How to fix ... the United States Navy


The U.S. Navy (USN) has a long list of problems that deserve fixing.

The typical naval-focused or naval-interested blogs and pundits have a short list of changes to the USN that they favour. These favoured fixes can be summarised as "double down!". The call for more warships is most popular, while a few more specific calls for improvement predictably pop up when there was again some typical scandal or collision accident. (And the LCS is controversial, to say the least.)
The "double down!" lobby does not pursue national interest; it has an irrational desire to see an ever more powerful navy. Some of those people are rationally motivated actual lobbyists, who get paid by industries to push for more spending that will enrich said industries.

These are the problems that deserve fixing in my opinion:
  1. the USN costs terribly much in general
  2. the months-long deployments disrupt private lives and make USN jobs unattractive, requiring high pay for compensation and depressing re-enlistment
  3. the USN is so very much focused on land attack (and secondarily on air defence) that its ASW and counter-mine abilities were neglected 
  4. the USN gets involved in provocations in distant waters that threaten world peace
  5. the USN is ill-prepared regarding munition stocks, training, hardware and doctrine for the only pressing major war scenario
  6. the USN's forward-deployed forces are terribly exposed to strategic surprise attacks (by military and clandestine assets)
  7. the USN would need months to muster its forces even for the least unlikely defensive war scenario (Naval Station Norfolk - Perth/Australia is 11,000+ nmi if the Panama Canal is blocked; that's 26+ days at 18 kts)
  8. the USN has a navigation competence problem that's the visible tip of the iceberg of a more general competence problem rooted in a poor personnel policy and the need to assemble crews for months-long deployment tours in time
  9. the U.S. cannot compete with the PR China in regard to warships arms racing on its own
#1 is the worst, especially when seen in context of #5.

The most fundamental mistake

...is the endless rotating forward deployment to distant places with both carrier battlegroups and amphibious battlegroups. The amphibious groups follow a mere regimental-sized force concept that's never been of good use in many decades. There was never a both legitimate and useful peacetime employment of such or smaller size in U.S. history that couldn't have been done by airlift as well.

The only major threats

There are really only two major threats; Russia and PR China. Russia's strategic navy (SSBNs) should be left alone. It should be supreme order never to threaten any second nuclear strike capability, for this could lead to a panicked preventive first strike by some other nuclear power. This leaves very, very few really operational Russian naval forces as relevant potential targets for the USN. The Black and Baltic Sea Fleets would be handled by the Europeans unless they redeployed before hot conflict.
Overall, the USN does not need to pay attention to Russian naval forces from Europe other than a few submarines in the North Atlantic. The Russian land-based long range bombers would be a greater naval concern, and one could expect them to be redeployed to different airbases or airports in order to prevent their simple destruction on their peacetime airbases. So there might be some ASW and AAW issues in the North Atlantic, though they would be small compared to what else would happen in a NATO-Russia conflict. To secure a transatlantic New York-Lissabon sea lane (3,000 nmi) with a daily 18 kts convoy per day in either direction would require more than 14 escort groups. This alone would cost so much if done with conventional warships that there's a better strategy. We could handle Russian submarines (other than SSBNs) in port, possibly their replenishment ships and Russian naval bombers with air power and simply endure the damage done by whatever submarines and bombers slip into the North Atlantic.
The Russian naval capabilities in the East are similar, but even smaller (unless they redeploy their naval air power to the East). The Pacific Ocean offers ships a great choice of routes. This makes it harder for the Russians to find targets.

The other major threat is the PR China. There was some talk about attack aircraft ranges for naval air attack on China, but this subsided. It appears that the current dominant idea for a hypothetical naval war with the PRC is mostly about a distant naval blockade and possibly defence of Japan. Land attack would probably be limited to cruise missile launches, and the cruise missile stocks would be depleted quickly. Attacks on the turbine rooms of non-nuclear powerplants might be the most devastating and still acceptable option.

The Chinese navy builds up its own surface forces to about equal size to the USN, maybe larger. A long distance blockade would stretch the blockading force, and as a consequence all blockade task forces would be fairly small. The Chinese could in principle pick them off one by one. To counter this requires either a successful attrition of said Chinese naval forces 'by a thousand cuts' (such as by SSNs and possibly offensive minelaying killing one ship after another) or a decisive battle that clears the seas of major PLAN forces before the victorious remnants set up the naval blockade.

