March 1, 2008  

Carried away

The new maritime strategy is out, and for the first time in 20 years, the Navy finds itself with a new course and a new set of strategic priorities. The maritime services have formally recognized that preventing wars is at least as important as winning them and, hence, have made the decision to renew their commitment to humanitarian missions.

The problem with this initiative, however, is that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Navy’s hammer, which dominates its procurement strategy, is the carrier strike group. In a strategic paradigm that includes insurgencies, piracy, disease, natural disasters, rising regional competitors, increasing economic competition for shrinking mineral resources, drug trafficking and weapons proliferation, the Navy owes the nation a procurement strategy that fills the toolbox with gear capable of responding across the spectrum of engagement and conflict. Instead, more than six years into the post-Sept. 11 era, our budgets continue to emphasize carrier strike groups dominated by high-end technologies designed to meet Soviet surface action groups steaming through the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap and regimental formations of Backfire bombers descending from the polar north.

The war on terrorism promises to occupy the thoughts and exertions of the American military for much of the generation to come. This has forced those within the military who are inclined to examine service and joint strategies with a critical eye and to question the utility of current force doctrine and structures. The Navy has not been exempt from this exercise. Adm. Michael Mullen, who ascended to the position of chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff from the post of chief of naval operations, took the aggressive step of anteing up Navy personnel for service as individual augmentees to support units in Iraq and Afghanistan and take pressure off stressed Army and Marine units, but he took other structural steps, as well.

Mullen made the controversial decision, despite opposition from reactionary Navy and Marine Corps leaders, to solidify the structure of the relatively new Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs), an innovation introduced by his predecessor, Adm. Vernon Clark, as well as acting as a strong supporter of the newly established Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC). Both of these organizations were designed to address the low end of the engagement and conflict scale ranging from post-disaster humanitarian assistance to small-force engagements ashore, and from combat operations on inland waterways to civil-military affairs-style infrastructure creation. However, ESGs, with their shortage of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and the now-standard practice of stripping away their surface combatants at the onset of deployments to cover other missions, lack the capabilities to operate at their full potential. The NECC, largely funded out of wartime supplemental budgets, remains unsure of its future in a post-cost-of-war supplemental budgetary environment. What is needed is a new maritime procurement plan that firmly locks these innovations into place and forges ahead on a course that places the Navy in a stronger position to leverage its strategic influence ashore.

Let me emphasize that I am not advocating the demise of the aircraft carrier. It has demonstrated its flexibility and utility for more than 70 years and I cannot envision the day when a crisis erupts and the president does not ask, “Where are the carriers?” There can be little doubt that in an era increasingly characterized by declining access to overseas shore bases that we will continue to require the services of our aircraft carriers. The question really becomes “how many do we need?” Twenty years ago, it was 15 carrier strike groups (we called them carrier battle groups then, and I miss the name), then we went to 12, and now we sit at 11. So what is the bottom-line requirement? It depends on whom you ask, but I believe the number will be somewhat lower, and we will return to this topic shortly.

First, we must examine why the number isn’t higher. We have gone from a nearly 600-ship Navy to 500, 400 and now we are crashing through the 300-ship barrier on our way to something close to 270. There is a promise that we will get back north of 300 again, but looking at the projected retirement dates for Aegis cruisers and the expeditious manner in which we decommissioned the Spruance-class destroyers when their maintenance costs began to climb, logic suggests that the number of days the Navy spends with an inventory in excess of 300 ships will be few. Why? Our leadership, despite its best efforts and ample historical precedent, has been unable to persuade the legislative branch to commit to a Defense Department core budget north of 4 percent of the national gross domestic product. This level of spending characterized previous periods of war and conflict. In the out years, beyond the wartime supplementals, the services face largely static budgets.


We have not been helped by the Navy’s recent propensity to buy Ferraris instead of Fords when it comes to our ships. It seems that every time we enunciate a requirement for a new ship, we specify a requirement for a very basic design, and as soon as we get done with the initial press conference, we begin gold-plating the prototype. Ten years later, when the first ships are being built, we find that the unit costs have grown and realize that the Navy is not going to be able to buy as many as it would like, so additional mission requirements are placed on the few ships that are procured, driving up the costs even more. It’s a death cycle. Look at the recent travails of the Littoral Combat Ship if you need any evidence. If that example isn’t strong enough, one need look no further than the stories surrounding the development of a 25,000-ton Ballistic Missile Defense cruiser or a legislative initiative that requires new Navy vessels to be nuclear-powered.

We must also take into account the fact that the ships presently in the fleet are expensive to operate. The amount “$1 million a day” is often thrown around when discussing carrier budgets. Yet the Navy writes its year-to-year engagement strategies with carriers in mind. When the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations talks about 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 coverage in the Arabian Gulf, we all know it is talking about carrier strike groups, but do we need that capability continuously? At one point last summer, we had two carrier strike groups and one expeditionary strike group in the Arabian Gulf to demonstrate American resolve, presumably to the Iranians, who countered by sending their own carrier to meet us. Oh, wait a minute — they don’t have an aircraft carrier. In fact, no one who is not formally allied with the U.S has an operational aircraft carrier (yes, I count the French as being formally allied with us). Instead, the Iranians sortied their flotilla of small combatants and, yes, they have the advantage of having a lot of land-based aircraft to back up their small, littoral navy. Did our carriers send a signal? Yes. Do we have to send it all the time? No.


