Force planning – a beginner’s guide

Fabius Maximus has an interesting post on the Navy’s death spiral, but it raises the question of whether such a fate is inevitable. That is, are there so many uses for military forces in the world that we will always need more than we can afford? The answer is that if you start with what you can do with military forces and then add up the costs for doing all these things, you will always run out of money long before you satisfy all your requirements.

So the Army needs more troops, as do the Marines, and the Air Force wants roughly to double the number of F-22s (at something like $150 million per) in addition to buying more than 1,500 F-35s. Everybody needs more. What about the Navy? You can predict, if you don’t already know, the answer to that question.

In a recent article in the Armed Forces Journal, for example, Prof. Milan Vego of the Naval War College offered a comprehensive laundry list of requirements that would justify increasing the size of the US Navy:

The Navy needs a larger number of ships,

  • not only for winning a war at sea against a stronger opponent but also for carrying out diverse missions in peacetime, ranging from
  • humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,
  • security assistance,
  • enforcement of maritime agreements,
  • counterpiracy,
  • vessel traffic service,
  • multinational exercises,
  • countersmuggling and
  • counterdrug, to
  • regional deterrence through forward presence in selected parts of the world’s oceans.

Now, it is probably true that if you took each of these missions and allocated the number of ships it would take, you would quickly exceed 313, even recognizing that a ship can perform more than one mission. Indeed, ten times that number might be barely adequate. But resources are not unlimited, and if Fabius is correct about the future of our economy, they may soon become even more not unlimited.

How do we, the American people, decide how much is enough? Well, we could start by asking, and debating, questions like:

1. Why does this mission need to be done?
2. Why are naval ships – as opposed to civilian ships or other methods – the best way to do it?
3. Why are US Navy ships needed? Why is it our problem?
4. Are our allies willing to pitch in with ships, people, and money?
5. If not, go back to question 1.

Although actual implementation of policy (i.e., given that we want our navy to participate in counterpiracy operations, what forces do they need?) can be quite technical and complex, the most important questions are not esoteric or arcane, and at the level of national policy any reasonably well-educated citizen can participate.

For example:

  • humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and
  • security assistance, [DNI Editor’s note: providing advice and training to foreign navies and selling them American-made weapons]

don’t seem to require US Navy warships. In fact, one could imagine that for a fraction of what we spend on R&D, procurement, maintenance, and operation for a fully battle-ready combatant, we could fund a considerable number of humanitarian relief activities (i.e., not just ships).

And then there’s:

  • enforcement of maritime agreements,
  • counterpiracy,
  • countersmuggling and
  • counterdrug

These all seem to be either law enforcement issues or involve questions of legitimacy (e.g., there are few pirates operating out of NATO countries or from Japan or Australia). Not to say the there isn’t a vital role in these areas for US maritime forces, but there isn’t enough steel – or aluminum – in the world to solve these problems through brute naval force.


  • vessel traffic service
  • multinational exercises

I confess to having no idea what “vessel traffic service” is or why it requires US Navy combatants to perform, and “multinational exercises” isn’t a mission from the national policy perspective but how one prepares to perform the other missions.

In other words, none of the above missions, as important as they might be to national security policy, should be used to size the U.S. Navy. Given that you have bought naval forces for jobs that only they can perform, you might or might not use them for some of these (and other) purposes, but you shouldn’t use these collateral purposes to justify fleet sizes. It’s like trying to justify a new SUV to take your kids to school when the school bus does that adequately right now.

This leaves Vego’s first and last missions:

  • winning a war at sea against a stronger opponent
  • regional deterrence through forward presence in selected parts of the world’s oceans

The question of our maritime force requirements thus becomes one of how much of our national treasure do we want to devote to preparing for the next battle of Midway and for wowing the natives. Keep in mind when answering this question that our worthy opponent for this upcoming battle must be “stronger” than we are, but not a significant nuclear power. And natives are becoming somewhat harder to wow nowadays, as the recent Iranian incident shows.

I don’t have the answer, but my guess is that the force we have now, including 53 nuclear-powered attack submarines and 11 carrier battle groups, should more than suffice.

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