Thoughts on the McCain White Paper

Thoughts on the McCain White Paper
U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Nathan K. Serpico

Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and I (Bryan McGrath) put together a few thoughts on the recent White Paper from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) entitled "Restoring American Power".

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The Trump Administration began work this week on its promise of an across-the-board enlargement of the U.S. military. The President-elect has thus far described his plan only in the broadest of terms, but those terms portend a sustained period of higher defense spending—something Congress has been unwilling to approve since it passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) in 2011. Chief among those who will shape the future of the American military is Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who waded into the debate last week with a strong, coherent outline that not only aims to restore the capacity of a significantly hollowed-out force, but also provides direction for how the force should evolve as it grows. There is a lot in this report, but we will restrict our comments to the larger context of the plan and its impact on American Seapower.

Hope versus strategy

Senator McCain’s report begins by rightly highlighting the fundamental disconnect in today’s U.S. defense planning between resources and objectives. Hoping revanchist regimes in Russia and China would not be able to act effectively on their objectives for more than a decade, Congress and President Obama passed the BCA in 2011, reducing military budgets by about 10 percent for the subsequent decade. The BCA, in turn, contained the a ticking time-bomb known as Sequestration, which implemented another 10 percent cut starting in fiscal year (FY) 2013 if the Department was not able to meet BCA targets for spending. Because FY 2013 was already halfway over, services had to immediately cut their spending, creating maintenance depot backlogs, personnel shortfalls, and training shutdowns from which DoD is still recovering.

As the impact of the BCA’s cuts became clear, DoD and Congress experienced buyer’s remorse, turning to various budget gimmicks and abuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget to pay for expanding U.S. involvement in regional conflicts, growing compensation costs, and to allow for modest modernization of the force. McCain excoriates both Congress and the Executive Branch for these measures. Issuing a clear call to action, his report states “This law (BCA) must be repealed outright so we can budget for the true costs of our national defense.”

The most significant problem with the BCA’s reductions, McCain argues, is they do not allow modernization to address the rapidly improving capability of great powers such as Russia and China and regional powers such as Iran and North Korea. The BCA also does not provide the resources for U.S. forces to sustain the operational tempo to conduct daily strikes and raids on terrorists in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere. Notably, despite the hopes that underpinned the BCA, Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and China’s aggression in the South China Sea show, in McCain’s words, “A better defense strategy must acknowledge the reality that we have entered a new era of great power competitions. China and Russia aspire to diminish U.S. influence and revise the world order in ways that are contrary to U.S. national interests.”

McCain’s focus on great power competition is important in two ways. First, it draws a distinction between the Obama Administration’s approach and McCain’s more forward-leaning view of great power dynamics. Second, it sends a signal to the incoming administration of McCain’s wariness of Russia in clear and unambiguous terms. This could ultimately prove to be a contentious issue between Congress and the Trump Administration, which has indicated it may view Russia as a partner rather than a competitor or adversary.

Strategy and Fleet Architecture

McCain argues for a new set of defense strategies to address great powers, regional powers, and transnational terrorists, rather than a single U.S. security strategy. In CSBA’s upcoming study of alternative Navy fleet architectures, we argue the most important of these is a strategy to deter great power aggression, which could potentially have the most catastrophic consequences of these security challenges. With the realignment of American bases since the Cold War, U.S. ground and air forces overseas are less numerous and more easily suppressed than when they last faced a great power adversary a quarter century ago. Thus, naval forces will assume a more prominent role in conventional deterrence.

Recognizing both the Trump goal of a 350 ship Navy and the Navy’s own recently released 355-ship Force Structure Assessment (FSA), McCain lays out a plan that over the next five years that: 1) increases the size of the fleet over the final plan of the Obama Administration by building 59 ships as opposed to the Obama Administration’s 41,  2) truncates the current Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and accelerates the Navy’s move to an open-ocean frigate replacement, 3) funds design work on a new class of aircraft carrier, 4) increases Navy end-strength, 5) invests significantly in unmanned technologies of all varieties, and 6) provides additional, immediate funding to address fleet readiness and maintenance, and installations and infrastructure.