In fact, we should consider moving away from regular carrier deployments and toward an alternative strategy of directed/focused surge deployments. In this alternative future strike, carriers on both coasts would be in a constant state of readiness to deploy in response to crises. The West Coast strike carriers and their air wings would be forward based at Guam to cut transit times. In this scenario, we might be able to get by with fewer strike carriers in the inventory than what we maintain now, and send a percentage of the remaining carriers into a maintenance reserve status.

The remaining carriers could be placed in semi-active status and reconfigured for other mission sets, namely to act as expeditionary sea-base platforms to embark Army and Marine Corps expeditionary brigades during crises. Ever since the introduction of the Sea Power 21 operational construct five years ago, the sea base has been getting the short end of the stick from long-term planners, even though it was touted initially as having the most potential to have a positive effect in the post-9/11 world. The sea base was envisioned not only to serve as the logistical base for combat operations ashore, but also to provide a credible engagement force for the type of conditions that tend to predominate the embryonic cultural conflicts that serve as the precursors to insurgency, terrorism and civil strife.

The Marine Corps, with its scalable Marine squad-platoon-company-level ground force embarked on current Expeditionary Strike Groups, acting in concert with host-nation governments, is the ideal force to head off embryonic terrorist groups. ESGs can defuse crises before they metastasize into full-blown insurgencies. Marines have long trumpeted their ability to execute a three-block war: fighting a conventional battle in an urban environment on one block while conducting peacekeeping operations on the next and humanitarian assistance on the third. This flexibility, when combined with their doctrinal and proven operational ability to rapidly constitute themselves into 2,000-man Marine Expeditionary Units, 5,000-plus-man Marine Expeditionary Brigades and 15,000-plus-man Marine Expeditionary Forces, singles out the Marines as the premier ground force at the lower end of the political-military engagement scale while maintaining an option for forcible entry.

ESGs and their antecedents, the Amphibious Ready Groups, were designed to support requests for tailored response forces. The ships of an ESG, with their multiple flight decks, robust medical facilities, and ample room for manpower, construction materials and other supplies, were also envisioned to be a force that could respond to natural disasters and render humanitarian assistance. Focusing the availability of these assets in those regions of the world where radical Islam has begun to make inroads toward altering the popular perception of the U.S. would go a long way toward fighting the other campaign of the war on terrorism.

The campaigns of the future will be fought on the east coast of Africa, in Southeast Asia and in other Pacific island nations where previously moderate Islamic populations and their governments are being challenged by radical movements bent on established pure Islamic rule under Shariah law. Strategically targeted Expeditionary Strike Groups could head off many of these radical groups by building well-equipped secular schools in place of madrassas, drilling wells to provide ample supplies of clean water and creating modern medical facilities, as well as initiating other local services. Terrorist organizations such as Hamas have taken advantage of local shortfalls in the past to step in, provide assistance and gain a reputation among the locals as being a group that could be counted on to provide help. The Navy, if we are taking the new maritime strategy at face value, can step in to fill this role and steal a step from the radical Islamists.

This was the vision for the sea base at the outset, but part of that plan envisioned a future sea base that would possess the capability to service brigade- to division-size forces and their aviation support aircraft. Assigning some large-deck carriers, with their increased carrying capacity, nuclear reactors, higher sustained speeds (meaning quicker response time) and increased flight operations windows meets that vision. Such a restructuring of a carrier force also would have the additional benefit of freeing up money to develop and build alternatives in the long term.

This type of force realignment would present an opportunity to redirect resources to the newly emergent NECC community that is not only demonstrating potential, but also is already creating real success in fighting terrorism. Riverine squadrons and Maritime Expeditionary Security Forces conduct patrols daily on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where they provide the type of security and stability needed for local infrastructure to grow and thrive. Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees) help to create much of that infrastructure. If plans hold, we soon will be operating in the ports, rivers and littoral waters of Africa, Southeast Asia and in and around western Pacific islands where al-Qaida is beginning to gain a foothold. Other units of the NECC, such as the Maritime Civil Affairs Squadrons, have been formed quickly to fill gaps in our joint strategy and will see their first detachments deploy this year. These two squadrons are ideally shaped to interact with the nongovernmental, international and private-sector organizations that have emerged over the past generation to combat many of the factors that contribute to the outbreak of conflict. Explosive ordnance disposal and mine-warfare commands continue to demonstrate their utility, just as they have since the towers fell in New York and the Pentagon still smoldered.

