August 17, 2020

Navy Force Structure in the Next National Defense Strategy

The Bottom Line

  • The world is at a critical inflection point driven by two major forces:
    • A geostrategic shift is taking place, from the United States as a sole superpower to a multi-polar world with great power rivals.
    • The information revolution, with increasingly powerful processors and software, is changing the speed and methods for getting things done.
  • The United States is a global maritime nation, which means that its security and prosperity are intrinsically linked to control of the seas. As has been the case throughout U.S. history as a world power, the nation will need a global Navy that supports its National Defense Strategy (NDS).
    • This includes a Navy that can support not only the military element of national power, but also its economic and diplomatic elements.
  • The analysis of Navy force structure that will support the national strategy must reconcile the demands of missions that the Navy must accomplish with the elements of naval power required to carry out those missions.
    • The current U.S. system for developing naval forces has not yet adapted to global changes that are defining the nation’s present and future fate. Several big obstacles stand in the way of reform; most fundamentally, there is neither an appreciation for what is at stake nor the sense of exigency that is required to successfully compete.
    • This lethargy is a strategic Achilles heel that must be urgently addressed.


The discussion of Navy force structure is both timely and urgent. It will be a critical issue facing the drafters of the next NDS, as they work through the force planning implications of their strategic choices. The world is at a dual inflection point. From a geostrategic standpoint, America faces active great power rivals for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. From a technological perspective, the information revolution is changing things on a scale comparable to the industrial revolution or the dawn of the atomic age. As the United States seeks to preserve the liberal, rules-based international order that has benefitted so many, it is being challenged by other great powers vying for hegemony and influence in geography, trade, and technology. Indeed, the magnitude of change that the United States faces today, on both the geostrategic and technological levels, is comparable to the global disruptions of the industrial age and the early 1900s rise of America as a global power, or to the 1950s post–World War II alignment into a bipolar world with atomic weapons.

The discussion of Navy force structure is both timely and urgent.

The need for a national strategy to comprehensively manage these global challenges has never been more acute. The United States has always been a maritime nation; the sea has always been integral to its security and prosperity, and the emerging century will be no exception. America needs a Navy that can support its global strategy over the long term.

As I write this, there are almost more Navy force structure proposals than there are ships in the Navy. What is missing—and needed—is a discussion of what the nation needs the U.S. Navy to do. Navies are unique in many ways. They are built, maintained, manned, and employed differently than other military services. So rather than provide yet another list of ships and aircraft, this paper offers an overview of the underlying considerations for any force construct for the Navy.

The Navy That the United States Needs

A maritime nation’s navy is integrally connected with its national strategy. If this strategy involves only domestic aspirations, then the navy needs only to secure the territorial seas and exclusive economic zone. If regional influence is desired, then some smaller, short-range open ocean vessels will suffice to provide the necessary reach and coverage. If, on the other hand, the nation has global aspirations and responsibilities, then a global navy is needed. This navy must be capable of reaching any distant sea, but resources, always limited, require a strategy that strictly prioritizes deployments to the important areas where the most influence is desired.

And no matter what the aspirations of a nation may be, its navy must be built and operated in a sustainable way, one that accounts for the total ownership cost of the force. Warships are capital-intensive—purchasing them is a national investment. But a nation’s navy must be funded not only to buy platforms. It also needs money to raise, educate, train, and retain the manpower needed to operate the ships and equipment. And last but by no means least, a navy must be funded to provide the maintenance, modernization, equipment, and training required to stay safe, effective, and relevant. If all this is not done comprehensively and sustainably, the ships will rust at the pier, becoming the very definition of a “hollow force.”

No matter what the aspirations of a nation may be, its navy must be built and operated in a sustainable way.