McCain’s plan aligns in large part with our proposed fleet architecture, and would improve the Navy’s ability to deter aggression by great powers, counter attacks by regional powers, and help keep terrorists on the run. Unlike the current fleet, McCain’s proposal would not focus on efficiently providing presence at the expense of the capability and capacity for combat against a capable adversary.

Three aspects of McCain’s force structure plan are of particular interest. First is its truncation of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in 2017 with a follow-on frigate proposed for acquisition no later than 2022. It is essential that the Navy move as quickly as possible from the LCS to a proper blue-water frigate capable of anti-submarine warfare and local air defense, but it must also continue to increase the size of the fleet and ensure the frigate can be affordable and built in large numbers. McCain proposes an acquisition “bridge” for the two shipyards currently building LCS to continue between 2017 and 2022. This would expand the fleet and enable these shipbuilders to compete for the follow-on frigate, which could lower costs for the frigate and increase the number of shipyards at which it could be built.

The second initiative of note is McCain’s proposal to move to a mix of large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and smaller, conventionally-powered carriers. As recommended in our fleet architecture study as well, conventional carriers would initially be based on current amphibious assault ships that carry short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier and F-35B Lightning II. As McCain argues, a smaller carrier would be suited to supporting many of the smaller steady-state operations that require naval air power, such as air strikes in Syria. Senator McCain is skeptical of the Navy’s new FORD-class carrier due to its high cost and poor management, but argues the fleet will continue to also need large nuclear-powered carriers to provide a mobile airfield for combat air sorties during larger conflicts in which host nation concerns or enemy actions prevent effectively using land bases.

Finally, though not mentioned in the narrative, a “patrol ship” of less than 800 tons appears in the McCain plan’s appendix for acquisition starting in 2020. The addition of this small combatant highlights the need for a larger, more distributed, and resilient force, which was also a finding of our fleet architecture study. A patrol vessel of 800 tons such as Sweden’s Visby-class would be able to defend itself against a salvo of a dozen or more anti-ship missiles and could carry 4 to 8 offensive strike or anti-ship missiles. This will make patrol vessels able to deny or delay enemy aggression while being too costly a target to be worth defeating in large numbers.

Overall, McCain’s proposal would grow the surface fleet by adding frigates and patrol vessels to the Navy’s current requirement of 104 large surface combatants and 52 small surface combatants. We agree a larger surface fleet is essential to conduct offensive strike and anti-ship attacks in a distributed manner that will make them harder to defeat in detail. But we would argue the Distributed Lethality concept and growing needs for logistics escorts suggest the surface fleet needs to both grow and be rebalanced, with more small surface combatants that can conduct widely distributed offensive operations and fewer large surface combatants that will tend to concentrate the fleet’s firepower.

A fleet for the future

A Navy is a capital investment that takes years to build and lasts for decades thereafter. Any plan for a future fleet should be based not on the world of today, but on a set of plausible futures that best represent the world of 15 to 20 years from now. Even with an aggressive shipbuilding increase such as envisioned by McCain’s plan, only ¼ of the fleet will change between now and 2030. McCain’s proposal considers the likelihood that the fleet of 2030 will need to deter revisionist great powers as its primary mission, while addressing the growing capability of regional powers and transnational terrorists. It appropriately invests not only in platforms, but across the board in the various enablers and extenders of maritime power, including ISR, networking, unmanned vehicles, cyber, and electronic warfare.

If the United States fails to make great power competition a priority in long-term force planning, rivals such as Russia and China will continue eroding American influence and alliances, with damaging economic and security impacts on the American people. McCain’s plan sets American Seapower (as well as the rest of DoD) on a solid course for an uncertain future. It remains to be seen the extent to which this thoughtful, strategic approach will be complemented by the other instruments of national power, or the degree to which the incoming administration will welcome it.

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