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Breaking:Gates Stuns Navy League With Fleet Proposals

May 3, 2010

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

33 Comments leave one →
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  3. Luther Milton DeHaven II permalink
    October 22, 2011 8:15 pm

    I have been banned from damned near every MSM in the market. I am not interested in what you think of me…this is the first time I have shared my thoughts in many months, and most likely never return to this page…

    Aircraft carriers are the Pearl Harbor of the future. Any weapon platform that consolidates men and materials makes the enemy’s job easier. Sinking them will also sink enemy morale faster. Only US arrogance and stupidity would build a target as large as an aircraft carrier. Their day has come and gone. I can’t tell you how real have been my mental impressions from time to time of the future impact of the news that aircraft carriers have been sunk all over the globe.

    The fact is that we are already at war with China. That their concept of war has leapfrogged our own is evident in the fact that most people do not even realize this war is happening here and now. The lack of EMP protection on millions upon millions of computer chips was the opening salvo in the new war. The equivalent of D-Day is the Wal-Mart down the street. Their spy network is the fact that they now own IBM. We have no secrets from them. They can at will use the Internet and our outstanding debt to bring us to our knees.

    The question before us is: When will this war become manifest in open combat? For that answer you must look to the sun. The U.S. government is hiding the severity of the upcoming solar cycle from its people. The Europeans are posting the real data. The little girl from India is right. Even as I write the Boulder sunspot number is 207, more than a year and a half from solar max.

    China is waiting for the U.S. to be effectively shut down from a solar flare. At that time they will become openly hostile without using conventional weapon systems. Instead they will act openly against our best interests until internal violence cripples the remaining command and control structures. Then one horrible day in the not too distant future reports will begin to trickle in of how most or all of our aircraft carriers were sunk in a single day. Our remaining hope, the submarine fleet will battle on until they too are decimated.

    Gates is a realist. He is being a patriot is stating the obvious. We have lost control of our country to fat rich people who care nothing about us. They are not watching the gates. We are a doomed people. To some future people, the United States of America will be a short lived experiment in capitalism that resulted in some of the most stupid leadership in the history of mankind, and great will be the fall thereof. I say this is a matter of fact; that it is written in stone. Live your life accordingly.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 5, 2010 5:17 am

    Des wrote “Gates on the “amphib landings are obsolete” stance. ”

    Let me be so bold to suggest he is saying the Marine’s practice of amphibious warfare is obsolete, not the concept. I based this perception on his continued discussion of anti-access weapons that threaten the Big Gators as it approaches the beaches. The idea of placing the Marine landing force in only a handful of ever fewer, and hard to replace targets doesn’t sound like good strategy.

    During the world wars, every ship was at risk, from mines, torpedoes, guns. Today we have added guided missiles to the mix that almost insures a hit with advanced guidance, the modern version of the Kamikaze. So somehow the Navy has produced magical warships that can’t be sunk or damaged? But that is the impression you get when you are packing all our capability in a few high end platforms, very hard to replace, impossible in afford in adequate numbers. The handful of Gators we now deploy leave very little room for error if our strategy happens to be wrong, and 60-70 years after those last major amphibious landings you mentioned, it staggers the imagination that warfare hasn’t advanced in this time.

  5. DesScorp permalink
    May 4, 2010 10:38 pm

    While I’ll be the first to agree that the USMC has gotten too big, I’m disappointed in Gates on the “amphib landings are obsolete” stance. We’ve heard this particular bit of stupidity before, after WWII, when the Army and USAF wanted to eliminate the USMC, using the “obsolescence of amphibious landings” as one of the justifications. Just a couple of years later, the Marines saved everyone’s bacon with a massive amphibious landing in Korea.

    Just as soon as we get rid of this “obsolete” capability, we’ll need it again. Gates apparently, while focused on the future, is unable to learn from the past.

  6. Hudson permalink
    May 4, 2010 4:53 pm


    Keep ICBM silos. They’re ours, on American soil, they won’t go up in cost like an SSBN. Build fewer or cheaper subs, Virginia class variant as has been discussed here. Remember “freedom fries” over here of recent vintage? We love you, but all the same, build your own boats. Ta.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 4, 2010 1:30 pm

    “Now I would hope Solomon would dive in here on this one, or write something over at SNAFU.”

