Chased by China & Russia, “Doing More of the Same Is Not the Answer” for the U.S. Navy

Photo: U.S. Navy

The United States Navy has achieved unmatched supremacy on the world’s seas, but Russia and China are diligently growing their naval capabilities, trying to close the gap. Should U.S. naval enterprises fail to match their rivals’ pace, then Moscow and Beijing’s maritime advancements could challenge U.S. geostrategic interests, including its ability to ensure the uninhibited flow of trade, project power in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and effectively carry out operations in the global war on terror.

  • The U.S. Navy deploys an active fleet of 280 ships, according to Navy Spokesman Lt. Benjamin Anderson.
  • The Navy fleet structure is designed around 11 aircraft carriers, with ten belonging to the Nimitz class, which first entered service in 1975. These will eventually be phased out for the new Ford class, the first of which, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), was commissioned in July and cost $12.9 billion to build. The next Ford class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), is targeted for commission in 2020, but the Navy is expected to exceed its $11.4 billion budget for the carrier similar to how the cost for the USS Ford ballooned to an estimated $2.4 million over budget.
  • The USS Ford’s introduction returned the Navy’s carrier force strength to 11 vessels. Federal law requires the Navy to keep 11 carriers on active duty at all times, but the retirement of USS Enterprise in February necessitated a temporary waiver.
  • Weighing more than 100,000 tons, carrying up to 90 aircraft and crewed by 5,000 personnel, U.S. aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built. The flight decks of these nuclear-powered vessels offer what the Navy calls “4.5 acres of sovereign American territory” anywhere in the world.
  • “The foundation of our Naval forces’ credibility as reliable partners and as an effective deterrent is our forward presence,” testified Sean Stackley, former Acting Secretary of the Navy, at a July hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
  • The U.S. Navy has played a key role in the campaign against ISIS in the Middle East as fighter jets that bombed the group took off from carriers including the USS George H.W. Bush and USS Eisenhower carrier stationed in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has also sent warships through the South China Sea to ensure the freedom of navigation and demonstrate its naval commitments to regional allies.

Adm. (ret.) James Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

“Specifically addressing capabilities, the U.S. Navy remains second to none…Nobody has fixed-wing aircraft carriers with the capacity and endurance of a NIMITZ class carrier. I would put a Virginia or Seawolf class submarine up against any other navy’s undersea force. Our surface force is good and getting better all the time, with more capable sensors, such as the AN/SPY-6(V) Air and Missile Defense Radar, and advanced weapons such as the Standard Missile-6 and others.”

However, Russia and China are augmenting their maritime forces and working to develop new capabilities, potentially threatening the United States’ ability to provide security in certain waterways. Importantly, the two countries have demonstrated an increasing level of cooperation as they have participated in various joint naval exercises over the past five years.

  • “Both China and Russia are able to compete on a global scale, in all domains, and at competitive speed. They both possess considerable space, cyber and nuclear forces. Both are challenging U.S. influence and interests in expanding areas of the world, often in maritime spaces. They have been very explicit about their maritime intentions, and have moved out smartly to advance them,” wrote Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, in a July 2017 white paper on the Future Navy Layout.
  • Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has prioritized the reconstruction of its navy, and particularly its cache of submarines. Earlier this year, the Russian Navy launched the second of its seven-member Severodvinsk class, or “YASEN-class,” nuclear-powered attack submarines, which according to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2017 report on Russia’s military power, are “extremely quiet and armed with a wide range of advanced cruise missiles to destroy enemy ships and targets ashore.”
  • “The Russians will build 100 new ships by 2020, and they are comparable to the best of the U.S. fleet,” said Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. “Nearly 20 of them will go into the contested waters of the Black Sea, operating from the superb naval base that the Russians annexed in Crimea in 2014,” The Cipher Brief expert said, writing in the Wall Street Journal.
  • China is undertaking across-the-board naval modernization, including the construction of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned vehicles and enhanced surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
  • China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, into service in Sept. 2012 and could potentially be building two additional carriers. There has been speculation that China may aim to construct up to six carriers. China has also invested heavily in advanced anti-ship missiles, such as the hypersonic DF-21D, referred to by some experts as the “carrier killer.” Such weapons could be used to protect Chinese interests abroad, including in the Middle East and Africa, especially as China recently established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti this summer.
  • Russia and China began joint naval drills in 2012 and have held two exercises this year. The first set occurred in July in the Baltic Sea. The drills are “an example of China’s growing military capabilities and its increasingly significant global role,” said Piers Cazalet, the Deputy Spokesman for NATO. This September, the two countries conducted joint exercises over an eight-day period in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, which is the base of the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

“Both Russia and China are pursuing: aggressive hypersonic, ultra-high-speed missiles; advanced, quieter submarines, notably diesels; smart mines and other unmanned weapons and vehicles; and offensive cyber capabilities — all of these as ‘equalizers’ to a stronger U.S. fleet.”

Adm. (ret.) James Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

“China and Russia are both stepping up their game in thoughtful way. Even though they will have a hard time competing at global scale (at least for now), they are building sensible capabilities that are intended to offset the U.S. Navy in their regions of interest. Russia is principally focused on submarine capability, and they’re building some really good ones, like the multi-purpose Severodvinsk class (though they are somewhat limited in their production capacity). China is focused across-the-board, including commissioning the aircraft carrier Liaoning and assembling an out-of-area deployment capability to better protect their One-Belt, One-Road approach in the Indian Ocean.”

In addition to the new level of competition introduced by Russia and China, there are concerns that the U.S. Navy is being stretched too thin due to its vast global responsibilities. The ramifications could be a reduced competitive advantage vis-à-vis Russia and China in confined, yet vital waters such as the Baltic Sea and South China Sea.

