On October 6th 2020, the Secretary of Defense Esper unveiled the long-awaited Future Naval Force Study (FNFS). This study, led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), replaced the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment, which was previously rejected by the Secretary. This Battle Force 2045 study released by the Secretary proposed a massive expansion of the US Navy, growing to over 500 ships by 2045.
The specific recommendations of the proposed Battle Force 2045 are actually not too surprising and in line with other outside force structure recommendations. He called for a number of shifts, including reevaluating the role of large nuclear powered “supercarriers” and their air wings, procuring smaller platforms and more unmanned platforms. The plan also calls for dramatically increasing submarine production to boost the Navy’s current asymmetric advantage in the undersea domain. While this long-awaited study should be seen as a positive step for the Navy, there are a number of subjects worth further examination, among them: carrier force structure; unmanned systems basing requirements; force design flexibility; Navy-OSD dynamics; and the Shipbuilding Budget.
Carrier Force Structure
The number of nuclear carriers is the biggest unresolved items, as Battle Force 2045 does not commit to a number, instead a range of 8 to 11 (11 being the current force structure goal). If the force drops to eight carriers, it seems likely that the Navy could no longer maintain continuously deployed carriers in two theaters as it does today. Would this mean the Navy focusing on continuous carrier deployments in the Indo-Pacific with only periodic carriers in the Atlantic, a move to intermittent/surge deployment in both theaters, or something else? The FNFS does not address this at all, making it appear there is little analytic evidence for the number and type of carrier – logically any discussion of force structure should explain how these forces are operated in order to arrive at a defensible number.
Unmanned Systems Logistics and Basing
The Battle Force plan commits to procuring large numbers of unmanned (really remotely piloted) surface and undersea vehicles. While a worthy concept, this likely creates the need for extensive basing rights overseas, something that comes with a whole host of diplomatic implications not consider or addressed. The Navy could theoretically avoid overseas basing for these relatively short-ranged systems by procuring waterborne tenders and logistics support vessels to provide at-sea basing, and while that is an option it may be a bit much to add even more ships to an already aggressive shipbuilding proposal. So the question remains if there are states in the Indo-Pacific region willing to host naval staging bases (and thereby make themselves targets).
This force is clearly designed around a wartime conflict with China in the western Pacific. Beyond the question of whether this is the optimal naval force structure for such a scenario, the question remains if it is similarly suited against stressing scenarios and if it contributes to grey-zone deterrence and operations below the level of armed conflict. A fleet that is designed to win a Pacific war may not be the force that can sustain forward presence in defense of day-to-day deterrence. DoD seems to define force structure based on the most stressing military environment, which is certainly useful for that scenario. Should the DoD instead balance force sizing demands, considering both wartime surge and peacetime presence missions when defining the Navy’s force structure?
The manner in which the Navy force structure was rolled out was quite unusual, with the Secretary personally briefing the results without any Navy representation, civilian or uniformed. Typically force structure and acquisition fall to the services, which have the Title 10 “organize, train and equip” responsibility, and the Navy owes a Force Structure Assessment and a 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress, both of which were delayed due to the ongoing debate at the OSD-level. Beyond just Navy-OSD dynamics, does this top-down approach indicate an increased centralization of authority at the OSD (and Joint Staff) level at the expense of the services? This may be a passing situation, brought about by unique political dynamics and personalities involved, but taking control over force design away from the service would indicate a significant step towards eliminating what little service independence remains.
Navy Shipbuilding Budget
The $20 Billion Question is how to pay for all of this, as expressed by the Navy’s first and former Chief Learning Officer. While the Secretary included some vague promises to find extra funding for the Navy’s shipbuilding budget in order to pay for all of these new ships, in practice these promised efficiency savings and taxes on other parts of DoD never seems to materialize. And, even if DoD throws boatloads of money at the Navy, it’s not clear that the Navy is ready to actually start building the number of ships advocated.
This force structure proposal, released a month before an election, may be short-lived. At the same time, though, it is a daring proposal and one personally endorsed by the Secretary. This authoritative statement provides invaluable ammunition for navalist in the budgetary battles likely to come, even if there is a change of Administration. More significantly, the broad concepts of naval transformation proposed in Esper’s speech appear in line with bipartisan thinking, particularly the focus on undersea and unmanned systems. While it seems unlikely that the Battle Force 2045 plan will be executed given the timing, implementing some of the underlying concepts and understanding the underlying dynamics will aid in transforming US naval power to remain relevant in the 21st century.
Joe Petrucelli is a PhD student in political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government and works as a defense analyst. He previously served as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. Joe’s research interests include maritime strategy, strategic stability, and force posture. His current research focuses on naval doctrinal innovation in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods.
Photo can be found here.