A Rockefeller of the Seas

When General Ulysses S. Grant floated troops down the Tennessee River in 1862 on the campaign that would eventually break the back of the confederacy, his transports did so under the protection of privately-owned gun boats. The first-of-their-kind riverboat ironclads were at that time still the property of their inventor—St. Louis entrepreneur James B. Eads.1

A wealthy businessman, Eads oversaw more than four thousand workers to build the boats from scratch in less than one hundred days, spending his own money to finish them in time. Though technically under contract with the federal government, he was not paid until well after Grant used his vessels to pry open the war’s western theater.

The acquisition pace for new naval assets was different in 2023. On submarines, for example, the Navy announced last March that the United States would not achieve a two-submarine-per-year delivery schedule until 2028.2

Traditional procurement pathways and industrial base issues do not allow the Defense Department to deploy new naval assets in less than one hundred days. A consortium of wealthy elite Americans—latter-day James B. Eadses—might. With the Navy confronting unprecedented challenges—from the growing prowess of adversaries abroad (especially China), to aging assets, an eroded industrial base, a ponderously slow acquisitions process, and unreliable funding streams at home—perhaps patriots of means can provide a similar service today.

Given a dire need for greater deterrence in the shallow seas around Taiwan, one area in which they might have an outsized impact is unmanned submersibles, or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). If that wealthy consortium was granted the flexibility to acquire and deliver the right assets now—while admittedly highly unconventional—it may forestall or even prevent disaster later. For Navy planners, it is worth a conversation.

Losing Our Underwater Edge

The South China Sea has become Beijing’s kill box. Land-based missiles—like the DF-21D “carrier killer” or the DF-26 “Guam express”—menace allied bases and surface ships four thousand kilometers out to sea. In the air, China’s fifth-generation fighters will hold a numerical advantage by 2025.3 Unlike American aircraft, they take off, land, and refuel from well-protected homebases.

America’s advantage lies underwater, where the Navy retains superior technological and combat capability. What it lacks is numbers. Last year, the Congressional Research Service found the Navy had just thirty-one submarines operationally ready for service worldwide—not just in the Indo-Pacific.4 Maintenance and production delays have frozen the U.S. undersea fleet at three-fifths the size Navy plans require.5 Nor is the defense industrial base able to fill this gap fast enough: Congress has pushed for two new attack submarines a year, but according to the Wall Street Journal, the major shipyards can only produce them at a rate of 1.2 per year.6

Submarines may be America’s only edge in the South China Sea, and there are not enough to deter what some assess is a rising risk of China attacking Taiwan by 2027.7

Can unmanned underwater assets fill the gap in the near-term? Ukraine’s experience in the Black Sea suggests the answer is “yes.” The country’s cheap, homemade sea drones have given Kyiv asymmetric advantages in attacking Russian naval assets.8

Read the rest at The Republic.

Bill Rivers is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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