  • The collisions that occurred aboard the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain in the Western Pacific this past summer, which resulted in the deaths of 17 service members, have been blamed on tired crews who hadn’t received adequate training due to constant deployments.

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“Our Navy is being directed to deploy forces at a tempo and global presence that exceeds its budget, maintenance and training processes. The result is we are prematurely wearing out people and equipment. Training, both basic basic and advanced, has not been sustained to meet the demand.”

The Navy has started to initiate expansive measures to further build capabilities, prioritizing the readiness of its service members, the incorporation of new technology and equipment, and increasing cooperation with partners and allies. Through such mechanisms, the Navy aims to address shortcomings, though, like all branches of the armed forces, Navy officials complain bitterly that the budget limits of sequestration complicate future planning and investment .

  • The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA), released last December, recommended an expansion from a target of 308 naval vessels to a 355-ship fleet, which is expected to include 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships and 66 submarines. “To continue to protect America and defend our strategic interests around the world, all while continuing the counterterrorism fight and appropriately competing with a growing China and resurgent Russia, our Navy must continue to grow,” said then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, when the study was released last December.
  • Ensuring the appropriate level of readiness for sailors has been a focal point for current Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who in September, ordered a comprehensive review of the Navy’s “individual training and professional development, unit level training and operational performance, development and certification of deployed operational and mission standards, deployed operational employment and risk management, material readiness, and utility of current navigation equipment and combat systems, and will include recommendations on corrective actions.”
  • The U.S. Navy is looking to expand its fleet size and design new weapons and technologies, including hypersonic weapons – projectiles that are able to achieve and sustain speeds at or above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
  • According to Sean Stackley, former Acting Secretary Of The Navy,“The FY 2018 President’s Budget request invests in the modernization of our current platforms and weapons; supports procurement of seven major warships and two auxiliary ships: the ENTERPRISE (CVN 80) FORD Class aircraft carrier; two VIRGINIA Class (SSN) attack submarines; two ARLEIGH BURKE Class (DDG 51) guided missile destroyers; two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); one JOHN LEWIS Class fleet oiler; and one (T-ATS) towing, salvage and rescue ship; and continues advanced procurement for the lead ship of the COLUMBIA Class ballistic missile submarine program.”
  • Stackley said building the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) – the planned replacement for the Ohio Class and part of the nation’s strategic deterrent nuclear triad – is a priority.
  • The Navy is also seeking to orchestrate even more strategic cooperation with allies to ensure maximum force projection. In a town hall meeting held aboard the USS Reagan earlier this week, Admiral Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, said he hoped to focus the upcoming year on “more time in [joint] exercises working toward the high-end of naval warfare.”

Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

“The U.S. Navy should build a fleet of around 330-350 deep oceangoing vessels; invest in cyber tools both defensive and offensive; buy more unmanned vehicles for subsurface, surface, and over ocean work; spread lethality by both unmanned and vertical capable fighters not only on carriers but on big deck amphibious assault ships, ‘light carriers,’ as well; and continue to invest in special forces at sea for hybrid warfare in the maritime environment.”

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“To further ensure its supremacy on the oceans, the U.S. Navy could undertake key steps such as fixing the readiness and training of current forces; enhancing lethality by increasing the quantity and quality of sensors and weapons; reviewing and updating information and intelligence sharing agreements with our Allies; further developing hypersonic and laser weapons as well as unmanned and autonomous underwater vehicles and sensors, developing air and surface swarm and other clever and asymmetric tactics; and moving along electromagnetic warfare initiatives such as spoofing, jamming, and corrupting missiles and sensors.”

The U.S. Navy has a plan to maintain its competitive advantage on the high seas. But shipbuilders’ cost overruns and delays, Congress’ budgetary constraints and the strain from the high tempo of global operations could give U.S. adversaries time to catch up.

Adm. (ret.) James Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

“While we retain our advantages over both [the Chinese and Russian] navies, simply doing more of the same is not the answer. We will need to use our most important competitive advantage, namely our creativity, to produce new dilemmas for China and Russia, including their naval forces, should they be tempted to threaten our long-standing interests.”

Bennett Seftel is director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.

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4 Replies to “Chased by China & Russia, “Doing More of the Same Is Not the Answer” for the U.S. Navy”
  1. Excellent article and greatly appreciated the perspective of these leaders. This shows, yet again, the dangerous weak posture that the Obama administration has left us and the monumental task it will take to regain the level of national security standing that we need to keep ourselves and allies safe.

    1. A build up to 330 ships during the Obama Administration would have been week ahead of need. Our conflicts the last 16 years were not maritime centric, and DoD’s budget was aligned accordingly.

      1. The public debate is not focused on the right issue. Making the Navy bigger at the expense of making its capabilities (payloads such as weapons and sensors) better is not the right tradeoff but the realities of the defense budget are such that this is in fact the tradeoff that will have to be made in reality. Size of the fleet is important but capability of each unit within the fleet is equally so and the dialog in public forums and on the Hill is not about capability, only size, because size has a metric that is easy to measure. It is not a sufficient metric.

  2. The US Navy is a the most visible projection of power in the world. The appearance of a carrier task force on the horizon will instantly change the battlefield. The number of ships, planes and weapon systems are incidental to the training, talent and pride of the men and women sailors who serve. The Chief Petty Officers are the hands on management. There needs to be greater emphasis placed on promotion to the Chief position based on character, leadership and ability. Promotion boards need additional training and education on evaluating candidates. The candidates when selected need additional exposure to methods, theories and practice in discipline, management and leadership. The candidates have technical knowledge, but need the tools to effectively teach and lead their subordinates. There is no substitute on the bridge of a ship for a Chief Petty Officer who has the respect of the officers and the sailors on the watch.