Saturday, 2 June 2012

Repositioning the Legions - the USN in 2020

It has been announced by US Secretary of Defence, that by 2020 60% of the USN will be based in the Asia Pacific theatre. This is a significant shift in posture, and reflects the wider changes occurring to the US military as it orientates itself away from a global posture, and into a more Asian century.

Lets consider for a moment what this means – the reality is that by 2020, 60% of the USN, including ‘a majority of’ surface combatants, submarines, and no less than six carrier groups will be based in the Pacific fleet. This is a very substantial shift in resourcing, and reflects this authors long standing view that the US is experiencing its ‘East of Suez’ decade, where increasingly difficult choices have to be made about where resources are applied.
The new 'nation of concern' at sea. An increasingly common sight

In practical terms, as hull numbers drop ever more steadily, and replacements seem interminably delayed, the USN appears on track for an escort fleet of between 70-80 surface ships by 2020. This will be coupled with a currently 50 strong fleet of SSNs, likely to drop to nearer 35-40 boats. So, in practical terms the US Atlantic Fleet is looking like operating a force of roughly four CVNs, 30 escort vessels, and at best 20 SSNs. This is a very small fleet by comparison to barely 20 years ago, and vividly shows how much smaller the USN is today. The best comparison in terms of size is that the Atlantic Fleet in 2020 is going to be similar in size to the Royal Navy following the 1998 SDR (albeit with more CVN and SSN). This does not even begin to consider the impact of further possible budget cuts, which may well fall over the next few years.

The question is, what does this mean for the USN deployments? The force of 30 escorts is going to potentially have to cover the North & South Atlantic, Med and Caribbean. That’s assuming that Atlantic Fleet won’t provide escorts for the Gulf either.

Take away the escorts operating as part of a Carrier Battle Group (say three – five hulls), and you very quickly run out of small ships to deploy independently around much of the globe. The USN is going to become a much rarer beast in many ports in future. This will have the practical effect of diminishing US ‘soft power’ and influence, and also ensuring that access to training with the USN is more restricted. Much as the reduction in presence of the Royal Navy led to a general decline of the UK Governments ability to influence the development of foreign navies, it is likely that the USN will have a significantly reduced influence across much of the globe too.
The most powerful surface warship on Earth.

A reduced USN is going to struggle to operate and meet alliance commitments in the same way as before. A cursory search of the internet currently shows how the USN regularly operates in multi-national exercises in South America, training and capacity building in Africa, and also regularly works with NATO partners in Europe. Something is going to have to give soon.

Whither NATO?

A key issue is what impact will this have on the ability of the US to exert influence in, and control the development of NATO? As the US re-orientates itself to look East, NATO will almost certainly diminish as an essential Alliance to support. It is hard for NATO to convince the US to stay engaged, when in Europe, nations have been slashing defence expenditure and failing to take a more engaged stance. For too long NATO has been arguably seen by many European nations as a cosy means of letting the US pay their own Defence Mortgage. It is likely that a reduced commitment to NATO is going to come as an unpleasant shock to many NATO nations, although they can hardly argue that they weren’t warned.

Whether NATO survives is a moot point. There is no appetite for increased defence spending in Europe, and arguably the aspirations of the US, to a lesser extent the UK as expeditionary nations, capable of deploying power overseas, does not sit comfortably with some other NATO members. While there is much talk of ‘expeditionary operations’, the lessons of ISAF and other interventions have been that there is little real appetite for much military engagement beyond limited air strikes and the occasional peacekeeping deployment. It is ever harder to see NATO as a military alliance in a meaningful sense. Instead it seems to be a political grouping, which expects a smaller hard-core of states to carry out military operations. The further downsizing of the US military presence in the NATO area will only go further to increasing this sense of it being a primarily political beast.

One nation which may find it particularly interesting is Canada. The RCN will find itself on the Atlantic coast as proportionately a far more significant player than it has been for many years. It will be extremely interesting to see whether Ottawa sees this as an opportunity to invest in both littoral vessels to protect the North American continent, and escorts to contribute to operations. A small investment in the Atlantic elements of the Canadian Navy could see it increase in importance to Washington.

The RCN may find itself with a strategic realignment soon

Alternatively, this presents Canada with the opportunity to shift its resources to the Pacific. The RCN is in the position of being able to consider whether it wishes to assume a far more dominant role in the Atlantic, where a fleet nearly the same size as the RN is now could fill USN gaps. Alternatively this could be the chance for Canada to embrace its Pacific destiny, and instead focus defence resources on a far more Pacific orientated outlook, with the majority of RCN vessels based in the region to support the USN. Whatever decision is taken, this author believes the Canadian navy faces a genuinely exciting opportunity that may benefit it for years to come.

