The Counterrevolution in Naval Affairs

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October 7, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NavyShipsMilitarySailorsStrategy

The Counterrevolution in Naval Affairs

Navy officials must formulate a concept that combines U.S. Marine and Navy forces, scatters them around the world, and yet preserves their unity as fighting forces despite physical distance and hostile efforts to fragment them.

Gen. David Berger aspires to be a revolutionary figure. Or perhaps counterrevolutionary. A revolution sweeps away what is and replaces it with something altogether new. A counterrevolution sweeps away what is and replaces it with what was long ago, or some semblance of the golden past. The new U.S. Marine Corps commandant, or most senior uniformed official, wants to repeal the post–Cold War revolution that saw the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps turn away from open-ocean combat. The naval services did so on the whimsical assumption that, with the Soviet Navy rusting at its moorings, there was no one left to fight for mastery of the seas. And, apparently, never would be.

This is a counterrevolution worth mounting. Wresting maritime command from rival navies has been the central function of naval forces, bar none, since time immemorial. And yet U.S. naval grandees proclaimed, in effect, that history had come to an end, rendering that function moot. In 1992 they directed the sea services to reinvent themselves as a “fundamentally different naval force.” Now that the oceans and seas were an American preserve, that transformed naval force had little need to gird for high-seas battles that would never happen. Instead it could concentrate on using offshore waters as a sanctuary for projecting power ashore, protecting seagoing commerce, and doing good works following humanitarian disasters.

This was a profoundly misguided interpretation of the Soviet downfall. History resents being dismissed. It may take a holiday, but it has a way of returning to exact vengeance from those who convince themselves it is passé. Bottom line, the revolution in maritime thought that General Berger wants to undo is worth undoing. More than that, sea-service chieftains should make it a rule to reject such ahistorical views whenever tempted to interpret some strategic triumph as a victory for all time. Maybe naval history will end someday—but it’s not the smart way to bet.

This is where the sermon ends. General Berger wants to return the U.S. Marine Corps to its roots as a nautical fighting force after decades spent waging land warfare on such dusty battlegrounds as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Shortly after assuming office last summer, he issued a “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” directive that set his counterrevolution in motion. After staying mainly mum about how he envisioned executing his guidance, Berger appeared at the Heritage Foundation this week to start divulging details. He declared that “force design”—designing the Marine Corps for 2030—is his “top priority.” Accordingly, the leadership is conducting a “Force Structure Assessment” in concert with the U.S. Navy for release late this year.

While reviewing his philosophy of force planning, Berger took an unequivocal stand on one of the central questions that perplex strategists: do you need an enemy to have a strategy? Yes, he says; or at least you need to designate a potential enemy to inform strategy, operations, and force design. It imparts concreteness to calculations of how many and what type of implements you need to vanquish that opponent.

Communist China, of course, constitutes the “pacing threat” before the sea services. It combines malign intent with physical capability to a greater degree than do other prospective antagonists. “Capabilities-based planning” and other approaches that were de rigueur after the Cold War gave rise to forces ill-suited to the strategic environment. Deciding what capabilities you need and expecting reality—and antagonists—to conform to those capabilities is asking for trouble. By contrast, maintains Berger, “threat-based force design” offers specifics. You can study what a prospective foe wants to do, the implements it assembles to do it, and how it may employ those implements. In the process you identify frailties to be exploited and strengths to be managed or circumvented. The threat-based approach sharpens foresight.

And clarifies principles. At The Heritage Foundation, Megan Eckstein of USNI News reports, the commandant identified “three driving principles of the future force: it will be an integrated naval force, it will be a stand-in force and it will be a distributed force.” The Marine Corps will embrace its maritime past anew, making itself interdependent with the fleet. No longer will it act primarily as America’s second land army. And rather than acquiesce in “standoff” logic—the logic that local defenders such as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will pummel outranged U.S. forces before they close to within reach of their own weapons—the new-look Fleet Marine Force will “stand in,” entrenching itself along Asia’s first island chain. It will defy PLA anti-access strategy, remaining deep within the theater while making things tough on Beijing militarily and politically. “The game plan is all about imposing cost,” Berger told the audience at The Heritage Foundation.