Another somewhat credible scenario is that the USN might be sent to face off some Chinese fleet in some distant crisis (imagine China trying to take over control in some distant country, for example). This could lead to a large naval battle as well, though I don't remember any such scenario (naval battle as consequence of a fleet face-off in peacetime) from history.
How to fix it

Changes in posture

The USN should assemble almost all of its ships and submarines in a battlefleet on the continental West coast of the U.S.. 

There would be exemptions to this force concentration: 
  • SSBNs
  • training ships
  • small flotillas detached for training with Europeans, Japanese or Australians
  • some SSNs tasked with shadowing Russian or Chinese subs
  • some ships cruising between battlefleet and shipyards
  • oceanic survey ships 
  • hospital ships

About 80% of the USN should be on the West Coast.

Why there? The West Coast is protected by the North Atlantic Treaty, unlike Hawaii. This is an additional disincentive against a strategic surprise attack on the battlefleet in port. The USN would be central to any Pacific war, but it would be a sideshow in any European war. It makes sense to keep the USN in the Pacific for this reason.

Why concentrated like this? Wartime usage of surface fleets would include much larger task forces than the small task forces that cruise the seven seas today. Proper training has to include many large scale exercises between large task forces and between large task forces and USAF or allied forces. Finally, only a moderate share (no more than 60%) of the fleet must be in ports to further discourage a surprise attack on the ports. All of this fits to a concentration of by far most of the USN on the West Coast.

The battlefleet should have exercises at sea with typically much less than a month duration. Time at sea could be limited to about 40%. Proper personnel policies could ensure vastly improved competence despite the reduction of operational expenses by the reduced time at sea (see later in this text).

Attempt to trade away the amphibious fleet

The Chinese amphibious fleet is the most severe threat to Taiwan's independence and also a huge factor for naval war planning in general. I see exactly one way to eliminate this problem in peacetime:

Trade the USN amphibious warfare capability in a double zero disarmament treaty. All Chinese amphibious warfare ships would be scrapped in exchange for all USN amphibious warfare ships getting scrapped. The Chinese marines would be disbanded and Chinese paratroops limited to current nominal strength in exchange for disbanding of the USMC (land warfare and STOVL components, not CVN-going fixed wing aviation) and limitation of the airborne to current nominal strength.

A hypothetical Pacific War gets a lot less messy and a lot less fuzzy if such a double zero disarmament treaty can be made to happen. The greatest value of the amphibious fleet and the marines is their bargaining chip value; they are most useful if they cease to exist. That's why such a double zero disarmament treaty should be a policy objective.

Changes in structure

Naval aviation is crazy expensive (example; the aircraft purchase costs are approximating the ship procurement costs and were exceeding ship procurement costs previously). It should not be expanded. Even the wisdom of replacement carrier construction is questionable. The known design faults and excessive costs of the Ford class add to this.
A reinforcement of naval air power by land-based air power makes a lot of sense on cost grounds. This is particularly true for maritime (surface) surveillance and and for strikes on surface task forces or land bases. Land-based combat aviation has insane mission radii when supported by tanker aircraft. Single engine single seat F-16s were used to bomb Afghanistan!
Kits to convert airliners into tankers within a few weeks are a much more cost-effective approach to enabling oppressive air strike at sea dominance than to build insanely expensive carriers with dedicated naval air wings and insanely expensive escort warships. The USAF would need to participate in training and at least some of its combat aircraft should be compatible with chute-and-drogue refuelling*, though.

Mine hunting capability needs to be available in numbers that would suffice to secure lanes in front of all U.S. major ports AND in front of overseas bases in wartime. This does not need to involve new dedicated minehunting boats. Truck- and air-deployable drone sets with remote control from a container on land via small relay boat might suffice. A minehunting boat only adds a different mode of mobility to such equipment.
Some lures (acoustic signature faking boats) could also be used for minebreaking. Classic minebreaking is about moving an actual boat or ship to trigger mines below. These lures would instead be meant to trigger self-deployable torpedo-like drones to approach and thus give away their presence. The lures do thus not need to mimic hydrostatic or magnetic signatures, which makes them much smaller than more ambitious minebreaking drones and potentially air-transportable (by C-5B).
Today's general purpose warships such as the Arleigh Burke destroyers are inefficient for counter-mine purposes. You need to find and destroy mines along a lane in front of a port several times before a task force arrives, not only begin with the mine hunting once it arrived.

Scrap the useless LCS, or maybe sell them to the Saudis or other kleptocrats who like shiny toys regardless of their wartime uselessness. Brunei and UAE might be interested and some other kleptocrat despots might like a LCS as a presidential yacht as well. The LCS seems to be designed more for this than for combat anyway.

