June 1, 2010  

False choices

Gates’ plan to reshape the sea services ignores superpower realities

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has shifted the target of his budget cross hairs from the Air Force (a service that has long held the unwelcome ranking of No. 1 to receive the budget ax) to the Navy and Marine Corps.

In a speech in May at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space exposition, Gates emphasized the “massive” and “significant” naval overmatch the U.S. enjoys on, above and below the high seas. Fifty years of military dominance was essentially categorized by the secretary as a vulnerability rather than as a tool that must be preserved. That’s odd, since American strength deters enemies, shapes and influences would-be aggressors, and serves as a comforting signal of security and support to friends and allies around the world.

The problem with Gates’ view of current military strength — strength primarily acquired through platforms and capabilities built during President Reagan’s buildup in the 1980s — is that it misses the benefits America enjoys as the world’s sole superpower.

To be fair, the Navy is as strong in quantity and quality as it has ever been. Gates seems to see that as a signal that the nation can afford to shed many of the core capabilities that make up our “overwhelming conventional advantage.”

What’s missing from that approach is an understanding of why and how U.S. presidents of both political parties have employed the Navy and Marine Corps (and other overwhelming assets) successfully in the past. Also absent is an outline of why devastating margins of military strength are still required for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

America’s interests span the world, and therefore the U.S. military has global reach and responsibilities. The primary purpose of the U.S. military is to deter conflict and defend the homeland.

Often overlooked is that America’s military does more than fight. Because U.S. economic growth is connected to the stability and prosperity of the global economy, the nation uses its naval capabilities to protect sea trade, thereby ensuring all maritime assets may transit freely and safely. Eighty percent of international trade and 67 percent of petroleum is transported by sea; fully one-quarter of global trade passes through the Strait of Malacca alone, and one-third of the U.S. economy is derived from trade.

The military also provides the underpinning that allows the nation’s soft power tools to operate effectively. This includes activities from supporting sanctions enforcement to strengthening diplomatic negotiations.


For any U.S. president, the aircraft carrier embodies the ultimate crisis management tool. Continuously deployed throughout the globe, carrier strike groups give the military unparalleled freedom of action to respond to a range of combat and non-combat missions. Carriers can move large contingents of forces to distant theaters, respond rapidly to changing tactical situations, support several missions simultaneously and guarantee access to any region in the world.

In a time when America’s political relationships with other countries can shift overnight, aircraft carriers reduce our nation’s reliance on others — often including suspect regimes — for basing rights. A carrier’s air wing can typically support 125 sorties a day at a distance up to 750 nautical miles. They also operate as a hub in the strike group’s command, control, communications and intelligence network, playing an increasingly larger role in controlling the battle space at sea.

Yet our dominance is already beginning to atrophy. This, in turn, is beginning to affect U.S. security interests.

Last April, Australia announced its biggest military buildup since World War II. The Aussies have taken note of the changing regional security environment and specifically cited declining U.S. supremacy in the Pacific Ocean and China’s rapidly growing navy. This public announcement from a longtime, extremely loyal U.S. ally and friend should have been a loud wake-up call for U.S. policymakers.

Simply put, no other country in the world has the responsibilities of the U.S., and any comparison of our hardware with “theirs” is therefore irrelevant.

Further, America’s current military advantages are fleeting. Without robust and purposeful investment, military dominance will decline. Today’s Navy is the smallest in fleet size since 1916. The average age of the Navy’s battle-force ships is nearly 20 years old.


But during his speech, the secretary dismissed congressional concerns over pertinent issues, including the so-called tactical fighter gap. We should be worried about the more relevant gap between the capabilities being built today and those needed in the “real world” tomorrow, he said. But that myopic rationale dismisses the multirole, multimission capability of many systems adapted and being used in Iraq and Afghanistan today that were built in the Cold War for another purpose. There is no better example than the bomber, and the list is long. More than 75 percent of tactical fighter patrols are for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Central Command airspace. Submarines are uniquely suited to fulfill a wide range of missions, including strategic deterrence, sea control and denial, battle-space preparation, surveillance and intelligence gathering, special operations landings, and support for ground operations including land attack.

The U.S. should prepare not only for the full spectrum of risks, but also maintain substantial safety and technological superiority margins. Seeking to have “just enough” of any core defense capability would be foolish. Planning is never perfect, but the cost of being too strong is far less than the cost of being too weak.

For example, if the U.S. buys slightly more airlift capacity than it needs today, the downside is that some planes won’t fly combat missions. However, if America has less airlift capacity than it needs tomorrow, the cost will be measured in higher casualties, protracted engagements and the possible sacrifice of a vital national interest. In the long run, supplying sustained and predictable funding to the military and providing for regular, modern upgrades is far more cost-effective than allowing the force to become hollow and then attempting to rebuild it.

Gates highlighted the growing disconnect between defense capabilities and spiraling costs of new systems and cited the DDG-1000 as the poster child program gone awry. While he acknowledged the dramatic drop in the planned buy rate of these next-generation destroyers, his point abruptly ended there.

While a primary reason military equipment is getting more expensive is that it is getting better and more technologically advanced, policymakers cannot ignore the dwindling economies of scale in defense modernization. It is not a coincidence the cost of the Zumwalt class destroyer dramatically increased after the Navy changed the program requirements and schedule several times and slashed the build rate from 32 to “eight to 12” to seven, and finally, to just three.

The secretary presented a false choice between buying superior, advanced platforms and providing quality leaders. Both are required in a Navy that will need to project power for the next generation just as it has throughout the last, as well as conduct myriad current, new and emerging missions along the spectrum of conflict. Adversaries are indeed choosing to invest in asymmetrical weapons and advantages to defeat the U.S., but these investments should not be an excuse for the Navy to abandon its blue-water capabilities.

Taken together, the current and coming equipment cuts to next-generation systems would further reduce the traditional margins of the U.S. military technological edge against defense investments by other countries. That doesn’t mean the U.S. necessarily will be fighting some peer competitor that today may not exist. Rather, what Washington chooses to invest or not invest in will provide incentive for others to build up where the U.S. is pulling back.

As militaries expand and modernize, the probability of miscalculation grows. Military weakness, real or perceived, encourages enemies to act. Threats to the global system of trade (which rests on the foundation of the U.S.-led security structure) would increase. This delicate system would become more vulnerable to attempts to disrupt access to vital resources. Weakness opens the opportunity for hostile powers to more likely dominate East Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf.

Ultimately, severe modernization cuts could increase the likelihood that U.S. military capabilities will fall short of the nation’s wide-ranging security commitments. Current budget plans indicate the U.S. may relinquish its military superpower status — not to another nation per se, but by reverting to a position where the country lacks the capacity to engage and maintain a forward presence globally.

While many in the audience were shocked at the secretary’s intentions for the future of our maritime services, they shouldn’t have been. This defense secretary often broadcasts what he plans to do and always executes according to public plan. There are very few surprises.

Gates is correct that the status quo (putting more expensive technologies on fewer platforms) is unacceptable. The logical conclusion is to rebuild and modernize the aging and stressed military frames in sufficient number to keep robust build rates and a cheaper work force.

Since the Obama administration is proposing flat or declining defense budget top lines — excluding war funds — for the next 10 years, internal defense budget reforms are necessary to pay the procurement bills. That requires the uncomfortable but necessary evaluation of how better to pay America’s all-volunteer force — the fastest growing and unsustainable portion of the defense budget. AFJ

MACKENZIE EAGLEN is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.