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US Navy 2045 fleet plan reaffirms nation’s commitment to sea power

US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has raised the curtains on a comprehensive proposal to reshape the make up and capability of the US Navy and its future fleet of 2040s and beyond, with one key focus in mind: “maintain American dominance on the seas”.

US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has raised the curtains on a comprehensive proposal to reshape the make up and capability of the US Navy and its future fleet of 2040s and beyond, with one key focus in mind: “maintain American dominance on the seas”.

In 1890, American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his work The Influence of Sea Power upon History outlined that "whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it", establishing the basis of America’s foreign and strategic policy well into the 21st century despite periods of isolation.  

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Mahan's seminal work stresses the importance maritime security, freedom of navigation and dominance played in past periods of great power competition, but increasingly today as two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific.

One, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the United States, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East and burdoned by global responsibilities echoing back to its crushing defeat of Imperial Japan during the Second World War – 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. 

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.

Further challenging the previously unrivalled dominance of the global maritime commons by the US is the resurgence of an increasingly modernised Russian Navy and the proliferation of advanced, increasingly capable weapons systems, once previously only the domain of global powers. 

These factors, combined with a period of sequestration during the Obama administration and rising funding challenges, have 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. 

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, 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 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. 

Fleet needs to focus on responding to a Tier One competitor

Recognising these challenges, Secretary Esper has revealed details about Washington's plans to "maintain American dominance on the seas" in response to growing concerns about Beijing's ambitious naval expansion and modernisation plans, which aim to see the rising power emerge as a 'Tier One' military power by 2049.

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. 

Secretary Esper, speaking at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) virtual conference, expanded on the details and plans for what the he is calling 'Battle Force 2045' with some pretty major changes planned for the US Navy's fleet composition as the nation rebalances towards great power competition and peer competitor based operations, saying, "Battle Force [2045 will] be a more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern and larger force than we have seen in many years.

"It will also be more balanced, a more balanced naval force that will have a greater number of smaller surface combatants and unmanned or optionally manned ships, along with an ample submarine force, and a modern strategic deterrent. It will also be able to deliver over overwhelming fires balanced across four domains, from the air from the land, from the sea, and from under the sea."

As part of the plan, Secretary Esper's force structure concept echoes the plans established by think tanks the Hudson Institute and CAPE which focused on delivering a lighter fleet, with fewer aircraft carriers and large surface combatants (namely cruisers and destroyers) in favour of smaller, more flexible unmanned ships, with significant growth in the attack submarine fleet.

Secretary Esper's detailed plans called for a significant expansion in the number of vessels available to the fleet – however, this force structure will also include an increasing number of unmanned and optionally manned surface and subsurface vessels, including: 

  • 140-240 unmanned and optionally manned surface and subsurface vehicles;
  • 60-70 small surface combatants, up from the current requirement for 52;
  • 50-60 amphibious warfare ships, up from the current requirement for 38; 
  • 70-90 combat logistics force ships, a massive increase from the current requirement of 32; and
  • Immediately begin building three Virginia-class attack submarines per year, up from two per year today.

Building on this, Secretary Esper explained, "I agreed to provide additional funding from across the Department of Defense enterprise, funding that was harvested from ongoing reform efforts such as combatant command reviews, ‘fourth estate’ reforms and other initiatives. Together, these additional funding streams will increase the shipbuilding account to 13 per cent."

The core focus for Esper is very clearly maintaining continued US maritime dominance, with Secretary Esper explaining the proposal being a response to serious concerns regarding force atrophy, overworking and challenges to modernisation and sustainment across the fleet, with some stand out cases drawing particular ire and frustration for fleet commanders being asked to do more with less. 

"Over the past several years, the department had to recover from the crippling effects of sequestration inadequate funding, continuing resolutions, and years of budget uncertainty. We also placed insufficient attention on the high end fight, which many believed was behind us with the cold wars and the good news is that we are now on the road to recovery by first restoring the readiness of the current fleet, and second, by divesting from legacy systems and lower priorities in order to modernise the force," Secretary Esper explained. 

"We are now at a point where we can and, indeed, we must chart a new path to a future fleet, that will maintain our naval superiority."

While the delivery of this plan is far from any stage of fruition, the proposals outlined by Secretary Esper presents some key points for Australian consideration, namely that the US Navy will continue to be limited in its capacity to ensure free and unlimited access to the global maritime commons as it has done since the end of the Second World War and that America's allies are going to have to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their own sphere's of influence. 

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, 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. 

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US Navy 2045 fleet plan reaffirms nation’s commitment to sea power
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