Breaking:Gates Stuns Navy League With Fleet Proposals
At the very least, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “raised eyebrows” today, according to Defense News reporter John T. Bennett at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition, by attacking numerous sacred cows such as aircraft carriers and the Marine Corps amphibious plans. Here are some highlights from this brutally frank and common-sense filled speech:
It is important to remember that, as much as the U.S. battle fleet has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, the rest of the world’s navies have shrunk even more. So, in relative terms, the U.S. Navy is as strong as it has ever been…Still, even as the United States stands unsurpassed on, above, and below the high seas, we have to prepare for the future.
Our Navy has to be designed for new challenges, new technologies, and new missions – because another one of history’s hard lessons is that, when it comes to military capabilities, those who fail to adapt often fail to survive. In World War II, both the American and British navies were surprised by the speed with which naval airpower made battleships obsolete. Because of two decades of testing and operations, however, both were well prepared to shift to carrier operations. We have to consider whether a similar revolution at sea is underway today.
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.
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.
In particular, the Navy will need numbers, speed, and the ability to operate in shallow water, especially as the nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war. As we learned last year, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and RPGs.
Now brace yourselves:
Considering that, the Department must continually adjust its future plans as the strategic environment evolves. Two major examples come to mind.
First, what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire – in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?
Second – aircraft carriers. Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040 and it’s in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.
That is just out of the ballpark stuff! I’m not sure whether I should sue the SecDef for plagiarism, or build him a monument. But this is common sense stuff, based on the lessons of history, and current threats. We should always build for the currents threats, not the kind we prefer to fight, especially when this entails the purchasing of extremely costly equipment we can no longer afford on shrinking defense budgets, and especially in a time of economic difficulties. We must prioritize.
The weak link in the entire speech, is his thoughts on LCS, which he imagines is just the bestest thing ever to deal with speedboat navies and pirates. Meanwhile, the Navy still isn’t sure if the new ships are patrol boats or frigates. Here is their version of the Joint Strike Fighter, something Gates used equally flawed thinking to keep going.
Other than the LCS comment, I give it 5 stars! I still think the budget will be the ultimate decider of the Navy’s future, especially if we have to pay for the Trident replacement. Other than major warfare, the budget has always been the final arbiter of change in the Navy. The climax of the speech is this:
We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms – thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.