A less special relationship?

A key challenge for the UK will be managing the future RN / USN relationship. At present this is built around several core strands. Namely, the shared operation of similar SSBN capabilities, the SSN fleets, a shared naval aviation heritage and a background of joint participation in aggressive, war fighting operations.

By 2020 the RN will have hopefully completed its transformation into the so-called ‘Force 2020’ structure, originally outlined in the 2010 SDSR. The result will be a fleet once again operating fixed wing aviation, and which has a range of potent SSNs and a new generation of escort vessel (T26) entering service. The RN will be well placed to continue working with the USN, if the political willpower is there to see it through.

The reduction in US naval presence in the Western Hemisphere raises two equally intriguing prospects for the UK – it can either move to fill the gap, or it can use this as a once in a generation opportunity to realign its strategic interests. The forthcoming SDRs in both 2015 and 2020 will provide the UK with the opportunity to actively consider the level and depth of support to which it wishes to work with the USN.

On the one hand, a diminished USN could be the moment for the UK to step up and more actively seek to invest in maritime capabilities. An overt assumption of the role as the lead western naval power, with the UK seeking to act as peacekeeper, and de facto dominant naval power in Europe could be on the cards. Essentially the RN could, if HMG so wished, be employed as a force to fill the void left by the departing USN. This would help ensure the continuance of good relations with Washington, and revalidate the importance of London as a principal ally.

CVF will be of increased importance to the USN
In an operational environment where there are three, maybe four carriers assigned to the Atlantic fleet, the new RN CVFs will be seen as a very potent asset. The addition of two credible carriers would be a major source of comfort to Washington, in the same way that the presence of seven brand new and very good quality SSNs would. The UK will find that even its own diminished fleet will gain renewed importance in Washington if the will exists to step up and take regional leadership.

Alternatively, it could be that by 2020 the UK government may see an opportunity to reduce procurement costs, and reduce the need to buy high end ‘day one’ capabilities. The reduction in US presence in Europe could see London encouraging the development of a more potent European defence capability, and either reducing its own external presence (on the assumption that coalition operations remain less likely in the area of interest), or conducting operations through a more European focus.

Whatever course is taken, policy makers in London will need to consider carefully how best to work with a nation which no longer sees the same level of strategic interest in the region. The UK presence in South East Asia and the Pacific is minimal, and the funds, willpower and desire to meaningfully re-engage there do not, at present, seem to exist. Therefore the UK will need to set a course which engages the US in other areas – either taking on burdens for them, such as anti-piracy or counter narcotics, or seeking to place the RN in areas where joint operations are more likely.

There is a strong likelihood that with a diminished USN presence, the strong operational ties that link the two navies will diminish, and the RN will need to fight hard to justify its position as a partner of choice. Whereas previously the RN and USN senior leadership have practically grown up working together, the next generation of Admirals in the 2020-2030 timeframe will probably have had little, if any, meaningful professional contact prior to hitting senior ranks. Instead, nations like Australia, and potentially Canada will benefit to a far greater degree from these closer working links. The RN will need to think very carefully about its long term strategic links with the USN to ensure that meaningful relationships continue.


The announcement was hardly a surprise, the shift in US strategic interests to the Asia Pacific region has been going on for some years. But two things are very clear here:

Firstly, the US is going to see a significant drop in its ability to influence events in the Western Hemisphere. The presence of a USN warship will go from being routine, to something that is near generational in regularity. These changes will make it harder for the US to assume strategic leadership in some regions, and opens the door to other nations to build strategic partnerships and alliances.  

Secondly, the UK and Canada both find themselves facing strategic choices. For the UK it is the choice between adopting wider leadership and a possible ramping up of operations further east of Suez, or instead supporting European defence. It is hard to see how on existing budgets the UK will be able to both support US pacific aspirations and also support what is left of NATO. The Canadians face an opportunity to equally look at the orientation of their fleet, and decide between Atlantic importance, or Pacific influence.

Whatever happens, it is clear that a global rebalancing act is going on, and that the USN is never going to be the same again. It is tremendously exciting, but simultaneously terrifying to consider.


  1. ""For the UK it is the choice between adopting wider leadership and a possible ramping up of operations further east of Suez, or instead supporting European defence.""
    There is no problem about choice - there is no choice - we don't have a navy!
    The Daily Telegraph, Saturday June 2nd 2012. page 31.

  2. It still amazes me how many people have no idea what "limited expeditionary warfare" was supposed to be.

    Afghanisatan aint it, Afghanistan is nationbuilding.

