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The U.S. Military’s Biggest Fear: Are Navies Becoming Obsolete?

USS Makin Island operating in the Indian Ocean during 2012
111114-N-KD852-268 SAN DIEGO (Nov. 14, 2011) Sailors and Marines man the rails aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) as the ship departs San Diego on a regularly scheduled deployment in support of the Navy's Maritime Strategy. This will be the maiden deployment for Makin Island, the Navy's newest amphibious assault ship and the only U.S. Navy ship with a hybrid electric propulsion system. By using this unique propulsion system, the Navy expects to see fuel savings of more than $250 million during the ship's lifecycle, proving the Navy's commitment to energy awareness and conservation. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Lill/Released)

Are navies dying?

An outlandish question. Which is why it’s worth asking. Bottom line up front: I doubt it.

Strategy goes through cycles. Sometimes offense is dominant, other times defense is. Weapons, tactics, and operational techniques have their day and die out. Others replace them. Few armies field phalanxes or cavalry divisions nowadays; armies endure. Galleys and ships of the line with billowing sails are figments of the past; navies live on. Sopwith Camels flown by knights of the air would meet an ill fate in modern aerial combat; air forces still roam the sky. Recent events probably mark just one more turning of the cycle. Never in the annals of military history has an entire type of armed force gone extinct by dint of new technology or warmaking methods—no matter how revolutionary.

But. That could be one of those statements that’s true . . . until it’s not.

Physicist Thomas Kuhn would urge us to entertain the question of navies’ longevity whether we relish its implications or not. Forethought prepares us for the unexpected. Writing in the early 1960s, Kuhn contested the conceit that science advances in an orderly fashion whereby scientific researchers modify or discard old theories about how the physical world works and replace them with better theories as new information or insight comes in. Instead, he maintains, scientific progress is a political process. Progress is fitful and oftentimes painful—just as in any political process.

How so? Well, says Kuhn, it turns out that scientists are people rather than disembodied reason. Self-interest and biases animate them the same way they animate ordinary folk. Stakeholders in the dominant “paradigm,” or theory for explaining something about the universe, become invested in the paradigm for reasons of personal gain and status as well as dispassionate research. Promotions, academic appointments, grant money, and prestige flow to them so long as the paradigm remains the best thing going. These are things worth fighting to defend. And fight scientists do—sometimes waging a rearguard action long after the paradigm starts to falter.

Gatekeepers of the reigning paradigm, that is, adjust it to account for “anomalies,” disparities between what the model predicts and new observations that come to light. Aberrations accumulate over time, casting doubt on the orthodox view. For awhile it’s possible to explain faults away through tinkering around the paradigm’s margins. Ultimately, though, anomalies become so many and so glaring as to be irrefutable. Then the paradigm shatters—making way for a rival theory that explains reality better. The new paradigm stands, with defenders of its own, until a superior competitor comes along.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

Kuhn lists a number of historical paradigm shifts. Most famously, the “Copernican Revolution,” whereby the geocentric gave way to a heliocentric understanding of the solar system, marked a quintessential “paradigm shift.” Or to go beyond the strictly scientific realm, recent years have witnessed a paradigm shift among China-watchers in the West, as the reality of a great Chinese navy falsified the entrenched view that China is a continental power with no special desire or aptitude to go to sea. Keepers of the paradigm mounted a fighting retreat, but in the end only a Baghdad Bob insists what is happening can’t happen.

Progress is messy and fractious, not orderly and dispassionate. Naval analysts and practitioners should refuse to be Baghdad Bob. We should ask ourselves frankly whether we’re guardians of an increasingly obsolescent paradigm of naval warfare. If so, we will find ourselves in jeopardy should we encounter an antagonist that espies a worthier naval-warfare paradigm. Best to think ahead now in case our cherished archetype splinters around us.

Anomalies abound in today’s marine paradigm. Aircraft carriers and other surface combatants, long masters of the sea, now operate under the shadow of shore-based missiles and aircraft that greatly outrange them—calling into question whether they can fight their way to the scene of a fight, let alone prevail. It’s hard to win command of the sea or project power ashore when you never close within weapons range to open fire. Increasingly lethal integrated air defenses imperil non-stealthy aircraft and perhaps stealthy ones as well. Reputable undersea-warfare mavens speculate that newfangled sensor and computer technology verges on rendering the oceans and seas transparent—stripping submarines of their chief advantage, stealth, and exposing them to being hunted down and sunk.

Any one of these anomalies would call into question whether fleets built around the same basic platforms that fought World War II—carriers, cruisers and destroyers, amphibious transports, subs—have a future in a world bristling with extended-reach missiles, unmanned vehicles of all types, and artificial intelligence. Combined, anomalies between the new normal and the old paradigm spell trouble.

