Oh, goodness. More than four years ago I reacted to Captain Hendrix's statement when he proposed that:
Of course, this statement was utterly false already in 1980s with SS-N-19 Shipwreck (P-700 Granit) and P-1000 Vulkan being main strike anti-ship weapons of the Soviet Navy, capable of ranges in excess of 600 kilometers, with Vulcan being capable of the range of 800 kilometers (in Russian). But that was some time ago. Since then, Captain Hendrix had to face some serious, in fact revolutionary, changes in the whole outlook of the naval warfare and he wrote a book, which was reviewed in a good ol' neocon rag National Review, which never ceased on this nauseating narrative of the United States being the best thing ever in the universe. But this time, Hendirx, who employs a Mahan's template in justifying his thesis based on the "lessons" from history, has a much more somber tone. Jim Talent, who reviews Hendrix's book, notes that Hendrix offers "the best explanation of "naval presence" Talent has ever seen:
US Navy ships . . . possess a distinct advantage over their land contemporaries in that they can exert influence ashore without having to be physically tied to the land. Not only does sovereignty move with each commissioned ship but also through the effects of its sensors and weapons; it can project influence simply by being present offshore. Think of this influence as an incandescent lamp moving about upon the sea. As it approaches an object, its influence can be understood as the degree to which [its] sensors and weapons fully “illuminate” or make clear the local strategic environment while demonstrating US interests at the local area. . . . Ships moving toward an area of interest cast a “bow wave” of influence ahead of them as they approach, projecting their capabilities and potential for action well prior to their arrival, yet ships departing an area also leave behind influence in the good will and stability they fostered but also because of the implicit promise that they can, and will, return.
Sure, this works, for nations which have no viable armed forces and are primarily small economically and geographically. Moreover, the US navy today has no monopoly on sensors and, in fact, some nations (wink, wink) can see and track Carrier Battle Groups before they even form, let alone set sail to "local area" to "demonstrate US interests". After that, Talent notes:
Unfortunately, as Hendrix explains in lucid detail, American naval primacy is now largely a thing of the past. The defense budget was reduced by over a third in the 1990s, forcing the Navy to cut 200 ships. The situation got even worse in the first 15 years of this century. All pretense of meeting naval requirements was dropped, and the Navy lost another 100 ships. Our NATO allies reduced their fleets even more than the United States did during the same period.
This is where both Talent and Hendrix make a huge mistake. US Navy's problem is not fiscal. Or budgetary. It is doctrinal and technological. It is doctrinal because this "bow wave" of interest, as Hendrix puts it, is not that large anymore thanks to this little teeny-weeny fact that it is only Missile Technology Control Regime which kept the range of, say, Russian-made export variants of anti-shipping missiles to 300 kilometers. Obviously, nothing prevents Russia to consider a sale of her 800-km range capable P-800 Oniks to China, or, depending on how Russian-Chinese relations develop, even 1,500 km range 3M54M Kalibr, if China asks Russia pretty-pretty please. I doubt Russia will sell, for now, any 3M22 Zircons, with their 1000+ kilometer range, to China. But who knows. Under all these conditions, including Indians who have their Brahmos capable of 800 kilometers, who knows what else is out there and with what ranges.
Common for all those missiles from Oniks to Zircon, apart from their velocities, are the ranges which are either equal or exceed, and by far, any ranges of carrier aviation when considering this carrier aviation operating in the dense ECM and modern Air Defense environment. This means only one thing--carriers will be stationed outside of zones where they can deploy their airwings. In case of the nations capable of deploying the long-range aviation, carriers will be pushed not only out of the near sea zones, but way out into the ocean where they represent nothing more than fat juicy targets and are absolutely useless in any "power projection" role. Hendrix recognizes this, however grudgingly and under utterly wrong title of "filling the gap":
America’s armed forces aren’t and shouldn’t be the main tool of our foreign policy, but they are the foundation of all the other tools; they give credibility and energy to the diplomatic and economic influence of the United States. As American naval presence has declined, Russia and China have been quick to fill the gap. Although, as Hendrix notes, Russia and China have traditionally been land powers, they have developed modern naval forces fully capable of challenging American power. They are using their navies, along with their arsenals of land-based precision missiles, to extend their influence and even their sovereign control over the seas far beyond their shores.
