Disrupt the Navy’s Operational Model to Counter China

fleet architecture & force generation

For this decade, the US Navy has to be ready to match any military challenge by the People’s Republic of China with the fleet we roughly have now. Any clear-eyed look at budgets, priorities, or plans makes that clear. If so, how do we best keep an aggressive China at risk with the forces we realistically have? What can we do to best deter war, and if that fails, transition to war best positioned to win? 

Today we turn over the conversation to Bryan Clark and Bryan McGrath. Gentlemen, over to you.


Naval leaders, civilian and military, face difficult choices when confronting the threat posed by China. The fleet must be kept in readiness for combat, it must be modernized and upgraded, and new ships and technologies must be planned, designed, and acquired. Each of these requirements is resourced in the budget, and the resulting balance among the near, mid, and long term objectives is the goal of every Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations. Unbalance the budget, and some part of the portfolio suffers. 

This balance became harder in recent months after outgoing Indo-Pacific Commander ADM Phil Davidson warned that China’s military could seek to forcibly unify Taiwan with the mainland within the next six years. Now known as the “Davidson Window,” the INDOPACOM assessment caused influential members of Congress to characterize the Navy’s recent budget submission as unresponsive to the growing near-term threat. Some argued the Navy should consider alternative fleet employment schemes to shore up its overseas presence. 

There is a growing concern among Congressmembers and analysts that the Navy’s force generation model, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (ORFP), is insufficient to meet the requirements of day-to-day competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. This is fair criticism, as to the extent that OFRP is “optimized”, it is focused on affordably producing full-up aircraft carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups on a regular, but infrequent, schedule. And while OFRP accomplishes what it is designed for, this predictable model of force generation eases China’s operational planning while reducing the Navy’s overseas posture. 

The Navy has been extracting more presence from OFRP during the last few years by deploying carriers and surface combatants multiple times during each 3-year cycle. OFRP was designed to provide this flexibility—but not for every cycle. Without more maintenance between deployments, the fleet incurs a readiness debt that needs to be repaid with longer overhauls down the road. The money to pay for a more operations and maintenance could come from the Navy’s procurement or research and development accounts, unbalancing the Navy’s approach in favor of more near-term investment. It appears this choice will be unnecessary, as the Senate Armed Services Committee recently proposed adding $8 billion to Navy accounts in the defense authorization bill.  

While we agree with the need for additional resources, continuing to wring a more robust posture from the OFRP is unsustainable, as evidenced by the Navy’s ongoing readiness shortfalls. The Navy should make a more fundamental change in the way the Pacific Fleet is employed and postured to achieve a more effective near-term conventional deterrent, while protecting investments in mid and long-range priorities. To that end, we recommend that the Pacific Fleet and the Navy Staff resurrect the 2017 CSBA Fleet Architecture Study “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy” and begin to implement its hybrid fleet employment scheme that features a “Deterrence Force” and a “Maneuver Force”.

The animating principle of the CSBA fleet architecture was to support a posture of conventional deterrence by denial, in which proximate naval forces could dissuade Chinese aggression by creating uncertainty regarding the likelihood of Chinese success. This emphasis on conventional deterrence by denial anticipated the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy of 2017 which made this approach a central tenet. 

To enable a posture that can create uncertainty for Chinese leaders, the CSBA architecture breaks deployed naval units into two separate forces, each relying on a different existing force generation model. The first is the Deterrence Force, in this instance comprised of most Pacific Fleet surface combatants and amphibious ships, as well as Guam-based submarines. The Deterrence Force would adopt the higher-tempo readiness cycle currently employed by Forward Deployed Naval Forces based in Guam, Japan, and Spain, consisting of about 4 months per year of maintenance and training and 8 months of operational time. 

Because they operate more frequently and are focused on the Indo-Pacific theater, Deterrence Force units would better understand the threats, opportunities, and geography of the region, improving their ability to cooperate with partners and allies in peacetime. When armed confrontations arise, everyday power projection needs would be provided by airpower resident in the Navy’s amphibious assault ships (LHD, LHA). Submarines and surface forces would operate independently or in task-oriented groups to support strike, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare.  

Deterrence Forces would not be tied to CVN readiness and maintenance cycles, nor would they be required to achieve the same level of integrated certification as Carrier Strike Groups. Freeing most surface combatants from the rigid timetables imposed by OFRP would create a larger force of available ships to be employed forward, resulting in a more powerful conventional deterrence posture.

What then, is to become of the large, nuclear powered aircraft carriers the Navy currently builds its force around?  They would be lynchpins of the Maneuver Force and would remain in something like an OFRP cycle due to the requirements of carrier maintenance. West Coast carriers and an appropriate number of surface combatants would be removed from the everyday business of forward deployed presence and deterrence to create a large formation of two CVNs plus their escorts operating across the Indo-Pacific. The Maneuver Force would perfect truly integrated multi-carrier operations and conduct large scale exercises with allied navies. Operating within 48 hours of aircraft launch points reaching the East and South China Seas, the Maneuver Force would focus on high-end military operations, including the peacetime demonstrations and battle problems needed to deter aggression and reassure allies. 

The fleet architecture in Restoring American Seapower and a subsequent 2020 Hudson Institute study suggested a force structure for the Navy aligned to its objectives. Both efforts clearly influenced the DoD’s 2020 Future Naval Force Study, and we believe much of their analysis remains valid. That said, the critical requirements of deterring Chinese aggression demand revised thinking about how the Navy’s existing force structure might be more effectively and efficiently employed, and we believe the new deployment schemes proposed by this architecture provide a reasonable and testable option. Such a revision would not be easy, and further analysis would be necessary to determine the benefits of the approach and the difficult challenges to implementing it.

Among these challenges would be the degree to which required maintenance could be accommodated by the Pacific shipyard repair base, as the reduced cycle applied to the Deterrence Force would likely create shorter, and more frequent, maintenance windows. Also, additional forces may need to be transferred from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet to comprise the Maneuver Force.  The blow here could be softened by working closely with our UK and French allies to coordinate carrier deployments and ensure coverage of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. Additional strain would be placed on the surface combatant training force, as it would have to accommodate the requirements of both Deterrence Force and Maneuver Force readiness.  

The development of the 2017 architecture was a six-month undertaking employing the talents of several dedicated thinkers and was briefed to the senior leadership of the Navy at the time to significant interest and praise. Current Pacific Fleet and Navy leadership should apply an analytical “Tiger Team” to an excursion from that plan using today’s fleet. We believe the opportunity exists to improve the combat power and flexibility of the force facing the Chinese daily, while husbanding and refining the war-fighting combat punch of the carrier force for high-end conflict. 

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and leads its Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of the FerryBridge Group LLC. No client views are represented here. 

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