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US Navy steams to the forefront of future US defense strategy

29 January 2018 Jane's Editorial Staff

By Michael Fabey, Americas Naval Reporter, Jane’s by IHS Markit

While the US Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) is meant to define the nation’s guidance for the military overall, it appears that the US Navy (USN) is increasingly likely to be front and center regarding its implementation.

Sidelined through much of the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the USN has seen a resurgence in recent years with the US rebalance to the Asia Pacific and a rise in naval military action elsewhere in the world.

That resurgence will now likely continue, with the NDS shifting even further away from a focus on counter-terrorism back towards traditional state powers.

Global power struggles to lead naval strategy

“Great power competition – not terrorism – is now the primary focus of US national security,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on 19 January with the release of the NDS. He cited as “growing threats” China and Russia: two countries that have ramped up naval operations and squared off against US naval forces in recent years.

USN patrol aircraft and ships have had confrontations in the skies and on the seas with their Chinese counterparts in the Western Pacific and with Russian aircraft in places like the Black Sea.

Over the long term, the NDS summary said, the best way to thwart such ambitions is to develop a strong military relationship between the United States and China that will lead to “transparency and non-aggression”.

The US service in the forefront of such a relationship has been the USN, which has worked with Chinese naval forces in joint exercises and drills and arranged port calls in both countries for the two navies’ warships. The two navies have also participated in multinational search-and-rescue missions and humanitarian aid operations.

Naval strategy to focus on increasing lethality

While the NDS supports relationship building, it also calls for the development of a more lethal force. As Mattis said, “Everything we do must contribute to the lethality of our military.”

Such thinking echoes the “distributed lethality” concept the USN has been developing for its surface-ship fleet; the service wants to arm as many ships as it can with missiles that have greater range and destructive force than the weaponry currently available on those ships. Even amphibious ships traditionally used for US Marine Corps (USMC) transportation are being eyed for offensive missile loads.

Meanwhile, the NDS’ call to modernize US nuclear forces is very much a USN priority with the development of the Columbia class of ballistic missile submarines to replace the existing Ohio-class boats, while the investment focus on “layered missile defenses and disruptive capabilities for both theater missile threats and North Korean ballistic missile threats” more than touches upon the USN’s Aegis combat system upgrades and interceptor improvements for US ballistic missile defense.

In the wake of recent collisions and mishaps at sea, USN reports have shown that a lack of proper maintenance and a high, prolonged operational tempo that keeps ships out at sea longer than they should be has contributed to an atmosphere ripe for such incidents. Also, the USN and USMC have noted the need to ground aircraft due to the lack of parts, maintenance, and funding.

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