The West Coast battlefleet needs an aggressor flotilla that can represent the best non-nuclear submarines (AIP submarines, a.k.a. SSI or SSP). A MOTS (military off-the-shelf) purchase of five or six Type 214 submarines without any equipment or software modifications (other than translations) would be a good fit.

ARAPAHO-II sets should be developed and tested with cargo convoys in mind. Both ASW and AAW could be covered by using (small) container ships as auxiliary warships in wartime (and during annual exercises). 

Other ARAPAHO-II sets should be developed to turn cargo ships into armed merchantmen (auxiliary cruisers) for a distant naval blockade. An auxiliary cruiser only needed a weak 10.5 cm gun armament for successful raiding in the world wars. Nowadays it would need two medium helicopters with a boarding party and some lightweight anti-ship missiles as well as the ability to call an anti-ship bomber.
The use of such auxiliary cruisers for distant blockade purposes would be extremely cost-efficient (even assuming that at least one of the helicopters needs expensive sensors and missiles). It would not require much shipyard capacity, which the PRC has in abundance and the U.S. has almost none of. Such auxiliary cruisers would be difficult to identify (particularly for hostile submarines) among all the actually civilian maritime traffic thousands of miles away from Chinese ports. The use of helicopters would enable each auxiliary cruiser to control a fairly large (and moving) patrol area (I estimate at least 200 x 200 nmi, but it could be much larger with a very capable medium helicopter type).

A small training fleet should be established which uses well-equipped dedicated training ships on world cruises. All the new personnel meant for shipboard employment would complete one such world cruise with 1/3 leisure days in 20+ foreign ports. This would be a major recruiting tool, and should be the only time most of the navy personnel has to be away from home for months. Navy personnel not meant for shipboard employment would not participate.

The battlefleet should be structured into three task forces with very stable compositions. This enables similar (1 on 1) and dissimilar (2 on 1) combat exercise scenarios in addition to combat exercises against land-based forces. The permanency of these task forces could foster a competition among them and could also help develop and try out different approaches to master challenges.

Personnel policies

Kick out all known officer duds instead of protecting them. There should be no remorse, no false loyalty!

Divide the service into land-limited career and sea-going careers. The land-limited personnel system could be a continuation of the current one, though some improvements are no doubt desirable.
The sea-going personnel should have a totally different career system. The initial training on world cruise training ships was already mentioned. Later on the men, women and whatever would mostly have a trial period on non-combat ships. Those who are well-suited and well-motivated for a career as naval sailors for life would become exactly that; they would join a warship crew and more likely than not retire from the Navy at age 60 without ever having been transferred to another team or having left the navy before that age.** The others would become submariners for a few years or go to land-based units.

Imagine the competence of a warship crew of which more than two thirds have served together on that ship for well over a decade, and almost everyone has years of experience in his job and additional years of experience in some other job on the ship! This should reduce the bridge crew competence problem that was revealed by multiple collisions. General purpose warships become much more useful if the crew has enough experience in all missions rather than being 'jack of all trades master of none' because the crew gets torn apart after a couple months of training on a range of missions.

The SSBN fleet would be exempt from this 'sailor for life' thing because of the discomfort of SSBN patrols. SSBN crews could thus be recruited the traditional way, and the SSBN fleet could be used as a recruiting ground for the SSN crews (which would sometimes do weeks-long patrols - typically only for shadowing of SSN/SSGN).

The quantity (and share!) of officers can and should be reduced by much. This should be simple since there would be much fewer busy bases, a smaller training effort and several unified combatant commands can and should be disbanded (CENTCOM, AFRICOM, SOUTHCOM, USSOCOM, USEUCOM).  I wrote "simple" instead of "easy" because the officer establishment would fight any such reform, of course.

Naval aviation

A helicopter design would be needed for the auxiliary cruisers; modified UH-1Z might become an acceptable stop-gap solution.

The purchase of F-35B is utter nonsense and it's very regrettable that the F-35 overall design was compromised by the STOVL obsession of the B version. Orders for F-35B should be changed into F-35C. The U.S. is not going to get any better carrier-capable combat aircraft than the F-35C anytime soon (prior to 2040). The F-35C should thus become available in a quantity of about 600 aircraft (for 9 carriers) to almost 800 aircraft (for 12 carriers) plus at least a hundred training (early production) airframes. Super Hornets could be held in reserve to replace F-35s lost in wartime. Their utility as tankers and stand-off surface attack munition platforms won't diminish till 2040.

