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The Tipping Point and the Future U.S. Navy Fleet

The first 10 years of the 21st century have seen profound change for the U.S. Navy, the United States, and the world. Today, as the Navy takes on increased responsibilities in a globalized world, its ability to influence events may be challenged – even compromised – unless far-reaching and substantial changes in Navy force structure and force laydown are put into place.

In 2001, the U.S. homeland experienced its first attacks in more than 50 years – resulting in two conflicts with an enormous cost in lives and national treasure. We are engaged worldwide in a war with radical extremism at the same time that the United States continues its drawdown in Iraq and surge of combat operations in Afghanistan. We are watchful of the rise of a “peer competitor” that looks intent on becoming a global superpower. These dynamics are complicated by the ambitions of regional powers. We have also witnessed a re-ordering of global political and economic power not seen since the end of World War II and the Bretton Woods accord. It is little wonder that the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” predicts daunting change will accelerate and broaden:

The international systems – as constructed following the Second World War – will be unrecognizable by 2025 owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalizing economy, an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and the growing influence of nonstate actors. By 2025, the international system will be a global multipower one …

And this change has accelerated in the past several years in the wake of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, the economic pain still being felt by all Americans, and the spiraling national debt, a fact of life that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, termed the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Add to this China’s growing economic and military strength, as well as Beijing’s intransigence regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea – a position that is totally without substantiation and one that turns the entire idea of the global commons on its head – and there is little question that this decade will see continued conflict and strife. Concurrently, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) will have a less robust funding posture than it has today.

These dynamics will make it even more challenging for America and its Navy to execute the strategy articulated in its first new maritime strategy in a generation, the 2007 tri-service “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” a strategy that some have said has the U.S. Navy trying to be everything, to everyone, everywhere. And while the Navy comprises far more than just ships, for most people the number of ships is the measure of naval capability and capacity. The U.S. Navy today is half the size of the Reagan-era Navy, and while some point to improved capability of today’s U.S. Navy ships, the fact remains the U.S. Navy can no longer be everything, to everyone, everywhere with today’s approximately 280-plus ships, nor can it do so in the future, where most observers predict ship numbers will further decline.

The Tipping Point
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the inexorable decline in the number of U.S. Navy ships and the concomitant stress on the Navy’s ability to carry out its myriad missions. And in light of the aforementioned DoD and Department of the Navy budgetary pressures, and in spite of the Navy’s strategy and posture statement that call for a naval force that is second to none, there is no believable scenario that envisions the Navy achieving the capacity to do everything, for everyone, everywhere. As a result, some observers began to ask whether the U.S. Navy needed to consider changing its strategy, shipbuilding plans, and force laydown to be able to carry out its missions in the future.

Aircraft Carriers USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) sail in formation at the start of Exercise Valiant Shield 2006. A “Surge Navy” would be based on a powerful but smaller home fleet comprising high-end platforms such as carrier and expeditionary strike groups, and would seek to maintain global influence based on the ability to quickly deploy a combat-credible force worldwide. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Spike Call

Enter the “Tipping Point.” In late 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) to evaluate the characteristics of a globally influential navy and address the tipping point at which the U.S. Navy would no longer be globally influential. The study “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” concluded that although a Navy of fewer ships than today’s fleet of 285 or so could still be influential globally, the potential is great for tomorrow’s fleet and especially the Navy-after-Next to lose this capability unless decisions are made – and soon – to reverse current trends.

“The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” study has sparked a spirited debate within the Navy, Department of Defense, Congress, think tanks, and numerous blogs regarding CNA’s five alternative futures for the Navy. As one indicator of the intensity of this debate, the authoritative U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings featured two substantial articles on this subject in just a four-month period.

The Tipping Point study draws what it calls the “inevitable conclusion” that a shrinking status quo Navy (meaning a Navy that evolves as current shipbuilding trends suggest it will) will do all things, but none of them very well, and that this steady erosion in capacity would be a de facto hollowing out of the fleet that could easily erode combat capability. It suggests that this “thin slicing” of the Navy, where no major changes are made and capacity continues to dwindle across the board, is the worst of all possible scenarios and asks the question, “At what number of ships does the Navy reach a point where it is no longer able to project combat credibility with constant forward presence?” The study then suggests five potential choices or scenarios for U.S. Navy force structure and force laydown that the Navy could employ to attempt to meet its worldwide commitments (see sidebar at bottom).

