Building a More Resilient Navy
The value of variety in Navy production.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago gave a much-needed boost to American defense manufacturing. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, American factories are churning out large quantities of weapons and ammunition fit for combat against a major army. The United States may have been right to enjoy its “peace dividend” in the 1990s, but Vladimir Putin’s ruthlessness has brought the old problem of great power competition back into Americans’ minds, jolting them into arming a partner under siege—at least until very recently.
When it comes to the U.S. military itself, however, preparation for conflict with a major power remains a work in progress. Take the U.S. Navy: it’s busy right now confronting Iranian proxies in the Middle East—shooting down Houthi missiles and drones in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, striking their bases and launch sites, and deterring escalation from Hezbollah. In the Pacific, it keeps a close eye on China, preparing to defend Taiwan against the Chinese military. The Navy also conducts exercises with NATO allies to deter further aggression by Putin. All these commitments stretch the Navy thin, raising the question of how many commitments it can afford to keep at once.
This stretch is made more challenging by weaknesses on the home front. The Navy has only four publicly owned shipyards (down from eight just after the Cold War), a shortfall that delays repairs of and maintenance on vessels and equipment. America’s shipbuilding industry struggles with a shortage of skilled workers. Meanwhile, the military as a whole has a severe recruiting problem—less than a quarter of Americans aged 17-24 are fit to serve, largely due to obesity, drug and alcohol use, and other physical and mental health challenges. Focusing in on one vital specialty, the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps all face a shortage of pilots.
The pilot shortage is one of several reasons to be concerned about the military’s massive expenditure on its newest manned fighter aircraft, the F-35. This plane’s repeatedly escalating costs are the stuff of legend. But that’s no longer its main challenge: last September, the Government Accountability Office reported that only 55 percent of F-35s were mission-capable (able to perform at least one of their dedicated missions) at any given time—far below the military’s requirement of 85 percent. For a program whose total cost is $1.7 trillion, this is hardly an encouraging sign.
This does not mean the F-35 is useless. But it does suggest the U.S. Navy should explore ways to reduce its reliance on expensive fighters— and on the large, pricey carriers that transport a good deal of them around the world. At a time when budgets and especially shipyard space are constrained, the more the Navy can perform its missions with smaller, less costly, easier-to-repair ships and aircraft, the better.
The thought of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan evokes images of massive, World War II-style battles, the U.S. Navy duking it out with the Chinese navy on the high seas as it did with Japanese fleets at Midway and Leyte Gulf. Ships fire missiles, fighters dogfight, submarines prowl. It puts Americans in mind of their greatest triumph against tyrannical powers, giving them hope they can win another such war.
But this is not the only way a Chinese attempt to conquer Taiwan could play out. Conventional war is not always the best choice for an aggressor state. Case in point: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He relied on tanks, paratroopers, fighter planes, and other conventional weapons to win a blitzkrieg-like invasion and has been stymied for nearly two years. Chinese admirals and generals may well look at the travails of Russian forces and say, “Let’s not do that.”
Suppose, instead, China blockades Taiwan and its ships and aircraft to prevent anyone and anything from leaving or entering the island. What then? Does the U.S. lead an attempt to break the blockade, despite its own forces not being fired upon?
Or suppose China opts for “gray zone” tactics. Suppose it gradually chips away at Taiwan’s territorial integrity, like Putin did in Ukraine for eight years—conquering Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces—before launching a full-scale war. Look at the way China has built up and militarized islands in the South China Sea. If it does the same in Taiwan’s territorial waters, are the U.S. and its allies prepared to resort to outright war to stop it?
The point is not that the United States should completely disregard the possibility of a conventional war with China, or other countries for that matter. But unless the U.S. is prepared for a variety of scenarios, America’s huge investment in the F-35 and large aircraft carriers may well be for naught. It makes sense for America to diversify its stockpiles and prepare for a wide range of situations.
Here are some other items the Navy could invest in. They offer the promise of carrying out the Navy’s missions with fewer personnel and lower costs—not by pushing aside conventional options, but by complementing them. This is not an exhaustive list, but it stresses the need for America to have many tools at its disposal.