    If you are still there after 6 months, its an invasion and occupation, not an expedition.

    I'm not sure I agree with you on "soft power" either.
    Frankly, I think its a bit of a myth.
    I get the theory, but, lets imagine two situations.

    In one, every other year, a T45, T23 and Astute deploy to the South Pacific and train with the Chilean Navy.

    In the other, the UK and Chile sign a mutual defence pact. In the event of an Argentine attack on Chile, the UK agrees to send a Naval Task Force
    ( Something like )

    And if Argentina attacks the UK, Chile agrees to open its airbases to the RAF, and mobilise for a push against Tiera del Fuego or through a couple of the passes.

    One gives real results, one just looks like it does.

    And thats the US strength.
    Who cares if the USN cant make port visits, it can, on three weeks, notice mass a fleet and annihilate any conceivable enemy naval coalition.

    I know which of the above would be the most valuable to the defence of "TheRagingToryia"

  3. "... could be the moment for the UK to step up and more actively seek to invest in maritime capabilities. An overt assumption of the role as the lead western naval power, with the UK seeking to act as peacekeeper, and de facto dominant naval power in Europe could be on the cards."

    Can I have some of what you are smoking please?

    HMG increase investment in the RN? Just not going to happen, in fact I'd bet the RN is cut again in the 2015 defence review. As for being the dominant naval power in Europe, if you leave out the Russians, that doesn't take much. With the exception of the French no European Country has a blue water navy.

    1. Hurst - My instinct is that the RN will remain at roughly its current size in 2015, as the procurement budget is now balanced. Assuming that the wider budget remains stable, and no strategic shocks occur, then there is no reason not to see a maintenance of the RN in its current size.
      A lot depends on how people see the future - the desire to see prolonged ground engagement is definitely reducing, and the RN offers a nice means of influence without entanglement. If there was a good set of staff officers in the Centre, then a slightly enhanced navy could be on the cards in 2015-2020, particularly if the case can be made for primarily Naval and not army centric investment.
      As for the bluewater tag. The RN can deploy globally on multiple operations across a range of capabilities, at a time and place of its chosing and sustain them for a prolonged period. That is a bluewater navy in my book. The MN can do it to a point, and the RN capability will be enhanced again in 2017.

    2. Alas, Sir Humphrey, the "wider budget" will not remain stable and in 2015 it is likely that the public finances will be in an even bigger mess than they are now. So HMG will have to decide if it wants to maintain defence spending and cut back elsewhere. Additionally, the 2015 defence review will probably be conducted under a Labour government and, quite possibly, the most left-wing one yet. Defence will be cut again and the RN will take more than its fair share, again.

    3. HurstLlama is probably right. The Type 23s are unlikely to be replaced on a 1:1 basis and the escort fleet will therefore fall further to ~16 ships. The replacement for the MCMVs, OPVs and hydrographic vessels may well be delayed and it is also unlikely that there will be any money for the replacement of HMS Ocean or RFA Argus. Sorry to be a pessimist, but I think that things are going to get worse rather than better. There is thus little prospect of the RN being able to fill the void left by the USN.

    4. Unless of course, when it becomes clear how deeply the army ****ed up in Iraq and Afghanistan, they lose their funding priority.

      Even at only 2% of GDP, we could still have a ferocious naval capability.
      That would be roughly 40% of the USN budget.

      They manage to operate quite a bit, a third of that would make us the second most capable navy by a long long way.

  4. ""The RN can deploy globally on multiple operations across a range of capabilities, at a time and place of its chosing and sustain them for a prolonged period.""

    If this is true why didn't they have a presence on the parade today?

    I just don't believe the propaganda any more.

    1. Ianeon - I'm sorry, but your comment is utter rubbish.
      The RN was heavily involved in the pageant today, providing the escort to the Spirit of Chartwell, in the form of 6 RIBS (some of which contained RAN, RCN and RNZN personnel too). It also provided a Royal Guard, and HMS HURWORTH and had the weather not defeated us, then a flypast as well.
      The reason no larger grey hulls were involved was simple. Firstly, this was a private and not a state event, so the berths that could take an RN warship of Frigate size were taken several years ago. There was nowhere the RN could have gone except the Royal Docks in Excel, which would have been pointless.
      Secondly, the size of RN vessels means anything T45 or above can't get up beyond Greenwich, as no berths exist that can handle them. A T23 could have got alongside Belfast, but the impact on the river traffic would have had major consequences, as it is narrow there and would be akin to taking the M25 from 5 lanes - 1 lane at rush hour. So rafting up alongside was a non starter.
      The result was that HMS HURTWORTH occupied a prime location buoy, which couldnt have taken a larger vessel, and did the RN proud.
      Its not always about the RN failing to deliver, despite the best efforts of some to do the RN down.

