The Biden administration is embarked on yet another exercise to determine how big and how capable the U.S. naval fleet needs to be.
Whatever conclusions the defense secretary’s Global Force Posture Review arrives at, it’s a safe bet that the Biden posture won’t be as ambitious as the 500+ warships in 2045 embraced by the Trump administration last year.
It is also a safe bet that the Biden number will require a higher rate of ship construction than that proposed in the Navy’s fiscal 2022 budget request—eight ships, only four of which are combat vessels.
At that level of effort, the U.S. Navy would never grow beyond its current count of 296 warships.
Rather than talking endlessly about what the numbers should be at some point in the distant future, it would make more sense for policymakers to focus on what metric should drive force-sizing decisions.
The most fundamental question is simply this: should the fleet be sized to deter conflicts, or should it be sized to fight and win them?
This is often described in the professional literature as a choice between presence and warfighting.
Presence means being there, in hot zones before wars break out.
As Naval War College authority James Holmes recently observed in the outlet 1945, “If you want to control something you have to be there to control it. Showing up intermittently and going away will not cut it if your opponent is there, in force, all the time, to impose its will.”
Warfighting, on the other hand, means being able to respond effectively to a remote crisis by defeating the aggressor.
The posture of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific illustrates the difference.
If war broke out, say, on the Korean Peninsula, the Seventh Fleet assisted by the Third Fleet would be able to deploy sufficient forces within weeks to support the rest of the joint force in defeating North Korean invaders.
It might take some time, but the U.S. naval contribution would be adequate.
However, there would be losses—potentially massive, horrendous losses for America’s South Korean ally.
It would be far better to convince Pyongyang in advance of any aggression that its chances of prevailing are very low.
That presumably would prevent the conflict from occurring, sparing South Korea from massive carnage.
But here’s the rub: it isn’t enough to be continuously present in one place in order to deter conflict.
You need to be in several places, such as the North Atlantic and the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea so that all potential aggressors are deterred.
This implies that if the goal is to prevent war, the Navy will need to be bigger than if the goal is simply to fight and win.
Having eight deployable aircraft carriers should be more than sufficient to fight and win a major regional conflict, given all the other naval and joint assets available.
But eight carriers won’t cut it if the goal is to prevent conflict by being present in all theaters where major conflict is plausible.
That requires eleven or twelve carriers, because only about a third can be forward deployed at any given time, and there are at least four potential theaters of operation where continuous presence is needed to keep the peace.
Obviously, planners can play around with these numbers by occasionally substituting other warships such as amphibious assault vessels for nuclear-powered, large-deck carriers in regions that seem to be at peace.
But there has to be a sizable, visible presence anywhere that major aggression is possible, otherwise the requirements of the presence concept are not met.
Successive administrations have been oscillating between the requirements of presence and warfighting since the Cold War ended, with Republican presidents usually leaning toward presence (“peace through strength”) and Democratic presidents looking for some less demanding metric.
The goal in the latter case is to save money by providing the rationale for a smaller Navy, but this arguably is short-sighted, because if all you have is a warfighting force rather than a deterrent posture, you are probably more likely to end up using that warfighting force.
Once you’re in a war, the potential costs far outstrip whatever savings policymakers thought they might realize in peacetime by not embracing the presence mission as their main force-sizing metric.
This same logic applies to all of the military services, but in the current moment when a rising China drives U.S. military strategy, the naval aspects of the presence versus warfighting debate are of greatest urgency.
If the Pacific Fleet cannot sustain sufficient forward-deployed forces to deter Beijing from regional aggression, the consequences for America and its allies could be quite imposing.
After all, China is a nuclear power; it has options in wartime that countries like Iran lack.
So, it has to be a matter of concern that the head of the Indo-Pacific Command warned Congress earlier this year conventional deterrence is eroding in the Western Pacific.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative advanced last year by leading Senators is a constructive effort to bolster U.S. credibility in the region, but the most basic need is for a bigger U.S. naval presence.
As of today, China has 360 warships to shape events in nearby seas, and America has fewer than 300 to shape events around the world.
Without a larger fleet, deterrence of armed conflict in all the areas where it is likely to occur is not feasible, and Washington may soon find itself fighting another war—maybe against a nuclear-armed adversary.