how exchanges of gunfire and missile salvoes are likely to turn out.
If exercise opponents’ worst is worse than real-life red teams’ worst, the U.S. Navy can forearm itself—much as a football team that arrays its first-team offense against its first-team defense in practice, and vice versa, primes itself for success come game time. Having projected how prospective enemies measure up, navy leaders can estimate how grievous the fleet’s losses will be in the China seas or the Persian Gulf—and how big a fleet they need to absorb losses of such magnitude while retaining enough hitting power to prevail.
That’s 21st-century Mahan’s yardstick for wartime: the capacity to triumph in the most trying conflict seafarers may face. And they must triumph with resources already on hand. This is not World War II. Then, the republic had already hurled itself into a naval buildup of colossal proportions before it entered the war. U.S. Pacific commander-in-chief Chester Nimitz could count on a shiny new navy’s joining his command starting in 1943.
In that sense Admiral Nimitz had it easy: he could gamble with the prewar fleet and lose in the short haul, yet win anyway over the long haul because a replacement armada was on its way. Today the United States will go to war with the navy it has. No new fleet will be building in American shipyards at the outset of some future fracas.
What might wargaming reveal? Well, maybe the 275 warships comprising the inventory can manage regional conflagrations as currently arranged on the map. Color me skeptical. Or, 275 ships may be enough but the fleet may be out of position. For instance, too many ships may remain in the Atlantic to lend timely aid during a Far Eastern imbroglio. If so, officialdom must reposition forces to restore a margin of maritime supremacy. And it must shed lesser commitments to free up the necessary assets.
If it turns out we can’t get there from here with 275 ships, then officials, lawmakers, and ordinary citizens need to start an entirely new conversation—a discourse about the United States’ purposes in the world, how much the body politic treasures those purposes, and how much it’s willing to invest in the military power to fulfill them. That conversation needs to start pronto—lest America succumb to monstrous imprudence once again.