Uncrewed surface ships and submarines: While the Navy has been hampered by the shortage of shipyards and workers stateside, in the Persian Gulf it recently carried out an experiment in a new kind of maritime power. Task Force 59, based in Bahrain, tested the use of small, unmanned ships in missions like tracking and intercepting Iranian threats. They partnered with small, entrepreneurial companies to develop the vessels, rather than going through the cumbersome process of working with a large traditional defense contractor. Eventually, these ships were dispatched to help oil tankers traverse the treacherous Strait of Hormuz.
Task Force 59’s work gives a glimpse of how the U.S. can deter Iran without relying too heavily on large, conventional ships that may be better suited for other tasks. Destroyers have notable vulnerabilities. In 2017, for instance, two collisions involving Navy destroyers occurred in the Pacific, with 17 sailors killed. Reducing dependence on these workhorses somewhat can reduce the risks posed to them by overuse.
The Navy is already testing small prototype drones for use in the Pacific, and it is also developing designs for large and medium-sized unmanned ships. It’s also undoubtedly watching Ukraine’s use of kamikaze naval drones closely as well. These projects are worth devoting resources to in order to get them right.
Uncrewed aircraft: The F-35B variant used by the Marine Corps costs $109 million per plane, while the Navy’s F-35C, made for taking off and landing on big aircraft carriers, costs $102 million. By comparison, the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper drone, which has conducted many deadly strikes in America’s fight against Islamist terrorism, costs only $32 million each. These drones don’t offer the same capabilities as piloted aircraft like the F-35 or the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but they do offer a potentially cost-effective alternative when high-end capabilities aren’t needed.
The U.S. has been flying drones from its carriers since 2013, though these planes are often used for tasks like reconnaissance and aerial refueling. Indeed, the Navy plans to buy several dozen MQ-25 Stingray drones for just those tasks. Last September, however, a Mojave drone—capable of carrying up to 16 Hellfire missiles—landed on the British carrier HMS Prince of Wales. This is a sign that, even with a shortage of pilots for its conventional fighter planes, the U.S. and its allies can project deadly airborne power at sea.
Medium landing ships: In 2020, General David Berger, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, unveiled a radical plan to overhaul his service. Dubbed Force Design 2030, it called for shifting the Marines away from the kind of extended inland deployments they had undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward the service’s traditional mission of operating in littoral areas. It called for the creation of Marine Littoral Regiments (MLRs)—new units better suited for quickly deploying to and moving around the islands of the Indo-Pacific—a process that is now underway.
Part of this redesign is the landing ship medium, or LSM. Designed to carry Marines through shallow waters and island chains, it is a key component of Berger’s vision of a modernized Corps. Even if MLRs do not directly face off against Chinese troops, they can help America’s allies and partners confront wide-ranging challenges, from Chinese gray zone tactics to terrorism and piracy. Policymakers should make sure the Marines get the LSM.
Lightning Carriers: To take advantage of the F-35’s high-end capabilities without breaking the bank, it is worth exploring the concept of the “Lightning Carrier.” In 2019, the Navy tested an amphibious assault ship with 13 F-35s, and a 2022 follow-up test placed 20 on a ship. Although these vessels are mainly used to transport Marines and their equipment, with their flat tops and their aircraft hangers they are essentially small aircraft carriers. Indeed, some more recent versions of these ships like the USS America and USS Tripoli were effectively built as such.
If the Navy further develops the Lightning Carrier concept and concludes that it will help the U.S. make effective use of the F-35, it should consider regularly using its amphibious assault ships as carriers—and building more of them dedicated to this function. That would allow the Marine Corps to continue transitioning to its littoral-focused role, making it less dependent on large vessels to transport its troops. That doesn’t mean the Navy should eliminate its huge, expensive supercarriers (the newest one, USS Gerald R. Ford, cost over $13 billion). But Lightning Carriers may also help the Navy keep ships and fighter squadrons deployed with fewer of these goliaths, freeing up room and resources for shipbuilding and maintenance down the line.
Maritime power is key to U.S. national security. With two decades of ground wars in the greater Middle East receding from the collective memory, it’s at sea that America will face many—if not most—of its security challenges. China, Russia, Iran, and other actors like Yemen’s Houthis all present threats to American interests. To be prepared to confront them, the U.S. should not put all its eggs into its familiar naval baskets. Variety will help produce the flexible Navy America needs.