Is America's Blue-Water Navy Doomed?

March 27, 2015 Topic: Security

Is America's Blue-Water Navy Doomed?

With the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities, a forward presence is becoming a liability.

It has been nearly eight years since the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard announced their first tri-service vision, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) on October 17, 2007. On Friday March 13, the current service chiefs, Admiral Greenert, General Dunford and Admiral Zukunft, revealed an updated version A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (CS21-2015) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. As I write, analysts and maritime enthusiasts are already slinging arrows and darts at the document. The criticisms are predictable: CS21-2015 does not conform to one of the classic war college definitions of strategy; it does not pay sufficient attention to the latest headlines, some region or warfighting specialty is inadequately emphasized by the strategy, and on and on and on.

A few analysts, however, have offered qualified praise. My colleague Professor Jim Holmes, for example, has awarded a passing grade to the 2015 document, a fine thing too because he has been notably critical of Navy strategy for some time. Longtime strategist Frank Hoffman judges it “a ‘better’ maritime strategy,” at least in part because it has “a solid diagnosis, a conceptual ‘way’ to resolve the inherent problem identified by the diagnosis and a set of coherent implementing actions that logically support the basic guiding policy.”

Lots of folks will continue to critique the specific strengths and weaknesses of CS21-2015, so I will leave the nitpicking to others. I will focus instead on how well the 2015 version of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower performs two critical functions:

(1) How well does CS21-2015 help the Service chiefs meet their Title X responsibilities to “man, train and equip” their organizations? And

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(2) Does CS21-2015 meet the nation’s security needs as articulated in the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy?

To preview the answers to my own questions, the 2015 tri-service strategy is paradoxical; it may better serves U.S. national needs than help the Sea Services meet their own self-identified, external and internal challenges.

Troubled Waters?     

According to many analysts, all three Sea Services are in trouble. The Navy is operating, and has operated for a long-time, at a barely sustainable operational tempo. Ships and more important sailors and officers are at sea longer than any previous period of maritime peace, to the point where it is increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain equipment and sustain morale.

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Worse, for the first time in a generation, a serious naval competitor has appeared; whatever its shortcomings, China’s PLAN possess a range of capabilities that call into question the USN’s longstanding dominance in East Asia, the acknowledged center of gravity for the global economy. And yet the numbers and types of platforms available to the Sea Services—ranging from ships to manned aircraft to unmanned systems of all sorts—are falling, while fiscal constraints make it hard to sustain the existing force, much less recapitalize, modernize and innovate in the face of a growing threat.

The Marine Corps has spent most of the last decade far from their maritime, amphibious, and expeditionary origin—thousands of Marines have been fighting terrorists and countering insurgency in the deserts and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs in human and material terms were, and are, enormous. The implications of conducting extended land operations for the Marine’s self-identity as the nation’s 911 emergency force are incalculable. And again, perhaps even more so than the Navy, equipment and weapons are aging and worn, but recapitalization, modernization, and innovation are problematic.

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In the post-Cold War security environment, the USCG has stretched itself thin trying to push America’s defensive perimeter (against terrorists, pirates, criminals and contraband) to the farthest ports and seas from the Horn of Africa to Singapore. In the meantime, a new operating area, the Arctic, has captured the attention of national security analysts as the melting icecap has allowed shippers, cruise lines, energy corporations, and mining firms—not to mention other Arctic states like Russia and Arctic state-wannabes like China—to begin exploiting the regional transportation routes and resources.

Yet, the Coast Guard possesses only a few aging icebreakers, limited Arctic-capable assets and insufficient infrastructure capable of supporting sustainable, cost-effective Arctic operations. Meanwhile the USCG has endured delays, development problems, and cost increases to its premier acquisition program—the National Security Cutter.

To remedy these troubles, the three services needed to articulate a convincing rationale to the American people and, especially the U.S. Congress, to sustain their people and critical weapons and support systems. But from my perspective, three of the central ideas in CS21, although entirely consistent with long-standing traditions of the Sea Services, contain logical contradictions given the emerging global security environment and, even more significant, the political environment at home. The following paragraphs will examine three “big ideas” underlying A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century: Forward, Engaged, Ready.

Prosperity = Seapower.

Since at least the writing of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, navies across the globe have equated seapower with economic prosperity both for individual nations and for the world as a whole. CS21-2015, like its 2007 predecessor, places great emphasis on the roles of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard in protecting sea lines of communication, strategic chokepoints, and maritime critical infrastructure. Contradictions assume two forms.

