Whatever administration takes office, the US needs to better match its procurement plans to its operational strategies.

Writing this week for Chatham House, Julianne Smith, Rachel Rizzo and Adam Twardowski find that one military topic on which Donald Trump may offer views significantly differing from those of the other presidential candidates is procurement. In their “US Election Note: Defence Policy After 2016,” they observe that Trump wants stronger armed forces, but not obviously more money. In support, they cite Matthew Gault’s essay for Reuters on how “Donald Trump is right about defense spending.” Therein, he concludes that “it could take a populist strongman like Trump to deliver the harsh truth: when it comes to the military, the United States can do so much more with so much less.” What might this mean specifically? Trump has mostly complained about a perceived cost-for-quality gap in the Joint Strike Fighter and Littoral Combat Ship programs. But what if Trump’s ideas were broader? A colleague in Canada recently argued to me that The Donald’s plans could be akin to Lord Fisher’s intentions for remaking the Royal Navy over a century ago. If he truly brings a businessman’s instinct to capital investment, he may recoil at overfunding forces that don’t match the best strategies.

To start, let’s review the revolution that Admiral Fisher wanted to bring about. As Steven Wills of Ohio University (aka Lazarus) observed in December 2014 in “The Enduring Myth of the Fragile Battlecruiser,” Jackie Fisher is substantially remembered for his interest in that type of ship. The admiral’s motivations, however, are often forgotten. When installed in 1904 as First Sea Lord, Fisher was already worrying that torpedo boats, submarines, and armored cruisers could threaten Britain’s communications with the dominions and colonies. Torpedo boat destroyers would handle the first two threats, but something bigger would be needed to chase down those German commerce raiders. Fisher had served from 1892 to 1897 as Third Naval Lord (Controller), so he knew how much money was available and how it flowed. Thus, as Lazarus wrote, “Fisher was appointed not so much for his ideas on naval warfare.” Rather, as he cites Nicholas Lambert’s Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), Fisher’s civilian superior Lord Selborne recognized that he “was the only admiral on the flag list willing and able to find economies in naval expenditure” (p. 91).

Now let’s talk about the modern American battlecruiser. Here I do not mean the 34,000-ton Alaska-class cruisers of the Second World War, but merely the 14,000-ton Zumwalt-class super-destroyers of late. As Philip Radford wrote last week for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, nothing as big as a cruiser gets called a cruiser anymore. And as for economies, the US Navy was on a questionable trajectory spending $4 billion for any kind of surface combatant. But rather like HMS Dreadnought of 1906 (notably a battleship, and not a battlecruiser), US Ships Zumwalt, Michael Monsoor, and Lyndon B. Johnson have incorporated multiple advances at once: rocket-boosted main guns, stealthy turbine-electric propulsion with vast generation capacity, stealthy tumblehome hulls, peripheral missile launchers, and a high degree of automation—so much so that they require less than half the crews of Arleigh Burkes.

Ben Freeman of Third Way thinks that with all these advances, cancelling the class “was a mistake.” As those deeply familiar with the Burke program will attest, restarting production of a closing-out class bore some challenges. In October 2014, Lazarus himself offered a view of “the specter of the [155 mm] gun,” evoking an updated scene of shore bombardment from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But the problem with the earlier dreadnoughts, as Robert O’Connell pointed out in Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Oxford University Press, 1991), is that they never dominated naval warfare writ large. Even in the First World War, they shared the stage with those new and deeply disturbing submarines. As I noted last year in a discussion of historical alternatives to super-carriers, O’Connell observed that only one American battleship (the West Virginia) ever sank an enemy battleship (the Yamashiro) in combat (at the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944).

Perhaps, like the Dreadnought, the new ships will ultimately prove less intimidating. Writing in the Diplomat in November 2014, James Holmes opined that the Zumwalt was then “already outdated,” because its effectiveness as a land-attack vessel required “command of the sea, which the US can no longer take for granted.” Indeed, there has been much strange about the class, including its sudden truncation at three ships, what role intelligence reports played therein, the dependence of the ship’s air defenses on the comparatively short-ranged RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), and the not-fully-explained shift from 57 mm to 30 mm guns for the secondary battery—repeated nowhere else in the US Navy or Coast Guard.

