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US think tank calls for ‘fundamental reshape’ of US surface fleet to defeat Chinese threat

The US-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has launched a new report revealing the growing need for what it defines as a “fundamental reshape” of the US Navy’s surface force, adapting new technologies, greater payloads, longer range offensive weapons and ‘distributed lethality concepts to counter Chinas rising capabilities.

The US-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has launched a new report revealing the growing need for what it defines as a “fundamental reshape” of the US Navy’s surface force, adapting new technologies, greater payloads, longer range offensive weapons and ‘distributed lethality concepts to counter Chinas rising capabilities.

Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past. 

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The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.

In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.

At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection.

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Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.

Despite claims by strategic policy think tanks and individual academics, both the US and China continue to invest heavily in the potent power projection capabilities provided by aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships.

While the US enjoys a substantial quantitative and qualitative lead over the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with a fleet of 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers and two currently under construction, China's strategic planners know that they don't need to exercise global maritime hegemony in the way the US does.

The US Navy's aircraft carriers have served as a major tactical and strategic force multiplier proving influential in allied operations in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and southern Europe.

Seeking to minimise this advantage China has hedged its bets, investing heavily in a potent, integrated network of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile systems and its own growing fleet of aircraft carriers with which to project its presence throughout the Indo-Pacific region. 

A potent example of this, involving both China and the US, is the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995, which prompted China's pursuit of its A2AD network and sped up the nation's aircraft carrier program. 

Recognising the rising challenges to continued US maritime dominance, led largely as a result of the rising capability and ambitions of China's own Navy and leadership respectively, Bryan Clark and Timothy Walton of the US-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) have sought to effectively reshape the US Navy. 

Clark and Walton's 'Taking back the Seas: Transforming the US surface fleet for decision-centric warfare'  focuses on developing new operational concepts and a new surface fleet design maximising the advent of new radar, sonar, weapons and unmanned technologies to maintain America's maritime dominance. 

New CONOPS  and adapting to China's maritime developments

A key focus for both Clark and Walton is the rapidly changing nature of contemporary maritime warfare and the disruption technology is having in the domain –  this is demonstrated by the Cold War-era platforms and force structure employed by the US Navy, which fails to account for the proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile systems, smart mines and quiet submarines. 

"The US Navy has been slow to address the changing threat environment. As a result, today’s surface force lacks the size, resilience and offensive capacity to effectively support the US National Defense Strategy’s approach of deterring aggression by degrading, delaying or defeating enemy attacks," the report states. 

Large, traditional surface combatants, like guided missile destroyers, cruisers and frigates and aircraft carriers, which are both expensive to develop and acquire and manpower-intensive to operate, are seen as key weaknesses of the US Navy as it pushes to counter the rising maritime capabilities of the PLAN. 

Articulating this, the report states: "The surface fleet is weighted toward large combatants that are too expensive and manpower-intensive to achieve the numbers needed for distributed operations.

"They also rely on sensors that will likely be unavailable or create unacceptable vulnerabilities during combat against a great power like China. Perhaps of most concern is the fact that the current fleet is fiscally unsustainable due to the escalating costs to crew, operate, and maintain today’s highly integrated manned surface combatants."

Addressing this issue, Clark and Walton propose a shift from what is defined as 'attrition' warfare towards traditional 'manoeuvre' based operational concepts, supported by 'decision-centric' frameworks, taking the advantage and acting assertively to present "multiple mutually insoluble dilemmas on adversaries".

Both Clark and Walton identify that while the US Navy and Marine Corps are moving tentatively towards 'decision-centric' models through their new CONOPS for Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and Expeditionary Advance Based Operations (EABO) there is a growing need to fully leverage technology to support the 'thinking' and 'shooting' phases of the kill chain. 

In particular, Clark and Walton identify the growing need for a 'decision-centric' force to embrace a new set of mission parameters including counter-ISRT (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting) and pursue new tactics for the longstanding missions of ISRT, maritime strike or anti-surface warfare (ASUW), strike warfare (STW) against land targets, ASW, MIW, air-and-missile defence (AMD), and maritime security operations (MSO). 

However, achieving the increasingly complex range of operations and responsibilities across a dispersed and complicated maritime battlespace requires a significant shift in the constitution of the surface fleet, particularly concerning the suitability of traditional large surface combatants. 

Maximising the combat effectiveness of the surface fleet

Both Clark and Walton accept the growing importance and disruptive nature of once unproven technologies, namely unmanned and autonomous systems, which both believe can be used to "increase the offensive capacity of US surface forces".

Additionally, Clark and Watson also recognise that by increasing the complexity of US surface forces arrayed against an adversary and enhancing the "salvo size needed by an adversary for a successful, immediate attack" complicating the decision making and kill chains of an adversary, allowing for greater flexibility and kinetic manoeuvrability for a US force. 

"Complexity can be measured in terms of the number of different effects chains a given force package or fleet can conduct. Combined with more offensive capacity, more possible effects chains would increase the ability of US surface forces to decide and act quickly," the report states. 

"Complexity and greater defensive capacity will also degrade the ability of an adversary to promptly identify and engage the most advantageous targets to defeat US forces."

To this end, Clark and Watson state, "The deployed force packages proposed in CSBA’s study are able to generate more independent effects chains, growing the complexity imposed on adversary decision-making."

CSBA proposes a radical shift in the traditional post-Cold War approach taken by the US Navy and more broadly, the US Armed Forces when it comes to not only defence and capability definition and acquisition, but also force structures that fail to fully account for the disruptive nature of technologies and increasingly unpredictable 'grey zone' tactics. 

Accordingly, the proposal requests a fleet architecture that accounts for the readiness cycles of ships and the transit time to travel from homeports to
operating areas. 

This focus includes a "fewer manned large surface combatants than the Navy’s programmed force (78 instead of 104) and far more small surface combatants (258 instead of 52), which include optionally unmanned corvettes (DDC) and MUSVs".

"The surface combatant fleet would also incorporate additional sensors and vehicles, such as shipborne small unmanned vehicles and helicopters."

Too few ships and too few weapons to win the fight 

While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time – recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. 

Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford classes, respectively – US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy's capacity to adapt and win the fight. 

"Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time," ADM Gilday stated. 

"Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it."

Acting US Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, has reinforced the President's push for a 355 ship force, stating: "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"

Building on this, he raised the important question around next-generation weapons systems including hypersonics, unmanned and autonomous systems and new operational concepts to support the objectives of the US Navy. 

"How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So, I’m going to focus a lot on that this year," acting Secretary Modly said.

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war". 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

US think tank calls for ‘fundamental reshape’ of US surface fleet to defeat Chinese threat
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