This paper assumes that the United States will remain globally engaged and the leader in the world. In this case, the U.S. Navy, in concert with the larger U.S. joint force, must be able to:

  • Win in combat. Achieve the Title 10 requirement to be “organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.” Attaining and sustaining that readiness is the principal force structure decision.
  • Provide the undersea component of the nation’s Strategic Deterrent triad.
  • Protect the U.S. economy by securing access to global markets and sea lanes for trade.
  • Support diplomacy—through meaningful and prioritized engagements to positively influence U.S. allies and partners. It is undesirable to send an aircraft carrier or high-end combatant to perform the job that a littoral combat ship can perform—often more effectively.
  • Play a role in deterring major conflict on terms favorable to the United States and allies. This “waging of peace” is hard to measure, but is one of the unique and important roles the Navy must perform. It boils down to providing the nation’s decisionmakers with credible, timely, and relevant options to take a stand and favorably de-escalate tensions early.
  • Train and educate U.S. sailors to strengthen both their warfighting competence and their character.
  • Compete successfully against U.S. rivals, principally China, the nation that presents an acute threat in the Western Pacific—and increasingly globally—to all dimensions of U.S. national power. Russia is a lower priority, although it presents a primary challenge in undersea warfare. To compete with Iran, the U.S. Navy must maintain access to the Persian Gulf and counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Finally, to address the North Korean threat, the Navy must support the U.S. missile defense mission.
  • Achieve all of this with a long-term budget that will get no higher and will likely shrink.

A Comprehensive Approach to Naval Power

The tough decisions about force structure in a budget-constrained environment must maintain a laser focus on what delivers the most naval power to achieve these missions while minimizing risk, especially to personnel. This is a different discussion about more than ship numbers, or whether a platform is manned or unmanned, or any other specific quality. The litmus test is naval power; when cuts are necessary, they should begin with things that deliver the least naval power.

It is useful to think of naval power as comprising the following components:

  • Platforms: The Navy needs enough platforms to provide the nation’s leaders with timely and relevant options where and when needed. Platforms traditionally have lasted a long time, anywhere from 20 to 50 years. Careful thought must be given to the elements of a platform that last the full lifetime—for example, power, propulsion, speed, and stealth—while also designing platforms that can host evolving technology in systems installed on a different time scale, say 2–5 years.
  • Systems: Warfighting systems that platforms carry (such as sensors, computers, weapons, defenses, information technology) make the platforms capable in many ways. The technology in these systems is becoming primarily software-based, and it more closely follows Moore’s Law: it doubles in capability every 2–5 years. Systems and platforms, therefore, must be designed and built together with open architectures and common interfaces to permit hardware upgrades easily and quickly—in weeks, not months or years—as technology advances. Software upgrades should be performed, fleet-wide, within a weekend.
  • People: This is the creative and adaptive element of the force. It is also the most valuable, expensive, and increasingly scarce resource. There is a widening gap between the “supply” of recruit-age people who are qualified and willing to serve, and the “demand” of the increasing skill level required to serve. To improve the readiness and ability of sailors, the Navy has begun to employ new decision science methods that enhance decision making and training technology. Some of this will involve man-machine teaming, which can relieve the need for people in many areas. A deliberate effort must be made to devise policies and employ technology that reduce the need for people across the Navy. Part of this solution will involve more fluid and targeted access to the reserve component.
  • Networks that support command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (C4ISRT): Information is a warfighting domain that includes, but is broader than, cyberspace. It is a contested domain in operations and combat, operating at machine speed and potentially enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI). These networks need not be invincible, but they need to degrade more gracefully than the opponent’s, perform better in their most degraded state, and heal more quickly. The construct of U.S. networks must begin and end with the priority decisions that must be made and communicated from commanders to their teams. Efforts to achieve a technical architecture that accommodates all shooters, all weapons, against all targets will consume all of the money and may not improve command and control. Conveying commander’s guidance and intent is a human-behavior issue first and last—and the new approach to designing and building networks must preserve that.
  • Concepts: The Navy’s operating concepts must nest within the larger vision for joint operations. Currently the Navy’s warfighting concept is for Distributed Maritime Operations that achieve concentrated effect (kinetic and non-kinetic fires) from a distributed (across all domains) but connected and synchronized force. As mentioned previously, the Navy has an important role in maintaining peace, protecting commercial sea lanes, and supporting diplomacy. Therefore, operating concepts must support this mission as well. Concepts must include peace-waging as well as warfighting in times of strong competition and potential confrontation.
  • Readiness: The elements of naval power described in this list refer to potential naval power. The actual naval power will be only as good as its maintenance, supplies, ordnance inventory, and operational training. Readiness is often an under-resourced component of power. The sea is a challenging and unforgiving environment. Any design for the Navy must include generous time and resources to go to sea and operate—to become capable mariners able to operate safely and effectively at sea. Furthermore, platforms must be designed and built to achieve the necessary operational capability at the lowest operating and maintenance costs. Many new technologies can achieve dramatic improvements in capability while reducing costs. The discussion that follows covers some of these.