Perhaps there are sound answers. In his 2014 study Commanding the Seas, a Plan to Reinvigorate US Navy Surface Warfare, Bryan Clark of the CSBA argued that lots of ESSMs—which so economically fit four to a launcher—would form a more effective air defense than fewer, more expensive, longer-ranged Standard missiles. Maybe then the stealthy Zumwalts will indeed be aces-in-the-hole for littoral surprise. That, however, supposes that the US Navy would be inclined to hazard a multi-billion-dollar ship within 80 miles of a heavily armed and hostile coast. Where might that be worth the risk? The Persian Gulf is too narrow, and there are better ways to threaten Iran than with a pair of six-inch guns. Ditto the Baltic and the Russians. Ibrahim al-Badri’s made-up caliphate and the other forces of global disorder lack robust anti-ship capacity, so a Zumwalt would be overkill. The Syrians have plenty of modern Russian missiles, but the redline was crossed some time ago. That leaves China, and the thought of trying to shell Shanghai leads one to contemplate, to paraphrase Admiral James Norrington, all possible meanings of the phrase “going in harm’s way.”

Perhaps none of this is actually necessary. After all, shortly before the First World War began, the Royal Navy shifted its plans for dealing with Germany from close blockade to distant blockade. Rather than seizing the islands of Sylt and Heligoland to dominate the shore, the Home Fleet would close off the entire North Sea from the Channel, through the Orkneys and the Shetlands, to the Norwegian coast. With most German cruisers then bottled up, British battlecruisers would be pressed into the battle line as dreadnought stand-ins. That didn’t go as well as planned; at Jutland Admiral Beatty would remark how “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” However, as Ralph Raico wrote in his review of C. Paul Vincent’s The Politics of Hunger: Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Ohio University Press, 1985), adopting this radically different operating concept also required discarding obligations under international law. The United Kingdom had ratified the 1856 Paris Declaration, which required that “blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.” The Kaiser’s unrestricted submarine warfare—like a whole bunch of other behaviors from the First World War—didn’t fit into the Paris Declaration either, but this still required a radical shift in thinking at the Admiralty.

While sometimes abiding by its provisions, the United States never ratified that treaty, though on a separate matter: to preserve its right to dispatch privateers against enemy shipping. A war today might not require letters of marque, but even so, as Sean Mirski of the Carnegie Endowment wrote in 2013 in the Journal of Strategic Studies, “a blockade could exact a ruinous cost on the Chinese economy and state.” It just wouldn’t wisely involve cruisers closing the Chinese coast to shell targets ashore. That would be rather like the Swedish Navy planning to bombard Kaliningrad with an updated Halland-class destroyer—a very questionable idea that was retired by 1982. Today, the distant blockade in the western Pacific does seem the only serious plan for a nearly-worst-case near-peer war, even if it requires a serious behavioral shift within the US Navy. For that would mean reclaiming the way of war it had practiced in the Atlantic in the First and Second World Wars: protecting shipping while hunting down enemy submarines, while remaining dispersed across wide ocean areas.

Thus back to Trump, or anyone claiming to run for chief executive with businesslike plans—Johnson perhaps? In the context of all this naval history, it’s important to remember that long-range procurement decisions are about more than what to build-and-buy. They’re also about how the assets obtained should actually be used. As Gautam Mukunda of Harvard Business School wrote in “We Cannot Go On: Disruptive Innovation and the First World War Royal Navy,” over-worrying about the symmetrical threat can lead to nearly fatal results. As that 2010 article in Security Studies argued, for all Fisher’s reforms, the Admiralty still let the large platforms crowd out the small for far too long. Similarly, the sort of war for which the US Navy probably should be preparing today might require more frigates and even DARPA’s robo-corvettes—all more affordable than uber-cruisers. Perhaps plans are slowly changing. If so, the Zumwalts may have been—impressive though their combination of technologies may be—the high-water mark of cognitive dissonance in American naval planning. Henceforth, whatever the preferred posture and proclivity for intervention, and whoever wins office, the procurement plans should better match the operational strategy.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security. He notes that he is advising no presidential or vice-presidential candidates at this time. He also thanks an anonymous reviewer for finding a minor error in his earlier article “What if the Aircraft Carrier Had Never Been Invented?

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