We hear a lot about the Battle Force when talking about US Navy force structure and the documents that guide how we deploy and employ our Fleets. As a reader of Mahan, the language brings me back to a phrase he repeatedly uses in his writing, “The Battle-fleet.” See, in Mahan’s day the U.S. Navy started out as a 5th rate power (or worse) and didn’t even have a single fleet that could stand up to a foreign navy when massed together. Over the years he wrote, culminating about the time he passed away in the prelude to World War I, the USN slowly built its battle-fleet to be a peer of almost any navy on the seven seas. Over the next century the USN continued to build and develop itself into the superpower it is today, with several fleets positioned globally.

Much of what we hear about the Battle Force today harkens back to Mahan’s writing on how to use the battle-fleet. The focus is decisive combat against the enemy’s naval forces followed by or concurrent with the projection of power ashore. The focus is on the high-end and kinetic operations which should be the focus of the battle-fleet and, by analogy in today’s language, the modern Battle Force.

But the comparison to today’s Navy starts to come apart as you read about the types of ship’s Mahan thought were appropriate for a navy. While most of us are taught about his belief in the battle-fleet, and its role in pursuing and winning decisive battles that would establish American command of the sea, we’re rarely reminded that in his view a Navy didn’t stop there. Yes, he believed the battle-fleet had to win the decisive battle but there are many other tasks of naval forces. In his essay “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies” he wrote that a properly constructed navy needed to be balanced and have three main parts. First was, yes, the battle-fleet. Second was independent cruisers. Third was small combatants and craft to operate in close to an enemy’s shoreline. It wasn’t all one battle-fleet, but a balanced naval force designed for more than just blue water battle.

Each of these different groups of naval vessels had a role to play in major combat operations, but also a matching role to play in peacetime operations. In war the battle-fleet remained offshore, far enough away from the enemy’s coastline that it wouldn’t fall victim to costal defenses (what today we call A2AD threats). There the battle-fleet awaited the enemy’s fleet, maneuvering for positions of advantage for the coming decisive battle. The independent cruisers would range between the battle-fleet and the enemy’s coast, looking to pick off scouts and small squadrons or ranging further afield to strike at the enemy’s merchant shipping and impose an economic cost. Finally, the smaller littoral ships ranged in close, tested and engaged the enemy’s coastal defenses, and scouted for the enemy’s fleet to determine when or where it would sortie to engage in the decisive battle.

Today’s Battle Force has platforms which fill all of those rolls in the vision of the 21st century naval conflict. In Mahan’s day it was an all surface affair, with ships of varying sizes and armaments filling the roles. (He wrote that submarines and torpedo craft, which were experimental platforms for turn of the century navies, were likely to gain success and capability and become part of the mix, but it hadn’t happened before his death). Today, many of the roles are still filled by surface combatants, but submarines and aircraft have taken over significant parts of the equation. They have assumed many, if not all, of the roles and missions traditionally taken by the independent cruisers and the small combatants in the littorals, and with much success in kinetic operations. The name Battle Force, rather than battle-fleet, is certainly accurate.

The problem with today’s Battle Force is that by replacing the cruisers, scouts, and small combatants with submarines and aircraft it loses the capabilities those vessels brought to the peacetime missions. For centuries navies, unlike armies and more recently unlike air forces, have had dual responsibilities not just to fight and win the nation’s wars at sea but to serve in peacetime to protect the nation’s interests, deter challengers, and serve as a diplomatic arm of the military in building partnerships and friendships across the globe. From our nation’s earliest days the dual uses of naval forces were on our leaders minds. Former Naval Academy and Naval War College professor Dr. Craig Symonds wrote in his book Navalists and Antinavalists:

All of President James Monroe’s surviving papers on the navy or on naval policy reflect a concern that it efficiently perform two distinct services: first, that it be adequate to cope with the daily problems of a maritime nation – smuggling, piracy, and combating the slave trade; and, second, that it provide the United States with a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.

What today we refer to as maritime security operations and partnership building isn’t a new-fangled 21st century idea. In fact, it’s a mission which goes back to the very founding of our service, shared with navies throughout history.