First, the United States spends far more on national security (including most especially naval forces) than its allies and adversaries. How will continuing this trend affect U.S. economic health relative to other countries and/or America’s standing in the global economy? This is essentially a modern variant of the traditional burden sharing problem. When the United States enjoyed economic dominance in the early post-World War II years it might have made sense to bear the lion’s share of the burden for securing the seas. Now that the United States is simply one economy among several other peer or near-peer economies it may not make sense, especially during times of budgetary stress.

Second, as many strategists and scholars have pointed out, America’s global power—in economic, political and military terms—begins first and foremost with a healthy, robust and growing American economy. Nothing, for example, can protect the nation’s economic future as well as investing in infrastructure and education at home; protecting the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean or a chokepoint like the Strait of Hormuz ultimately benefits the United States but in relative terms, other nations—including our most likely competitor China—may benefit more. Why should the United States agree to subsidize international commerce when its own fiscal health and long-term economic competitiveness are in question?

Of course, the tradeoffs between investing in seapower and investing in the nation’s domestic needs are not always direct and clear. But, in the long run the answer to this question, especially relative to the roles of the Sea Services in supporting U.S. grand strategy, requires greater thought and, in the end, clear political consensus.

Forward Presence

The animating idea of CS21-20015 as well as most naval strategy documents dating back to at least to the 1970s is Forward Presence. Forward presence as an idea has many definitions and a fair amount of nuance but the baseline concept is that “being there matters.” The PowerPoint slide summarizing CS21-2015 emphasizes and summarizes the push forward: “Forward presence of 120 ships by 2020, up from 97 in 2014; increase ship and aircraft presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to as much as 60 percent by 2020; additional attack sub in Guam, upping the port’s number to 4; deploying most advanced, capable platforms to Indo-Asia-Pacific region: LCS, BMD capable ships, F-35C Lightning II, MQ-4C Triton, MV-22 Osprey Squadrons; increasing presence in Middle East from 30 ships today to 40 in 2020; and four BMD-capable destroyers based in Spain by end of 2015.”

The contradiction lies in the juxtaposition of Forward Presence with what CS21-2015 and a host of similar documents and programs identifies as the greatest military challenge facing maritime forces in the 21st century: anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies and capabilities.

At their core, A2/AD strategies are designed to push maritime adversaries away from the coast, littorals and potentially further depending on national objectives and capabilities. As CS21-2015 readily acknowledges, China has developed the most comprehensive A2/AD approach even though, as China specialists remind us,

A2/AD terminology is not a Chinese concept but rather a Western construct. Other countries, notably Russia and Iran, also possess or are acquiring A2/AD capabilities and have clearly indicated their intent to use them, including against the United States if necessary. Furthermore, several of the specific weapons systems that make A2/AD possible—such as cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, unmanned vehicles, and advanced ISR and targeting systems—are proliferating to a much wider set of maritime countries than the so-called rogue states or technologically advanced great powers.

What this amounts to, if we step back from the details, is doubling down on an old idea despite vast changes in technological capabilities in recent years. Why, if other nations have acquired the means and the concepts to hold American forces at risk not only in their littorals but increasingly, as in the case with China, several thousand miles from their coasts, do the Sea Services propose moving still more forces within range of A2/AD systems?

The short answers, of course, are alliance commitments, the maintenance of regional stability, and, the Sea Service’s own preferred ways of operating. But, might the maritime services want to reassess the strategic concept of Forward Presence to help relieve the inevitable pressure it puts on the number of platforms, the survivability of platforms, the security of forward bases, and the human toll of operating forward? Lest readers believe this heresy is unthinkable, respected analysts have called in to question the “tyranny of forward presence” for decades, including, for example, on the pages of the Naval War College Review.

Warfighting First

Perhaps the greatest driver underlying CS21 is “Warfighting First.” Since Admiral Greenert became the Chief of Naval Operations it has been the constant refrain in his Sailing Directions, Navigation Plan and numerous blog posts.

As a rallying cry to help prevent complacency in the Navy, a service largely spared the combat of the last decade or so, “warfighting first” makes imminent sense. It reminds officers and sailor alike of the need for readiness, to prepare for the possibility if not likelihood of high-end, kinetic operations largely absent on the high seas since the great Pacific sea battles of the Second World War.

