Naval power is commonly applied near landmasses where the commercial and military links between states are bundled. The great naval battles of history from Salamis to Actium and Lepanto to Trafalgar, Tsushima Strait and Midway occurred near contested positions on land.
The World War II Battle of the Atlantic was fought across the North Atlantic’s wide expanse, but the object of the enemy, by denying the United States the ability to supply its allies with war materiel, was to subjugate all of Europe.
The stakes of naval warfare are fundamentally linked to trade and commerce. Who controls the global seas controls global commerce. The dominance of the United States as a sea power since World War II has protected the untrammeled use of the seas for international commerce.
A foundational element in the gathering Sino-American contest is the United States’ protection of global free trade and the certainty that China, were it to become the superior seapower, would use its primacy as an economic tool against competitors large and small. China would harm US international commerce as its autarkic colleague, Russia, has sought to harm Ukrainian commerce.
Thus, the US Navy is the guardian of America’s preeminence as an international merchant.
But the navy, some critics note, has a technology problem. It fields old weapons on older ships that are far too vulnerable to modern missiles to be survivable in a conflict with China.
Like a corporation whose adaptability is key to its success, the US Navy must transform itself. It must embrace cutting-edge unmanned technologies and decision-centric capabilities to fight in a distributed and lethal manner.
While this criticism has merit, and the list of technologies it identifies as the future of naval combat is supported by evidence, it misses the fundamental point: Structurally speaking, the navy has a fleet that it can modify to fight a modern war.
It simply needs officers and commanders who are willing to creatively link old and new systems and concentrate on preparing to fight a war– and who can be confident that the navy will be supplied with a budget that can sustain its expansion. This is where the most meaningful change needs to happen.
The US Navy is in crisis. It is overstretched, with a high operational tempo driven by a shrinking fleet and by static, if not growing, requirements. The navy is around half its Cold War peak size, yet it is still tasked with presence patrols in the Euro-Atlantic, Middle East littorals and Indo-Pacific.
And it is now expected to be the lead service in a war with China, even as it retires ships and submarines each year with replacements anticipated in a future more distant than the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
The reality, we are told by the service and analysts fixated on future technologies, is that the navy must recapitalize, using the cost savings from divesting itself of old platforms to fund new ones.
Specifically, these new platforms are a fleet of small, distributed, unmanned aerial, surface and undersea vehicles that, when paired with decision-enabling technologies, can amplify the lethality of the modern force.
This argument rests on two premises – one political, one military-technological – that are both contested. The reality is that, while developing these systems is critical, the US Navy needs to reframe the way it considers new programs and the “legacy” fleet as it seeks to match them to the demands of modern combat.
The navy’s older capabilities create a specific fleet, one that has a handful of highly visible elements. Most visible is the carrier strike group (CSG), a force comprised of a 100,000-ton supercarrier and its notionally 100-aircraft air wing; several large surface combatants packed with missiles; and support ships.
This is an exceptionally intimidating collection of warships, one that can deliver more combat power than many military services – two CSGs combined comfortably exceed the collective combat power of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
The CSG and large surface combatants serve a primarily military role. They are warships meant to fight in combat. But they also serve a political role, that of forward presence to remind adversaries of the US Navy’s ability to deliver combat power credibly and rapidly during a crisis.
This presence has restrained American adversaries in the recent past. After the US killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iranian proxy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deployment of a US carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf undoubtedly convinced Iran that anything more than a token response – an intentionally theatrical but ineffectual bombardment of a US military position in Iraq – would trigger a major American retaliation.
Similarly, the near-constant presence of an American CSG in the Eastern Mediterranean since early 2022 has undoubtedly shifted Russia’s escalation calculus: Russia never actively used its warships and submarines in the Levantine Basin to pressure NATO during its invasion of Ukraine.
Presence matters for deterrence, especially when adversaries of the US seldom receive more than a slap on the wrist for bad actions. The navy, more so than any other service, provides this presence. Transitioning to a fully unmanned, distributed force with a far lighter and less visible footprint would undermine the navy’s ability to deter American adversaries.
In turn, the wholehearted embrace of a distributed military misses the actual trends in military technology today. Contemporary warfare is, in fact, not so different from 20th-century warfare. This is not simply because of its industrial component, on full display in Ukraine, but because there has been no transformation in the nature of fire.
Between 1880 and 1914, a revolution in warfare did occur: the imposition of the third dimension upon the battlefield. Long-range gunnery on land and at sea transformed the way in which distance mattered in combat. The battlespace expanded on land to include what is now termed the operational level of warfare since victory in a close-in fight had to be coupled with victory in a long-range contest of logistics and coordination.
Airpower did not fundamentally change this dynamic but instead impressed upon modern commanders what this new aspect of warfare – three-dimensional space – actually meant.
The same technological trends that transformed land combat were present at sea. It is no coincidence that heavy artillery and long-range naval gunnery were developed concurrently. The dreadnought battleship, with its all-big-gun armament and sophisticated fire-control system, was the naval counterpart of the artillery battery.
Naval airpower, in turn, extended further the range at which ships could strike each other, but did not fundamentally change the way in which one could think about combat intellectually. Specifically, the pace of fires changed – from a salvo model, dominated by the battleship firing volley after volley of heavy naval shells, to a pulse model, in which aircraft would descend upon their target, expend their weapons and subsequently rearm.
What has occurred between the mid-20th century, and the primacy of the aircraft carrier, and today is a shift not from centralized to decentralized military equipment per se at sea but instead from a model in which the sorts of fires depend on the delivery mechanism – air or ship? – to a model in which multiple platforms can deliver similar sorts of fires.
This shift stems from the guided missile. Functionally identical weapons can be deployed from surface combatants, fighters, strike aircraft, submarines and even ground launchers. Conceivably, one could generate salvo or pulse fires from radically different launch mechanisms.
It is this change that the US Navy must recognize and adopt. Distributed unmanned systems are part of a new fleet. But the fundamental shift is one that delinks platforms and types of fires.
The critical systems for procurement are not simply distributed autonomous ships, aircraft and subsurface vessels but missiles that can be launched from multiple platforms and, where relevant, capabilities that extend the range of existing platforms.
The CSG provides an excellent example. American carrier air wings typically deploy with around two-thirds of their potential strength and, following the retirement of organic refueling and long-range strike aircraft, they lack the range to hit targets in enemy territory without exposing the carriers to hostile fire.
The MQ-25 Stingray unmanned refueling aircraft is a first step toward remedying this issue, as it greatly extends air wings’ range. But the navy must deploy more refueling aircraft per carrier than it currently plans to do – expanding the squadron on each ship from five to 15 aircraft – to ensure it can sustain an entire air wing’s operations.
The small questions, those of munitions and logistical support, are fundamentally more critical than the large ones of force transformation and long-term technological change.
The upshot is that the US Navy’s problems, structurally speaking, are not insurmountable. They require the service to advocate for its priorities and fight for a bigger piece of the budgetary pie and a larger defense budget overall. And they require that energetic leaders keep sailors engaged and morale high.
They demand, in other words, that the navy shifts to preparing for war. Changing leaders’ thinking from today’s goal of operating in peace to fighting is the largest challenge that faces the US Navy today.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.