It’s no secret that U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper wants to overhaul the U.S. Navy. Now we’re gaining a sense of just how deep Esper’s changes could run. Big-deck warships such as aircraft carriers and assault ships could become pretty rare in much of the world.
From the end of Pres. Barack Obama’s second term until recently, the Navy’s plan was to grow from a low of around 280 large, front-line warships to as many as 355 ships by the 2030s, mostly by adding frigates, destroyers, amphibious ships, submarines and support ships.
But Pres. Donald Trump lost interest in that plan and even began diverting shipbuilding funds to his effort to build a wall along the southern U.S. border. Now in the final months of Trump’s term, Esper is trying to get a new fleet plan underway.
If reports are true, the new naval force-structure represents a major departure from the status quo. Some might say a radical departure. Instead of adding large warships of the kind the Navy already is building, Esper’s apparent plan—embodied in a new study from the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute—cuts large warships and adds hundreds of small manned corvettes, robotic patrol vessels, unmanned submarines and small logistics and amphibious ships.
And the Esper fleet plan, as outlined in the Hudson Institute study, plots a whole new deployment scheme. Today, the Navy organizes its deployments around aircraft carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups, essentially clustering destroyers, submarines and support ships around carriers and big-deck assault ships, both types embarking fixed-wing warplanes. Each strike or ready group is a miniature navy and air force.
On any given day, around 100 of the Navy’s 296 front-line ships is underway.
If the Hudson study is any indication, Esper wants the fleet to deploy differently. Instead of two or three carrier groups and a couple of amphibious groups sailing through the world’s hot spots, the fleet would break up into many more, smaller groups—some lacking any organic air cover.
The Esper model routinely deploys two carrier groups—one each to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. It also sends one amphibious group to the Indian Ocean and one to the western Pacific.
The rest of the fleet gathers into three surface action groups with destroyers—one in the Indian Ocean and two in the western Pacific. There are three escort groups—frigates, mostly—in the Mediterranean Sea and western Pacific. The balance of the roughly 220 underway ships is in seven anti-submarine and mine-hunting groups heavily relying on robotic vessels. Attack submarines congregate in the North Atlantic and western Pacific.
Compare Esper’s deployment scheme to the Navy’s deployments from, say, summer 2020, when there were three carrier groups in the western Pacific, one carrier group in the Indian Ocean and amphibious groups in the Atlantic, the Med and the western Pacific.
It’s not at all clear the Navy—to say nothing of the next presidential administration—will embrace Esper’s ideas. But if they do, American warships could mostly disappear from European waters while spreading out across Asian waters. Carriers and assault ships in particular would become much rarer.