For the sake of questioning the ruling paradigm and transcending it if necessary, let’s suppose these anomalies are real, significant, and enduring. Current trends are not mere momentary shifts of advantage in the eternal tug of war between fleets prowling the sea and forts that festoon shorelines. Land warfare has won, or stands poised to. What might possible futures hold? First, consider the trivial yet most baleful future. Great powers, and potentially lesser coastal states as well, might field precision weaponry capable of striking enemy craft on, above, or beneath the ocean’s surface many thousands of miles away. China got a head start assembling such a panoply with its DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, which can ostensibly strike major surface combatants as far as 2,400 miles offshore. But such technology is scarcely beyond American, Russian, or European ingenuity.

Suppose multiple contenders did field armaments with the reach to span the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian oceans. If they did a kind of conventional mutual assured destruction might come to blanket these waters. Fleets would be vulnerable while bobbing at their moorings in home port, never mind if they put to sea. Mutually assured destruction prevailed during the Cold War because few leaders countenanced an atomic holocaust. Few political stakes warranted gambling on Armageddon. Deterrence held, if shakily at times. Whether it will hold in a future when armed forces can pummel seagoing forces at vast distances with conventional rather than doomsday arms is a dicey question. A brave new world is at hand if the political and psychological barriers to ordering such an attack prove readily surmountable.

It’s worth asking, moreover, what would become of merchant fleets bereft of their naval protectors. Navies exist chiefly to guard seaborne commerce. Other functions are ancillary albeit important. If shore firepower can sweep navies from the sea, it can hold merchant marines hostage as well. Saltwater theorists talk of “close” and “distant” blockades, meaning a fleet can loiter close off enemy seaports or erect a cordon farther offshore to impede shipping. A post-naval future could be a future of hyper-distant blockades—with ominous implications for global trade and commerce. Again: it’s worth contemplating such an alternative future—regardless of how improbable it seems—to orient ourselves mentally should some black swan befall sea services.

Or developments might stop short of this doomsday scenario. The revolution in ultra-long-range anti-access defenses could unfold asymmetrically. Perhaps one armed force might hoist its anti-access umbrella over vast expanses, stifling competitors’ naval and mercantile pursuits while those competitors lagged in anti-access technology. In that case, the world would have a new oceangoing hegemon—or an old one, if the United States won the race to field such technology. Foreign commerce would proceed at the hegemon’s sufferance and on its terms. Meanwhile, rival seagoing states would redouble their efforts to match its access-denial prowess, or seek technology or methods for blunting or circumventing its nautical supremacy. “Sea denial” navies carved out relatively safe offshore zones during the late nineteenth century, even while the oceangoing Royal Navy ruled the waves. A similar enterprising spirit would enliven lesser contenders in the twenty-first century.

Seldom is martial primacy absolute or permanent.

Or seaborne competition could take on a seesaw character. A classic arms race would ensue as each coastal state pursued shore-based anti-ship weaponry to pound hostile fleets, along with shipboard defenses to protect its own. Contestants would labor to nullify their antagonists’ navies but would make only incremental progress toward that end—and would see their advances matched or one-upped by fellow competitors, only to discover new advances of their own. And on and on. The balance of advantage would swing back and forth. The uncertainty and mercurial character of an arms race would permit naval and commercial fleets to transact business as usual, more or less, until and unless one pugilist won out. Mariners would learn to live with the threat.

Lastly, it could be that navies as we currently know them stand at the cusp of obsolescence, but that necessity will squeeze navies into some radically different shape. The coming transformation could prove even more fundamental than the nineteenth-century changeover from sail to steam, wooden hulls to steel, and smoothbore cannon to naval rifles. A century-plus ago the Englishman Julian Corbett, arguably history’s foremost naval historian and theorist, professed bewilderment at the scope and pace of change during the fin de siècle years: “the whole naval art has suffered a revolution beyond all previous experience, and it is possible the old practice is no longer a safe guide.”

Corbett feared golly-gee technology had rendered history moot. When history no longer supplies a repository of lessons valuable for the future, he concludes, thinkers and practitioners must muddle through the best they can. We can “endeavor to realize the situation to which, in spite of all misgivings, we have been forced, and to determine its relations to the developments of the past.” He furnishes clues from his own lifetime. During the age of sail, navies were divided fairly neatly into three segments: the “battle fleet,” brawny ships-of-the-line that dueled enemy battle fleets for naval mastery; “cruisers,” or smaller, lightly gunned craft that were affordable in large numbers and fanned out to police the sea once the battle fleet had triumphed; and the “flotilla,” still more lightly armed and cheaper vessels that performed routine administrative chores at sea.