    2. Certainly from what I saw today the Grey Funnel Line was very much in attendance. Not only were the 6 RIBS and HMS Hurworth there but the escort also included two P2000s. I also spotted a lot of RN personnel on other boats. As Sir H notes we would also have had an RN flypast had the weather not been so poor.

      The fact that just about every shot of Spirit of Chartwell once she had berthed had HMS President in the background should also be remembered. The barge itself also had RN personnel on it.

      A lot of people watching the event both there and on TV would have seen the presence of the RN.

    3. About a quarter of the Royal Navy were present then.


  5. I believe - although I am open to contradiction on this - that once it was discovered that the Royal navy couldn't put on a "good show" for this event, the powers that be decided to make the whole thing a civilian affair.

    I also believe that it was Lord West who said "Take away escorts on operations or in refit and the Navy would struggle to field more than a handful for a review."

    Sir Sandy Woodward is quoted as saying "A diamond jubilee review should be a grand thing. I don't think it is particularly likely that we could muster another fleet review."

    My mother used to say: "There are none so blind as those who won't see."
    Why won't our leaders see ?

    1. Ianeon - I'm afraid that you have been completely mislead on this one. Sounds like scuttlebut rather than any meaningful plan. In fact there was never, as far as I am aware, any plan to do a fleet review.

    2. The RN is much to busy with ongoing operations to send ships to a review, which, while it would be nice, is not all that important compared to our international comittmments. If it had been held in similar weather to Sunday then few people would have actually seen it.
      As has been said elswhere this was also technically a private event and not a State Affair.

  6. I can see the armed forces of Europe, the defence industry and assorted hangers on salivating at the thought of a disengagement from the US because they assume that Europe will have to increase defence spending to compensate.

    But this assumes that we actualy need to replace the USN on a like for like basis. NATO was the worlds most successful defence alliance that gauranteed the safety of millions but there exists no realistic threat to the European nations of NATO so can you blame them for reducing defence spending since the end of the Cold War, seems like prudence to me.

    Would a more defensive and localised European defence forces be such a bad thing, one might argue that recent expeditionary operations have been of little strategic value so if a reduced spend means a change in strategy, again, is this such a bad thing.

  7. "but simultaneously terrifying to consider."

    I dont think 'terrifying' is a good word to use, it certainly wont mean the UK is suddenly exposed to all and sundry.

    Europe will still play host to US Forces, but in smaller numbers... the UK still has 2 USAFE bases, they'll still have a Medd Fleet, and our expeditionary capability along with niche air force, army and navy assets means we'll still have a role to play.
    As was once quipped by Humphrey in another post, in the east Austrailia will find itself as cosey as the UK in the 'west' is.

    Obviously, if Europe actually banded together to take up the 'slack', we'd provide a formidable force. But one that doesnt need to head off to fight a Dragon, seriously; what is it with peoples obsession with us teaming up if the brown stuff hit the fan over there? Other than offering support to Austrailia and N.Z (ANZAC) forces, there are pleanty of high end partners the US can choose from, namely Singapore. But its our niche skills and assets they'll still hotly want.

  8. This article makes 2 major mistakes. Firstly it overstates the decline in the USN, which was largely protected in recent US defence cuts, keeping all 11 CVBGs, for example. By my reconing, USN will still have almost 90 high end DDG/CG by 2020 (Burkes/Ticos/Zumwalts) and 50 or so SSN and a similar number of LCS. Secondly, I seriously doubt anyone in DC would take comfort in an RN POW will a dozen F35B and no AEW replacing a USN CVN.

