Times are changing. America’s Navy faces unprecedented challenges due to budgetary constraints, likely to increase under the new Biden administration, and from competitors such as China and Russia. China challenges the U.S. Navy and its allies conventionally with the largest fleet in the world.
It also threatens its neighbors unconventionally via the harassment operations in the South China Sea run by its coast guard and naval militia.
Hudson Institute naval expert Bryan Clark and Heritage Foundation naval scholar Brent Sadler discussed the future of U.S. Navy under the Biden administration and beyond in a Center webinar.
Clark noted that the Navy’s budget is likely to remain flat for the foreseeable future and that the Biden administration likely has other funding priorities. Clark wrote a report last year that inspired former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to recommend enlarging the navy to 500 ships by 2045.
“Fundamentally, some things have changed. I think we need to take into account that great-power competition has emerged. But China and Russia are obviously taking approach to achieving their objectives that’s different than what we really envisioned from the start,” Clark said. “They are different from the Soviet Union, which was more of an existential threat, where they were going to pursue armed aggression of a conventional kind against their neighbors.”
The Navy needs to be able to adapt to protracted low-intensity conflict instead of just preparing to fight World War III. Clark believes the U.S. Navy still can counter China’s threats at sea within the fiscal constraints that currently exist.
Heritage Foundation analyst Brent Sadler argued that the U.S. needs to also keep its eyes on the Russians because they intervene in inopportune times.
“In the last 10 years, wherever we started to focus in on the Chinese diplomatic, interagency levers on Chinese bad actions, the Russians would do something over in Syria or in Georgia, and it would cause institutional distraction,” Sadler said.
The U.S. Navy to needs to compete more effectively in the “gray zone,” meaning the area where nations compete in small harassment activities that stop short of all-out war.
“We need to look at the South China Sea as a counterinsurgency construct,” Sadler said. “You would have things like riot control employed on our warships and Coast Guard vessels that are deployed to the South China Sea.”
Sadler notes that riot control measures intended to have been used in a place like Baghdad could have utility against harassment by hundreds of members of China’s naval militia our swarming ships.
Cooperation with regional partners against the Chinese is essential, but Sadler notes that Vietnam and Malaysia need to be dealt with differently. Each nation has its own history and approach. Also, they don’t want to be seen as favoring the U.S. over China.
The U.S. Navy must remind China that its near seas are not secure and that it cannot do whatever it likes in the South and East China Seas with impunity. Clark notes that China shouldn’t be allowed to feel that fielding aircraft carriers and large amphibious assault ships are the wave of the future will give them the power.
“That’s why we’re advocating a shift towards a larger fleet with more combatants that may be smaller than their predecessors,” Clark said. “That has an impact on the shipbuilding industry.
“One of the benefits of this larger fleet that’s rebalanced toward larger combatants is more ships are being built. And even though those ships are smaller, you can redistribute them over more shipyards.”
Clark and Sadler agreed that Congress must take a more active role in improving America’s shipbuilding capacity, which has atrophied over the last 30 years, especially because most of the ships belonging to the Navy’s Sealift Command are nearing the end of their useful lives.
Leaving this unaddressed could cripple the U.S. military’s ability to respond to a major war in the future.
The Navy needs to increase its ability to fire missiles against enemy targets with ships like a corvette that Clark has proposed. It would have a containerized missile launching system similar to that used by the Iowa-class battleships during Operation Desert Storm 30 years ago. Unmanned vessels and aircraft are also an important feature of Clark’s proposal.
“We need to work at reducing Russia’s ability to use submarines as a way to escalate conflict that they could have going on in Eastern Europe for example,” Clark said, noting that Russia might threaten to fire a cruise missile at New York in retaliation for American intervention unless Russia kept off balance.
They noted that China is deploying its anti-ship ballistic missiles that can disable an aircraft carrier to impose an operational cost on the U.S. Navy to keep them from operating too close to the Chinese coast. This is not unlike during the Cold War when threats from Soviet missiles forced aircraft carriers to operate 1,000 miles away from the then Soviet coastline.
Investments need to be made in high-energy lasers and rail guns to counter cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in the area of fleet defense, Sadler said.
American warships need to continue to operate in the East and South China Seas to keep pressure on China. It also needs to increase operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea to keep the expansion of Russian influence into the region in check.
Clark argued that the U.S. should work through NATO to bolster the Romanian and Bulgarian navies in the Black Sea region to keep the Russian Navy in check.
Bryan Clark’s report “American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage” can be accessed here: https://www.hudson.org/research/16406-american-sea-power-at-a-crossroads-a-plan-to-restore-the-us-navy-s-maritime-advantage
Notes for Clark’s presentation in a PowerPoint format: /wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Clark-slides-v2.pdf
Brent Sadler’s report can be accessed here: “Rebuilding America’s Military: The United States Navy”: https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/rebuilding-americas-military-the-united-states-navy
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