Yes. Yes, it is.

Strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz explains that there are three ways to prevail in martial encounters. The first is straightforward if hard to bring about: defeat hostile armed forces in battle and dictate terms. Open warfare is a last resort, one hopes, because of its human and material costs. The other two methods are less straightforward yet could work without the contenders’ actually taking up arms. In the case of U.S.-China relations, Clausewitz might say, U.S. commanders could convince their PLA opponents of “the improbability of victory” or “its unacceptable cost.” To oversimplify, Washington can convince Beijing it cannot win, or that it can’t win at a price Chinese Communist Party (CCP) magnates are prepared to pay.

If U.S. and allied forces, say, ensconce themselves along the first island chain with the goal of penning up PLA forces within, and if PLA commanders conclude they cannot dislodge the allies under any circumstances, then Clausewitzian logic would warn them not to make the attempt. Why take up an impossible cause knowing it’s impossible? Or if PLA commanders believed they could uproot their adversaries, but only at prohibitive cost, they might stand down once again. Clausewitz explains how to manipulate CCP leaders’ estimates of likely costs. If allied forces can show PLA officials that the “magnitude” of effort needed to stage a breakout is unacceptable to them or altogether out of reach, then that may give them pause. In effect, Washington and allied capitals could ask Beijing, sotto voce, whether Taiwan, or the Senkaku Islands, or maritime claims in the South China Sea are worth losing the PLA Navy battle fleet in which CCP leaders take such pride, or some other segment of Chinese military might.

Similarly, allied commanders should strive to persuade their opponents that the “duration” of the effort would be unacceptable to Beijing. That it would take too long, in other words. Think about the magnitude of a martial endeavor as the rate at which a combatant expends lives, military hardware, and other resources on its political aims, and the duration as the amount of time it keeps up the expenditure. Rate x time = the total price tag of the CCP’s political goals in East Asia. Beijing must prize its goals dearly indeed to pay a heavy price, virtually forever, with all the risks and hazards that come with protracted combat. Faced with a forbidding cost/benefit calculus, it may well decide today is not the day to make a push, nor tomorrow, nor the next day. If deterrence—Berger’s strategy of imposing cost—dissuades CCP leaders for enough days in a row, then who knows? Circumstances may shift in favor of the allies. 

The task before the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy, then, is to demonstrate that they can impose unbearable costs on the PLA at a cost the American government and society find affordable. Keep the cost manageable and the home front will remain steadfast behind the effort. Hence, Berger’s talk about a distributed force. The coming Force Structure Assessment will probably sketch a vision of a force in which firepower is dispersed among many inexpensive platforms and formations rather than grouped into a few prominent, pricey, easily targetable units such as helicopter carriers or dock landing ships. Take out, say, one nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and you’ve taken out a sizable percentage of U.S. Navy carrier aviation. Decentralize the force into many bits and the loss of any individual bit detracts little from the force’s aggregate fighting power.

The force goes on as a whole despite casualties to individual units.

Now, as Clausewitz observes, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” A great idea that can’t be executed is a wish. Danger lurks within the concept of distributing combat power. It could play to PLA strengths. After all, the Communist Chinese way of war is predicated on falling on isolated enemy forces and annihilating them in turn. CCP founding chairman Mao Zedong counseled his Red Army to strike offensive tactical blows against its Nationalist and Japanese enemies even while the communists remained too weak to seize the strategic offensive. Mao exhorted communist troops to cut off their enemy’s “fingers,” overpowering outmatched enemy units one by one, rather than trying to crush the massed enemy force in a high-stakes battlefield engagement. The enemy might survive having all of his fingers mashed. Cut off enough fingers, though, and ultimately the enemy has no fist to clench. The Red Army would wear down the foe and prevail through incremental measures.