The U.S.-led naval operation in the Red Sea may be strategically listless but, operationally, the U.S. Navy has demonstrated its combat skill. American sailors have defended themselves and merchant shipping against a range of anti-ship threats, including missiles, drones and fast boats.
The issue, however, is sustainment. The Middle East crisis has placed extreme stress on the fleet, particularly its personnel. As China menaces Taiwan, Russia savages Ukraine, and the Middle East threatens to slide into cataclysm, the U.S. must expand its surface fleet or risk being overstressed.
The Surface Navy is the unsung linchpin of American grand strategy. Supercarriers can deliver as much combat power as national air forces; nuclear-powered attack submarines can evade hostile reconnaissance, conduct intelligence activities, and penetrate enemy strike networks as a premier war-fighting tool. And the guided missile submarines of the “Silent Service,” armed with 154 land-attack cruise missiles, are the best-armed conventional assets in the world.
However, the surface fleet ties everything together. Absent its complement of surface combatants, the carrier is vulnerable to missile attack. Submarines can penetrate enemy defenses but cannot provide the presence of surface warships — nor can they, apart from the heavily-armed Ohio-class guided missile submarines (SSGNs) field the same number of strike implements, let alone organic air defenses.
The past four decades have seen a decline in surface fleet numbers and overall fleet size. In 1987, the Navy had nearly 600 ships, including 36 cruisers, 69 destroyers and 115 frigates, the latter crucial for escort and presence operations akin to the ongoing Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea and to executing strikes against the Houthi’s since last week. This number contracted to the mid-280s from 2005 onward, with a 279-ship nadir in 2009.
The fleet has expanded since then to 299 ships, but the surface fleet in particular has stagnated. The U.S. added two dozen-plus large surface combatants between 2005 and today, almost all Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. But there are no longer small surface combatants, the Perry–class frigates that conducted Operation Earnest Will in the 1980s having been retired or sold. Their replacement, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), has notable flaws, including high cost and limited armament; a victim of the strategic listlessness that characterized the 2000s, the LCS is being withdrawn from service — some, after just five years.
The result is increasing operations for the most flexible, visible elements of the fleet, its large surface combatants and carriers. The Navy’s 11 supercarriers deploy in nine carrier strike groups (CSGs), with the other two in various states of overhaul or testing. The George Washington returned to the fleet after a five-year overhaul in May 2023 and is undergoing sea trials; the second Ford-class carrier, the John F Kennedy, will not reach the fleet until 2025. Of the remaining nine strike groups, eight are based in the U.S.; the ninth, the Reagan, is home-ported in Japan.
It is a testament to the surface combatant force in particular that such deployments can be sustained. The surface fleet has faced several daunting operational issues since the 2000s, including multiple collisions caused by manpower constraints and limited training, rusting hulls due to insufficient maintenance, and a high operational tempo that has caused personnel attrition. The fact it has preserved U.S. presence and conducted combat operations in the Middle East despite a decade of stress is a testament to the underlying quality of the Arleigh Burke destroyers and their crews.
However, the U.S. remains at a peacetime operational tempo, despite the extended deployments to the Mediterranean and limited combat operations in the Red Sea. The U.S. is not actively at war in the Med, while Ukraine’s combat skill — despite limited Western support — has crippled Russia’s ability to project power and will limit Russia’s threat in the next two to five years, perhaps longer if Ukraine is integrated into the U.S.-led European defense system.
Yet war is probable in the Middle East. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 100 times since Oct. 7; Yemen’s Houthis remain a threat to Red Sea shipping and may require a larger military response from Washington. Iran has sparked the current crisis to stress the U.S. position in the Mideast, with the hope of ejecting it from the region, destroying Israel, and achieving Islamic dominance.
The U.S. must resist this campaign or risk unravelling its broader Eurasian position. Iran and its allies are not so much deterred as biding their time, hoping to spark a rupture between the U.S. and Israel that presents a strategic opportunity for expansion. A persistent U.S. presence is therefore needed not simply for deterrence but for combat.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.