They are the most visible symbol of America’s presence and global reach, and their absence has not gone unnoticed in the Indo-Pacific – nevertheless, a US Navy study has called for the scrapping of two supercarriers and a pause on major surface combatant acquisition to focus on unmanned or lightly manned vessels.
For the first time in nearly a century, two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the US, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East – is being circled by the upstart – China, seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as a world leader.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
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.
Drawing on perhaps one of modern history's most powerful ironies, the naval arms race in 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.
Despite President Donald Trump's commitment 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 – the funding question remains an important one for consideration.
Indeed recently, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation 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."
In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.
While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Donald Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp-up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry.
Aircraft carriers have long served as the basis for America's global reach and forward-deployed tactical and strategic supremacy, however the proliferation of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile systems, combined with increasingly cost-effective, asymmetric threats are increasing pressure upon the capital ships.
In response, the US Navy has sought, in some way to pivot away from costly platforms to ensure the US Navy is capable of maintaining its qualitative advantage over peer and near-peer competitors, namely, China.
Shifting away from the carrier
Many strategic policy experts and defence analysts have long claimed that the era of the aircraft carrier and its well-established force structure is at an end, particularly given advances in anti-access/area-denial weapons systems and the advent of peer competitor platforms, often citing the immense costs associated with fielding and defending carriers.
Recognising these mounting threats, the US Navy has sought to recapitalise the nation's carrier fleet, leveraging a range of existing and newly developed platforms to adapt to the changing, multi-domain battlespace and threat environments.
In response, the US Navy, working in conjunction with the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of a broader national defence review has launched a review of the contemporary force composition, culminating in the plans to scrap two Nimitz Class supercarriers to better allocate manpower and resources, in a decentralised, less vulnerable 'system-of-systems' network of platforms and capabilities.
As explained in DefenseNews, this new review would herald a major restructure and shift in the way the US Navy seeks to respond to the mounting challenges, stating: "The study calls for a fleet of nine carriers, down from the current fleet of 11, and for 65 unmanned or lightly manned surface vessels. The study calls for a surface force of between 80 and 90 large surface combatants, and an increase in the number of small surface combatants – between 55 and 70, which is substantially more than the Navy currently operates."
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."
Former 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," Modly said at the time.
This shift would serve to have a dramatic impact on the way in which the US Navy operates globally, with a significant impact on key global allies, including Australia. This is something highlighted by DefenseNews:
"With nine carriers, the Navy would have between six and seven available at any given time with one in its mid-life refuelling and overhaul and one or two in significant maintenance periods. The net result would be significantly fewer carrier deployments in each calendar year."
This is particularly concerning given recent movements made by China, which have sought to capitalise upon the diminished presence of US aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific, highlighted by ASPI executive director, Peter Jennings, where he states: "Beijing’s increased military activities are meant to be seen as a show of strength and to contrast with the challenges the US Navy is facing with maintaining a viable presence in the western Pacific. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has been tied up in Guam since COVID-19 infected many of its crew. China claims that three other American aircraft carriers have COVID-19 outbreaks and that there’s currently no viable US carrier presence in the Pacific."
This paints a concerning image for Australia, as the nation has long depended on the US to provide it with the strategic umbrella enabling tactical freedom and manoeuvrability in contested operating environments.
Jennings adds, "Beijing is clearly showing it can operate forces around the so-called first island chain that includes Japan, Taiwan and maritime south-east Asia. How might this play out across the rest of this year and into next year? I anticipate a dangerous situation arising over Taiwan as President Xi Jinping seeks to seize a strategic advantage while the US remains dangerously incapacitated."
These manoeuvres all have a startling impact on Australia, its national interests, security, resilience and position within the contested Indo-Pacific, something Jennings believes should be the focus for Australian policy makers, post COVID-19.
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".