    First place I checked this morning too!

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 4, 2010 1:28 pm

    “the LCS, which Webster’s defines as a frigate sized warship that costs as much as a large destroyer and has the armament of a small patrol boat …”

    Thats a hoot!

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    May 4, 2010 1:02 pm

    Jed said, “3. The strategic future of the Marine Corps.

    Maybe the Army should take over more of the surge amphibious role (as it did in WWII), and leave the USMC back to being a smaller, first responder.

  10. Joe permalink
    May 4, 2010 11:39 am

    Mike, I was stunned. I thought you’d have at least 3 threads up and running on Gates’ remarks ;)

    You can applaud Gates for looking into the purse, then checking the available money against the grocery list, and then saying “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – we can’t afford all of this stuff”.

    But what next?

    Where Gates is suspect is with the “vision thingy”. His biggest program decision to date is to axe the F-22 in favor of the F-35, because (after all) we want to save the nation money and go with a cheaper airplane. He’s also the leading proponent of the LCS, which Webster’s defines as a frigate sized warship that costs as much as a large destroyer and has the armament of a small patrol boat …props to Matthew ;)

    Gates may be your man to sound the clairion call for budgetary reform, but what’s he going to fill in the resulting blanks with…is where I hope more reality-based yet visionary people have serious input.

  11. Jed permalink
    May 4, 2010 9:37 am

    Lets analyze his points in a bit more depth shall we:

    1. US can no longer afford to build Ford Class CVN at the rate required to keep the Carrier numbers mandated by current law.

    OK – good point. Massive CVN, whatever their benefits have gotten too expensive. Perhaps a non-amphib version of the LHA6 America class hull, with F35’s for forward presence can back up a smaller number of nuclear super-carriers. BUT this in turn means throwing more money at F35 to ensure it succeeds. Also, taking his comments about proliferation of submarines into account, perhaps the real niche for the V22 is as an S3 replacement for such smaller carrriers ?

    2. Re-capatilizing the SSBN fleet is going to cost a fortune.

    Also true, but the SSBN is the ultimate nuclear deterrent. Would it not make sense to abandon all land based silo launced ICBM’s in order to fund the SSBN fleet ? Could a reduced number of SSBN’s fulfill the role ? Could national security and intellectual property issues to resolved in order to build the new SSBN’s in partnership with the UK and France ?? So, he is right about the expense, but I don’t immediately see a way around it.

    3. The strategic future of the Marine Corps. Now I would hope Solomon would dive in here on this one, or write something over at SNAFU. This to me is the most important piece of what he said. To ‘storm the beaches’ and make a forced entry against a near peer competitor is going to require massive resources (the majority of the USN), some of those resources don’t exist in the strength probably required (shallow water MCM) while others are available (Aegis / E2D / F18’s) that could mitigate the anti-ship missile threat and air threat, while still others that could mitigate the ASW threat seem be in decline (Perry Class FFG). So in some respects all the other elements of the navies capabilities are impacted by what is decided here. Is a smaller Marine Corps that can take on large raids against non-peer adversaries the outcome ? One that can support SOF operations against peers ? One that is focused on green / brown water ops, not as a full on amphibious ‘army’ ??

    He is asking the touch questions that need to be asked on this front I think. It will be interesting to see what the fall out of this will be.

    4. His comments about needing speed in the littoral – OK, well many of use on here don’t like the LCS, think that its speed is what has made it so complex and expensive, and remain unconvinced of the requirement for such speed. To me this appears to be Gates saying that LCS happened on my watch, therefore it can’t be wrong, therefore it won’t be canceled.

    So what do we think people ???

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 4, 2010 4:19 am

    Matthew said “It is a large frigate sized warship that costs as much as a large destroyer and has the armament of a small patrol boat.”

    Perfect answer! You can forgive a lot of stuff for something that can fight, for instance, the DDG-51 is really expensive, pushing $2 billion but you know she can fight with 100 missiles, helos, and 5 inch cannon. In other words, she don’t need escorting.

    LCS is a good match for speed boats and skiffs, unless they get reinforced, in which she is equipped to run away (!). Almost any 1/3 sized corvette can stand up to her, since most come armed with 76mm and cruise missiles. Plus the smaller ship can be afforded in enough numbers to simply overwhelm LCS.

