Navigating Great Power Competition – A Serious Start to Planning

The US economy is highly dependent on the global flow of goods – consumption, trade, energy – across the ocean. This fact has been highlighted by supply chain disruptions – in the Suez Canal and the Long Beach Harbor and their inflationary effects. It is true that there are vital industries like finance and software that depend on the flow of data, not commodities. However, more 90% of all data in the world travels through undersea cables that line the ocean floor. There is no part of our prosperity that would not be negatively affected if maritime trade were impeded or slowed down.

Securing this commercial flow has long been a core mission of the US Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has implemented this mission largely alone, the only nation with a truly global navy. This crucial function adds weight to American influence in the workings of globalization, which ripples through to American profit – literally as well as diplomatically.


Join the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLAN). Evolving from a semi-partner to the United States in securing trade against piracy in the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca, as well as a regional claimant; then, a complicating regional player; so far a regional power with an increasingly assertive policy and a global claimant for growing capabilities.

The PLAN is at the forefront of Chinese militarization and fueling the development of cutting-edge technologies – like space communications – necessary for a high seas navy. For good reason: the basic geopolitical fact of our times is that the two countries the world’s most powerful are separated by thousands of miles of ocean – ocean waters that both sides want to dominate and secure, for commercial and strategic purposes. The primary function of Chinese military modernization, as wisely assessed in a new U.S. Navy planning publication, is “…to reshape the security environment to its advantage by denying the U.S. military the access to the Western Pacific and beyond”. The cost, if they succeed, will be a severe decline in American commercial and diplomatic power, and an equal loss of freedom to maneuver in strategic terms.

The Sailing plan 2022 (NavPlan) presents nothing less than an ambitious plan to preserve American maritime dominance. Other US armed forces, including the Marines – have already defined some of their own transformations required for deterrence and warfare against powerful competitors. The Air Force and Army are slow to present a credible vision of their role in the current threat environment. This document, coming from the navy, is crucial, as many of the key tasks ahead are naval functions only.

The NavPlan defines the two essential missions: to field the capability and readiness for war in nameless but obvious seas to deter China (as well as Russia); and global maritime dominance—both to keep sea lanes open to commerce and to give the U.S. military flexibility unavailable to its competitors. This will require that the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) describe as a “combat-credible United States Navy—forward deployed and integrated with all elements of national power…”. This would allow the Navy to be constantly positioned in theater in the event of a conflict. In an ongoing debate over the value of forward presence, the NOC makes a compelling case for believable in combat forward deployment — not just attendance for attendance’s sake.

It’s going to take a bigger fleet. The United States faces the growing challenge of PLAN assertion in the Western Pacific, possible second-stage Russian aggression in regions bordering the Baltic Sea or Arctic Ocean, and the ongoing challenge of securing globalization. To deal with all of this, simply put, requires a larger navy than the United States currently maintains. The NOC document lays out the design imperatives for such a fleet, stating six necessary elements: extending the distance from which long-range precision fire can be launched, improved deception, strengthened defenses, increased distribution, reliable delivery and improved decision-making advantage (involving naval information warfare). And, mindful of cost imperatives, argues that this can best be achieved in the context of a hybrid fleet, combining manned, possibly manned and unmanned vessels – 500 of them, according to the CNO’s design; 350 employees and 150 non-employees. The document goes on to articulate a specific force design to achieve the objectives. One can quibble about specific numbers for any particular class of ship or boat, but the overall picture of a force more dependent on submarines, smaller ships and hybrid platforms is compelling.


A more difficult question is whether it is affordable. According to the CNO’s estimate, this fleet architecture will require spending 3-5% above inflation in the coming years. Other estimates say it will take more than that and abandon the long-standing norm of a three-way budget split among major departments. After 20 years of land wars, the US Navy is undersized and underequipped, and the United States cannot fix this without shifting spending priority to Navy programs. It remains to be seen whether this document is enough to convince Congress of this imperative. But if building up an adequate force to deter the PLAN isn’t the central goal of current military spending, what is? In more than $773 billion annual defense budgetwhat are the priority tasks?

Of course, the United States could cut costs by choosing to focus its navy tightly on a single mission, putting all its eggs in the basket of deterrence in the Western Pacific. This, however, would leave US and allied interests in Europe dangerously unguarded, and leave a major gap in global trade protection. The United States has recently suffered the high costs of even minor interruptions to maritime flows of goods and energy; we are not prepared for bigger, wider and longer interruptions. If America wants to deter China and keep the global economy moving, it needs a bigger navy. It’s that simple.

Another question, however, is: how fast? In an otherwise compelling document, there is a shocking note, on the issue of when. This comes in the title which marks the transition from strategy to planning. Prior to this title, the document repeatedly – ​​and convincingly – refers to “that critical decade” in the race to redesign abilities. But the section on force design and architecture is headlined by an effort to imagine the fleet as 2045. Over twenty years – more than double the time it took to fight the Spanish Civil War and World War II combined. The United States doesn’t have that kind of weather.

Of course, Navy leaders are aware of this; hence the tighter chronology in the rest of the text. Presumably, the date 2045 is used as a tool to stimulate the imagination, to pull people out of current thinking. Everything is fine. But so does the sense of urgency. Perhaps better articulated in a recent speech by Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Lorin Selby – whose bugle appeals to the urgent imagination should be required to listen to all Navy leaders.

So will congressional leaders, especially those in a position to authorize increased and more predictable funding for an expanded shipbuilding program. The NOC document emphasizes the importance of the shipbuilding, maintenance and logistics components of commissioning a larger navy, but perhaps not quite with the emphasis it deserves. Right now, even the immense largesse of Congress couldn’t produce the navy the United States needs—there simply isn’t adequate shipbuilding capability in the country.

Of course, part of the question of size and timing depends on the capability that US allies and partners can exert. The NavPlan 2022 correctly states that their capability will be critical to achieving the stated missions. But he is rather silent on how to encourage the right set of investments by these countries. Our closest allies in Europe are grappling with a ground war and the major economic/energy costs associated with this crisis, and our Asian allies are far behind in terms of net capability. This is perhaps a question best posed to the authors of the National Defense Strategy — but here, at least in public version, the reference is simply to planning around allied capabilities, not to inducing change. It won’t get us where we need to be. Part of the answer may lie in pushing the global trade protection mission further towards allies; after all, their interest in securing globalization is even greater than ours. This could free up the deterrent capability of the United States.

These criticisms aside, this is arguably the best planning document of any department in recent years. The other services should be inspired by it, as well as the agencies also essential to “integrated deterrence”, including the State and the Treasury. If they did, and if the Department of Defense budgeted and Congress funded those plans, America would be well on the way to real ability to compete with other rival powers.

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