An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, attached to the “Blackhawks” of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 15, prepares to land on the flight deck of San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 12 in Southern California.

An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, attached to the “Blackhawks” of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 15, prepares to land on the flight deck of San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 12 in Southern California. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Kates

The Navy Should Assemble a Fleet for Littoral Campaigns

Don't build a fleet to fight off a Chinese invasion force; build one that gives the U.S. and allies more options.

U.S. Marines are using this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise to practice with allies the tactics they would use to disrupt Beijing’s war planning, as part of a long-term campaign to dissuade Chinese aggression. But Navy leaders are lukewarm on the value of day-to-day actions like those by Marine Littoral Regiments; they argue that the Navy cannot afford a robust peacetime presence while also building a fleet than can win a future war against China. This is a false choice built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. To prevent war with China, the Navy needs to contest Beijing’s bullying as it happens, rather than going all-in on a goal-line stand at the Taiwan Strait.

Campaigning, one of the new National Defense Strategy’s main lines of effort, is the bread and butter of maritime services. By sowing uncertainty about U.S. forces’ disposition and intent, strengthening interoperability with allies and partners, and contesting an adversary’s hybrid (or gray-zone) actions, campaigning can help dissuade aggression. And while it can include open-ocean exercises and deployments, campaigning mostly happens in the littorals, the area within a few hundred miles of shore where ships, ground troops, aircraft—and their weapons—can interact. 

But the Navy is looking to shrink the fleet it built for these kind of operations. Its 2023 shipbuilding plan would retire a quarter of its Littoral Combat Ships, four dock landing ships, and two expeditionary support docks while also ending production of amphibious transport docks (LPD). Congress is moving to partly reject the Navy’s retirements and may add medical and salvage ships to this year’s appropriations. 

There is a better way. Even without Congressional plus-ups, the Navy could assemble a more capable littoral fleet with a modest reduction in spending on high-end warships. Rebalancing the Navy’s risk profile makes sense considering China’s size, military modernization, and proximity. The Navy could increase by 50 percent its spending on destroyers, carriers, and submarines and still not substantially improve its ability to deny an invasion of Taiwan. However, spending a fraction of that amount on littoral ships, sailors, and sustainment could enable a campaign to reduce Beijing’s confidence in its plans and better prepare U.S. naval forces for the other scenarios China could present, such as a protracted blockade or quarantine of Taiwan.

For example, the Navy could realize a return on its more-than-$10 billion investment in LCS by basing most of the remaining hulls overseas, where they have proven themselves against Beijing’s gray-zone aggression. If the Navy eventually succeeds in retiring all but six of its Freedom-class LCS, most or all should be placed in Bahrain to replace soon-to-be decommissioned minesweepers and patrol craft. Of the 12 to 18 Independence-class LCS ships likely to remain in the fleet, half should be stationed in Japan and Singapore. In both cases, this forward-basing will reduce the stress on these ships’ fragile propulsion plants or hulls and reduce operating costs. 

Undermining the confidence of Chinese leaders in their plans will require naval forces to use maneuver, reconnaissance, and counter-reconnaissance during peacetime to create more wartime options for U.S. and allied commanders and reduce those for China’s military. The Marine Corps plans to conduct these operations using Stand-In Forces postured across islands of the Philippines, Japan, and perhaps even Taiwan. Using MQ-9A Reaper drones, G/ATOR radars, Naval Strike Missiles, and short-range air defenses, Stand-In Forces could threaten Chinese freedom of movement across the First Island Chain and offer commanders a wide range of effect chains to create uncertainty for Beijing’s planners. 

Sustaining and maneuvering Stand-In Forces will require ships that can operate in the shallow littoral environment and connect Marines ashore with the fleet at sea. The proposed Light Amphibious Warship, or LAW, is intended to fill this role but was delayed in the 2023 budget and may never come. 

Instead of investing substantial money and time in the LAW, the Navy and Marine Corps should use existing vessels such as LCS and expeditionary fast transports to fill this niche while focusing on their next amphibious ship, the L(X). In addition to supporting Stand-In Forces across the First Island Chain, littoral vessels carrying Marine missile launchers and electronic warfare systems on their flight decks could be potent mobile anti-ship and anti-air platforms. 

The Congress is likely to fund an additional San Antonio-class LPD in fiscal 2023, giving Navy and Marine Corps leaders a window to move ahead on L(X). The size and draft of LPDs reduces their utility maneuvering troops and weapons across littoral areas, but LCS and EPF lack the capacity and well decks needed along coastlines without piers or wharves. L(X) could bridge this gap by combining the logistical ease of an amphibious ship with the weapons and command and control of a littoral warship.

The behavior of China’s maritime forces demonstrates Beijing’s intent to dominate the Western Pacific and destabilize U.S. alliances. Optimizing the U.S. Navy to fight an invasion of Taiwan will not resist China’s efforts today and may only leave the U.S. and its allies more vulnerable to other scenarios for Chinese aggression. Investing a fraction of the Navy’s budget in a fleet that can campaign would expand the options available to U.S. commanders, increasing uncertainty for Chinese planners and reassuring allies and partners now falling prey to Beijing’s predations. 

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.