Today’s Battle Force is a battle-fleet on steroids, one that has absorbed the rest of the naval force. It is surely powerful and brings us more than “a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.” For fighting and winning a major war it has no equal on the seven seas. However, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because major war may become more likely if there are no ships to conduct the first distinct service President Monroe enumerated.

While the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower says all the right things, the Battle Force isn’t built for that strategy. It is only built for one half of our navy’s job. It has mobility and the flexibility to engage multiple targets, but more and more often it lacks true adaptability to do more than just put warheads on foreheads, or threaten it. As the Battle Force shores up its control of the Navy the ability to adapt to smaller contingencies, work in contested waters that are not yet in kinetic conflict, or engage non-state actors and build partnerships becomes harder and harder. Yet these are all the things needed to help avert war, and so actual war at sea becomes more likely, and the Battle Force continues to become stronger.

Naval thinkers from Mahan to Corbett to Zumwalt to Hughes have discussed the importance of having a balanced fleet. High/low mix, Streetfighter, or Influence Squadrons are just other ways to talk about a balanced fleet which is capable of the “regular” major combat operations and fleet engagements as well as the “irregular” maritime security operations and partnership/diplomatic development. Mahan wrote that his own thinking and writing provided a solid foundation to move on to the writing of Sir Julian Corbett, the British navalist who told us that “in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.” Today’s networked Battle Force is impressive and powerful. As Mahan wrote, it is the starting point for a properly constructed naval force. But the question is…does a powerful battle-fleet alone provide the Navy we need to face the turbulent seas of the 21st century?

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Innovation, Maritime Security, Navy, Proceedings, Soft Power, Tactics

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  • Chuck Hill

    If you look at the wartime roles of cruisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Scouting, Anti-Scouting, Screening the battle fleet, Protecting friendly commerce, Destroying enemy commerce), it appears to me, the only elements that remain exclusively the province of surface vessels are boarding vessels (for the purpose of determining their nationality/destination/cargo) and rescuing the crews of friendly merchant ships that are attacked far from shore facilities (including the use of ship based helicopters).

  • RightCowLeftCoast

    With the increasing cost per hull, of higher and higher multicapable and advanced vessels, consuming the ever shrinking defense budget (as the welfare/benefit state increases (the “mandatory budget”)) less and less funds are available for additional hulls. Moreover, with ever increasing manpower cost having the idea of increasing the number of sailors required to man the fleet is somethring frowned upon by budget planners. Thus you end up with designs that are cutting edge, with minimal crew requirements (something that will have a negative impact on shiprighting during a damage control scenario).

    Given all this, it is unlikely for there to be a return to the balanced force that we understand is required in a peacetime navy.

    Perhaps if one can build inexpensive and survivable hulls and lower sailor pay will such a balance be achievable, but I doubt it.

  • If your argument is to reduce the CVN fleet so that we can build up smaller hulls that can “engage”, then I’m against it. Twice in very recent memory those big deck carriers proved invaluable coming to the assistance of foreign populations after suffering the affects of earthquakes and tidal waves. Do we need smaller ships, less capable, but more visible through more numbers? Absolutely! Do we need Fords vice Ferarris? Absolutely! Do we need fewer big deck carriers during a time of upheaval and potential threats far and wide? No! To the point, every President since Roosevelt has said at some point in time, “Where are the carriers?”. There is a reason for that question and we shouldn’t forget it. And the question of budget, while real, should never be the determing factor in how we approach the decision making of the defense budget. Our military, especially our Navy, is what maintains our safety both home and on distant shores. I will never agree to reducing the defense budget so we can pay for more bread and circuses at home.

  • Valcan321

    The Slave trade is mostly conducted in land around the middleast and east of that and into eastern europe. (Lest we forget about a certain market there…) And is basicly outside the Navies control.

    Piracy can be solved simply and the old way.

    Pirates set out from your village we murder everyone in it. Remarkably effective and cheap.

    What the Navy needs are ships like the Old coast guard 327 class. Modernized.

    Hell they dont need great speed just endurance. Give them a helicopter pad and hanger a 76mm up from and the gear for detecting mines and build in mass. Make them more modular like we planned with the LCS and they could be used by the Coasties.