    Other points - by increasing forward basing (LCS in Singapore and Bahrain, Burkes in Cadiz), USN can keep its global presence at similar levels with slightly fewer ships. USN's biggest partner in the Western Pacific is Japan, not Australia. South Korea also of course very important. Neither mentioned in this article. Finally, the UK is unlikely to be taken seriously as a major maritime power by anyone whilst in lacks a high end LRMPA.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      In terms of CVNs, the USN drops to 10 CVNs very soon when Enterprise goes, and I genuinely doubt that we will see 11 again. Budget cuts means it is unlikely to see the force grow.
      My figures on the force levels are drawn on the projected decomissioning dates due over the next few years. At present, the USN is running 62 Arleigh Burkes, 22 CG47s and about 18 very old FFG7s.
      The proposed decomissioning plans seem to have four CGs going within the next couple of years. Additionally, it is highly likely that the USN will lose further FFG7s in preference to higher end escorts - they have no missile system now, and are essentially very old cold war era gun frigates, that are considered in poor materiel condition.
      The CG47s drop to 18 very soon, and they will also drop further over the next couple of years -the hulls are ageing rapidly and the replacement is ever further delayed.
      I'm afraid there is no chance at all of LCS being deployed in a 50 strong group by 2020, the build programme is still delayed, and I can only see this slipping further with budgetary pressures. At best we may see a small number slowly entering service.
      The big challenge facing the USN is the growing age of the CG47 fleet, the fact that the early Block 1 Burkes are approaching their 25th birthday, and that the LCS and Zumwalt classes seeem to be taking ever longer to deliver. Add this to the reality that at least a further $500Bn worth of cuts seems likely over the next few years, and you realise that there is a major crisis in US shipbuilding approaching. too many ships, too little money and too many deployments will make it very difficult for the USN in about 15 years time.
      The point of the article was not that CVF offers a credible alternative to CVN, but that the presence of two decent sized decks, capable of running a USMC detachment, or an enhanced RN detachment may be seen as a useful thing. Just because a CVF isnt a CVN doesnt mean that it won't have a similar political impact if deployed.
      While forward deployment exists, it is hard to see Congress voting to retain overseas naval bases while simaltaneously voting for defence cuts in their own districts. My view is that the overseas naval stations will go, not because the USN wants to lose them, but because domestic political pressures means they have no choice in this.
      While Japan and Korea are both hugely potent navies, they remain fundamentally coastal forces in political nature - good ships, good crews, but the will to use them in a wider manner is still not fully there. The signs of a growing capability are there, as is the intent of Korea to take on a more prominent role, but it will probably take some time to achieve this.
      As for LRMPA, I agree its loss is annoying, but equally the RN continues to operate a very broad spectrum of capabilities, second only to the USN in terms of reach, potential and capability.

    2. "second only to the USN in terms of reach, potential and capability."

      The RN has some really good kit and really good crews, it also has a tradition of "working away from home" and senior officers who are comfortable with that. However it has two massive weaknesses. It is too small and it has no air arm.

      Leave aside the submarine service, what we have in the RN, in war-fighting terms, is a coastal defence force with the ability to take on a third rate Navy, or to play in the bigs by contributing ships to USN or a French (or, possibly, Spanish) task force.

      Furthermore, I would suggest that the RN is now so small and so overstretched that a power such as Iran could, with a little imagination and training, bring UK trade to its knees.

      So being second to the USN in the Atlantic is nice, but don't mean much.

    3. Unfortunately, you are right. The loss of critical mass over the last two decades is a real game changer. We have to a large extent traded numbers for a very limited carrier strike capability and would struggle to conduct any sustained unilateral action against determined opposition.

    4. Hurst - I think its fair to say that I utterly disagree with you on almost all your points. You seem to focus on doing down the RN, while ignoring the massive problems affecting both French and Spanish fleets, and also the challenges affecting the USN.
      I will make a point of doing an article on the RN soon (once time permits) and try to explain that while things are challenging, they certainly are not anywhere near as bad as they seem.

  9. One potential alignment of interest which could well effect any 'european re-balance', would be a strategic link-up between China and Russia.

  10. Annon,

    This is slowly happening, in trade and energy deals...a few years ago the first major exercise between the two militaries occured.
    However, if you look at the positioning of the new military assets Russia has brought, most of the capable ones are in the far East, russia has several defence agreements with Kazakstan and Mongolia and the other boarder nations to use their airspace and certain bases, so there is still misstrust between the two.

  11. the shift east is clear, yet one wonders whether indian ocean is being overlooked. any thoughts, sir humphrey, on the special relationship and Diego Garcia?

  12. Red Rover - I think the role of DG will be clarified when the US renews the lease - most likely within the next 2-3 years. The useage of the island facilities under the new lease will give a better idea of how the US sees the importance of the Indian Ocean as a strategic location.
    Currently the facilities there are fairly substantial (I went there some years ago and was amazed at how much exists), but its not yet clear whether the US will draw down, or retain its extant levels of support.
    The Special Relationship will survive, if only because it is founded on wider principles than just land access on DG. It will evolve to meet the changing strategic priorities - as the US becomes a one ocean power, it will inevitably see a change to the way it deals with the UK and other powers too...

  13. "... as the US becomes a one ocean power ..."

    When has the US said that is going to happen? The balance of their fleet will move to the Pacific, but the residual left in the Atlantic will still be larger than any other power and much bigger than the only feasible enemy.

    As an aside, can I say that I am looking forward to your article on the RN. Hopefully you'll find time to write it soon. I'd also be very interested if you could find time to expand your views on the future of NATO.

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