But what the Tipping Point study did not do was to draw a conclusion as to which of these five potential scenarios seemed the most likely, and to those who are comfortable with a straightforward solution, that was unsatisfying. And as the study suggests, even as the conversations wax and wane, prevailing trend lines and dynamics will result in one of these futures (or an extrapolation) for the Navy, almost by default. Indeed, the momentum pointing toward a most-likely alternative future is powerful and, absent dramatic changes, one of the five already looks to be the Navy we will have in 2025 and beyond.

The Geostrategic Context
To understand some of the impetus behind the Tipping Point study, it is important to understand the overarching geostrategic context and the “high-end” missions the U.S. Navy may be called on to perform. As Norman Friedman points out in the Spring 2010 Year in Defense Naval Edition, nations such as China and Iran are fielding substantial anti-access/area denial (or A2/AD) capabilities that could substantially inhibit the U.S. Navy’s ability to carry out its missions. In the case of China, according to Friedman, “The Chinese are interested in convincing the U.S. government that the U.S. Navy’s carriers cannot survive anywhere near Taiwan.”

The compelling nature of this threat has raised serious concerns within the DoD regarding the ability of the Navy and the Air Force to project power in East Asia and the Arabian Gulf. This concern led directly to two studies conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in early 2010: “Why AirSea Battle?” and “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept.” CSBA analyzed possible options to deal with compelling A2/AD threats nations such as China and Iran possess. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) provided greater clarity on the scope and raison d’être behind this concept. As part of its guidance to rebalance the force, the QDR directed the development of the AirSea Battle Concept in order to:

Defeat adversaries across the range of military operations, including adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities. The concept will address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action.

It is important to recognize that neither the term AirSea Battle Concept (ASBC), nor the concept itself, are brand-new. This integration of sea and air forces has roots that extend back more than half a century and was highlighted two decades ago by then-Cmdr. James Stavridis (now admiral, Supreme Allied Commander Europe) in a 1992 National Defense University paper where he suggested, “We need an air sea battle concept centered on an immediately deployable, highly capable, and fully integrated force – an Integrated Strike Force.”

What is new is the compelling nature of the A2/AD capability of nations that threaten to use them against U.S. power-projection assets and especially against U.S. Navy carrier strike groups. As the CSBA studies and other analysis suggest, China and Iran are investing in capabilities to raise precipitously over time – and perhaps prohibitively – the cost to the United States of projecting power into two areas of vital interest: the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf. By expanding their A2/AD capabilities, these potential adversaries seek to deny U.S forces the sanctuary of forward bases, hold aircraft carriers and their air wings at risk, and cripple U.S. battle networks. In other words, strike at the weak point of U.S. power-projection capability. (This, too, is not new, as the Chinese military philosopher, Sun Tzu, explained 3,600 years ago: “The Army led by the wise general avoids the strong and rushes to the weak.”) To understand the compelling A2/AD challenge facing the U.S. Navy, a word or two regarding China and Iran’s capabilities and capacity is in order.

China’s impressive store of missiles hedges against a “Taiwan contingency” while simultaneously undergirding its anti-access/area denial efforts in the Asia Pacific region. One notable effort in this regard is the development of the world’s first anti-ship “carrier killer” ballistic missile, the DF-21D. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote, “The DF-21D is the ultimate carrier-killer missile.” Moreover, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Robert F. Willard, in August 2010, warned that the DF-21D is “close to being operational.”

Iran continues to be a source of instability throughout the Central Command area of responsibility. Even with national and international sanctions in place, the rhetoric from the regime has not abated. More troubling, Iran’s nuclear program continues to vex regional and international powers, with no resolution in sight. CSBA’s Andrew Krepinevich characterizes the Iranian threat mainly in terms of its development of A2/AD capabilities. These include mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, small high-speed coastal vessels, and sea mines. He noted that “while the situation may be manageable for U.S. maritime forces over the near term, Iran seems determined to continue developing more formidable A2/AD capabilities that could impact commercial shipping and energy production throughout the region.”

