It seems that both the Pentagon and the US Navy have been busy at work planning for the future of the US Navy, with a fleet far in excess of the 355 ships proposed by the President – however, far from a spending spree on expensive platforms, it appears balance has won the day.
Acclaimed American author Mark Twain is credited with what is perhaps one of the most poignant and relevant quotes in human history: "It is said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes", and nowhere is this more evident than in the expansive naval arms race reshaping the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
In the lead up to the First World War, the global hegemon, the British Empire, was challenged by the rising economic, political, industrial and strategic might of Imperial Germany, with the naval arms race the major battleground following the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.
As we now know, the race between the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy to design, build and field the largest, most capable fleet of battleships was one of the major catalysts for the tensions between the two nations that would ultimately culminate in the devastating First World War.
Today, as we look not only across the Indo-Pacific, but more broadly around the globe, many established and rising powers are expanding the capability and composition of their respective naval forces as tensions continue to mount in the post-COVID world.
Perhaps most concerningly and true to Twain's statement, across the vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean, the world's two superpowers are circling one another, each probing for weaknesses and making move and countermove to assert and in some cases reassert their prominence.
The US, divided domestically and weary from decades of serving as the world's policeman is feeling the weight of its global responsibilities, is being stalked by the 'newcomer'; Communist China, an ancient power, with a proud and storied history, reinvigorated by decades of development seeking to extend its influence and prestige as a truly global power once again.
This economic, political and strategic competition is gaining increasing traction in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as both sides embark on one of the single largest naval modernisation and recapitalisation programs in history.
China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.
On one side of the Pacific, the US Navy is struggling to modernise, repurpose and recapitalise a range of Cold War-era platforms that have formed the backbone of the world's most powerful navy since the end of the Second World War, increasing budget overruns, delivery delays and a focus on land-based wars in the Middle East have seen the fleet fall by the wayside.
Despite efforts by US President Donald Trump to establish a 355-ship fleet capable of reaffirming America's global responsibilities and reassuring allies in the face of growing great power tensions, funding has been hit and miss, with many large-scale programs absorbing much of the additional funding promised.
This is particularly relevant as Beijing's own fleet strength continues to grow. In response, US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has redoubled calls for more funding to directly support America's naval modernisation.
However, despite this lofty ambition established by the President, it appears the US Navy and two think tanks have something different in mind, with CAPE and the Hudson Institute each responding to the Pentagon's 'Future Naval Force Study' to present plans for a 500-ship fleet, dwarfing even the ambitious goals of this bombastic President.
A paradigm shift
David Larter and Aaron Mehta, writing for US-based Defense News, have shed light on the myriad plans now under consideration for transforming the US Navy and its ability to meet not only its global responsibilities, but equally to better deter peer and near-peer competitor aggression.
"The Pentagon’s upcoming recommendation for a future Navy is expected to call for a significant increase in the number of ships, with officials discussing a fleet as large as 530 hulls..." Larter and Mehta explain.
"Supporting documents to the forthcoming Future Navy Force Study reviewed by Defense News show the Navy moving towards a lighter force with many more ships but fewer aircraft carriers and large surface combatants. Instead, the fleet would include more small surface combatants, unmanned ships and submarines and an expanded logistics force."
However, this can't be achieved without major changes to the already stretched funding for US Navy shipbuilding, something Secretary Esper has been a strong proponent of.
Reaffirming America's naval primacy is a critical component of maintaining the balance of power, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as Beijing becomes increasingly confrontational and bold in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Secretary Esper expanded on comments made earlier in the year, telling Rand Corporation experts: "We will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness needs, and does not create a hollow Navy in the process. To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force. Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing."
Larter and Mehta shed important details on the methodology and focus of the review and the plans developed by both CAPE and Hudson Institute, stating, "The Future Naval Force Study, overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, kicked off in January after Esper decided he wanted an outside take on the Navy’s self-review of its future force structure. The OSD-led review tasked three groups to provide their version of an ideal fleet construction for the year 2045, one each by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation office, the Joint Staff, the Navy and a group from the Hudson Institute.
"Those fleets were war-gamed and the results were compiled into the Future Naval Force Study, which was briefed to Esper earlier this month. Ultimately, the Navy is using the feedback from the study to create their shipbuilding plan and fiscal 2022 budget request, the service said in a statement."
Balancing crewed and uncrewed platforms
The increasing capability of uncrewed platforms, combined with continued investment in the platforms provides an important method for reaching the magic number established by the review and the respective think tanks – to this end, the US Navy has articulated a commitment to balancing traditional crew-intensive platforms like aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines with myriad large, medium and small uncrewed platforms.
To this end, CAPE, Hudson and the US Navy plans have some startling similarities. It is important to clearly state that none of the three plans will solely form the basis of the Navy's future force composition, but rather prioritised the importance of balance.
"As of the April drafts, both the CAPE and Hudson Institute teams were supportive of shrinking the number of supercarriers to nine from the current 11, which would effectively give the country eight active carriers, with one carrier always in midlife overhaul and refuelling. The Hudson study also called for investing in four light carriers," Larter and Mehta explained.
"The CAPE fleet called for between 80 and 90 large surface combatants, about the same level as today’s 89 cruisers and destroyers. Hudson looked to reduce the number slightly and instead fund more lightly manned corvettes, something Hudson has called for in the past.
"The reports called for between 65 and 87 large unmanned surface vessels or optionally unmanned corvettes, which the Navy hopes will boost vertical launch system capacity to offset the loss over time of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the four guided missile submarines.
"Both fleets called for increased small surface combatants, with the CAPE study putting the upper limit at 70 ships. Hudson recommended a maximum of 56. The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment called for 52 small surface combatants.
"Both fleets also favored a slight increase in attack submarines over the current 66-ship requirement but reflected a big boost in large unmanned submarines, anywhere between 40 and 60 total. The idea would be to get the Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle to do monotonous surveillance missions or highly dangerous missions, freeing up the more complex manned platforms for other tasking.
"On the amphibious side, both fleets reduced the overall number of traditional dock landing ships, such as the LPD-17, from the current 23 to between 15 and 19. As for the big-deck amphibious ships, CAPE favored holding at the current level of 10, while Hudson favored cutting to five, with the savings reinvested towards four light carriers.
"The studies called for between 20 and 26 of the Marines' light amphibious warships, which they need for ferrying Marines and gear around islands in the Pacific.
"Both fleets significantly expanded the logistics force, with big increases coming from smaller ships similar to offshore or oil platform support-type vessels. The fleets called for anywhere from 19 to 30 'future small logistics' ships. The CAPE and Hudon fleets increased the number of fleet oilers anywhere from 21 to 31, up from today’s 17."
The proposal leaves some interesting opportunities for the US Navy and its allies, including Australia to pursue and consider as they all adapt and respond to a rapidly deteriorating geostrategic order.
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, the world is now a multi-polar, contested environment.
In response, 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.