I read an article in the National Interest with some skepticism. It's titled 'How to Make the U.S. Navy Great Again', and harks back to the attitudes of the Cold War, IMHO. Here's an excerpt.
The United States has critical national interests in eighteen maritime zones identified by warfighting commanders. These maritime regions range in size from the small Gulf of Guinea to the vast northern Pacific and from the northern Arctic Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Each zone requires a naval presence to uphold American interests. Some of these zones, like the Baltic Sea, require only a single American ship to protect and promote our interests, while others, like the Arabian Gulf, have a standing requirement for an aircraft carrier strike group comprised of six to eight ships, as well as permanently stationed coastal patrol boats. Because of ship maintenance, crew training and transit times, providing a naval presence requires three to four ships to keep one forward deployed. All told, the Navy needs a minimum of 355 ships to keep a naval presence on a credible and persistent basis, if the United States wants to maintain freedom of navigation, protect resources and undersea critical infrastructure, and uphold its alliance agreements. The Navy certified the 355-ship requirement in its 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA). According to the FSA, the true number of ships required by military commanders exceeds 650 ships. Importantly, achieving the 355-ship fleet is not just a Navy requirement; it is a matter of complying with U.S. law. Signed by President Trump in December 2017, the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2018 includes the SHIPS Act, legislation establishing the 355-ship requirement as the national policy of the United States.
. . .
America cannot retreat from the seas. Its maritime interests are enduring and growing. Great wealth in the form of food stocks, minerals and energy resources lies beneath the waves that find their way to our shores. Additionally, access to lines of communication via the swiftest and most efficient routes across international waters, as well as maritime linkages to forty-nine transoceanic treaty partners, are of critical interest to the United States.
The threat to those interests is growing. Despite a brief post–Cold War respite of calm seas, the maritime domain is once again seeing rough waters as an arena of economic, diplomatic and military competition. China, Russia and Iran have invested heavily in ways to keep the U.S. Navy out of critical maritime regions. They are increasingly challenging American maritime interests and finding no response. The inability to respond is driven by a collapse in the size of U.S. naval forces over the past quarter century. Our adversaries and potential opponents see all of this as an indicator of overall national decline and an invitation to assume a larger role upon the world’s oceans. They have just begun what ultimately could become a financially and strategically disastrous naval arms race in an attempt to overmatch U.S. forces in their regions.
There's much more at the link. It makes interesting reading.
I see many problems with this approach. They include (but are not limited to) the following.
1. The USA simply cannot afford to play global naval policeman as it did in the past. Modern high-tech warships are very expensive, and their operating costs very high (particularly when maintenance is deferred to keep them at sea because there aren't enough ships, and there isn't enough money to maintain those we have). Many of the geographical areas identified in the article should be patrolled by our allies and friends. In effect, by spending far too little on their own defense, they're sponging off the US defense budget, and the US Navy's ships and personnel, to do their work for them. This has to stop. If they won't carry their share of the load, why should we? Do we really want to dispute control of the South China Sea? Why? What compelling US national interest is involved there? If the countries in the region want to dispute control of its natural resources with China, why are we doing so for them? Why are we patrolling it instead of them? Why should US ships and sailors be placed in harms way when they won't do so themselves?
2. The US Navy has to get over its obsession with high-tech everything. I accept that modern, high-tech offensive weapons can only be stopped by modern, high-tech defenses. However, when the cost of that high tech becomes ruinous, it also becomes unsustainable (witness, for example, the debacle over the new Zumwalt class destroyers and their ammunition). Nuclear submarines cost multiple billions of dollars each. Destroyers approach $2 billion each. Rail guns and laser beams are promising technology, but upgrading our ships' electrical generating capacity to use them will cost a fortune. By spending so much on relatively few ships and advanced weapons, we're losing the numbers battle. As the National Interest article observed:
From a naval perspective, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is pursuing a mix of high-end and low-end ships and submarines. This strategy would allow the PLAN to spread out across the vast Pacific Ocean in sufficient numbers to locate and interdict U.S. ships. At the high end, China is investing in aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines and large surface combatants equipped with advanced radars, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and surface-to-surface missiles. While China’s high-end ships are designed to go toe to toe with their American counterparts in battle, Beijing is unlikely to close the United States’ technological head start. Therefore, China is aiming to close the capability gap by fielding mass quantities of low-end ships.
While the United States will not start buying frigates until the 2020s, China is building a new frigate every six weeks. Vast numbers of these low-end ships will increasingly patrol China’s expanding front lines in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Backed by a growing arsenal of longer-range and more sophisticated air and missile weapons, the Chinese navy will have a highly capable and numerically larger maritime force by the middle of the next decade. If this situation comes to fruition, it could make the projection of U.S. naval power cost prohibitive in the western Pacific, undermining the credibility of our alliance commitments. Indeed, China currently calculates that western Pacific nations—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and perhaps even Australia—may ultimately align with the Middle Kingdom.
Again, more at the link.
As Joseph Stalin is alleged to have observed, "Quantity has a quality all its own". A 2002 war game proved that in the context of the Middle East. Why has this lesson not been remembered by the US Navy? For example, why is it so adamantly opposed to conventional, as opposed to nuclear-powered submarines? The former are just as high-tech these days, and can be bought for a fraction of the cost of their atomic big brothers. Why not buy three modern conventional subs (which are also more stealthy and harder to detect) instead of one nuke?
3. The US government has to redefine the mission of the Navy in a post-Cold War era. At present, too many overseas bases, deployments, etc. are based on the realities of opposing Communism and the Soviet threat. If that threat is no longer what it was before, then should we not reconsider the requirements we place on our armed forces? It may be that, if force projection into disputed areas was primarily an anti-Soviet measure, we don't need it as badly now that the Soviet Union is no longer around.
I'm not at all convinced by the arguments advanced in this article. I'd rather see a hard reset on US Navy plans, construction, etc. until its mission has been more clearly defined and/or redefined, the ships it needs for that mission have been agreed, and its budget has been devoted to vessels and weapons and systems that will do the job, rather than gold-plated jobs lobbied for by special interests.