Bob Gates’ Navy
At the US Naval War College on Friday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates further explained his 2010 proposal for reforming the military. As usual, New Wars is focusing on his Navy proposals:
I concluded we needed to shift away from the 99 percent “exquisite” service-centric platforms that are so costly and so complex that they take forever to build, and only then, and deployed in very limited quantities. With the pace of technological and geopolitical change, and the range of possible contingencies, we must look more to the 80 percent multi-service solution that can be produced on time, on budget, and in significant numbers. As Stalin once said, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.”
I would have put the number of exquisite platforms to low end weapons at about 90% versus 10%, considering the old Perry frigates still in service, plus the riverine forces, but he is not far off the mark here. Rationally, instead of reducing this woeful discrepancy to 80% high end, the low end should be the most numerous.
I hope to accelerate the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, which, despite its development problems, is a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go to places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy’s big, blue-water surface combatants. As we saw last week, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar ship to chase down a bunch of teenage pirates.
The half billion dollar LCS should be counted in the “exquisite category”. As DK Brown once wrote about a British plan to build a more affordable frigate in the 1980s “The ship envisaged was too expensive to be expendable, and yet was unable to defend itself”. The same could be said of the LCS, whose only surface weapon is a 57mm cannon, with no cruise missiles on board. Buy fewer, then, make it even more spartan in terms of armament and propulsion, and use it as a mothership for well-armed corvettes.
To carry out the missions we may face in the future – whether dealing with non-state actors at sea or near shore, or swarming speedboats – we will need numbers, speed, and ability to operate in shallow waters.
Again, this will not happen with LCS, which won’t be in service in any numbers until well into the next decade. Will the pirates taper off while we leisurely construct a new littoral navy?
The United States must not take its current dominance for granted and needs to invest in programs, platforms, and personnel that will ensure that we remain preeminent at sea. But rather than go forward under the same assumptions that guided our shipbuilding during the Cold War, I believe we need to develop a more rigorous analytical framework before moving forward – the type of framework that will be provided by the Quadrennial Defense Review. That is one reason I delayed a number of decisions on programs such as the follow on manned bomber, the next generation cruiser, as well as overall maritime capabilities. The purpose was to develop an analytical construct through which we can more precisely determine what will be needed in coming years. To determine what kind of tactics and strategies future adversaries, both state and non-state actors, are likely to pursue.
Has Gates finally shaken off the shackles that has bound the Navy mindset since the Cold War? We thought assuredly the USN would take its own strategy from the 1990’s “From the Sea” seriously at the dawn of the War on Terror in 2001. Clearly there was a need then as now for new patrol ships to tame the wild littorals of the Third World. Yet, here we are 8 years later and not a single new ship is on the frontlines combating the pirate menace at sea, save these Arleigh Burke battleships, or huge amphibious warships which never seem to get used for the purpose they were built.
Usually it takes a war to bring any real change to entrenched traditionalism (and the Navy is historically the most adverse to change). If Gates has his way, though, change may come in time to save our rapidly shrinking and increasingly irrelevant sea service.
As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet, by one estimate, is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners. In terms of capabilities, the over-match is even greater. No country in the rest of the world has anything close to the reach and firepower to match a carrier strike group. And the United States has and will maintain eleven until at least 2040.
For more perspective, consider that if the US possessed only 3 Nimitz class aircraft carriers, she would still have a naval air force more powerful than all other navies and their carriers combined. If she had no supercarriers but only the 11 Marine “Harrier Carriers” equipped with V/STOL strike planes, she would still deploy the most capable carrier force on the planet.
Potential adversaries are well-aware of this fact, which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought arms race prior to World War I. Instead, we’ve seen their investments in weapons geared to neutralize our advantages – to deny the U.S. military freedom of movement and action while potentially threatening our primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.
This is asymmetric warfare at sea, of the type Germany conducted in two world wars when she chose not to fight fair, or by the self-established rules of the traditional sea-going powers of Britain, France, and the US. The allies only managed to defeat this threat at sea by outbuilding it. Could we repeat this proven war-winning strategy today?
This is a particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multi-billion dollar blue-water surface combatants – where the loss of even one ship would be a national catastrophe. We know other nations are working on ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet – whether by producing stealthy submarines in quantity or developing anti-ship missiles with increasing range and accuracy. We ignore these developments at our peril.
On the whole we agree with the Secretary’s proposals, which shows a knowledge of the future of war, that is rare coming from these Cold War vets in Washington. Though we would hope he would quickly get beyond his “80% Solution” with exquisite platforms, we understand that change is a very slow process and no service its worse at this than the Navy.