As the US Navy pursues its goal of 355 ships, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly has stressed the importance of maintaining the qualitative edge of key platforms, technology and personnel as the US Navy prepares for a new decade of increased deployments, and peer and near-peer competition around the globe.
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.
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.
Today, naval power remains one of the central pillars of any nation's strategic policy and the world's premier navy, the US Navy, is increasingly facing the very real limitations of US economic, industrial and political will at a precarious period in global history.
While the US President Donald Trump has been rather inconsistent on the subject, he remains committed to achieving a 355 ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors.
This push has seen many within the US Navy and within the US naval shipbuilding industry seek to balance shipbuilding and 'readiness' in a new era of state-based competition.
Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation, explaining to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."
Cutting shipbuilding to guarantee fleet readiness and capability
This has given rise to growing concerns about the US Navy developing a 'hollow force', one that has a large fleet, with little to no manpower to support the tactical and strategic requirements of America's national security doctrines.
Explaining this further, acting secretary of the US Navy Thomas Modly recently made comments identifying that while the Navy would require more money, it needs to provide a clear, 10-year plan for getting to the touted 355 ship fleet.
"The path to 355 is a challenging path because, frankly, it’s a mathematical issue. I mean, if you’re going to grow the force by 25 to 30 per cent, and we started at 275 [ships], you need to have a top line that matches that. We had a big bump [in funding] in the first year or two [of the Trump administration], but … we’re sort of flat going forward," acting secretary Modly explained during an interview with American radio host Hugh Hewitt.
It is important to note that when faced with choosing between funding the US Navy's existing force structure, new build and acquisition programs and maintaining current readiness, US Navy leadership elected to focus almost entirely on maintaining the readiness of the current fleet.
This resulted in a series of dramatic cuts to shipbuilding programs, including 5 of the 12 planned Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were cut from the Pentagon’s five-year budget projections, including two from 2021; a slowdown of the buying profile of both the FFG(X) future frigate and the Block V Virginia Class submarine buying profile.
Additionally, this cut program saw one of each the FFG(X) and Virginia Class being cut from the program, while also accelerating the retirement of the first four littoral combat ships, and accelerating the decommissioning of five cruisers and three dock landing ships.
Acting Secretary Modly explained the rationale behind this rather drastic approach, telling Defense News in early-December 2019, "We definitely want to have a bigger Navy, but we definitely don’t want to have a hollow Navy either ... These are difficult choices, but the requirement to get to a bigger fleet, whether that’s 355 ships or 355-plus, as I like to talk about, it is going to require a bigger top line for the Navy."
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 Secretary 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.
This reality presents serious challenges for Australia's own long-term maritime and force structure development programs as it, like the existing US Navy fleet, faces increasing fatigue, budgetary constraints and an array of increasingly capable peer and near-peer competitors.
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".