Some 260 years ago, the famous French philosopher and man of letters, Voltaire, delivered the following comment on the execution of British Admiral John Byng for failure to do his utmost in battle: “in this country (England), it is good, to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.” Recently, the Office of the Secretary of Defense released memorandum from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus that, in the opinion of many observers, did the equivalent.
In his December 14 memorandum, Secretary Carter declares that “for the last several years, the Navy has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers at the expense of critically-needed investments in areas where our adversaries are not standing still, such as strike, ship survivability, electronic warfare and other capabilities.” Perhaps most significantly, the memo goes on to criticize the Navy Secretary for his service’s failure to respond to departmental guidance that the Navy reverse “its trend of prioritizing quantity over lethality.” The Secretary goes on to say that he has made his priorities clear in multiple ways and that in his view “the Navy’s strategic future requires focusing more on posture, not only on presence, and more on new capabilities, not on ship numbers.”
Secretary Carter did not limit himself merely to a public dressing down of Navy Secretary Mabus. He also took a big stick to that service’s procurement program. He cut the number of Littoral Combat Ships down from 52 to 40 and the number of shipbuilders from 2 to 1. This is just after approving the Navy’s decision to upgrade those LCS built after FY2018 to a frigate design. It is all the more surprising given that the continuance of two LCS designs and two contractors was once considered a shining example of the success of then-Under Secretary of Defense Carter’s Better Buying Power Initiative. Carter directed the Navy to buy additional capabilities for the submarine fleet, including more Virginia Payload Modules and additional upgrades to sonar and combat systems. In keeping with his mantra of lethality over quantity, the Secretary directed the Navy to acquire additional munitions, particularly the Standard Missile 6. Finally, the memo confirms the Secretary’s faith in the DDG-51 destroyer, particularly the new Flight IIIs but also the upgraded Flight IIA ships.
The most dramatic redirection was with respect to naval aircraft. There has been a silent war underway in the Navy between procurement of ships and aircraft, the two most expensive items in their force structure. Carter pointedly told the Navy to acquire 31 additional F-35Cs and an unspecified number of F/A-18 E/Fs. This is of particular significance since virtually every knowledgeable source is of the opinion that the Navy is suffering through a dearth of available combat aircraft for the decks it already has.
Why this very public “hanging” of the Navy secretary? It may have been to encourage the other service secretaries as well as the leadership of the services to get with the program which is, to use current jargon, capability over capacity.
I am not sure that the Air Force needs this message. It is focused like a laser beam on its three big modernization programs: the F-35A, the KC-46A tanker and the new long-range bomber. Given reports coming out of the Middle East, it may have to up its procurement of munitions. Also, Carter’s memo might suggest to Air Force leaders that they revisit the issue of limiting new purchases of non-stealth ISR drones and putting money into development of unmanned aerial systems for denied airspace. Finally, how should the Air Force leadership read the Secretary’s words with respect to their continuing effort over Congressional opposition to acquire Russian-made rocket engines for the Atlas V space launch vehicle?
Perhaps the Mabus memo also was intended for the leadership of the U.S. Army. The reality is that the Army is on the horns of a dilemma. Given likely budget scenarios, the Army more than any of the other services is confronted by the need to choose between capacity and capability. Or put another way, people or things. The Army cannot be both large, ready and modern. The Army of 2025 will either be large, only modestly ready or with tiered readiness and possessing increasingly obsolescent equipment or it will be smaller, possibly substantially so, but be highly ready and reasonably modern.
The Army badly needs to invest in a host of near-term capabilities that respond to clear battlefield advances by prospective adversaries. These include active protection for armored fighting vehicles, a proliferated, relatively low cost defense against missiles, rockets, artillery and mortars, counter-drone systems, electronic warfare enhancements and more and better munitions. It needs to complete its Aviation Restructuring Initiative, including providing new Black Hawk helicopters to the National Guard.
The Army leadership is worried, and rightly so given recent history, that it will reduce force structure or capacity only to again be required to undertake some large and protracted ground campaign. Think the war on ISIS. But the reality is that it, like the other services, is falling behind when it comes to the qualitative arms race with a range of opponents. For the Navy, the Army and perhaps even the other services, this means sacrificing quantity in order to bolster quality.
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