By James R. Holmes
As weaponeers, budgeteers, and lawmakers wage their annual death match over the defense budget, here’s some input from the margins of Fight Club. And yes, I know the first and second rules of Fight Club. But no one obeys them inside the Beltway, and they yield to the seventh and eighth rules anyway.
It’s tough to winnow the U.S. Navy’s priorities list down to five weapon systems. However, I applied a secret method to come up with the definitive, incontrovertible list of the Top 5 Weapons the U.S. Navy Needs Now. The list employs such metrics as a system’s national-level importance, its capacity to multiply the fleet’s offensive and defensive fighting power, and its ability to exploit enduring enemy weaknesses at manageable cost to the United States. This is science, remember. Don’t be a science denier!!!
One caveat: exotic weaponry like lasers and railguns is conspicuously absent from this list. These prospective game-changers will doubtless qualify—once they stop hovering along the frontiers of science fiction and start fulfilling their promise at fleet air and missile defense. It feels a wee bit premature to jump on that bandwagon—the potential of ray guns and other golly-gee armaments notwithstanding. Now, onward. In reverse order:
5. Offensive minelayers. We make much of the U.S. Navy’s vulnerability to sea mines, but rivals are acutely vulnerable as well. As mine-warfare expert Scott Truver aptly notes, mine countermeasures is an orphan in want of a champion. Offensive mine warfare is an orphan of an orphan. That’s a shame, as the option of closing straits, harbors, and other narrow seas at low cost could come in handy in a host of contingencies. Manifold airborne, surface, and subsurface platforms can lay mines. Mine warfare should find its champion soonest—and provide that champion with the implements to make life tough for prospective foes.
4. Long-range combat aircraft. We may exaggerate the range problem, whereby shore-based aircraft can smite aircraft-carrier strike groups long before these groups close within reach of enemy shores. No one assumed carrier task forces would pound away at the Japanese home islands during World War II while remaining safely out of harm’s way. U.S. forces had to fight their way into the theater, wresting control of sea and sky from Japan before exploiting that control to strike at the island empire.
Still, long range opens up new tactical and operational vistas for American commanders while attenuating the effectiveness of enemy counterbattery fire. Maximum effective firing range isn’t the same as maximum firing range. Weapons typically start to lose accuracy at extreme range. The capacity to operate around the outer limits of, say, Chinese anti-access weaponry would buttress deterrence in peacetime and combat power in wartime—a net bonus for U.S. commanders.
Long range also lets airmen turn geography to advantage. If U.S. Navy and Marine warbirds can operate from temporary “lilypad” airfields erected on islands around the Asian periphery, they can convert these islands into unsinkable—though also immobile—aircraft carriers. Let’s harness maritime geography for operational gain.
3. More attack submarines. This one may seem like a cop-out, but the undersea fleet desperately needs more attack boats. Joseph Stalin isn’t one of my go-to sources of strategic wisdom, but he was correct to note that quantity boasts a quality all its own. A simple differential equation tells the tale: Cold War-era Los Angeles-class subs are being retired faster than new-build Virginia-class boats replace them. As a result the submarine fleet may dwindle to as few as 41 boats in the coming years. That may sound like a lot, but under the prevailing maintenance and training cycle, it means commanders can count on something like 28 boats at any time…to police the entire globe and face down aggression.
That’s a serious shortfall. Like mine countermeasures, antisubmarine warfare is an enduring weakness of potential antagonists like China’s navy. By all means let’s build more Virginias. Or, let’s go back to the U.S. Navy’s conventional submarining past. Japan’s navy operates a fleet of diesel boats acclaimed the world’s finest. They’re eminently suitable for patrol grounds in crucial theaters like, well, Asia. To add numbers of hulls, why not buy some of these relatively inexpensive craft and use them to constitute a permanent, forward-deployed allied squadron alongside Japanese boats. Let’s buy American—and Japanese.
2. Modern anti-ship cruise missiles. Our navy suffers from a severe deficit of cruise-missile firepower. Cruise missiles of the anti-ship variety, I mean. The navy ditched an anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile two decades ago, going all-in on land attack, while the elderly Harpoon missile finds itself outranged by virtually every serious foe out there. That means missile-armed enemy ships, subs, and planes can lob missiles at U.S. naval task forces long before American units can reply. U.S. forces will have to close to missile range under fire, in all likelihood taking losses as they do. That’s a perilous position for any fleet—and one that demands to be remedied.
Surface-fleet chieftains are saying the right things. They’ve started talking about “distributed lethality,” meaning arming as many ships as possible—not just cruisers and destroyers but amphibious transports, and even logistics vessels—for defensive and offensive purposes. A fine aspiration—provided we have something to arm surface vessels, subs, aircraft and even bodies of Marines ashore with. Distributed lethality is a worthy concept. Whether it’s a neo-Tomahawk anti-ship missile, a newfangled long-range anti-ship missile, or something else, fielding a new “bird”—and thus righting the range imbalance—must top fleet designers’ tactical to-do list.
1. Replacement ballistic-missile subs. Which leaves top honors on this list to a replacement for navy’s aging Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). Nuclear deterrence is a matter of national survival, and the undersea component of the U.S. “second-strike” capability remains its most survivable—and thus credible—component. SSBNs are strategic assets of utmost importance.
Small wonder top navy leaders have designated the replacement “boomer” now on the drawing board the nation’s foremost shipbuilding priority. They have warned, moreover, that all other procurements may have to yield to submarine construction unless Congress funds the new SSBNs through a special account outside the normal shipbuilding budget. Yet anchoring the nuclear deterrent is that critical. That makes the Ohio successor #1 on my—and probably anyone’s—list of U.S. Navy acquisitions.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. He is RCD’s new national security columnist. The views voiced here are his alone.