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Monday, April 24, 2023

A War with China? Fleet Size and Other Options

Sam Tangredi, writing in USNI Proceedings January 2023 issue sends a warning shot across the bow of some current naval thinking by looking at history Bigger Fleet Win:

Using technological advantage as an indicator of quality, historical research on 28 naval wars (or wars with significant and protracted naval combat) indicates that 25 were won by the side with the larger fleet. When fleet size was roughly equal, superior strategy and substantially better trained and motivated crews carried the day. Only three could be said to have been won by a smaller fleet with superior technology. (footnotes omitted)

As set out at CNN,

Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London, praised Tangredi’s work.

“His research is a very good way to push back on the silly assumption that mass doesn’t matter in war at sea,” Patalano said.

He stressed two key points.

A larger size means more leaders looking to gain the edge in their commands.

“A larger fleet tend to be more competitive, in training personnel development, and operational capacity,” Patalano said.

And he said a large industrial base is essential, especially in being able to build new units after incurring casualties in battle.

“In naval war, attrition is a real thing, so the ability to replace is vital,” Patalano said.

But wait, there's more - concern over the ability of U.S. Defense industry to gear up to produce the quantity of ships (and weapons) needed:

“Most analysts doubt that the US defense industry — which has consolidated and shrunk since the end of the Cold War — could expand quickly enough to meet wartime demand,” Tangredi wrote.


Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, last week called on the nation’s defense industries to step up their game, saying “you’re not delivering the ordnance we need.”

“It’s so essential to winning. And I can’t do that without the ordnance,” Caudle said at a symposium in Washington, adding that the US is “going against a competitor here, and a potential adversary, that is like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

In an online forum last week, Caudle’s boss, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, also noted the numbers problem the US faces in a potential Pacific conflict.

“The United States Navy is not going to be able to match the PLAN missile for missile,” Gilday said.

And if the US Navy can’t match China’s missile for missile, or ship for ship, Tangredi wonders where it can find an edge.

“US leaders must ask themselves to what extent they are willing to bet on technological — without numerical — superiority in that fight,” he wrote.

The CNN reporting, though surprising good, leaves out some key parts of Tangredi's USNI article, referring to Wayne Hughes and Robert P. Girrier:

Inspired by Professor Hughes’ work, my decades of research have brought me to this conclusion: In a naval struggle between near-peers, mass (numbers), and the ability to replace losses bests technological advantage. As the mass of one opponent grows, the chance of its defeat reduces. At a certain point of imbalance in mass, the larger naval force cannot be defeated, even when the opponent attacks effectively first in any one engagement.


One might assume that superior ship capabilities rather than mass can provide this effectiveness. But that is not what operations research indicates. As Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare notes: “Hughes’ salvo equations indicate that twice as many shooters beats half as many equivalent shooters firing twice as fast.”


If the United States wants to retain global influence, maintain deterrence in multiple regions, and conduct combat operations against a near peer that is expanding its global military footprint, it needs a large number of naval platforms. Today, the peacetime demand of the regional combatant commanders overwhelms the availability of deployable Navy ships.

In addition, a reserve of naval platforms is necessary to replace losses. In World War II, the reserve was the ability to build ships at speed. Today, most analysts doubt that the U.S. defense industry—which has consolidated and shrunk since the end of the Cold War—could expand quickly enough to meet wartime demand. To replace losses in a protracted conflict, the United States would need numbers of ships already in commission.


The United States can fund a significant fleet that matches the growth of the PLA Navy—or not. Whether the fleet is 250 or 500 ships is for elected officials and the Navy to decide, but those leaders must identify, acknowledge, and own that risk. There is risk in all choices. But there is particularly higher risk in making choices based on unproven assumptions.


A naval war against China in the western Pacific in this decade would pit a smaller U.S. naval force against a larger PLAN, on China’s home turf, within range of the PLA’s air and rocket forces. U.S. leaders must ask themselves to what extent they are willing to bet on technological—without numerical—superiority in that fight.

Though I believe that any war with China will be very much one that is won or lost on the sea, it seems that there is at least some analysis of the effect of shore-based anti-ship missiles controlled by the U.S and its allies that needs to be added into the equation - for as Wayne Hughes and Robert P. Girrier suggest in Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations(3rd ed), battles in the open ocean are rare, but battles inshore are not, and with the current state of land based anti-ship missiles, naval forces do not just have to contend with opposing fleets but with "forts"

Today a "fort" can be an airfield or the launch site for a a missile battery. Either of these can be repaired or rebuilt quickly, but a warship cannot.(p26)

China has the potential home field advantage in that respect, but the U.S. can place more "shooters" ashore and create their own "forts" that create a threat to the PLAN - which is exactly what the U.S. Marine Corps is proposing to do with its Force Design 2030:



We will equip our Marines with mobile, low-signature sensors and weapons that can provide a landward complement to Navy capabilities for surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, air and missile defense, and airborne early warning. And in partnership with the Navy, our unit will possess littoral maneuver capabilities to include high-speed, long-range, low-signature craft capable of maneuvering Marines for a variety of missions.

The key to this is "Stand-in Forces."

Stand-in Forces Defined

SIF are small but lethal, low signature, mobile, relatively simple to maintain and sustain forces designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth in order to intentionally disrupt the plans of a potential or actual adversary. Depending on the situation, stand-in forces are composed of elements from the Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, special operations forces, interagency, and allies and partners.

Theory of Success

In day-to-day activity, SIF deter potential adversaries by establishing the forward edge of a partnered maritime defense-in-depth that denies the adversary freedom of action.12 The impact of working with allies and partners cannot be overstated; it is key to undermining the adversary’s plans and is a primary reason stand-in forces’ presence must be persistent. SIF also deter by integrating activities with the other elements of national power (particularly diplomatic and informational) to impose costs on rivals who want to use ways and means below the violence threshold to achieve their goals.

Stand-in forces’ enduring function is to help the fleet and joint force win the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance battle at every point on the competition continuum. Stand-in forces do this by gaining and maintaining contact (establishing target custody and identifying the potential adversary’s sensors) below the threshold of violence. This allows SIF to assist in identifying and countering malign behavior, and if armed conflict does erupt, the joint force can attack effectively first and prevent the enemy from doing so.

When directed, SIF conduct sea denial operations in support of fleet operations, especially near maritime chokepoints. SIF can perform sea denial through the use of organic sensors and weapon systems to complete kill webs, but also by integrating organic capabilities with naval and joint all-domain capabilities. SIF also possess sufficient organic maneuver and offensive capability to gain a position of advantage by securing, seizing, and controlling contested key maritime terrain in support of sea denial operations.

By doing the above, SIF become an operational problem an enemy must address to achieve its goals. SIF impose costs on the enemy by presenting operationally relevant capabilities that cannot be ignored, even as their low signature, high mobility, dispersion, and use of deception make them difficult for an enemy to find and target. Their small footprint and focus on partnership make SIF less burdensome on the host nation than larger U.S. formations.

I fully support the Marines in this concept. We could quibble some aspects, but the main thing is get them what they need - now - to make it a reality because it has the potential to change the equations of "fleet size." Add in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Coast Guard and there may be way out of China's spider web. Heck, I can see the Army setting up "forts" too. The more the merrier.

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