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Biden administration plans detailed review of Navy modernisation plans

As the new Biden administration gets its feet under the desks and prepares to face a world of increased great power rivalry, finalising Navy modernisation plans appear to be a high priority for the Pentagon and White House.

As the new Biden administration gets its feet under the desks and prepares to face a world of increased great power rivalry, finalising Navy modernisation plans appear to be a high priority for the Pentagon and White House.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US Navy emerged as the single greatest naval power in the world, buoyed by an immense industrial might, domestic naval demands and that of a growing network of global allies positioned it well for the challenges of the Cold War. 

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Surging out the other side of the Cold War victorious it seemed as if none could challenge this unassailable might of the US Navy, driven by a qualitative and quantitative edge over all its potential adversaries. 

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 exclusive domain of the world's premier powers. 

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Despite the mounting challenges, the US Navy has increasingly 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.

This has become increasingly obvious as the fleet grapples with the impact of budget constraints associated with introducing new fleet units, and ballooning modernisation and sustainment costs, and of course competing with the other services for access to limited funding. 

Now, as the Biden administration enters the halls of power, it is firmly set on reviewing and, if needed, overhauling the 30-year naval shipbuilding plan and Future Naval Force Study (FNFS) of the previous Trump administration. 

To this end, as part of the confirmation hearings, President Biden's pick for Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, has used written responses to detail the agenda, with Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense detailing the initial plans.

At the core of Austin's written responses was his plans to "review both the Future Naval Force Study and shipbuilding plan in detail and work with Navy leadership to develop a well calibrated shipbuilding plan", while also expanding the details of "Navy’s assessment of current and future risks in performing its assigned missions, and in supporting the requirements of the joint force, and work with Navy leadership to address those risks".

Prepare to counter Beijing

Building on the comments of Austin is his incoming State Department counterpart, Antony Blinken, who outlined the Biden administration's commitment to countering Beijing and its rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific: "China’s military modernisation, coupled with its aggressive and coercive actions, presents an increasingly urgent challenge to our vital interests in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world."

Blinken adds  that the Biden administration "will view China as our most serious global competitor and, from a defence perspective, the pacing threat in most areas".

Responding to these challenges, Austin reinforced the comments of Blinken, calling on the US Navy to undergo a whole-scale modernisation and overhaul of the fleet structure and platforms, stating it will need "new concepts and capabilities to counter China across the spectrum of conflict; update US force posture in the region, including through the Pacific Deterrence Initiative; and strengthening our alliances and partnerships".

There is going to have to be some negotiation

These points come following ongoing points of difference between the US Navy and Marine Corps and former defence secretary Mark Esper, which was highlighted by Admiral Michael Gilday at September's US Naval Institute annual Defense Forum Washington event: 

"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.

"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."

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.

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 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. 

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. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch at [email protected] or [email protected].

Biden administration plans detailed review of Navy modernisation plans
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