Lets consider for a moment what this means – the reality is that by 2020, 60% of the USN, including ‘a majority of’ surface combatants, submarines, and no less than six carrier groups will be based in the Pacific fleet. This is a very substantial shift in resourcing, and reflects this authors long standing view that the US is experiencing its ‘East of Suez’ decade, where increasingly difficult choices have to be made about where resources are applied.
|The new 'nation of concern' at sea. An increasingly common sight|
In practical terms, as hull numbers drop ever more steadily, and replacements seem interminably delayed, the USN appears on track for an escort fleet of between 70-80 surface ships by 2020. This will be coupled with a currently 50 strong fleet of SSNs, likely to drop to nearer 35-40 boats. So, in practical terms the US Atlantic Fleet is looking like operating a force of roughly four CVNs, 30 escort vessels, and at best 20 SSNs. This is a very small fleet by comparison to barely 20 years ago, and vividly shows how much smaller the USN is today. The best comparison in terms of size is that the Atlantic Fleet in 2020 is going to be similar in size to the Royal Navy following the 1998 SDR (albeit with more CVN and SSN). This does not even begin to consider the impact of further possible budget cuts, which may well fall over the next few years.
The question is, what does this mean for the USN deployments? The force of 30 escorts is going to potentially have to cover the North & South Atlantic, Med and Caribbean. That’s assuming that Atlantic Fleet won’t provide escorts for the Gulf either.
Take away the escorts operating as part of a Carrier Battle Group (say three – five hulls), and you very quickly run out of small ships to deploy independently around much of the globe. The USN is going to become a much rarer beast in many ports in future. This will have the practical effect of diminishing US ‘soft power’ and influence, and also ensuring that access to training with the USN is more restricted. Much as the reduction in presence of the Royal Navy led to a general decline of the UK Governments ability to influence the development of foreign navies, it is likely that the USN will have a significantly reduced influence across much of the globe too.
|The most powerful surface warship on Earth.|
A reduced USN is going to struggle to operate and meet alliance commitments in the same way as before. A cursory search of the internet currently shows how the USN regularly operates in multi-national exercises in South America, training and capacity building in Africa, and also regularly works with NATO partners in Europe. Something is going to have to give soon.
A key issue is what impact will this have on the ability of the US to exert influence in, and control the development of NATO? As the US re-orientates itself to look East, NATO will almost certainly diminish as an essential Alliance to support. It is hard for NATO to convince the US to stay engaged, when in Europe, nations have been slashing defence expenditure and failing to take a more engaged stance. For too long NATO has been arguably seen by many European nations as a cosy means of letting the US pay their own Defence Mortgage. It is likely that a reduced commitment to NATO is going to come as an unpleasant shock to many NATO nations, although they can hardly argue that they weren’t warned.
Whether NATO survives is a moot point. There is no appetite for increased defence spending in Europe, and arguably the aspirations of the US, to a lesser extent the UK as expeditionary nations, capable of deploying power overseas, does not sit comfortably with some other NATO members. While there is much talk of ‘expeditionary operations’, the lessons of ISAF and other interventions have been that there is little real appetite for much military engagement beyond limited air strikes and the occasional peacekeeping deployment. It is ever harder to see NATO as a military alliance in a meaningful sense. Instead it seems to be a political grouping, which expects a smaller hard-core of states to carry out military operations. The further downsizing of the US military presence in the NATO area will only go further to increasing this sense of it being a primarily political beast.
One nation which may find it particularly interesting is Canada. The RCN will find itself on the Atlantic coast as proportionately a far more significant player than it has been for many years. It will be extremely interesting to see whether Ottawa sees this as an opportunity to invest in both littoral vessels to protect the North American continent, and escorts to contribute to operations. A small investment in the Atlantic elements of the Canadian Navy could see it increase in importance to Washington.
|The RCN may find itself with a strategic realignment soon|
Alternatively, this presents Canada with the opportunity to shift its resources to the Pacific. The RCN is in the position of being able to consider whether it wishes to assume a far more dominant role in the Atlantic, where a fleet nearly the same size as the RN is now could fill USN gaps. Alternatively this could be the chance for Canada to embrace its Pacific destiny, and instead focus defence resources on a far more Pacific orientated outlook, with the majority of RCN vessels based in the region to support the USN. Whatever decision is taken, this author believes the Canadian navy faces a genuinely exciting opportunity that may benefit it for years to come.
