Is Esper’s New Plan For The Navy Enough For The Indo-Pacific?


Mark Montgomery -

Recent wargames suggest the U.S. Navy would have a hard time fighting China, but this might be nothing compared to infighting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his successors will have to manage to build a navy that can hold its own in the Pacific. The secretary will soon release a much anticipated and somewhat delayed Future Naval Force Study. This document, normally issued by the secretary of the Navy, was previously known as the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan and is unique to the naval forces. Neither the Army nor the Air Force produce such a comprehensive, congressionally feted long-term procurement planning document. Ultimately the study will be a strong signal of the administration’s commitment to implementing the National Defense Strategy promulgated in 2018. Despite the delay in reporting it out, with the study coming too late to impact the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process, it is still a powerful statement for the secretary of defense to articulate the force structure that he sees as necessary to field the most critical forces (naval) for the most demanding adversary (China) for which his combatant commanders have to plan.

In his recent comments at the RAND Corporation and at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Esper provided an initial peek at the study. The media coverage of any naval force structure plan quickly spirals into a discussion of ship numbers — 355 or 500, in this case — and arguments over how to characterize unmanned vessels, and what size vessel “counts.” In reality, what is of greatest import is not the number of ships, but the composition of the fleet. One can produce a 450-ship Navy heavy on corvettes and amphibious ships and get nowhere against China. Conversely, one can build a 300-ship Navy with an emphasis on attack submarines and missile tubes, thus producing a war-winning capability. Therefore, before one can assess the value of the secretary’s plan, it is essential to know what it is being built to achieve.

Over the past two years, the Department of Defense has consistently identified the security challenge from China as the most significant long-term threat to the United States. Successive commanders of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command have consistently characterized the challenge of fighting the Chinese military as one that will come fraught with risk and necessitate naval forces beyond what the United States can put to sea today. The principal measuring stick for a naval force structure assessment should be how it contributes to the U.S. military’s ability to deter — and, if deterrence fails, defeat — Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan in both the near and distant future.

In planning for any crisis in the Western Pacific, one should remember that the geography of the theater makes the principal warfighting requirements air and maritime in nature. U.S. military commanders in the Pacific have been consistently asking the military services and Congress for certain capabilities and capacities. These can be generally put into six categories of planning requirements:


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