BEING THERE Much has been written about the need for partnerships. In fact, the entire drumbeat of the “1,000-ship Navy” proposal of a few years ago is a constant reiteration of the need for partnering with global and regional actors to meet the growing threats and demands of the post-9/11 paradigm. There is, of course, a problem with this approach. Neither the U.S. nor any other global power is able to count on another power as a permanent partner in the pursuit of its interests. It is often said that the U.S. is always one election away from losing an ally, but the shift in government leadership in Great Britain, long the benefactor of a special relationship with the U.S., from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, has demonstrated that an election is not even required in some cases for U.S. interests to be undercut. The United States’ history stands as a testament to its need for a self-sufficient military that possesses a full spectrum of capabilities.

To achieve this lofty goal, a new set of capabilities needs to be created if we are to be successful in implementing the new maritime strategy. We need frigates, or maybe not frigates. It doesn’t matter what we call them, but we need about 90 small, sturdy ships with enough basic capabilities to defend themselves, defeat local threats and uphold the interests of the U.S., and we need enough of them to blanket the increasingly unstable insurgent and pirate hot spots in the western Pacific, Asia and Africa. Great Britain, at the height of its power, kept its large capital vessels close to their homeports but covered the ocean with frigates to collect intelligence, counter its enemies and show the flag. Technology has not changed this simple precept of power; there can be no virtual presence, and you cannot surge credibility.

The new maritime strategy attempts to fudge on this point, alternatively using the phrases “persistent presence” and “selective control” as if they were interchangeable. Persistence is defined as “lasting without change.” This tempo of operations characterized Navy operations for most of the post-World War II era. “Selective” implies an action of choice — choosing to do one mission or another but not both. Although I recognize that “presence” and “control” are two different missions, let us be clear to the American people where we intend to be and what we intend to do. The U.S. is either present or it is not. If it is not, someone else, either an insurgent group or a peer competitor, can and will attempt to fill the void.

If it is our intention to remain present persistently, we will need more L-class amphibious warfare ships. If we can all agree that it important for the Navy-Marine Corps team in an ESG to provide credible interaction at the lower end of the engagement scale and we agree that the new maritime strategy calls for just this type of capability, then we need to build the type of ships that will allow us to operate in the littoral, close to that 80 percent of the world’s population that lives near the sea. Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, recently commented that when Marines dream, they dream of L-class ships, and that if you were to open a Marine’s locker, you would find a pin-up of an L-class. Although I think there is something unsettling about this mental image, I will take the general at his word and suggest that Marines instinctively know that L-class ships provide them with the type of stable, sustainable afloat staging bases that will allow them to significantly influence events ashore.

To accomplish a goal of fielding these ships, we need them to be cheap enough to be built in large numbers and simple enough to go through the procurement process quickly. Unfortunately, the U.S. defense industry does not seem capable of this type of effort, nor would it pursue this course naturally if it is attempting to be true to its fiduciary responsibilities to its stockholders. In the end, the Defense Department probably will need to purchase these ships from abroad.

Difficult as it is to say, Dwight Eisenhower was right about the military-industrial complex, and now it includes the Pentagon, the defense industry and those delegations of Congress that view defense contracts primarily as jobs programs for their home districts. The result is that we have gold-plated ourselves out of the marketplace, and until we can get our acquisition programs under control, we should examine opportunities to work with shipbuilders in Norway, Germany and Australia who are building capable small combatants and submarines for pennies on the dollar. This is the only type of wake-up call that our home industries will listen to. There is, however, another alternative. We could ask again for an increase in the defense budget.

If we are at war, and all evidence suggests that we are and that it will be a long one, then we need to be funded at wartime levels — and no, I am not talking about the supplementals that can go away at a moment’s notice. In World War II, the percentage of the gross domestic product devoted to defense was 38 percent. During the Korean War, the number hovered around 13 percent. Even as late as Vietnam, the nation committed 8 percent of its GDP to the defense of another nation and wrote off the sacrifice as a necessary campaign in the Cold War against Soviet communism. Today, we find ourselves fighting an enemy who has attacked us on our own soil, murdering 3,000 of our fellow citizens, and we seem unwilling to codify our commitment to fight in real, programmed dollars. Something is wrong here.

Just to reiterate, I don’t want to give up carrier strike groups. They have demonstrated their utility in upholding U.S. national interests too often to be dismissed as out-of-date. However, the current and projected realities of the international system require capabilities that will allow us to interdict terrorism at the local level, before it can get a toehold. If we are not able to secure funding for these new platforms, then we will have to make the uncomfortable choice of realigning our capabilities and our procurement strategies.

We have no peer competitors at sea, and even China’s investments in its navy seem focused on becoming a regional maritime power. Should the People’s Republic choose to undertake a massive carrier-building program — a possibility that I am willing to consider, although one I can see no strategic imperative for — we can realign our forces back to the 10 or 11 carrier strike group force structure. It is our responsibility as the “Shield of the Republic” to face the nation’s enemies during a time of war. To do so within the operational and fiscal restraints that we are now under, we must align our procurement strategy and change our force structure.

CMDR. HENRY J. (JERRY) HENDRIX is commanding officer, Tactical Air Control Squadron 11, home-ported at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif. The opinions here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.