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) leads a mass formation of ships from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, France, Canada, Australia, and the United States through the Pacific Ocean July 24, 2010, during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2010. RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime exercise and is designed to increase mutual cooperation and enhance the tactical capabilities of participating nations in various aspects of maritime operations at sea. A “One+ Hub” Navy would focus on a “combat-credible visible forward presence” in the Western Pacific to the exclusion of much else. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor, U.S. Navy

Clearly, the ASBC has traction, as subsequent to publication of the QDR, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates directed the Navy and the Air Force to operationalize the ASBC and there is compelling evidence that the two services are formulating plans and strategies to do just that: take ASBC from concept to reality. And as the focus of the U.S. Navy shifts to the high-end threat in both theaters of operations, it will likely lead directly to a U.S. Navy force structure and force laydown along the lines of one scenario laid out in the Tipping Point study.

What Navy Will We Have?
By raising the issues it did in “The Navy at a Tipping Point,” CNA highlighted several realistic options for a future U.S. Navy force structure and force laydown. And the report has sparked a vigorous debate as to which option would be best to enable the Navy to fulfill its missions and to provide combat credible power to the U.S. combatant commanders.

Importantly, the Tipping Point study also defined what type of Navy the United States wants: one that is influential, dominant, and ready. These three criteria form the case for U.S. Navy force structure and force laydown. As the study explains:

A global navy is influential. It exerts international leadership in peacetime and in war. It provides a framework for coalition operations. It is a visible force for reassuring allies and partners that a global navy’s government is committed to them and that it has the resolve to place military forces in harm’s way in their support. It is a force flexible enough to exert influence at any point over a range of operations.

A dominant naval force must be compared with its potential adversaries and challengers. This has traditionally meant the capability to exert sea control when and where needed, to sustain operations in these areas indefinitely, to support and influence operations on land, and to ensure freedom of movement for the nation’s military forces.

A global navy is a ready navy. Both its deployed and surge forces are trained, manned, and adequately equipped. They are deployed globally so they can be ready to quickly respond to crises. They also have the capacity to call in forces from other global deployments to areas of instability or to serve as a home fleet that can surge forward for major operations.

Given these criteria for an influential, dominant, and ready U.S. Navy, the Tipping Point study suggests several ways the Navy can achieve this end-state with its future fleet. Each option has trade-offs and there is no perfect “school solution.” And while it is impossible to predict the future, and wild-cards or “black swan” events could dramatically change the way the world looks even a decade hence, given today’s geostrategic realities and the extrapolation of these trend lines into the near-, mid-, and distant-future, one Tipping Point scenario looks to be first among equals. The compelling nature of the threats presented by two powerful regional actors, and especially their increasingly robust A2/AD capabilities, strongly suggest that regardless of what kind of future Navy advocates of various U.S. Navy force structure and force laydown want, the Navy America will have is one that is heavily focused on two major hubs: the Western Pacific and the Middle East and Indian Ocean.

But as the Tipping Point study points out, strategy is about making choices regarding what to do, and just as importantly, making choices as to what not to do. The “Two-Hub” option is not without its challenges and risks. By choosing to focus on the high-end and on two distinct regions, this Two-Hub Navy would be less capable of supporting today’s low-end operations and have less surge capacity for unanticipated/emergent domestic and global tasks. But it is a risk the United States will almost certainly have to take.

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) conducts flight deck certification with an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Sea Knights of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22. A Navy based on the “Two-Hub” model would have to reduce the “emphasis and force structure for amphibious forces and low-end, tailored mission presence ships, such as the LCS.” U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Laird

The reasons for this Two-Hub model gaining traction are as compelling as they are clear, especially given the U.S. commitment to operationalize the AirSea Battle Concept. The United States has compelling national interests that depend on security and stability in both regions. Further, these interests must be supported by influential, dominant, and ready naval forces continuously deployed to both regions to assure allies and friends and to also deliver combat-credible power. In 2011 it appears that challenges in the Western Pacific and Middle East will almost certainly drive tomorrow’s fleet to a Two-Hub construct.

A Call for Action
This is more than an intellectual exercise or a process to watch passively. It is about setting priorities and making hard choices. The long-term nature of naval investments demands a deliberate process to commit to a force structure and force laydown model and then make the investments and long-term resourcing and basing decisions that support this choice – and commit to them again year over year. Most importantly, the Tipping Point study highlights decisions needed today and in the next few years for the United States to provide a U.S. Navy that is influential, dominant, and ready.

