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May 06, 2010

SecDef To Navy: We Need To Have The Talk

Not the one about the birds and the bees but the one about where the relationship is going. Nobody wants to have that talk but earlier this week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put the Navy on notice…things are going to change.

Gates’ speech to the Navy League created quite a stir in the military blogosphere, especially the Navy’s corner of it. Since I’ve been complaining about how our national conversation about defense has been mostly devoted to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and social engineering the sub force, I figured this was a chance to change that a bit.

After running through the Navy/Marine Corps list of advantages…largest and most technologically advanced (by several orders of magnitude) carrier, large deck amphibs, surface and sub fleets along with the largest naval infantry service in the world, Gates more or less asks, when is enough enough or in fact too much?

Potential adversaries are well-aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the us to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.

Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages – to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.

We know other nations are working on asymmetric ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet. At the low end, Hezbollah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship missiles against the Israeli navy in 2006. And Iran is combining ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats in order to challenge our naval power in that region.

At the higher end of the access-denial spectrum, the virtual monopoly the U.S. has enjoyed with precision guided weapons is eroding – especially with long-range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon. This is a particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multi-billion-dollar blue-water surface combatants, where, for example, a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially a $15 to $20 billion set of hardware at risk. The U.S. will also face increasingly sophisticated underwater combat systems – including numbers of stealthy subs – all of which could end the operational sanctuary our Navy has enjoyed in the Western Pacific for the better part of six decades

There’s certainly a case to be made for staying ahead of the curve against future threats but Gates seems to be discounting our current advantages compared to some unidentified potential threats (which he admits can’t be predicted). He seems to be operating under the assumption that Somali pirates and Hezbollah are going to be major threats to the Navy in the future and not peer or near peer threats like, oh I don’t know, China (a name not mentioned once in the speech but whose shadow certainly hung over it).

As Bryan McGrath argues at Information Dissemination, China isn’t just trying to deny the US freedom of access but carve out their own space.

…Numbers count, and they are on a building blitz. Here’s a peek from Ron O’Rourke at what the Chinese are doing in building submarines: “Between 1995 and 2007, China placed into service a total of 38 submarines of all kinds, or an average of about 2.9 submarines per year. This average commissioning rate, if sustained indefinitely, would eventually result in a steady-state submarine force of 58 to 88 boats of all kinds, assuming an average submarine life of 20 to 30 years”. Just modernizing? Chinese surface shipbuilding programs are even more aggressive. Finally, given China’s growing and dynamic economy, it isn’t apparent that they WOULD bankrupt themselves in challenging us, at least as far as the terms of such a challenge are conducted today.

Yes, defending against a threat from China or another upstart power is expensive but it’s a lot cheaper than actually fighting one you aren’t prepared for or worse, one you let grow because they saw an opening. Granted none is on the horizon but these kinds of discussions involve looking out 20-30 years. All of you who predicted the US would spend 8+ years fighting wars/counterinsurgencies in two Asian countries back in 1985 raise your hands. Yeah, exactly.


Now Gates is making noises about going below 11 carriers. Well, we just went through a period with 10 carriers because of an extensive overhaul to the 48 year old USS Enterprise and it created problems.

The Navy today announced it will extend the next deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman. The upcoming deployment will now last just under eight months.

The decision is the result of a delay in the completion of USS Enterprise's maintenance at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News.

The Navy is also extending the current deployment of the USS Nimitz.

"Adjusting these carrier deployment schedules was the best solution of available options," said Adm. J. C. Harvey Jr., commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. "We recognize this decision has operational and personnel impacts, such as training cycle changes and family uncertainty. Our Sailors and families also are ready to step up when necessary to meet the continued demands of a nation at war."

We spent over $600 million on Enterprise to get two more deployments out of her until the USS Ford joins the fleet. Look what operating 10.5 carriers now did to deployment schedules. What happens to the fleet (men and machines) when 8+ month deployments become the norm, not the emergency exception?

