Tag: navy

Explaining Aircraft Carriers

Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the following comment regarding China’s maiden voyage in the old Varyag carcass it has been tinkering with for over a decade:

We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.

This echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at the 2005 Shangri-La Dialogue in which he puzzled in quintessentially Rumsfeldian fashion:

Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder:

* Why this growing investment?

* Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?

* Why these continuing robust deployments?

Maybe, like me, the Chinese are reading Aaron Friedberg’s new book on U.S.-China security competition (Friedberg worked on Asia for Vice President Cheney). Perhaps high-ranking military officials there shudder a bit when they read, on page 184, that someone very close to the levers of power in Washington admits mildly that

Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy is to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.

Given this, as Friedberg sensibly notes later (p. 231),

It is difficult to believe that the present Beijing regime will accept indefinitely a situation in which its fate could depend on American forbearance, and hard to see how it can escape that condition without building a much bigger and more capable navy.

I actually agree with David Axe’s characterization of the Shi Lang as “a piece of junk,” and given the geography of the region, I wouldn’t—as the Chinese aren’t—pour many resources into aircraft carriers to remedy this predicament. But if the roles were reversed, and China spent four times as much as we did on our military—and if China had naval bases ringing my coastline and fancied itself the “hub” of a “hub-and-spokes” set of alliances between itself and a variety of Latin American countries and Canada—I’d probably think that these facts, when assembled, constituted a pretty strong argument for spending more money on anything I could use to defend myself. Especially if China had recently gone on an ideological rampage trying to “hasten revolutions” and leaving smoldering wreckages in its wake.

At any rate, what’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, so I anxiously await the Pentagon’s detailed explanation for why we need each of our 11 aircraft carriers, every one of which is enormously more powerful than the PRC’s puny flattop.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

Mark Helprin’s Convoluted Case for a Large(r) Navy

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal featured an op ed by Mark Helprin making the case for a large navy (may be paywalled). Or, at least, that was what I took away from it. To be honest, it was a little hard to tell.

I was going to let it drop, but by coincidence I was at the Naval Academy today, giving a guest lecture to two different classes, and the experience has inspired me to pick apart examine Helprin’s article.

I do so because I fundamentally agree with Helprin that we should have a strong navy. I say this because I believe that the Founders were correct to privilege the Navy over the Army (recall that the Constitution calls for maintaining a navy, but raising an Army only as required). I also have several parochial reasons for favoring the Navy over the other services: I served in the Navy; grew up in Maine, in the shadow of Bath Iron Works and the Brunswick Naval Air Station; and the name Preble is hallowed in naval history. Edward Preble (pictured), a distant ancestor, was among the founders of the American navy, and there have been several naval vessels bearing his name. The museum on the grounds of the Naval Academy is named Preble Hall.

Suffice it to say, if I believed that the U.S. Navy was in danger of losing its edge, I would support an aggressive plan to reverse its fortunes. If I thought that we could no longer defend the seaborne approaches to the continental United States, I would be calling for a crash program to reform the service. But it isn’t, and we aren’t. Helprin’s article features misleading information and dubious logic.  An argument poorly made is worse than no argument at all.

The basic gist of Helprin’s op ed is that the U.S. Navy is too small. We had over 1,000 ships at the end of World War II, and now we have only 286. (I could point out that we had thousands and thousands of jeeps and propeller-powered fighter planes at the end of World War II. Now we have none. That doesn’t mean that our conventional land forces and air forces are less capable today than they were in 1945.) He goes on to explain that we need a larger navy to defeat the pirates who are assaulting ships off the Horn of Africa. Russia and China, he claims, are challenging us on the high seas, or soon will do so. He repeats the tired conventional wisdom that the global trading system depends upon a single dominant power to enforce the rules and punish wrongdoers. Great Britain served that role in the 19th century; the U.S. Navy must do so now.

None of these claims are true. Piracy is a nuisance best handled by a coalition of navies contributing forces to escort vulnerable ships, and to carry out punitive raids, not a single global U.S. sheriff that treats every body of water as though it were synonymous with the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is not, as he absurdly claims, on the cusp of the “gratuitious abdication” of our naval supremacy. The U.S. Navy dwarfs any other navy, or combination of navies, both in terms of numbers of ships, and in terms of effective striking power. The global trading system is far more resilient, and far more complex, than Helprin claims; it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. Navy to commit itself to policing every sea lane on the planet. The many beneficiaries of global trade should share in the costs of keeping the seas free and open.