A carrier-compatible "6th generation" combat aircraft or drone should enter service in the early 2040's. It would need to be multi-role and suitable for export (= affordable and versatile). A joint USN-USAF-JASDF-RAAF development project is advisable.

Land-based USAF F-35A do not need to be qualified for new anti-ship missiles. USAF C-17s could launch long range AShMs, with land-based F-35As acting as escorts. The USN doesn't need a land-based F-35 component other than for type training and as reserves. Its naval aviation units could still fly training sorties from airbases when their carriers are in port, of course.

I distrust the P-8 concept of an anti-submarine aircraft because I don't think that submarine-hunting with sonobuoys makes much sense. It might work when the approximate position of a submarine is already known, but I doubt that capability is worth the expense. The location would typically be known if there's a warship with ASW helicopter in the area anyway. The modern very silent and reduced echo submarines defy any true large area surveillance as far as I know.
The USN does nevertheless need maritime patrol aircraft for tracking and identifying ships, or else it would neither defeat hostile surface raiders nor keep a distant naval blockade from being very leaky. Such maritime patrol aircraft need no ASW equipment, but they do need imaging equipment for ship identification (synthetic aperture radar, thermal, visual). Their demands on airfields (runway length, maintenance hours per flying hour) should be modest. I suppose that the existing 'global' business jets would be a fine fit (Gulfstream 650s are domestic products). They would frequently need to drop below their optimum cruise altitude for thermal/visual ship ID, though. Drones such as MQ-4C are not reliable enough in this job unless one fully trusts the wartime reliability of communication satellites (which I don't). They don't appear to be cheaper than a G650 with a sensor outfit and some extra radios anyway.

The surveillance of the Pacific Ocean could be complemented by sea surveillance satellites and use of other satellites, but I have a hunch they might be less reliable assets in wartime than dispersed aircraft.

Wartime basing

Japan and Australia would be the most relevant forward bases for the USN, though warships would limit the presence in Japanese ports to the absolute minimum duration. I have no idea why Australian politicians are so keen on 'security' cooperation with the United States that could drag Australia needlessly into a Pacific War. Yet Australia would be the prime base for Southwest Pacific and Eastern Indian Ocean operations as long as they have such an attitude.

The dominance of land-based air power would push the USN to seas far from Japan for a distant naval blockade. An employment as a battlefleet 'fleet in being' backup to a triple layer of MPA+auxiliary cruisers+bombers in the Eastern Indian Ocean seems rather sensible to me. The U.S: would not necessarily have access to land bases there.

Hawaii would serve as a safe port for damaged ships, for storage of some missile munitions in wartime and as a refuelling point (especially for refuelling replenishment ships and auxiliary cruisers) for North Pacific operations. It would also be relevant for occasional convoys coming from or going to Japan, and these would in large part be protected by Japanese ships.

Forget about Guam; Guam should be demilitarised, that's its best bet on not getting devastated in a war.

Submarines (SSN mostly) should have some forward bases for frequent resupply of munitions at sea. This is a necessity if they have to deploy many naval mines.*** Some submarine replenishment ships with freezer rooms and lots of spare torpedoes would be needed.

The use of land-based air power for strike dominance at sea would be much easier if countries such as Malaysia were cooperating. The USN could only bet on this approach if it designs the effort to work with no other bases than American and Australian airports and airbases, though.

The USN's war plans need to be promising in case that South Korea remains neutral. South Korea could not be defended against Chinese invasion by land without nuclear strikes. Likewise, the U.S. should not trust that South Korea would provide its huge shipyard industry to an arms racing cause.


Testing needs to become much more rigorous again, and zealously protected from politics. Any officer who declares a ship or aircraft type operational without comprehensive testing with no substantial shortcomings left needs to be fired in a most mortifying manner.

Also, 'test' some LCS (each one of both classes) by letting the USAF blow them up in front of practically all admirals. This should get the message through to never ever develop and 'justify' such a waste of money again.

Some other things

Fire every single individual involved in the Iran Air Flight 655 incident if any such individual is still in the service. Strip anyone involved from their ranks, even if they are already retired.

Fire all officers who ever lied to the American public. This includes EVERY SINGLE officer who ever promoted the LCS in the shape it took.**** Make an example of them that all other and future officers understand. 

Fire every single officer in the chain of command who was involved in selecting the idiotic blueish uniforms and wasn't determined to stop them from becoming introduced.

Add a lot more escape provisions to warships. The current requirement for 110% life raft capacity (AFAIK) is grossly insufficient for wartime emergencies. Some inflatable life rafts could be pierced and become useless when a ship is hit, and actual emergency evacuations of a ship hit by a torpedo would not be efficient in making use of existing boats and life rafts. About 150% life raft capacity might suffice.

