April 30, 2018

So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Strategy Part 1

Scott Alexander: Thank you all for coming. Ever since we accidentally created a friendly AI, and it built this new country for us to run, we’ve all been rather busy. Since we’ve got a handle on the immediate problems, Bean is going to lay out his vision for our Navy.1

Bean: Thank you. Ultimately, the plans for our Navy have to start with our basic strategy and situation, and flow out of that. As David Friedman's economic policies have attracted a great deal of trade, and because the AI was kind enough to leave us with a medium-sized island, I believe the policies pursued by the British over the last few decades should serve well as a general model.

So what are our strategic goals? Our first and most important objective is to to be able to control the sea, and protect our trade. Obviously, we can’t do this alone, or in opposition to the US, which is why a vital foreign policy goal must be to ally with the US. But our diplomats assure me that this will be easy thanks to the changes made by the AI in Washington, so I’ve built the strategy on the assumption that we are a US ally. But this covers a whole range of capabilities. Everything from protecting our seasteads and oil platforms from terrorist attack to inspecting local merchant traffic to mine countermeasures to high-intensity anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare if a hot war were to break out.

Second, we wish to be able to project power and advance our national interests ashore. Navies are powerful instruments for influencing people in what we call peacetime. Sending ships on a port visit is a powerful means of building ties. Being able to contribute to, say, the escort force off Somalia raises our profile on the world stage. Having heavier capabilities, amphibious ships and maybe even a carrier or two, brings a lot of diplomatic clout. If we have ships that people may want us to use for their goals, we can make them pay attention to our goals, too. All of this leaves aside the fact that there are going to be times when our goals don’t coincide with anyone else’s. If there’s another round of the Paperclip Riots, we’ll need to intervene on our own.

Third, we need to support our strategic interests. That might mean SSBNs, if John decides that’s how he wants to deliver our nukes. It means having submarines to go in and do things that I can't give concrete examples of in this room.

Many think of these roles as mutually exclusive, but this isn't the case. Carriers are usually thought of as purely for power projection, but carrier fighters shooting down anti-shipping strike aircraft or bombing a submarine base are doing sea control as surely as a frigate hunting submarines. SSNs are great at gathering intelligence, and some of the best anti-ship platforms in the world. A balanced surface combatant is good against air and submarine threats, and works well off Somalia or when hosting a party in a foreign port.

As such, I've designed a balanced fleet, embracing all elements of naval power, which I plan to lay out for you. Any questions so far?

Nornagest: We're a wealthy island nation, but there are quite a few of those: New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan, to name three, and Australia isn't too far off if you stretch the "island" part. And Britain, being a country with a longer history than we have, is carrying more baggage: great-power prestige to maintain, a global network of small, vulnerable dependencies, and a Commonwealth of former colonies with which it still shares a vague first-among-equals relationship. In some ways that works in its favor: it has a ready-made network of friendly ports, for example. But it also imposes constraints. What does that do to our strategy?

Bean: Fair enough, although we're more different from any of those than you think. Our strategy is different from New Zealand's, in that we have one. That may be a bit unfair, but New Zealand clearly has no pretensions of playing on the world stage. We're a bit big for that to work. Singapore isn't strategically an island. Their Navy clearly knows its business, but the invasion of Singapore proper was "a river crossing on a wide front", not something like invading any of our other candidates would have been. Japan, for historical reasons, is focused exclusively on sea control, and doesn't really do power projection. This sort of works for them, but again, I don't see a reason to limit ourselves. Australia suffers from a sort of defense myopia, in that they're more focused on the near region than the far one. There are reasons for this which I'm not going to get into here, but the AI built our island far away enough that we can work more on the global scale.

Our lack of Britain's history is a blessing and a curse. We're going to have to create partnerships from scratch, which will take time and diplomatic finesse. But this also means that we're free to look for the most advantageous partners. One problem with making commitments is that breaking them has serious consequences, and they pile up over time. We will have to make some, most notably probably in the Persian Gulf, but we can get the best possible deals and we don't have legacy commitments, like the US bases in Germany and South Korea.

Le Maistre Chat: Gentlemen (are you all gentlemen?), I remain unclear on the purpose of our Navy. Objective #1 is to to be able to control the sea and protect our trade. To do this, it's assumed we must be a permanent US ally. This is understandable, as the US maintains 10 times as many strike groups as any other power. So we're putting ourselves in an asymmetrical relationship where we have to care about them and they don't have to care about us. It also eliminates a lot of interesting questions, like "How do we destroy an aircraft carrier?" You've made the answer obvious: in case of war with a great power, let the US do that with overwhelming numbers. All we need to do is protect our shipping.

Objective #2 is to be able to project power and advance our national interests ashore. You say "Being able to contribute to, say, the escort force off Somalia raises our profile on the world stage." OK, great, that's a bonus for building the kind of ships we have to build anyway to protect our shipping. What I don't understand is how building amphibious assault ships or a more expensive carrier is the most efficient way to spend $1.5 billion + on diplomatic clout.