Effective and Productive Naval Development Requires Innovation, Prototyping, Experimentation, and Exercises

To move forward with building the Navy that can deliver the power needed to perform the required missions in a sustainable way, a comprehensive appreciation is essential for both the dynamic mission set and the diverse, entangled elements of naval power. Designing a new approach will require an integrated concept that accounts for the interplay among the platform, the systems on that platform, the people who will operate it (or not, if autonomy is employed), how it will connect to the rest of the joint force, and how it will be equipped, maintained, and operated. This only becomes more challenging with the introduction of new technologies such as AI, machine learning (ML), directed energy, hypersonics, and information warfare.

A comprehensive appreciation is essential for both the dynamic mission set and the diverse, entangled elements of naval power.

It is a daunting task that necessitates a dedicated approach to innovation, prototyping, experimentation, and entrepreneurship. “Innovation on demand” is a figment of the imagination that minimizes the intense, collaborative, and imaginative focus on a singular problem to derive a solution. To date, the Department of Defense (DoD) has tried to do innovation on the cheap. It has not gone well. The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier is a stellar example; leadership deliberately decided to include several new technologies in the lead ship of the class. A significant problem in deciding so was that none of these technologies existed at the time of the decision. So as the first ship came together, the design teams were inventing the new technologies on the fly—like inventing the steam engine while the train is supposed to be moving down the tracks. This approach also applied to the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the littoral combat ship. What is remarkable about these programs is not the cost overruns, but that the ships came together at all. The approach is in stark contrast to the robust ecosystem of innovation, experimentation, and entrepreneurship that existed to support testing and risk reduction at the beginning of the 20th century, during World War II, and again in the Cold War. For reasons that deserve a separate dedicated paper, solving this situation will take a committed and persistent approach that is different from how DoD currently does acquisition.

In order to field technologies that could be decisive, I recommend an all-out effort to field the following developments first—that is, before adversaries of the United States:

  • Autonomy enabled by AI. The first battle between capable, unmanned fighter aircraft and a manned opponent could look like the tanks when they faced the cavalry trying to oppose them. This technology exists today, and the United States needs to mature it and get it to sea first.
  • A C4ISRT architecture that supports the commander’s decision making. This architecture should accommodate, to the greatest degree achievable, all military and commercial sensors, all global positioning systems, and all weapons in the inventory. It should be designed primarily to support the fleet commander, using AI and ML to reduce the cognitive burden placed on commanders.
  • Directed energy weapons (e.g., lasers, high-power microwave). These weapons, being fielded today, have powers that, when coupled with existing AI technologies, have the potential to interrupt the kill chain to the degree that the advantage may swing to the defense. Such an “intelligently directed energy” system could severely degrade an enemy’s long-range strike capability. The United States needs to be first at sea with this technology.
  • Full digitization of sensors and combat systems, employing a software-based “dev/sec/ops” approach to achieve rapid learning, improvement, and commonality. Systems currently exist that can provide real-time feedback on mission performance to quickly identify problems in system operation or detect and adapt to new developments by the enemy. Once learned, lessons are then shared across the fleet at the speed of software upgrades—in a day or so.