Attitude changes
  • land attack is unnecessary for deterrence & defence and thus becomes a low priority
  • capability needed to defeat a threat after a few months of mobilisation has to guide force design, not stupid regional combatant commander peacetime patrol wish lists
  • wartime capability also has to guide budgeting; no self-sabotage into a hollow force***** in order to blackmail politicians into bigger budgets any more!
  • accordingly, the USN has to overcome its fixation on active strength (and in particular on ship quantities): Auxiliary cruisers and land-based (USAF) air power are indispensable substitutes for warships because of their superior cost-efficiency.
  • forget Rickover's fetish; nuclear propulsion has to justify its horrible costs
  • hostile surface forces can and should be defeated first and foremost by land-based airpower
  • forget "freedom of navigation" patrols
  • combat ship crews should be lasting teams, not potpourris of ever-rotating personnel
  • forget about WW2 and Cold War path dependency things; there's hardly any use for amphibious forces for the U.S. (much more for the PRC!) and aircraft carriers can be substituted for by much less expensive and less specialised assets in most sea regions

*: The USAF's preferred refuelling method is much more difficult to retrofit to airliners.
**: Any by writing "team" instead of "ship" I mean to say that almost the whole ship crew would be transferred as a team to a new ship if their old one was decommissioned.
***: I don't think of simple naval mines here. The idea is rather to use electric torpedoes such as DM2A4, which might be used as self-deploying mobile mines and would attack a passing target just as a heavyweight torpedo does. This means the SSN could deploy most of its remaining torpedoes as mines when it returns from its patrol area.
****: This excludes the early Streetfighter concept works because working on some unconventional concepts should be encouraged, not punished. To promote a waste of resources on some obviously useless warships is something very different.
*****: "hollow force" = neglect of consumables buys and upgrades in order to maintain or grow nominal strength in ships and aircraft. The top brass does this to avoid actually efficient cuts and bets that some future Congress will expand the budget any more after lots of cries about poor readiness and a "hollowed-out force".  It's cynical bollocks and self-sabotage that should be punished.


  1. This is a particularly biased and ill-conceived look at naval power in general, and the USN in particular. Perhaps the author should invest a little time reading some of the strategic thinking from maritime powers like Japan, India, China, and the Russians before making sweeping prognosis.

    There is very little serious consideration in this article for the realities of fighting at sea, specifically critical points like locating the enemy. Nor has this article precisely identified the root cause of moral issues; blaming them on the deployment system, without explaining how long deployments were not an issue for decades during the cold war (and indeed are not a huge issue for most merchant mariners today).

    Other ideas border on the fantastic, for example excoriating the U.S. Navy for allowing MCM assets to languish and then proposing abandoning amphibious warfare capabilities (although this is a welcome call). U.S Navy SSBNs are the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence, and arguably helped prevent WWIII more than any monies spent on air force or army units. The bit about “evaluating” sailors on SSBNs prior to selection for SSN duty is absolutely ridiculous in any practical sense.

    Finally, perhaps Germany should cede a few cities to say Poland, or France before telling the USA what to do with its territory.


    1. The detection issue was touched (MPA) and was covered in the long warships article series.

      The other points of yours are unsupported and I disagree, of course.

      Overall, you fall well short of supporting your initial judgment.

  2. Maybe there wont be a barney between yankland and China. Post trump, increased corporate capture. Wall street and silicon valley have long accepted a civilisational war couldn't be won.

    Sell their ownership into chinese position and currency. Turn fallen empire yankland into a chinese client state.

    The japanese navy and shipyard capacity was nowhere near large enough to play the games it was asked to play. Same with the nazis. Same with the yanks now. If they are stupid enough to play against the chinese they can accept the fallout from a defeat or childishly escalate to nukes.

    Worth a read up about whats happening with the FFG(X) program for a giggle.

    The USN can not fight and win in the chinese swimming pool. Not now, not in twenty years.

    Three moves ahead. Mahan. No control over sea lines of communication, therefore isolation. The yankish empire will fall.

    Plenty of animus against yanks can then be vented in their weakened state. Harold Pinter said it pretty well in his nobel acceptance speech. Pretty angry, pretty clear thinking, for a dying man.

  3. I don't think China sees the USMC as much of a threat in their neck of the woods. OTOH, their amphibious fleet would be critical to any forcible reunification of Taiwan.

    Doesn't seem like they would go for that trade.