But as a strategic precept, “warfighting first” raises a number of questions. The CNO’s own words introduce the issue: “Our first consideration is the ability to fight and win today, while building the ability to win tomorrow; it is why we have a Navy.” The USN seems to assume it is possible to operate forward with a high edge of readiness to fight and win current wars, while simultaneously preparing for a more dangerous future.

By adding to the numbers of ships and other platforms available and ensuring that they retain qualitative advantages over the “pacing” threats, the Sea Services plan to maintain their current dominance. But is this possible in a period of fiscal austerity? Can the United States both drive its maritime forces hard against current requirements while modernizing, recapitalizing and innovating? Sequestration, roundly and rightfully warned against by CS21-2015, suggests that at least some members of Congress see a day of reckoning; there may be a trade-off between present operations and the quantity and quality of the future force that the Sea Services do not publicly acknowledge in their strategic vision.

Further, aside from the counterpiracy operations and the occasional firing of a Tomahawk at a terrorist base or insurgents ashore, who is the USN fighting today? With all the tension and potential for conflict with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, we are not yet at war and as the National Security Strategy makes clear, “[t]he scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented, even as we remain alert to China’s military modernization and reject any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.”mOr stronger still, “[t]he United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China.” Warfighting, especially against an adversary possessing weapons at the high end of the capability spectrum involving the most challenging A2/AD systems, is largely a rhetorical device. But is it a rhetorical device with consequences.

Stressing warfighting first is not just a message to our sailors, marines, and coast guard personnel. It is assuredly heard loud and clear by our allies (providing perhaps Reassurance), partners, and perhaps especially our adversaries. When coupled with tensions in the Middle East (especially over Iran its nuclear program), Russia (over Crimea and Ukraine), and the Asia-Pacific Rebalance (largely about the rise of China regardless of what diplomatic correctness requires), the term “warfighting” suggests aggression. While readiness and willingness to fight may help deter, it may also contribute to classic security dilemmas. American rhetoric and actions, seen within the United States as prudent, defensive, and even status quo preserving, might be interpreted as destabilizing by the rest of the world. As for American allies and potential coalition partners, a focus on warfighting may even highlight the serious difference between the global interests of the United States and the local, regional, and particularistic interest of the United States.

“Big Bets” Moving Forward

To borrow a phrase from the late Vice Admiral Cebrowski, former President of the Naval War College and the first director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, the Sea Services have just made a series of “Big Bets” with their three “Big Ideas”:

– They are betting that the American public (and especially Congress) will be willing and able to pay the bills sustaining increasingly expensive Sea Services to defend the global economy from relatively modest threats even in the face of fiscal austerity;

– They are betting that American ingenuity—in the form of our nation’s defense-industrial and military-university-laboratory complexes—will be able to devise technological solutions to the dilemma of maintaining Forward Presence in the face of proliferating A2/AD capabilities;

– They are betting that our friends, allies, and potential maritime partners will continue to share the American focus with “warfighting first” even as other less-traditional security challenges compete for their attention and resources;

– They are betting that the rhetoric of warfighting and plans to overcome A2/AD capabilities with innovative technologies and warfighting concepts will deter and not contribute to rising tensions, arms racing, and the potential for escalation; and finally,

– They are betting that the Services will be able to recruit and retrain sufficient numbers of high-quality marines, sailors and coast guardsmen even amid the stresses of overseas and extended deployments.

Internal contradictions in the core or “big” ideas underlying CS21-2015 may over time weaken the case of the service chiefs and thus potentially endanger the long-term health of the Services. As an example of what Captain Barney Ruble has called a “pleading document,” asking for attention and resources, CS21-2015 may not accomplish its ultimate purpose of ensuring that the service chiefs convince Congress to provide the full measure of budgetary authority required to man, train, and equip for the future.

Lest this assessment sound overly critical, the fact is that developing a tri-service strategy that meets the needs of all internal stakeholders, as well as convinces DOD, the other military services, and Congress of the priority of their claims, is extremely difficult, especially for Services notoriously resistant to thinking and acting strategically.

What CS21-2015 represents then is yet another step toward redefining American military power in the post–post–Cold War world. And, this ultimately is where A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready serves the nation. It both promises to contribute mightily to U.S. national security strategy while laying bare several of the contradictions facing not just the Sea Services but the nation as a whole as it executes a long, complicated, and politically controversial strategic adjustment to the circumstance of the future.

Peter Dombrowski is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, where he serves as the chair of the Strategic Research Department. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.​

Image:Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet