President-Elect Donald Trump has pledged to reconstruct the United States Navy in order to ensure global naval dominance for America in the coming decades. Although the shrinking size of the fleet is not a new issue, it has gone unaddressed by the previous two administrations. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have neglected to adequately invest in naval modernization as a result of the focus on land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now operations against ISIL. This neglect is not just limited to the United States but extends to our allies as well. Although the United Kingdom is in the process of constructing two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, most of Europe has also seen its naval power diminish. In the meantime, nations such as China and Russia have not stood idly by. Russia has increased its submarine activity to levels not seen since the Cold War and begun making an aggressive strategic play for Arctic control. More importantly, China has increased its surface fleet, in less than two decades, from a relatively limited fourteen surface combatants and ten submarines, to eighty-nine surface ships and sixty subs. These increases have not only resulted in a Chinese navy that is vastly more capable of projecting power across the seas, but in one that is significantly more potent in both the offensive and defensive arenas.
During the campaign, President-Elect Trump promised to revitalize the naval fleet by increasing its size to 350 ships, a number not seen since the 1990s. At 272 ships, the US Navy is currently stretched incredibly thin. With an average of one-third of the fleet capable of deploying at any given time, it is difficult to concentrate forces in one region. By increasing the size and scope of the fleet, military brass will have greater flexibility in resource allocation. Although a respectable goal, the likelihood of being able to afford an increase from 272 ships to 350 is a budgetary fantasy given today’s fiscal situation. Ranging in price from $500 million per littoral combat ship to $11-$13 billion per Ford-class carrier, there is simply not enough money to allocate. Even if the administration can repeal the sequester defense spending caps, as so desperately needs to be done, it may still not have the necessary capital. Therefore, the Trump administration faces two dilemmas: it must not only rebuild the navy, but also efficiently direct its resources so as to best accomplish American strategic aims.
Even with several major acquisition projects in the production phase, including the Ford-class carriers, littoral combat ships, Virginia-class submarines, and three Zumwalt-class destroyers, the navy will face a serious shortfall in capabilities as vessels begin retiring from the fleet faster than they are being replaced. Although the Trump administration will likely not see a significant fleet size increase while in office, it can absolutely strive to ensure that progress is underway.
The proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) technologies has placed an extra emphasis on submarine operations. In areas such as the South China Sea and Persian Gulf, it may become incredibly difficult for carrier strike groups to operate. The increasing range of anti-ship cruise missiles, advancements in surface-to-air missile systems, and decreasing combat radius of carrier-based fighters have turned submarines into one of the navy’s most valuable assets. As a result of this tactical shift, Virginia-class submarines were designed to ensure the level of stealth necessary to deliver cruise missile strikes on enemy A2/AD weapons positions and clear a path for the rest of the armed forces. In order to ensure that the navy is properly equipped to deal with this threat, the administration must ensure that Virginia-class submarines continue to be delivered from Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat at a rate of two submarines per year. So far, the Virginia-class acquisition program has been the gold standard, with submarines being delivered on time and under budget. Ideally, this successful program should be increased to three submarines per year.
With the upcoming construction of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), many analysts predict that the navy will have to decrease production to one Virginia-class sub per year. This is a result of two distinct problems. The first is budgetary. The navy’s acquisition budget is not large enough to sustain the construction of three submarines simultaneously. This problem, however, would likely disappear with the repeal of the sequester defense spending caps. The other complication is industrial. With the consolidation of defense contractors and the decrease in defense spending in recent years, shipyards capable of constructing large naval vessels have dwindled. Aircraft carriers are all constructed at Newport News in Virginia, submarines at General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News, and large surface combatants at Huntington Ingalls and Bath Iron Works. No more than two shipyards are capable of manufacturing any major component of the navy fleet. This situation is unacceptable as it will result in a drastic decrease in capability at a time when submarines are becoming more strategically necessary. Due to the increasingly frequent deployments of A2/AD technologies by China, Russia, and Iran and the ongoing retirement of Los Angeles-class subs, the Trump administration must ensure that the acquisition of Virginia-class submarines will continue to at least meet the current rate of two submarines per year, if not exceed it.
Unfortunately, the United States will soon be losing its most valuable assets in the undersea battlespace. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, four of the original sixteen Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines were converted to conventional guided missile variants. Rather than carrying twenty-four Trident II D5 missiles, these submarines were equipped with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The full capabilities of the converted Ohio-class submarines were on display in 2011 when the USS Florida carried out ninety-three missile strikes during the opening stages of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. Although the Virginia Payload Module aims to replace this capability by distributing the capacity among new Virginia-class submarines, it will only add twenty-eight missiles to each. There is a distinct advantage in being able to have one vessel deliver over one hundred conventional warheads on target. It is much easier to keep one submarine hidden than three in an engagement. Additionally, the navy is conducting trials on a marine variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile, which would supplement the already operational land attack variant. This would allow for a greatly increased anti-ship weapons capability and would be just another reason why more capacity is needed within the submarine fleet. One Ohio-class submarine could have the capacity to not only eliminate A2/AD weaponry, but also launch a salvo of missiles at the enemy fleet.
In the South China Sea, where it will be nearly impossible to match the Chinese on a ship-by-ship basis, having this immense firepower available is critical. Therefore, the Trump administration must begin the process of planning additional Columbia-class submarines, in the cruise missile configuration (SSGN). Although the Columbia class is planned to have sixteen launch tubes compared to the Ohio-class’s twenty-four, the Columbia class’s cruise missile capacity would still approach one hundred Tomahawks. At a time in which carrier strike groups are facing limited operational possibilities, this capability is too important to lose.
Surface Combatants and Amphibious Transports
In the surface warfare battlespace, the administration must ensure that the United States operates a legitimate frigate. The Oliver Hazard Perry class of frigates were a mainstay of the US Navy for decades. Under the status quo, the littoral combat ship (LCS), a ship with significant shortfalls in both reliability and firepower, seems to be the navy’s choice to replace the Perry class. However, the LCS was not designed to replace, nor can it fill the gap left by them. Given the LCS’s shortfalls, the navy must develop a true frigate replacement for the Oliver Hazard Perry class with air defense capabilities and over-the-horizon offensive weaponry.
Additionally, Ticonderoga-class cruisers are beginning to show their age. Originally built in the 1980s and 1990s, the ships are approaching their intended service lives. In the early 2000s, the Bush administration canceled a replacement program for the ships citing reduced operational requirements, but that is no longer the case. The risk of high-level conflict has grown significantly since 2002 with the increasing aggressiveness of China, Russia, and Iran, which has resulted in an increased operational need for large surface combatants. The navy must begin a Ticonderoga replacement program in order to ensure that the new ships are built before the Ticonderoga class begins decommissioning.
An often forgotten role of the US naval fleet is that of transporting marine corps troops and equipment to battle. The marines act as the nation’s quick response force, and without the ability to forward deploy onboard ships, they cannot accomplish their mission. Currently, the navy has just over thirty amphibious ships. Both the amphibious transport dock ships (LPD) and the amphibious assault ships (LHD/LHA) are essential to provide the full breadth of logistics capabilities to the marine corps. San Antonio-class LPDs are designed with a mix of aviation and landing craft capabilities. They are general-purpose ships intended to provide a wide variety of possible delivery methods. On the other hand, amphibious assault ships were designed with aviation capabilities as the primary focus. Capable of transporting and operating a squadron of marine corps aircraft such as the F-35B and AV-8B Harrier, the ships also carry an embarked marine expeditionary unit and its accompanying helicopters and Ospreys.
The US amphibious fleet is composed of some of the newest ships in the navy. They are incredibly capable but, once again, were not acquired in the correct numbers. The navy and marine corps have previously stated that thirty-eight amphibious ships is the minimum quantity necessary to adequately deploy marine units across the globe. As it stands, the US Marine Corps is forced to deploy aboard foreign navy vessels. This is unacceptable, and ending this embarrassing situation should be a Trump administration priority. This shortage is among the easiest in the navy to solve because there is no need to develop a new class of ships. The next administration must simply authorize and fund the construction of additional San Antonio and America-class vessels.
Missile Systems and Technologies
Although the size of the navy fleet is critical, the ships in the fleet are only functional if they are properly equipped. The Trump administration should ensure that the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) is deployed on surface combatants as soon as possible. The current American anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, was originally deployed in the late 1970s and now fails to compare to Russian and Chinese variants in both range and capabilities. The LRASM is needed to ensure that US vessels can effectively engage enemy ships at a safe distance.