A key challenge for the UK will be managing the future RN / USN relationship. At present this is built around several core strands. Namely, the shared operation of similar SSBN capabilities, the SSN fleets, a shared naval aviation heritage and a background of joint participation in aggressive, war fighting operations.
By 2020 the RN will have hopefully completed its transformation into the so-called ‘Force 2020’ structure, originally outlined in the 2010 SDSR. The result will be a fleet once again operating fixed wing aviation, and which has a range of potent SSNs and a new generation of escort vessel (T26) entering service. The RN will be well placed to continue working with the USN, if the political willpower is there to see it through.
The reduction in US naval presence in the Western Hemisphere raises two equally intriguing prospects for the UK – it can either move to fill the gap, or it can use this as a once in a generation opportunity to realign its strategic interests. The forthcoming SDRs in both 2015 and 2020 will provide the UK with the opportunity to actively consider the level and depth of support to which it wishes to work with the USN.
On the one hand, a diminished USN could be the moment for the UK to step up and more actively seek to invest in maritime capabilities. An overt assumption of the role as the lead western naval power, with the UK seeking to act as peacekeeper, and de facto dominant naval power in Europe could be on the cards. Essentially the RN could, if HMG so wished, be employed as a force to fill the void left by the departing USN. This would help ensure the continuance of good relations with Washington, and revalidate the importance of London as a principal ally.
|CVF will be of increased importance to the USN|
In an operational environment where there are three, maybe four carriers assigned to the Atlantic fleet, the new RN CVFs will be seen as a very potent asset. The addition of two credible carriers would be a major source of comfort to Washington, in the same way that the presence of seven brand new and very good quality SSNs would. The UK will find that even its own diminished fleet will gain renewed importance in Washington if the will exists to step up and take regional leadership.
Alternatively, it could be that by 2020 the UK government may see an opportunity to reduce procurement costs, and reduce the need to buy high end ‘day one’ capabilities. The reduction in US presence in Europe could see London encouraging the development of a more potent European defence capability, and either reducing its own external presence (on the assumption that coalition operations remain less likely in the area of interest), or conducting operations through a more European focus.
Whatever course is taken, policy makers in London will need to consider carefully how best to work with a nation which no longer sees the same level of strategic interest in the region. The UK presence in South East Asia and the Pacific is minimal, and the funds, willpower and desire to meaningfully re-engage there do not, at present, seem to exist. Therefore the UK will need to set a course which engages the US in other areas – either taking on burdens for them, such as anti-piracy or counter narcotics, or seeking to place the RN in areas where joint operations are more likely.
There is a strong likelihood that with a diminished USN presence, the strong operational ties that link the two navies will diminish, and the RN will need to fight hard to justify its position as a partner of choice. Whereas previously the RN and USN senior leadership have practically grown up working together, the next generation of Admirals in the 2020-2030 timeframe will probably have had little, if any, meaningful professional contact prior to hitting senior ranks. Instead, nations like Australia, and potentially Canada will benefit to a far greater degree from these closer working links. The RN will need to think very carefully about its long term strategic links with the USN to ensure that meaningful relationships continue.
The announcement was hardly a surprise, the shift in US strategic interests to the Asia Pacific region has been going on for some years. But two things are very clear here:
Firstly, the US is going to see a significant drop in its ability to influence events in the Western Hemisphere. The presence of a USN warship will go from being routine, to something that is near generational in regularity. These changes will make it harder for the US to assume strategic leadership in some regions, and opens the door to other nations to build strategic partnerships and alliances.
Secondly, the UK and Canada both find themselves facing strategic choices. For the UK it is the choice between adopting wider leadership and a possible ramping up of operations further east of Suez, or instead supporting European defence. It is hard to see how on existing budgets the UK will be able to both support US pacific aspirations and also support what is left of NATO. The Canadians face an opportunity to equally look at the orientation of their fleet, and decide between Atlantic importance, or Pacific influence.
Whatever happens, it is clear that a global rebalancing act is going on, and that the USN is never going to be the same again. It is tremendously exciting, but simultaneously terrifying to consider.