With an ageing fleet and quantitative disadvantage against potential adversaries, the US has ceded its long held naval superiority. Defence Connect analyses whether the National Defense Authorization Act 2022 can stem this decline, and whether the United States might see a resurgence in navalism.
State of play
Analysts the world over have warned of China’s growing naval superiority. Indeed, pre-eminent analyses including those from the US Office of Naval Intelligence have acknowledged that China possesses not only a larger fleet of newer naval vessels, but also warns of a greater capacity for an immediate expansion in shipbuilding capabilities. This latter point was evidence earlier this year when news reports revealed that China was able to commission three new warships in one day.
US Naval Academy lecturer Claude Berube in War on the Rocks this week reiterated this widely held doubt over the US’ naval capabilities. In his analysis, Berube noted that China’s navy is not only newer and bigger, but also requires less maintenance, providing fewer resource strains on the service.
“Today, only 25 per cent of America’s 114 commissioned surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships) are less than a decade old. By comparison more than 80 per cent of China’s 141 destroyers, frigates, and corvettes have been commissioned in the past decade. In the same time period, the United States commissioned 30 surface combatants,” Berube suggests.
“Earlier this year, the Navy began decommissioning some of the littoral combat ships. China, by contrast, mass-produced 120 surface combatants. US ships are operating, in some cases, with decades-old technology.”
As a result of this rapid naval expansion, Berube explains that China has been able to undertake operations beyond their coastline, gaining critical expertise in maritime operations while keeping sufficient vessels in reserve. Meanwhile, the US has seen much of their aging fleet requiring additional maintenance and upkeep requirements due to their long periods at sea and over deployment.
“The pace of China’s shipbuilding output has meant that ships have rarely needed to deploy more than once. Its growing fleet has allowed China to do more without degrading its ships. Conversely, the United States has struggled to maintain its ships, which are deploying at a higher rate for longer periods,” Berube argues.
“The nearly 600-ship Navy of the late 1980s deployed only 15 per cent of the fleet on average. Today, with fewer than 300 ships, the US Navy deploys more than 35 per cent to service its global missions, contributing to a material death spiral.”
The difficulties faced by the US Navy aren’t simply limited to the number of ships in operation. Unlike China, the US has faced significant delays in the production of their surface vessels, casting doubt on the US’ ability to rapidly increase their naval output in the event of a global war.
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“To provide perspective, from Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Japan was 1,375 days. As of Nov. 29, 2021, it has been 1,885 days since Zumwalt was commissioned and 1,601 days since Ford was commissioned and neither has deployed,” Berube argues.
Berube argues that the United States’ inability to overcome such shortfalls stems from the fact that many political and military decision makers simply remain rusted onto the belief that the US maintains military superiority, succumbing to their own propaganda, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noting that the US still has naval primacy.
The current and future numbers tell a remarkably different story.
The loss of US naval superiority was succinctly argued by Asia Times writer David Goldman, who suggested that “with 350 intermediate-range missile launchers and DF-21 and DF-26 ship-killer missiles, China can sink American carriers as surely as Japanese torpedo bombers sank Allied battleships in World War II”.
However, with a new Defense Authorization Act passed this week for the coming year, are there any lifelines for the US Navy to regain global primacy?
Will the US’ National Defense Authorization Act 2022 close the gap?
This week, US Congress passed the country’s National Defense Authorization Act 2022. Despite the $768 billion defence package passing with bipartisan support, it remains unclear whether the act will be a sufficient enabler for the US Navy to close the capability gap.
According to Reuters, the act has enabled the US Navy to purchase “13 battle force ships including two Virginia-class submarines made by Huntington Ingalls (HII.N) and General Dynamics (GD.N) and three DDG 51 Arleigh Burke destroyers also made by General Dynamics”.
The act further provides $7.1 billion to support US operations in the Indo-Pacific as part of the Pacific Deterrent Initiative (an increase of some $2.1 billion). The investment is expected to support US capabilities in the region, including the defence of Guam, which some analysts have suggested is over reliant on disconnected missile systems for defence.
While the act does provide provisions for the development of further naval capabilities and protection of US naval bases, not all military analysts appear content with the House and Senate Armed Services Committee’s budgetary recommendations with a sub-optimal allocation in budgetary funds.
It has been revealed by numerous media outlets that the Committee provided funding for an additional 12 Boeing Super Hornets, despite the Pentagon arguing that none should be purchased as they will be unable to overcome the threats posed by the modern fighter aircraft used by the US’ adversaries. Rather, the capital could be redirected into researching and developing sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
Despite the price tag, this really isn’t much.
In 2019, an image of a Chinese shipyard was posted online in which a single shipyard was constructing nine destroyers. Former Forbes contributor HI Sutton provided a sobering thought: “To put that into context, the Royal Navy’s entire destroyer fleet is just six ships. And this yard is just part of a much bigger construction program.”
Meanwhile, over recent weeks Beijing has conducted successful tests of its new amphibious assault ship (Type 075) the Hainan including dismounting vehicles, and also progressed plans to build its first naval base in the Atlantic threatening the US’ east coast and European allies. China is expecting to build their base in Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa, where China already operates a port.
Evidently, the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act is not an antidote for failing US naval superiority. Perhaps the US Navy needs to try an older, and more tested path, to overcome political and budgetary deadlock to build next generation naval capabilities.
Will the US see a rise in navalism?
Some analysts have provided interesting solutions for the US to mitigate the threat of an underfunded, underperforming and stretched naval service.
Andrew Blackley in the US Naval Institute explained that the UK’s Royal Navy in the 1880s faced much of the same issues as the current American fleet, including a lack of political willingness to invest in a newer and larger navy. However, the British naval establishment used 'Navalism' to overcome the deadlock and recapture its place as the world’s foremost naval superpower.
“Facing the renewed growth in naval power of its Cold War adversaries, budget constraints, and a Congress often skeptical of its requests for a larger fleet, the service should look to the past for direction on how to acquire the political capital to build the force structure it will need to meet future challenges,” Blackley suggests.
“Arthur J. Marder, a historian specialising in British naval history, described navalism as 'the big navy movement', led by naval officers, politicians, and sympathetic civilians. In Britain, they used popular support to obtain the political clout needed to finance the rapid expansion of the Royal Navy in the 1890s.”
Blackley argues that navalism is comprised of two mechanisms, 'hard' navalism in which the military and their political allies prosecute a renewed strategy for the navy including how a new fleet could support the nation’s grand strategy and the requirements to meet those needs. This 'hard' tactic is underpinned by 'soft' navalism, which is executed by the navy’s supporters in the press and an in the community to build public support for the navy.
The push was ultimately successful.
Over recent years, the United States Navy ceded its qualitative and quantitative advantage over its adversaries. Not only is the US Navy simply outgunned, but its naval capabilities are significantly older, being produced at a slower rate and have far higher maintenance costs and requirements.
There doesn’t appear to be reprieve on the horizon for the US Navy either. While the National Defense Authorization Act 2022 may stem some growing pains with the provision of funds for extra ships, difficulties in the production of naval capabilities suggest that there may be poor alignment between the operational-strategic level perspectives of America’s political decision makers, military decision makers and shipbuilders.
Some analysts have seen the current state of the US Navy as providing room for the rise of navalism, giving navy the opportunity to demonstrate why it needs greater flexibility and bipartisan political support.
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