What missions is Gates willing to do without? What area of the globe is he willing to leave uncovered? What reserve force is he willing to forgo?

Gates is right that no one, China included, is going to build a carrier fleet to challenge the US worldwide but that’s not the point. At first, China’s main concerns will be regional, 2 or 3 will do very nicely (granted they are a long way from having even one). Now 11 vs 2 or 3 is still an over-match. Say the US goes to 9 carriers, not all are going to be available at once and not all are in the Pacific. The odds start to even out.

Even if they don’t even out in an actual fight, the idea is to make a fight so unthinkable you don’t have it. Start to close in on parity from both ends, we draw down as they build up, and it can have a dramatic effect on calculations.

Lex, who as a retired fighter pilot might just have a dog in this fight, weighs in on the strategic implications of Gates' speech.

This vision moves us away from nation-breaking “Leviathan” capabilities and towards a smaller, cheaper coastal defense force that – rather than defend the US shoreline – polices trouble spots on the empire’s edge. But at least for me, it’s hard to see how smaller, cheaper ships operating well within range of shoreline anti-ship missile arcs is inherently a superior option. If push comes to shove you will tend to lose more, less capable ships – scale matters.

Submarines are tremendously lethal anti-surface platforms and possess a significant capability for precise, albeit pinprick strikes ashore using TLAMs. But they are not cheap, are challenged in the littorals and massively ineffective as pirate hunters. If your “problem” is that potentially hostile nations are so deterred by your current Navy that they do not attempt to field symmetrical forces – which by the way, is a good problem to have – increasing the submarine force offers no immediate benefit but rather issues an open invitation to compete with cheaper and equally stealthy diesel boats within their own regions. You can have 40 nuclear submarines to your adversary’s 10 diesel boats, but you’ve got to be everywhere and he merely needs to be at home.

Furthermore, a stealthy submarine might be anywhere, which – to your tinpot dictator inflated with his own self-importance – means that they are nowhere, at least until the sub-launched cruise missile enters his bedroom window. Their inherent advantage of stealth means that they offer little in the way of conventional deterrence. A carrier strike group off your coast, on the other hand, places a heavy finger on the scales of regional strategic calculus.

As John Noonan argues, the idea that the carrier is going to become obsolete almost overnight like battleships did over 60 years ago ignores the inherent differences between the platforms.

But, if 21st century warfare is as fluid as the secretary says, it seems as if carriers would be even more valuable today as they were during the simpler Cold War epoch. Nuclear carriers, aside from the wow-factor ability to park a dominant air force right off the coast of a potential aggressor, are unmatched in their flexibility. They have been used as messengers when diplomacy fails, such as the sailing of two carrier strike groups through the Straits of Taiwan or upping their presence in the Persian Gulf. They can act as support bases for natural disasters, with ample nuclear power, fresh water, and helicopters for search and rescue. And they are critical in their ability to rapidly adapt to unpredictable changes in geopolitical events, whether that be running close air support sorties over Afghanistan or hammering Serbia's military and war-supporting infrastructure.

A battleship's flexibility is limited. It exists to hammer targets on land and sea.

Gates seems to be betting that the US won't face a peer competitor in the next few decades. There's no science to this but history shows preparing for the worst helps to prevent it. I would think it's easier to scale our current forces down to asymmetric threats as they appear than it would be to fight a traditional blue water navy with Gates' vision for a scaled down force.

No one is going to claim that the Navy is without sin when it comes to shipbuilding (LPD 17/DD(x)/LCS spring to mind) but there’s simply no reason to believe that the challenges facing the United States are going to decrease anytime soon. 2/3 of the globe is still going to covered by water and even the most hi-tech, optimally manned ships can only be in one place at one time. Being the hyper-power is expensive but it comes with a lot of advantages as well. It’s simply not something you can do on the cheap.

(I really recommend reading all three pieces I linked to in this)

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posted by DrewM. at 10:57 AM

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