It also sounds like all strategic interests other than protecting shipping are best done with submarines. Aren't SSBNs THE obvious way to store nukes if we're going to have them? Airfields and silos are visible fixed targets, and even mobile ICBM launchers are always visible. And you say SSNs are great at gathering intelligence, and some of the best anti-ship platforms in the world.

Bean: All good points, though it's going to take me a while to unpack them. I may have overstated how closely we need to tie ourselves to the US. Our interests align very closely with the traditional US policy of freedom of the seas. Of course, the US leadership is strategically incoherent at the best of times. We're never going to be able to take on China head-to-head, and unless certain contingency plans work much better than I expect, we're stuck dealing with a US that is much more powerful than we are for a long time. Our default plans should use this to our advantage. We care more about them than they care about us, but by supporting them on maters of mutual interest, we bind them more closely to us, and can turn them to our uses. Look at how the French sucked the Americans into Libya. The same applies to contributions in a potential hot war. The NATO powers, who wielded significant military influence, had much larger voices in American policy than did the Japanese, who were militarily weak, despite similar economic importance.

That said, we should probably look at what would happen if those contingency plans do succeed, and we do face down a carrier force in a war we could plausibly win. I'll put that on a future agenda.

And I think you also are treating diplomatic power too one-dimensionally. Switzerland has a lot of clout on certain issues. They host about half of international organizations, and have a great deal of influence within them. But in the Middle East, Switzerland has very little pull, because they have no engagement there, even though they are still dependent on oil from there. We have an economy that is capable of supporting a top-10 navy, and that gives us lots of options to buy into places and situations that we want to be in.

With respect to ASW frigates on patrol off Somalia, this is less true than you think. In the 70s and 80s, a lot of NATO navies, seeking to save money, built frigates that were highly specialized for hunting submarines in the North Atlantic. When the submarines disappeared from the North Atlantic in the 90s, these ships were far less effective in the resulting world than their American counterparts which were slightly more expensive, but also had much better general-purpose capability. The only thing that saved most of them from total obsolescence was their helicopters.

Much the same is true of your position on carriers or amphibs. These ships give us a lot of options. They give us both diplomatic influence, and diplomatic independence, paradoxical though that may sound. Having these capabilities makes us a potentially valuable ally. Valuable allies get better treatment. At the same time, having the capability to solve problems ourselves means that we don't need to be as aggressive about seeking aid from other countries. If we can put down another round of the Paperclip Riots without US assistance, we don't need to pay the price the US wants. The British demonstrated this in 1972, when Ark Royal scared off a Guatemalan invasion of Belize basically single-handedly. You can bet that Belize noticed and was friendlier to Britain than they would have been if Britain had had to get the US to go in and fix it.

While I'd agree that SSBNs are certainly a compelling option for our nuclear weapons, a decision on that will have to wait for John to finish his study on the matter. I will say that if he does recommend SSBNs, it will have an effect on our fleet, due to the need to support their operations. And I do think that SSNs are going to be very important to our fleet.

Unfortunately, that looks to be all I have time for today, but we'll pick this up at our next meeting. Now, over to David.

1 This series was the result of a discussion carried out via email with a number of readers. The "country" discussion seemed like an interesting framing to explore the drivers behind a modern navy's shape and setup. I'm being intentionally vague on the details, because getting those right would take a lot more time and effort than I'm able to give this. At the moment, this series seems to be on hiatus until it grabs my interest again.


  1. May 01, 2018Lapsed Pacifist said...

    Do you remember www.nationstates.net? With enough participation, we could game very limited scenarios where Medium Island Nation and Isthmus Federation engage in strategic competition, turns being something like 5 years maybe.

    This is a great thread regardless, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. May 01, 2018bean said...

    I've heard of it, though never used it. Interesting idea, although my main concern with doing anything of that nature is that it would compete with main Naval Gazing, and I rank that as a higher priority. If someone else took the lead, I might participate.

  3. May 01, 2018The Fatherly One said...

    The Dr Stranglove war room, nice pic.

  4. May 01, 2018bean said...

    This one was hard to illustrate, but it seemed appropriate.

  5. May 02, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Quick reference as to what a modern British-style navy entails:

    73 commissioned ships

    20 major surface combatants:

    1 aircraft carrier

    6 guided missile destroyers

    13 frigates

    10 nuclear-powered submarines

    4 ballistic missile submarines

    6 fleet submarines

    2 amphibious transport docks

    13 mine countermeasures vessels

    22 patrol vessels

    3 survey vessels

    1 icebreaker

    2 historic warships

  6. May 02, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Oops, formatting didn’t go the way I expected... Readers of the above list should be aware that some of those categories are subsets of others.

    [bean: I went in and fixed it. It should be a lot more readable.]

  7. May 02, 2018bean said...


    Right. Who wants to be in charge of getting us some historic warships?

    (I'd point out that they've got a second carrier on order and close to entering service.)

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