Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set off a whirlwind of discussion and blogging with his May 3 speech to the Navy League. In his speech, the Secretary appeared to fire a broadside at the Navy and Marine Corps. He criticized the Marine Corps vision of amphibious warfare as well as its investments in capabilities to assault hostile beaches. He seemed to assert that the U.S. Navy was overbuilt (it turns out we have more total tons of ships than the next 13 navies combined and 11 of them are our allies) as well as over focused on blue sea operations against comparable maritime powers, of which there are none.
My first impression of the Secretary’s speech was that he was off-the-wall. Of what use was comparing the total tonnage of the U.S. Navy to all the other navies of the world? Given difference in geography, alliance structures, security commitments, technologies, operational practices, safety requirements, costs of personnel, etc., why compare either total tonnages or even numbers of aircraft carriers, large deck amphibious ships, surface combatants or nuclear submarines? These seemed to me to be pointless comparisons given the fact that the U.S. Navy had almost never designed its shipbuilding plans to meet numerical targets. Even the so-called 600-ship Navy was a political statement intended to inform the Soviet Union that we would not allow them to dominate the seas or create a navy capable of denying the U.S. access to critical waters.
I have now seen the light; or more accurately have been guided there by responses to my previous blogs. I now realize that I misunderstood the point of the Secretary’s remarks. He was not really criticizing the size or composition of today’s Navy or Marine Corps. Rather, he was questioning whether this was the right Navy and Marine Corps for the future. Over the past two years, even as he has presided over two wars, the Secretary undertook to nudge the military towards a new vision in some ways even more radical than that proposed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a series of speeches intended to guide the department towards a new future, he challenged each of the Services in turn to think anew about their doctrines, concepts of operation and capabilities.
The heart of the Secretary’s argument, as I have now been shown, is that future procurement plans are overweighted towards buying improved versions of existing capabilities (essentially more of the same) while the nature of the threats we will confront in the future is changing radically. As the Secretary explained it on May 3:
“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 U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.
“Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages — to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.”
The Secretary did suggest ways of addressing the challenges posed by asymmetric adversaries. These included long-range strike capabilities, more unmanned systems and an expanded but different undersea force. Equally significant, he argued that those that advocate an expanding shipbuilding program to halt the decline in the size of the U.S. Navy are focusing on the wrong problem. “The more relevant gap we risk creating is one between capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow.” An additional point he made on May 3 and brought home with great force in a speech on May 8 at the Eisenhower Library was that defense budgets were going to be shrinking which meant that the Navy had to consider the utility of buying very expensive platforms, particularly if it already possessed a sizeable quantitative advantage.
I was wrong to criticize the Secretary for seeming to make the simplistic argument that the Navy is too big. He is making a much more sophisticated argument. But one with which I will still take issue. To put it a bit simply, the Secretary appears to be taking an absolutist position in favor of unmanned, long-range, precision strike, networked systems and against platforms or at least big, complex and expensive platforms. He is a devotee of the network-centric view of the future. I am more sanguine about our ability to deal with the precision-strike threat in the future. Indeed, at present it pales in comparison to the asymmetric threat that the Soviet Navy once posed with its tattletale ships, hundreds of submarines, thousands of anti-ship cruise missiles, Bear, Backfire and BlackJack bombers, and elaborate surveillance.
Also, the heavy versus light platforms and short-range versus long-range delivery system arguments miss the point. Absent a repealing of the laws of physics, the delivery of ordinance on distant targets is always an expensive and difficult affair. There are only two ways of doing it of which I am aware. One is to employ massive numbers of long-range systems (with relatively small warheads due to the problem of lifting payloads) or to use intermediate locations (bases, ships, submarines) to allow short-range delivery platforms and their potentially larger payloads to cooperate close to the prospective targets. Either way it is very difficult and costly to deliver large amounts of ordinance over long distances. Moreover, the long-range solution provides no collateral benefits. You cannot employ a long-range, stealthy bomber for any other purpose. However, an aircraft carrier can serve a number of functions including support for irregular warfare and stability operations.
So, it seems I was wrong about Secretary Gates’ argument in his recent speeches. But I still believe that his argument for change is not well-founded.
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