Technology upended this neat arrangement during Corbett’s career. Sea mines and torpedoes superempowered the flotilla, enabling rudimentary torpedo boats and diesel subs to strike heavy blows against battleships and cruisers that formerly would have brushed them aside. The twentieth century only accelerated the revolution, adding naval aviation and guided missiles to the mix. It may be that land-based anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine defenses are completing the revolution whose start the English historian documented a century ago. Maybe battle fleets—contingents of large, lumbering, multi-mission craft susceptible to missile barrages—will be no more after the coming paradigm shift.

In wartime, the seas will be barren of combat ships as we know them.

But perhaps not barren of navies. Hyper-empowered flotilla craft—swarms of small, cheap, networked, manned or unmanned warships bearing missiles, directed-energy weapons, or other exotic technology—could assail hostile flotillas or shorelines in their bid for maritime supremacy. Losing one such craft in action would detract little from the fleet’s aggregate combat power, whereas losing a carrier or cruiser today represents a grievous if not mortal setback. In this life could come to imitate art. The future flotilla could be founded on a philosophy similar to that underlying the renegade Federation officer Krall’s fleet in the 2016 epic Star Trek: Beyond.

The wreckage when paradigms of space combat collide makes painful viewing for any longtime Star Trek aficionado. Krall’s swarm of tiny fighter spacecraft makes short work of the starship Enterprise, a capital ship optimized to fight Klingon or Romulan battle fleets but helpless against massed small-ship tactics. Enterprise gunners demolish any individual flotilla craft they target with phasers or photon torpedoes, but they only manage to target a small proportion of the enemy fleet before the starship meets its doom. In other words, Krall’s pilots lose a few isolated tactical engagements yet win the battle in resounding style.

Should naval warfare evolve along a sci-fi trajectory, navies will find their world turned upside down. If the flotilla came to menace the battle fleet in Corbett’s day, it would become the battle fleet in an age of swarm warfare. Assuming all combatants embraced the new paradigm, fleets of small craft would duel for maritime mastery. Heavy vessels—ship types that formerly belonged to the battle and cruiser contingents—would take refuge within protected berths until victory made it safe to venture onto the briny main. They, not the flotilla, would be supporting arms of naval power.

Granted, the technical barriers to such a future seem daunting. For example, sci-fi fighter planes need not obey the limits imposed by engineering. They can flit across interstellar distances using compact propulsion technology that doesn’t exist and may never exist. Whether naval flotilla craft could be endowed with sufficient cruising range to fight across oceanic distances with scant logistical support is a problem best left to engineering masterminds. Whether networks capable of coordinating swarm offensives could withstand hacking, jamming, or other forms of interference is another open question. (Spoiler alert: the Enterprise crew prevails through such indirect measures.)

It’s hard to imagine any of the scenarios postulated here coming to pass. But then, those who have lived their professional lives under a single paradigm invariably find it tough to imagine alternatives. Until the paradigm shift takes place and they—we—have to.

Where does this leave us? Reopening the U.S. Navy’s interwar playbook allows for a fresh look at sea combat. Then, the prospective foe was a battle-hardened Imperial Japanese Navy. Nowadays gaming is newly in vogue in naval circles. It would be worth testing out harebrained scenarios like these and critiquing the results with the utmost candor. Enlightenment can result from such exercises. Not long ago, for instance, I moderated a working group aimed at “breaking the mold” of ingrained thinking about sea power. Participants sought to smash our paradigm and envision what came next.

And so they did. Young Turks in the group concluded that the number of ships comprising a fleet is a secondary measure at best for whether the fleet is adequate unto its purposes. The true measure is whether it can stage superior combat power on a given battleground, at a given time, in conjunction with sister and allied military forces. Many implements—not just naval platforms cast in the traditional mold—can bring combat power to bear.

Be stronger at the decisive place and time: if there’s a universal law of military strategy, that’s it. And it ought to constitute the standard for evaluating the future of navies. Let’s detach combat power from familiar ship types, ordnance, and tactics. As Thomas Kuhn might say: let the gaming—and, if warranted, a paradigm shift—begin.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Basil McDonnell

    July 11, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    “Be stronger at the decisive place and time”- have you ever heard Nathan Bedford Forrest’s formulation of that? Forrest was a formidable cavalry commander for the Confederacy, and was not exactly academy-educated- but he captured this very concept succinctly when he remarked that the art of warfare is being “the firstest with the mostest.”

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