Clearly, such an effort will need to enlist the support of a wide range of stakeholders, from the other U.S. military services, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to the executive branch, to Congress – as well as many others. But clearly, the first step is the most important, and that is for the U.S. Navy to decide it can no longer be everything, to everyone, everywhere, and focus instead on meeting America’s most compelling security needs.

Sidebar: Five Scenarios
In cooperation with the Chief of Naval Operations’ Naval Warfare Integration Group (N00X), the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) addressed the hard question – “At what point might the U.S. Navy cease to be globally influential?” – examined the dynamics that would shape five possible futures for the U.S. Navy, and presented five scenarios of future force structure and force laydown:

In the status quo scenario, no hard decisions are made and the Navy continues to try to meet all its commitments from an increasingly wide-ranging and demanding mission set, but without adequate resourcing. The Navy attempts to maintain a combat-credible set of two hubs simultaneously, while at the same time continuing to substantially – some would say dramatically – grow its ballistic missile defense forces for strategic leverage as well as continue to perform a breathtaking array of peacetime engagement missions such as proactive humanitarian assistance. This scenario has the Navy trying to do everything but managing to do none of it well. CNA dubs this “salami slicing” the fleet, and the study points out this is arguably the worst possible scenario and one that will lead almost inevitably to a breaking point from which the Navy may never recover.








The “One+ Hub” Navy focuses on “combat-credible visible forward presence” in the Western Pacific, partly as a counter to North Korea but explicitly as a hedge against the People’s Republic of China. Forces in this scenario are centered on strike assets and especially on carrier strike groups, providing assurance to allies and partners in the region (such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia, among others) and fully capable of performing strike, deterrence, and sea denial missions for extended periods. The One+ Hub Navy would remain engaged in the Central Command Area of Operations (CENTCOM AOR), but in a more limited capacity. This force structure and force laydown scenario would be far less capable of responding to surge requirements worldwide and especially increased demands by CENTCOM. Without putting too fine a point on it, this scenario is a de facto “all eggs in one basket” one.

In the “Two-Hub” scenario, the Navy would be centered on robust forces forward based and deployed in the Arabian Gulf and Western Pacific. The emphasis would be on combat-credible forces designed to meet peer and near-peer competitors, principally comprising carrier strike groups in both hubs as well as a heavy complement of additional strike and projection assets such as Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile-equipped submarines and surface combatants. This high-end-focused Navy would inevitably result in “reducing the emphasis and force structure for amphibious forces and low-end, tailored mission presence ships, such as the [littoral combat ship].” This force structure/force laydown would provide tangible reassurance to allies and partners in the most-challenged regions and ensure U.S. naval dominance in areas where future threats to U.S. core interests as well as regional stability are judged most likely. The obvious downside of this scenario is that presence and engagement outside of the hubs would be substantially – and even dramatically – decreased, perhaps even to the point of foreclosing options to respond to crises in other regions. And clearly, by choosing to focus on high-end warfare and on two distinct regions, this Navy would be less capable of supporting today’s low-end operations.

In stark contrast to either the One-Hub or Two-Hub models, the Shaping Navy focuses on continuous engagement and interoperability with partners – a goal that is consistent with “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” and one well suited to an uncertain world of irregular threats and challenges, but no peer competitors. By design, this Navy maintains a strong amphibious force, leveraging these assets as afloat staging bases for a range of operations ashore and as large assets to carry personnel and bring training and expertise to many parts of the world, especially to perform the proactive humanitarian assistance efforts that undergird the Navy’s slogan: “A Global Force for Good.” This scenario envisions the largest ship numbers for the U.S. Navy but achieves these numbers by sacrificing high-end combat capability and capacity.

Rather than focusing on particular regions or choosing to be engaged in shaping activities worldwide, the Surge Navy is instead based on a powerful but smaller home fleet comprising high-end platforms such as carrier and expeditionary strike groups. Low-end forces available for engagement and security operations would be reduced, with resources instead devoted to training with naval forces of allies and partners. It would seek to maintain global influence through virtual presence – the ability of the Navy to quickly deploy a combat-credible force worldwide. This Surge Navy assumes that U.S. foreign policy shifts toward one that relies on deterrence rather than on engagement.

This article first appeared in Defense, Spring 2011 Edition.


Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...