President Trump visited Newport News at the beginning of March to deliver a speech aboard the soon-to-be commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. It provided a timely reminder of his campaign pledge that he would increase the size of the fleet from the current figure of 272 to 350 ships over the next three decades. This is significantly more than the Obama-era plans to increase the fleet to 308 ships.
How this decision fits with any broader grand strategy is unclear. Critics have debated whether Trump has one. Indeed, a recent New York Times story suggested the growth of the military may simply be for the purpose of possessing raw military power rather than part of any serious strategizing.
Trump’s decision to focus on building a more powerful global Navy, however, fits with a longstanding American strategic tradition. It dates back to naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic “The Influence of Seapower on History,” which was written on the cusp of America’s emergence as a global power at the end of the 19th century. In Mahan’s vision, a great Navy would promote America’s commercial interests at home and abroad. It was, and for many still is, the foundation of any “grand strategy.”
But a key question remains: Does Trump’s specified goal of 350 ships meet the needs of the nation in the 21st century? How does this fit into a strategic vision for U.S. security?
Why 350 ships?
The new budget proposal reportedly calls for increasing the 2018 Defense Budget by US$54 billion. This won’t itself pay for an ambitious expansion of the Navy. The USS Gerald R. Ford alone cost about $13 billion. It will, therefore, take many years of spending to move building projects forward. But as the Trump administration’s plans, if enacted, make clear, buying more ships will mean cuts to foreign aid, environmental protection and a series of regulatory agencies. These are choices that have been roundly criticized by former military officials and senior policymakers.
Moreover, there are few civilian officials available to answer the question of what purpose the Navy’s growth serves. That is because there is currently a dearth of administrative appointments to key leadership positions in the Navy and the Department of Defense. So there is no evident strategy to justify this new target.
The man initially anointed by the Washington rumor mill as the next secretary of the Navy was ex-congressman Randy Forbes, formerly of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces of the House Arms Services Committee and a vocal supporter of American naval power.
Forbes was passed over in favor of Phillip Bilden, a businessmen with ties to both the Army and the Navy. Bilden, however, withdrew from consideration when it became clear that ethics rules would require him to disentangle himself from his extensive business holdings. The vacuum remains unfilled. Now, in a strange turn of events, Forbes is once again in the running.
Meanwhile, the preferences of the new Secretary of Defense General Mattis and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster regarding the size, shape and purposes of the Navy are unknown.
Both are well-read, broadly educated, deep thinkers on U.S. and global security. But both participated in ground wars in the Middle East. They are therefore assumed to be advocates of land forces, not naval power. In the past, they have focused on conventional wars, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, rather than maritime challenges.
The Navy’s view
Even in normal periods, fleet design is a complicated bureaucratic dance with budgets, internal procedures and external interventions from Congress to be negotiated.
In times of crisis or great political change, the strong preferences of presidents, their advisers and the civilian leaders or the military services can play a decisive role. Most famously, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, at the behest of President Reagan, championed a 600-ship Navy to counter the rapidly growing Soviet fleet and threats to Europe, the Far East and elsewhere.
Even before candidate Trump shined the spotlight on the Navy, the service was, of course, planning for the future.
The Navy released its latest vision statement, “A Design for Maritime Superiority,” in January 2016. It resoundingly defended the ideal that the United States is a maritime nation and a premier naval power, specifically naming China and Russia as potential aggressors on the high seas. It didn’t specify a target fleet size although the documents could be construed as justifying the sort of overall budget growth proposed by Trump.
Still Congress, forcefully egged on by Representative Forbes, who felt the Obama administration and the Navy itself were neglecting naval strategy, mandated three independent studies to examine the future fleet. Interestingly, when completed, none of the three alternatives proposes anything like a 350-ship fleet by 2030, despite errant reports to the contrary.
Recent news reports suggesting that the alternative fleet architecture proposed by the think tank the MITRE Corp. called for over 400 ships misinterpreted the study. In fact, the MITRE authors recommend a far smaller fleet because they explicitly recognize the costs of building up to such a large number.
All three studies focus on new war-fighting concepts such as distributed maritime operations, new types of platforms including unmanned systems and new technologies including rail guns (that can repeatedly launch a projectile at more than 5,000 miles per hour). Capacity and fleet size are obviously not the same thing, despite the current focus on numbers of ships.
The point is that analysis underpinning the Navy’s own vision for the future is different from that of the new president.
To date, the president has concentrated on the overall number of ships while the Navy and the congressionally mandated studies focused on war-fighting capabilities and war-fighting concepts. What is missing from the president’s target of a 350-ship Navy is an underlying strategy – one that links what is proverbially called the “ways, means and ends” necessary to defend American interests on the high seas.
Working outward, the national security community, the public and indeed America’s allies and adversaries need to understand the logic underlying any historic naval buildup. A clear statement regarding the primary threats facing the U.S., the types of adversaries it will face and the nature of future conflict would help explain why the American taxpayer is investing so much national treasure in the military services.
After all, if Russia is not the enemy, and we don’t need a big Navy to defeat the Islamic State, then why spend so much?
‘Military operations other than war’
So far, Trump has not offered an answer for the nation to rally behind and to reassure his critics.
In its absence, experts have sought reassurance in the president’s fragmentary and sporadic pronouncements to support their own vision. Neo-isolationists have cheered his efforts to close American borders. Others have warmed to the notion that he has suggested our allies assume more responsibility for their own defense. Even proponents of old-fashioned primacy have sought luster by interpreting the president’s defense buildup as a return to the unilateralist days of American military prowess through intervention.
Our own research suggests that the truth is that none of these grand visions may apply. The Navy, and indeed the other military services, face a growing demand for their services. They are now being asked to perform an increasing number of functions that are not associated with fighting wars.
The military even has a term for it: “MOOTW” (military operations other than war). And the U.S. Navy’s MOOTW ranges from conventional war-fighting against other countries’ navies to policing the globe against pirates, drug flows and the smuggling of nuclear materials, humanitarian assistance and even fighting Ebola in Africa. These activities consume much of the Navy’s time. And their increasing demands require increased resources. Military budgets therefore often reflect the requirements entailed in providing these services as much as the need to conform to any one image.
Of course, congressional democrats may yet scuttle plans for an enlarged Navy. Alternatively, the president may move beyond discussing discrete missions to a more coherent grand strategy – perhaps tutored by his new senior military appointments – that justifies acquisition decisions.
The types of ships (and aircraft, and unmanned systems and equipment) purchased in the coming years will make sense only if they are employed in an operationally coherent manner. Only then will the American public be able to judge if the trade-offs made to fund such an enterprise were worth it.
Simon Reich, Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark and Peter Dombrowski, Professor, Strategic Research Department, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, US Naval War College