A stalwart of US military operations for the past twenty-five years, the Tomahawk cruise missile is also nearing the end of its lifespan. Plans to terminate production of the missile are in the works, and a replacement must be developed. Additionally, the Trump administration should continue to pursue development of directed energy weapons systems such as the electromagnetic railgun and Laser Weapons System (LaWS). These systems are significantly more cost-efficient than conventional missile systems, and they have a more versatile set of capabilities. For example, a projectile used in an electromagnetic railgun costs $25,000 per unit, yet can be used for air and missile defense, coastal bombardment, and in naval engagements. For comparison, an SM-6 surface-to-air missile costs nearly $4 million per unit and a Tomahawk cruise missile nearly $1.4 million. Whereas Flight II Arleigh Burke-class destroyers possess a relatively limited ninety-six vertical launch cells filled with a variety of expensive single-purpose missiles, an electromagnetic railgun provides a nearly unlimited ammunition supply that can engage a variety of possible targets. Although directed energy weapons platforms will not be widely equipped on the current generation of vessels due to the lack of an integrated power system, adequate R&D will ensure that they are utilized in the future.
Perhaps the most important focus of the Trump administration should be the security of the nation’s satellite networks. This includes ensuring the cyber security of the networks, and maintaining redundancy in capabilities. Our military is completely reliant on the satellite system for communications and targeting, and would be significantly handicapped without it. The vulnerability of this system, both in the cyber and physical battle spaces, was vividly demonstrated in P. W. Singer’s novel Ghost Fleet, in which hostile actors manage to incapacitate the United States immediately prior to launching a large-scale military strike. A vulnerability in such a critical system must immediately be addressed and remedied.
Ghost Fleet also demonstrated the immense military applications of drone technologies. Whereas the United States military has a vast unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capability, it has yet to adequately develop the possibilities of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). With advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance equipment, as well as their sleek and quiet form, UUVs are capable of locating and tracking foreign submarines, and searching for mines undetected. Similar to UAVs, unmanned underwater vehicles can possess an offensive capability in addition to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies. UUVs could be armed with torpedoes, mines, or cruise missiles, and lurk in the depths of the ocean, undetected, until they are called upon to stealthily release their payload. In a naval engagement in which US ships are outnumbered, prepositioned drones could tip the scales of the battle. Perhaps more controversial would be to utilize UUV technologies as torpedoes themselves. If the decision is made to withhold offensive capabilities from unmanned underwater vehicles, admirals will have the ability to allocate mundane, yet incredibly important surveillance tasks to drones, and larger vessels in the fleet could be freed to conduct additional high-level missions.
Improving the navy’s technological systems will entail a multifaceted approach whose benefits will be felt throughout the entire armed forces. First, the Trump administration must reestablish trust with the private sector and integrate cutting-edge cyber security solutions into the military satellite network. This can be accomplished by expanding the DIUx program instituted by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. DIUx aims to streamline the process through which technology companies interact with and market products to the defense department. Ideally, an improved relationship between the defense department and Silicon Valley, as well as small technology companies, can propel the military well into the twenty-first century. Additionally, the Trump administration must prioritize increasing the level of funding to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). Both are tasked with ensuring the technological superiority of the United States military, but through different means. With an increase in funding, DARPA can continue to develop game-changing advances, and the SCO can address urgent needs within the armed forces by repurposing existing technologies.
In order to begin the process of revitalizing the navy, the Trump administration must immediately work to eliminate the painful sequester defense spending caps. In Fiscal Year 2016, the total defense budget surpassed $600 billion, with the account for overseas contingency operations contributing $59 billion to the appropriation. Due to defense spending caps, the overseas contingency operations account is not solely limited to operational funding. In order to adequately fund military priorities, Congress has sidestepped sequester defense spending caps by allocating funding for non-operational needs through overseas contingency operations. This account, wisely, was not included within the caps so as not to interfere with US military operations. When Congress voted on the 2016 defense budget, the sequester defense spending caps were raised by $40 billion over two years. This was a critically important decision, but still not sufficient to ensure adequate military funding. Upon taking office, the Trump administration should make it a top priority to repeal the sequester defense spending caps in order to ensure that appropriate financing is available for critical modernization and acquisition programs.
The Trump administration will have to devote an immense amount of time and resources to accomplish the goal of rebuilding the nation's military. It must significantly increase the defense budget and expand the defense industry’s manufacturing capabilities. Although it is impossible to fully accomplish its goal in four, or even eight years, the Trump administration can set the navy and the nation on the right track by appropriately investing in fleet expansion, as well as ensuring the research, development, and deployment of twenty-first century technologies.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Will Cohen is a second-year biology major with plans to specialize in immunology. In addition to his science interests, Will is also an avid defense follower with a particular interest in U.S. Military operations and capabilities. In addition to his work with The Gate, Will is a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security of Threats, a board member of College Republicans, and a member of MUNUC.