1. I don't see Russia "filling any gap" with moving around Middle East and Maghreb and blowing legitimate governments out of the water. Russia projects power in a very different way than the United States ever did.
2. Hendrix is also wrong that Russia and China have been traditionally "land powers". Chinese sea fairing started millennia before the United States came into existence, same goes for Russia, whose Navy is older than the United States as a country.
The fact that Russia can sink anything, including any combination of large surface combatants, including aircraft carriers, in the distance of 2-3,000 kilometers from her shores doesn't mean that Russia somehow "extends her influence". In fact, what Russia does, based on historic record of America's aggression around the globe, she limits America's influence. Simple as that. That is why those weapons have been created in the first place. Not to "extend the influence" but not to allow to be "democratized" and have modern Western "values" shoved down her throat. Then, of course, comes the issue of Arctic, but I am not going to delve too much into this issue, because for now the United States is irrelevant in the Arctic and bar patrols of the US SSNs in the near-Russia Arctic waters and under the polar ice-cap, has little influence over Northern Sea Route, which Russia claims as its own. But Hendrix finds the way to address it, as he thinks:
Hendrix’s solution to this challenge is, unsurprisingly, a large expansion of America’s Navy from the current 295 ships to 456. He does not shy away from the cost of that, but Pentagon reformers will be pleased to read that he wants to re-envision the structure as well as the size of the fleet. He thinks we need lower-end, less costly ships that can sustain presence even in smaller and shallower ports around the world. And those who are frustrated by the long and costly land engagements of the past 20 years will be pleased to read that Hendrix sees the new Navy as the linchpin of a new maritime focus in American involvement in the world.
Here is where Hendrix misses the whole point. Modern day and age, numbers alone in case of conflict mean very little. Even if to assume that the United States is able (it is not) to produce "lower-end, less costly" ships which he thinks are needed "for presence". Modern weapon systems are capable to destroy highest-end and astronomically expensive US Navy's surface assets at the cost of a few million dollars. It is a simple engineering and industrial truism that, say Russia, or China are capable to produce something like Oniks with the rate of production orders of magnitude greater than construction of new "lower-end, less costly" ships. They will be detected, tracked and sunk in case of any serious conflagration and this should be avoided by all means. As for numbers, boy, I heard this story before, legendary Arleigh Burke while talking to Elmo Zumwalt stated that "we need numbers". Burke wanted at that time 900 major combatants, which was beyond whole America's industrial capacity. Now, the story repeats itself. Or, maybe not. Modern America is not the United States of 1950s and 1960s, nor building ships just for "presence" makes any military sense other than providing modern states with a variety of targets in the areas where the United States and the US Navy have no business to start with.
The warfare changed. It changed dramatically, in a revolutionary way. High-supersonic and hypersonic anti-shipping missiles with mind boggling ranges are already here. Even longer range missiles are coming. This changed everything tactically, operationally and strategically, but still many in the US are trying to grasp the last straw of hope that the halcyon days of gigantic CVNs and carrier aviation were perceived as the embodiment of the American military might and global influence could still be prevented from fading into the obscurity. Sorry, folks, this cannot be done. Swarms of hypersonic AI-driven missiles, forming own instant combat networks, plugging into the globally positioned and space-based reconnaissance and targeting assets, with immense signal processing power and augmented reality of the global battle-space, these are not fantasies anymore, it is reality which spelled the doom for Pax Americana and with it to the United States Navy as we know it. Time to rethink both military and security strategies away from a delusion of American exceptionalism and aggressiveness and a broken record of America's greatness. If not, the country itself is lost and that is a much bigger problem than the number of the ships.