The developments listed here would not only reduce the training burden on the Navy but would also result in fast learning that would outstrip any adversary’s ability—the U.S. military would learn and adapt faster than the enemy.

To inspire innovation that can give insight into a future U.S. Navy, the following thought experiments employ the technologies just mentioned and have important implications for future force constructs:

  • A strike group connected with a modern C4ISRT architecture, equipped with a digitized combat system with intelligently directed energy weapons. Analyze the ability of this group to degrade or interrupt an adversary’s kill chain from detection through weapon terminal guidance. Model this group to have automatic and real-time performance monitoring that shows operators how their system is performing and that learns and adapts at fleet scale and at the speed of software development. Through software, a lesson learned by one platform should be quickly shared with all platforms across the fleet.
  • An unmanned carrier air wing. This carrier-based air wing is supported by other unmanned systems resident in the joint force—land- and space-based systems. The air wing includes a long-range (1,000 miles) strike radius with kinetic and non-kinetic payloads and is enabled with software-based sensors and combat systems as described above. The design implications for the aircraft carrier that delivers this air wing may lead to a ship that improves combat power at reduced cost and risk to personnel.
  • A squadron of unmanned underwater vehicles, powered with AI, that can be employed in the mine warfare mission. The reliability and effectiveness of these systems will show vast improvements over current approaches. This has already been demonstrated and is ready for full investment. As an excursion to this thought experiment, consider submerging as much of the Navy as possible. This will severely complicate the targeting problem for any adversary.

These thought experiments employ technologies that can be matured inside the time horizon needed to design and build a new ship or aircraft—this is not science fiction. These are only representative vignettes that should spur further thought to achieve fundamental changes in the design of a future fleet. The thought experiments listed above could lead to a systematic program of refinement and risk reduction that includes analytic assessments, then to demonstrations, and finally to fleet problem-solving that involves fleet-on-fleet engagements at the operational level of war and that focuses on addressing specific real-world challenges.

The Obstacles to Change Are Significant

If all this is indeed achievable in the near term, it would be reasonable to question why these approaches are not being considered. There are significant obstacles, each of which could be the subject of its own paper.

First, the American public is disengaged from the geostrategic challenge. Unlike in World War II and the Cold War, there is neither a broad awareness nor a consensus that China is the principal threat. Further, the current political situation in the United States is polarized and seems unable to govern the accomplishment of difficult things. Moreover, the federal fiscal situation is resulting in more and more nondiscretionary spending and less and less discretionary funding for defense. Without a solution, in about 10 years, there will potentially be no discretionary funding left. DoD is working to get more blood from a stone. In the short term the defense budget will shrink, and so the U.S. military must confront costs as a limiting constraint. In the mid-term, the federal budget problem must be solved, or the United States will cease to be a global superpower.

Second, the U.S. military is unable to field decisive technologies at relevant speed. There is no sense of urgency in the system. Time is not seen as a critical variable; there is no “race” to get to any objective first. This is particularly troublesome in the information age, where the commercial market has shown that things move so quickly that there may not be a chance to catch up. It is winner-take-all. The acquisition system is ossified. A big part of the solution lies in human resources. For one thing, there are too many people in the decision cycle, many of whom do not understand modern technology. Further, program managers and other important decisionmakers rotate through their jobs at a pace and timing that is disconnected from the programs they are supervising, minimizing real accountability and impeding progress. These two human relations factors alone have a terrible impact on program performance.


America is a maritime nation. U.S. security, prosperity, and diplomacy have all been intrinsically connected to the sea. This is more true today than it was when the country was established, and the drafters of the next NDS will be well served to keep this fact in mind. As the United States faces the simultaneous challenges of a geostrategic shift and a technological revolution, the oceans—and the Navy’s ability to secure them—will be central to the nation’s future.

About the Author

Admiral John Richardson retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after serving for 37 years. A career submarine officer, he served as the Director of Naval Reactors and the 31st Chief of Naval Operations. Since retiring, ADM Richardson has joined the CNAS Board of Directors.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


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