With growing great power tensions transforming the strategic balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, US lawmakers have redoubled calls for the incoming Biden administration to expand funding for the US Navy to better prepare for future conflicts in the region.
Throughout history, no naval force has so effectively and dominantly managed the security and freedom of navigation on the global maritime commons as the US Navy.
The US emerged from the Second World War as the premier naval power and surging out the other side of the Cold War victorious it seemed as if none could challenge this unassailable might, driven by a qualitative and quantitative edge.
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.
The basis of this unprecedented maritime dominance stems back to 1890 and the work of American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, which outlined: "Whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it."
A rapidly developing and powerful communist China is seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as the undisputed economic, political and strategic world leader.
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.
It has been increasingly recognised by both American and allied analysts, that the US Navy has struggled to cohesively and consistently respond to the myriad emerging challenges, placing ever-growing responsibilities for regional maritime security on key regional allies and partners, including Australia, as the fleet grapples with the impact of budget constraints associated with introducing new fleet units, and ballooning modernisation and sustainment costs.
Step up the funding, urgently
Many have called for an increased allocation of funding to support the modernisation and expansion of capabilities available to the US Navy, now, bipartisan lawmakers have called on the incoming Biden/Harris administration to back up the funding requests with real cash.
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Leading the charge, Representatives Joe Courtney (Democrat) and Robb Wittman (Republican), the respective chair and ranking member of the subcommittee, have urged action to counter rising great-power competitors, namely, China.
To this end, Wittman explained, "I think more and more people are understanding the critical nature of the Navy in this fight and critical nature of all different components, whether it’s tankers or securing tankers, or cable ships and making sure that we’re doing everything up there as well as a modernised logistics fleet, and then having the ability to make sure that we are protecting the logistics fleets.
"In the years going forward, any threat that we face, we’re going to face them in a highly contested environment. And that needs to inform everything that we do. And the good news is, I think, leaders, both in elected office and Pentagon, are realising how incredibly important the Navy is as a component of that and that you can’t get to where you need to be if you just continue to cut the pie one-third, one-third, one-third. The investment has to be there."
This call comes on the back of recent comments made by US Navy Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday has warned of an ongoing challenge for combatant commanders, the Pentagon's strategic planners, the US naval shipbuilding industrial base and the White House as the Navy lobbies for a larger and more lethal fleet to counter great power rivalries.
ADM Gilday's comments were recently reinforced by former defense secretary, Dr Mark Esper who was a major proponent of ensure the right balance for the US Navy of readily deployable, affordable and capable platforms and capabilities, preventing what he termed a 'hollow force' and were expanded upon by ADM Gilday.
"I think that we made a lot of progress in the last year with Secretary Esper and his staff in terms of coming to a place where there was a realisation that we’ve under-invested in naval forces for too long and we needed to, not double down, but increase the investment in naval forces, perhaps at the expense of other areas. That we were making the argument that we believe we need overmatch in the maritime, based on the adversaries that we’re facing," ADM Gilday explained.
"We think that our analysis withstood the rigors through the [Future Naval Force Study], in a CAPE-led analytical effort, and delivered an FNFS and discussions about a topline in [fiscal year 2022] that would support an increase in those investments."
Splitting the pie won't be easy, but it will be necessary
For ADM Gilday, the plans identified by the former defense secretary are best encapsulated in the 'Battle Force 2045' concept 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.
In particular, concerns about 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.
As part of the plan, former 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.
Former 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.
The core focus for Esper is very clearly maintaining continued US maritime dominance, with 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.
Despite these ambitions, ADM Gilday explained in detail the very real implications of an increasingly limited financial resource base for the US Navy and broader US Armed Forces, explaining, "We can’t afford a navy much bigger than about 306 to 310 ships, based on the composition of the fleet that we have today. And so it is going to require more Navy topline. We have found money inside the Navy budget, but not enough to sustain that effort to give you the numbers that you really need to fight in a [Distributed Maritime Operations]/[Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment] fight."
Expanding on these comments, ADM Gilday speaking to Megan Eckstein of the US Naval Institute (USNI) detailed the US Navy's need for an increasing number of submarines, fewer major surface combatants, a growing number of small surface combatants, balanced by more uncrewed vessels, more logistics vessels and a new composition for the joint Navy/Marine Corps amphibious warfare fleet.
Additionally, ADM Gilday stressed the importance of increasing US investment in critical research and development programs to develop hypersonic weapons and directed energy platforms for missile defence roles – a key component of this shift is ensuring the success of the new Constellation Class guided missile frigates and avoiding, as he puts it, "monstrosities" when it comes to the next-generation guided missile destroyer, which will replace the Arleigh Burke Class vessels.
ADM Gilday explained to Eckstein, "I think we have challenges up on the Hill, particularly the Navy, with respect to unmanned. And with DDG Next. So we are fighting the ghosts of our past, whether it’s LCS, Zumwalt, the challenges we’ve had with Ford – we need to explain how we’re not going to repeat the mistakes we’ve had in the past. And we can’t just say it, we have to show them what we are doing systematically to build a little bit, test a little bit, and then move to scaling – but when our confidence is high enough to do so."
These points in particular were further strengthened by potential Biden administration defense secretary Michele Flournoy, who recently told Defense News, "We have to have enough of an edge, that first and foremost we can deter China from attacking or endangering our vital interests and our allies. That means resolve."
Building on this, Flournoy posed an important question: "What capabilities would US naval and air forces need to credibly threaten to sink 300 military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships within 72 hours? Such a capability would certainly pose a fundamental dilemma for any great power contemplating aggression."
These ongoing challenges, which will dictate the structure and capability of the US Navy in coming decades, will have an important impact on Australia's own maritime security, naval force posture, structure and platform acquisition in coming years.
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.