There is a kernel of truth to Helprin’s contention that the Navy should not put all its eggs in “a small number of super ships [which] could be in only a limited number of places at a time.” He seems to appreciate that “the loss of just a few of them would be catastrophic.” But he doesn’t finish that thought. As with many things pertaining to military spending, it isn’t what you spend so much as where and how you spend it. In short, numbers of ships are misleading. What types of ships? At what cost? 

How you answer depends upon what you expect them to be doing. It makes no sense to fight pirates with aircraft carriers. Likewise, it would be foolish to park a 90,000-ton target in the Taiwan Strait, in range of China’s latest anti-ship missiles. A single Ford-class aircraft carrier is projected to cost, in average, about $12 billion. For reference, we could purchase at least six new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with the same amount of money. 

In the paper that I published with Ben Friedman last year, we support the completion of the USS Ford (CVN-78), but would shift the remaining CVN funds to fielding smaller aircraft carriers that launch primarily unmanned aerial vehicles.  Meanwhile, we think it makes sense to build small, ocean-going warships that can perform escort duties and counter-piracy missions, when required. But the Navy’s current small vessel, the littoral combat ship (LCS), is designed for missions close to shore, and is far too costly. Small frigates or corvettes could be designed with similar capabilities, and at far less cost.

Helprin’s greatest error is in conflating numbers of ships with effective striking power. But he also misses the opportunity costs associated with investing too many resources in the wrong place. The true strength of our Navy is its people, including the exceptionally bright and motivated men and women who I had the pleasure of meeting with today. As they prepare to enter the fleet, the country owes it to them to give them a set of missions that is vital to the nation’s security, and to provide them with the tools to accomplish them. But we shouldn’t reflexively buy into the claim that more = better.

Buying Boomers

Trident LaunchTrident Launch

More hot defense news from InsideDefense – the Navy wants a bailout.

The Navy’s draft ship-building plan apparently warns of massive cuts in the size of its future fleet and consolidation of the ship-building industry unless Congress provides new funds for shipbuilding.  It wants $80 billion extra over the fourteen years starting in 2019 to cover the cost of buying twelve new boomers (SSBN or ballistic missile submarines) to replace the fourteen Trident SSBNs slated for retirement starting in 2029. Without the extra cash, the Navy says it will have to buy less of everything else, shrinking the fleet to roughly 237 ships rather than the planned 324. The bulk of cuts will come from large surface combatants; we will wind up with 53 rather than the planned 96. The number of amphibious ships and attack submarines will also decrease. With so few ships coming into the fleet, the document implies, we’ll have to close some shipyards.

As the four people who read my recent book chapter on naval politics know, that is not going to happen, and Navy knows it. Defense production facilities are like hungry children that politicians feed by extracting work from the Pentagon. The six major and several minor shipyards that sell to the government in this country are largely jobs programs. They offer far more production capacity than the Navy and Coast Guard need. Even though General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman now own all six major yards, the firms have no interest in achieving economies of scale by closing yards. Politicians protect work for the yards as long as they stay open. Maintaining extra yards means that the Navy pays a large overhead premium for its ships, but doing so widens its base of Congressional support.

The Navy has been is playing a bit of chicken with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, leaving the cost of boomers out of its last shipbuilding plan in the hope that OSD would find the money elsewhere. OSD may do so yet, but in the meantime the Navy is trying to bring around Congress, taking “hostages” that powerful congressmen will have to free. Big surface combatants are made in Bath, Maine by General Dynamics and Pascagoula, Mississippi by Northrop. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) are on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gene Taylor (R-MS) chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the Navy. Chellie Pingree (R-ME) sits on it. By targeting surface combatants, the Navy is pushing those members to go find some money for it to save local jobs.

The most likely outcome here is that the Navy shipbuilding account will get a slight planned boost but far from what the service requests. Meanwhile the fleet will continue to  shrink, because the ships’ complexity keeps their cost high. No shipyard will close, so each will get enough work to stay afloat, adding cost.

In a more austere and competitive budget environment, we would see more hard choices.  The other services would start asking the White House whether it is worth aiming for a three hundred ship Navy with no obvious enemy to justify it. The Navy might tell the White House that carriers do what the Air Force’s fighters do, so cut their budget. Congressional leaders looking for savings might ask why we still need to deliver nuclear weapons three ways, by submarine-launched ballistic missile, intercontinental ballistic missile and bomber. A monad with twelve boomers is all the survivable nuclear deterrent we need.