In 1914, with Europe spiralling into all-out war, US President Woodrow Wilson told Congress: “A powerful navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defence; and it has always been of defence that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of navy to build?”

It is with some irony that the president who resisted entry into the First World War was compelled into action because of an act of German aggression on the seas.

That statement, on 8 December 1914, has as much resonance today as it did then. “Things are moving very quickly. It’s very competitive. We’ve done a lot of work to try and figure out – how should the navy respond?” said US Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson. Speaking to an audience at a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) symposium, the MIT graduate outlined the challenges facing the US Navy and how academia has helped, and could continue to help, naval development.

Record spending and naval changes ahead

Such remarks are timely given the $717bn US defence bill just approved by Congress in record time. The bill will facilitate a build-up of US military might, with particular focus on the naval fleet.

Those plans – or at least the ones being considered – increase the commission of new aircraft carriers to three, as well as adding two smaller combat ships and 12 submarines. The move is a response to growing concern over naval developments in China and Russia leading to what US Defence Secretary James Mattis calls a “great power competition”.

The US Navy is in a period of change with spending set to increase and Richardson determined to prepare the force for the future. That readiness, however, cannot come quick enough for outgoing commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. At his retirement ceremony in May he warned of the dangers of the readiness environment, urging leaders to “first fully fund the readiness accounts of the navy we have before we start building a navy for the future”.

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The job facing Richards is tough. “The CNO does not have enough ships to meet his tasking,” says retired Commander Graham Edmonds of the Royal Navy, now vice chairman of the UK National Defence Association. “His problem is exacerbated by four Pacific Fleet ships being in dry dock for repairs after a disastrous series of collisions,” he adds, referring to US naval collisions in 2017 that resulted in the death of 17 personnel.

An end to naval missile defence patrols?

Knowing his role is likely to be very different to that of CNOs before him, Richardson called for a major shift in defence strategy. He said he wanted to see an end to the ballistic missile defence (BMD) patrols the navy has been conducting for many years.

Speaking to an audience at the US Naval War College, he said: “Right now… I have six multi-mission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers – six of them are on BDM duty at sea. And if you know a little bit about this business you know that geometry is a tyrant.”

He went on to bemoan the impact of those patrols, saying they were ultimately meaning naval assets were “in a tiny box” in order to intercept any missile threat. “So, we have six ships that could go anywhere in the world, at flank speed, in a tiny little box, defending land.”

Clearly Richardson feels significant strain is being place on an already stretched naval fleet. But his call will likely amount to nothing, says Edmonds. “Clearly [Richardson] would argue that land-based BMD is a better form of CONUS BMD as he needs operational ships for other tasks. However, fixed land-based BMD systems are an easy target for modern super/hypersonic cruise missiles before any ballistic missile is launched. The counter argument is that BMD-capable ships are mobile and therefore less easy to locate and destroy, thus having a better chance of survivability to counter any BM attack.”

His view won’t sit well with Richardson, who said during his US Naval War College speech: “It’s time to build something on land to defend the land. Whether that’s Aegis Ashore or whatever, I want to get out of the long-term missile defence business and move to dynamic missile defence.”

He added that the navy needed its missile defence systems to protect its assets as foreign forces “doubled down” efforts to keep the US Navy at bay.

Ashore BMD versus sea-based defence

The US currently has an Aegis Ashore in Romania – which welcomed sailors in 2015 – with another expected to be operational in Poland by 2020. Together, they will lift some of the burden on the sea-based fleet, but for now four US Aegis ships remain stationed in Rota, Spain, providing BMD to the continent.

Japan is also taking steps to protect itself from perceived threats. In December 2017 the country approved the purchase of US missile defence technology, hoping to have two Aegis Ashore batteries ready for operation by 2023. However, the defence budget will not be agreed until late August. If all goes to plan this will free up some of the US naval capacity.

While for now these are only plans, the Russians and Chinese press with actions. “The Russians have developed mobile BMD systems such as the S-400, whereas the US has not,” says Edmonds. He adds that some European naval forces are taking steps to upgrade their fleets to be BMD capable, including Spain and the Netherlands. But any support from the ‘special relationship’ is far less likely, at least for now.

“The British Royal Navy’s Sea Viper system could be upgraded to be BMD capable, thus protecting the UK and Ireland. But it seems unlikely Her Majesty’s Treasury would release the necessary funds. Anyway, six T45s are not enough, at least four more would be needed for fleet air defence and national BMD,” Edmonds adds.

For now, at least, it seems Richardson’s request will remain just that, even if political leaders are hearing him in Washington. “I would submit the CNO is stuck with BMD role,” concludes Edmonds, “at least until Aegis Ashore BMD systems based in Romania and Poland are fully operational”.

It’s fair to say whatever the US does it will need other partners to step up too, a subject very close to President Trump’s heart.