    Numerous, dependable and cheap.

  • Guest

    Byron, so if your notional naval force can get 3 purpose built Afloat Forward Staging Bases (which spend more time at sea with rotating MSC crews) and an LHA for the cost of 1 CVN…how does that effect your calculus? If the size of the Carrier Fleet includes HADR and forward presence missions that require vertical lift and the ability to provide personnel ashore (which a carrier air wing can’t provide), how exactly is the cost of a CVN and the cost of a CAW the efficient strategic choice?

    • How many helos was that carrier able to operate and sustain during operations off Haiti helping with earthquake victims? You’re talking a platform to support an insurgency and a baby flat top replacing the combat power of a CVN and it’s air wing. Not happening. You want to take us to the “UN supporting role” capability and I want to keep a credible fist ready to strike when the nation is threatened. Keep in mind that just because Pearl Harbor was nearly 71 years ago doesn’t mean we can’t have another. You toss away the ability to project power abroad around the world and it’ll damned hard to get it back when you need it..

  • Does this post from 2010 meet the requirement as stated by this post’s author?

    I assume he proposes 15 CVNs.


    Grandpa Bluewater • 2 years ago−Ahem:The correct answer remains 15 carrier battle groups – five for overhaul and major maintenence, five for workup and training, 4 deployed and one in hot standby or relieving the Pensacola nugget
    training carrier to it can get some maintenence and liberty.

    Big deck big well amphib call ’em what you like (LB, any one?)

    BG’s: 12, same rationale except subtract 1 from each category above.

    12 LPD24 LST do the math (Yea, yea, never going to do it again, A-bomb, too hard etc, etc.) Baloney in 1950, Baloney now.

    30 CG’s AA, ABM, pinch hit for a DDG if things are slow or the attacking enemy is multitudinous.

    60 DDGs more close in AA, shore bombardment, ASW, ASuW, y’all come, who wants to die next. The escort of maximum versitility30 AK/E/O/F; mix and match the letters but 1 big logistics mother per BG. Current crop can’t do it all? Pair ’em as Task Element .1 &.2. Ammo and beans and fuel oil, we deliver, any time, any ocean.

    60 DD’s; all with hanger and two helo, or 1 harrier 1 helo. 400 ft of ship generating white water, black smoke and 360 degrees of sudden death.

    120 FF , because you need to escort civilians and every other kind of ship sometime.

    Amphib command ships: zero. Ride the big deck or stay home.

    SSN’s 48, SS 24, SSBN 18. Boomers big and med speed, magic quiet.SSN’s for blue water, SS’s for chokepoint and harbor entrance. All Seal capable.Auxiliaries, as needed.

    LR MPA, 3 wings.

    One squadron/wing amphib VP, why not?

    SSBN support as needed.

    CDR’s Intent: The Ocean belongs to USN, free use to friends, no use to enemies.

    Now put Port Security,Customs and Border Patrol under strict USMC supervision….then peace will rule our planet (after some vigorous cleaning,lubrication, alignment and calibration), and love will fill the skies….[/quote]

    Is what is proposed above a battle force/something that can do a range of missions as requested by the author of this post?

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      In an ideal world where budgets were limitless I would back this wholeheartedly. But with our federal budget being consumed by entitlements leaving less and less for a constitutional role, the maintanance of a navy, how does one fund this fleet?
      As a veteran, and former soldier, do we go back to “raising an army”, and returning to the primarily State controlled Militia/National Guard model? That is returning to an Army looking like before the Louisiana Manuevers?
      What about the Air Force?

      • grandpabluewater

        RCLC: Fund by….Defense budget equal to 5% of GDP, death to cost plus contracts, OinC of the project office concerned lose a year group worth of seniority in the Blue Book for every change order not funded by the prime contractor after the first day of TechEval. Flunk TechEval Project Manager gets orders to home.
        Flunk OpEval Deputy Commander of NavSea concerned gets orders to home.

        Oh yeah, change the tax law that favors offshoring manufacturing.

    • grandpabluewater

      Derrick: Yes, I did. (Damn typos never die on the internet. Ah, well.)