Sorry Donald, More Ships Won't Make our Navy Better. Tech Will.
U.S. President Donald Trump promised during a campaign rally in Philadelphia, PA in September to “build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines.” The home of the prestigious, though now retired, Philadelphia Naval Shipyards seemed as good a place as any to make this promise. Richard Spencer (no, not that one, try as he might), the president’s choice for Secretary of the Navy has seemingly back-pedaled on this promise during his confirmation hearings. Spencer, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that while it was a “great goal to have,” there were other aspects to address aside from the simple number of ships composing the Navy. Currently, the United States Navy is comprised of “276 deployable battle force ships,” and a movement towards the 350 that the president has proposed, or the 355 on the recommendation of the Force Structure Assessment from late last year, will require a large amount of capital. Before taking that step, Mr. Spencer recommends the Navy look at the capability of the ships rather than the pure number of them, saying, “Capabilities… that’s where the punch is.”
As it stands now, the United States already has the largest and strongest navy in the world; merely increasing the number of ships available will not immediately lead to a stronger strategic position. The efficiency of our navy should be the paramount factor in producing new systems. For ease of purpose, I will subdivide efficiency into two factors, functional efficiency and modernization of naval systems. Both of these conditions need to be met before sinking the capital required for production of 79 additional ships.
The first condition, functional efficiency, relates to the ease of maintenance and the quality of the production. The United States’ advanced weapons systems have been in relatively uncertain straits between the F-22, F-35, and Zumwalt-class destroyer. The F-22, promised to be the newest generation of stealth fighter, has routinely underperformed promises and production has been shutdown for the time being; The F-35, as late as 2015 was struggling to perform in dogfights against the F-16, though without the full sensor package available; and the Zumwalt-class Stealth Destroyer, a four billion dollar project, has broken down multiple times since its introduction to the fleet. This is not at all to say these will not be efficient platforms for U.S. military projection, but the results have been disappointing thus far. The United States must provide more oversight to these projects to streamline their results and put more time into developing the systems than rushing them to the production line. The results of this will be two-fold: less money spent on making quick fixes to the systems and a reduction in the cost of maintenance required when these ships and planes breakdown.
The second, modernization of naval systems, is what Mr. Spencer is describing when he mentions capabilities being the punch. As both computer systems and weapons systems advance, it is unwise to embark on an 18-year journey at the cost of over $100 billion a year to produce the 79 needed ships without a robust consideration of technological advancement in that time. The Navy needs to be prepared to place a temporary halt on the production of these ships until researchers have developed the most advanced and capable systems to engage in the strategic interests of the United States. Strong advances in laser technology and electromagnetic weapons systems (dubbed ‘railguns’) are the way forward for advanced weapons and targeting systems. The use of unmanned technology and AI systems to integrate with weapons systems also has great potential. Defensively, stealth stands on the horizon, but more research must be devoted to strengthen the first condition of efficiency stated. The combination of these technologies will not only give the United States a decisive edge in naval combat in the future, but protect the lives of our sailors.
The United States’ way forward is through advanced technology. From leading the cutting edge in missile technology, to advanced stealth systems, the United States has always relied on technology to gain strategic advantage over our foes. By not rushing into production line of ships we cannot change, it would be wise to devote more money to researching these systems and applying them to a new generation of naval warships. Before hastening to fulfill a campaign promise, the Trump administration should be strongly urged to consider waiting, pouring money into greater research, and developing a long term technological goal, rather than the short term political profit to truly keep the U.S. Navy the strongest in the world.
The views presented in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo: "Naval forces from U.S., Republic of Korea work together in Pacific" originally taken by U.S. Pacific Command (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) for Flickr. No changes were made. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.