  13. May 4, 2010 4:13 am

    WOW Mike– did you send him a link to new wars!

  14. May 3, 2010 10:47 pm

    Oh Jacob……. Yeah when I read this earlier today over at DN all I kept thinking was NEW WARS.

  15. Sea Cappy permalink
    May 3, 2010 10:34 pm

    BRAVO, SECDEF!!!!!!!!!!!! Wake up, Navy.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 3, 2010 8:45 pm

    Thats right! “plagiarism”. My bad, too excited.

  17. Matthew S. permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:43 pm

    “What exactly is wrong with the LCS? If the idea is that we need smaller corvette/frigate sized ships for asymmetrical naval warfare, then doesn’t the LCS fit the bill?”

    It is a large frigate sized warship that costs as much as a large destroyer and has the armament of a small patrol boat. Also, the main armament, the N-LOS missile system is way over cost and the US army recently pulled out of this program. Now, it is still useful due to its large hangar and large internal volume. That should not be forgotten.

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 3, 2010 8:09 pm

    Jacob asked “doesn’t the LCS fit the bill?”

    Too big for a shallow water warship, too underarmed for a frigate, too expensive to replace capability with quantity. Oh, Mercy, what were they thinking!

    Yes some. As Johnathan pointed out, so far just words, and heard it all before. many times since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Politicians may yet rescue the Navy’s pet programs with the well tried “save the shipyards” slogan. I am very hopeful that the shrinking budget will do what the new threats, the lack of conventional threats obvious since 9/11 have failed to do which is bring about change.

    I don’t want to be vindicated so much as to reform the Navy, which I love.

  19. D. E. Reddick permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:48 pm

    While we’re discussing SecDef Gates’ willingness to change course midstream, why not suggest some alternative, more deserving names for LPD-26 (assuming it does get built). I find the present intended name for LPD-26 not to be the best representative available for the naming of a naval warship. Thus, my initial list of naming suggestions:

    Josepsh J. Rochefort
    C. Wade McClusky
    Maxwell F. Leslie
    John S. Thach

  20. May 3, 2010 7:31 pm

    I am lost for words. But happy for Mike B.

  21. May 3, 2010 7:10 pm

    Finally a voice of semi-reason. So far it is just words. But they are intelligent. Sounds to me as if he is on the way out. First his release on Iran which was remarkable by any measure, now this.

  22. Jacob permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:08 pm

    What exactly is wrong with the LCS? If the idea is that we need smaller corvette/frigate sized ships for asymmetrical naval warfare, then doesn’t the LCS fit the bill?

  23. Jed permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:07 pm

    I dont think you mean perjury Mike – that’s lying to a court, I think you mean plagiarism :-)

    To be honest, some of his arguments are somewhat disingenuous – radar guided anti-ship missiles have been a threat since the 1960’s !

    As for needing numbers, speed and the ability to work in shallow waters – yeah, cause 45Kts LCS are really cheap enough to build in significant numbers – NOT …..

    Still, you can feel vindicated for a while, which is nice :-)

  24. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 3, 2010 6:34 pm

    I’m really amazed at the speech, which I think was instigated by the fact that the SSBN replacement may cost $100 billion. I’m glad someone is calling the admirals out in their fantasy shipbuilding plans. Tough choices ahead.

    He’s still propping up bad programs, but I am pleased at how much he’s got done. As reformers go, he’s done more than I imagined could get done.

  25. Marcase permalink
    May 3, 2010 6:29 pm

    Since SecDef Gates had the cojones to kill the F-22 and FCS (on his watch anyway), the US Navy establishment must be rattled, to say the least…

  26. May 3, 2010 6:14 pm

    you’re right Scott B. he (Burleson) is going to be a pain for at least a month now;)

  27. D. E. Reddick permalink
    May 3, 2010 6:11 pm


    SecDef Gates truly does seem to have taken a deep, long draught (spl?) from the Burlesonian well.

    As to the LCS debacle / problem, well – Scott has had the answer to that for quite a while: Absalon!!!

  28. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 3, 2010 6:10 pm


  29. Scott B. permalink
    May 3, 2010 6:07 pm

    Simply Burlesonian !!!


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