Article Published in the Wings of Gold
The recent air war in the Balkans amplified two essential truths about today’s Navy. The first is that America’s naval forces, including the Marine Corps, will be the teeth in U.S. foreign policy during the next 50 or so years.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the U.S., in its role of global policeman, has taken an – oxymoron aside – “aloof engagement” approach to warfare – in other words, using stand-off weapons such as bombers, carrier-based strike fighters and cruise missiles to attack an enemy.
This method is used primarily to keep American casualties to an absolute minimum, to the point of being unrealistic in some cases. But another reason for such strikes reflects the changed nature of the world at the end of the millennium. Long gone are the days when America could rely on conveniently located bases in every overseas theater. Nor can the U.S. always expect to fight someone as incompetent as Saddam Hussein, who gave the U.S. and its allies months to build a warfighting force right under his nose.
Instead, the U.S. must be able to operate in the world’s littoral regions – essentially the coastlines of the world, the home of about 80 percent of the world’s population. It is within this region the United States will operate in the first part of the next century. U.S. forces must, therefore, pack a punch on a moment’s notice and do it with the weapons and forces necessary for success. In other words, naval forces. These are unique in their ability to reach into any corner of the globe. They routinely deploy with the equipment and ammunition required for long periods of combat or patrol.
For example, when a carrier battle group or an amphibious ready group deploys, it carries the means to protect or rescue U.S. citizens overseas, deliver humanitarian supplies, conduct strikes against terrorists, rescue downed pilots, collect information, establish beachheads and much more. The need for this kind of maritime power has never been more important than now, in a world of revolutionary technology leaps, a global economy that depends upon political stability, and shifting diplomatic landscapes. The U.S. is the leader of the free world, but to continue doing so requires naval forces capable of conducting operations that range from strike flights to amphibious operations to high-intensity combat.
This capability is called “naval strike,” and it will be the dominant factor in American maritime strategy in the immediate future. Naval strike requirements were discussed in a recent Naval Strike Forum, sponsored by the Lexington Institute. The forum was designed to rigorously analyze near-term technology – from information management to weapons platforms – to assure the relevance of U.S. naval strike forces in the 21st century.
A key issue was the shift away from Cold War, threat-based, thinking toward preparation for an undefined threat with a capabilities-based naval force, one capable of facing a variety of adversaries who seek to deny U.S. access to foreign resources and markets while avoiding direct confrontation with U.S. military might.
These potential enemies will attack weak spots in American strategy, in a style of war known as “asymmetrical warfare.” Future confrontations, which could come from any corner of the globe, will require highly mobile, self-sufficient forces. But the weapons of today, some designed to fight a war of yesteryear, will be irrelevant 10 years from now – the second truth to be learned from recent naval operations overseas.
The Navy and Marine Corps have already begun the reshaping of naval forces, which is outlined in the visionary philosophy, “Operational Maneuver From the Sea.” That philosophy goes far beyond traditional amphibious operations at the shoreline. Instead, the services envisage operations that pierce deep into the inland regions of the world’s coastlines, up to 200 miles inland in some cases, using information technology and advanced weapons in concert to strike swiftly and decisively while minimizing risk to friendly forces. The manifestation of this philosophy is the so-called “amphibious triad”: the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor; the Landing Craft, Air-Cushioned, or LCAC; and the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle. These three systems represent more than just useful weapons. Each leg of the triad works with the other two in a synergistic approach to warfare for maximum power, flexibility and survivability.
But the triad is only one piece of the puzzle. Other platforms, either already in the Navy Department or on the drawing boards, must be supported if the nation is to fully implement its maritime strategy in the next century.
For example, the aircraft carrier has long been viewed as the “big stick” of American foreign policy. In the next two decades, the Navy will begin a phased modernization of its carriers beyond the Nimitz class, the first of which was commissioned in 1975. CVN-77 will be the last ship of the class and will begin the phased transition to the next class, CVX, with an incorporation of a new integrated combat system. CVX is also expected to include a new electrical and distribution system and possibly an electromagnetic landing system for aircraft.
The carriers’ combat power rests mostly on the wings of the F/A-18 Hornet. Currently being developed are plans for the “E” and “F” models, the Super Hornet, which is more a new aircraft than a souped-up Hornet. And another possible variant of the Super Hornet could answer one of the sea services’ most critical needs – a replacement for the EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare jet. These programs must continue on pace if the Navy is to enter the next century with a state-of-the art aircraft.
The Prowler needs replacements soon, overruling the chances of beginning a new design and acquisition process. The Navy has begun an “analysis of alternatives” to determine the feasibility of converting the “F” model Super Hornet into a “Follow-on Support Jammer.” Resources must continue to be made available until a suitable replacement is found. Similarly, the Navy is pressed to find a replacement for the E-2C Hawkeye command-and-control plane, the C-2 Greyhound and S-3 Viking.
Alongside those upgrade and replacement needs is the Joint Strike Fighter, a collaborative effort between the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The Joint Strike Fighter will streamline the Corps’ fighter and attack fleets, now comprised of “C” and “D” model Hornets and AV-8B Harriers – the Joint Strike Fighter will have the same vertical take-off and landing capability of the Harrier while adding stealth technology.
These aircraft, like the amphibious triad, are more than just new weapons systems designed to counter a clearly defined threat. These platforms represent next-generation capabilities essential to the Navy’s and the Marine Corps’ accomplishment of its mission.
The U.S. can ill afford to enter the next millennium with an aging fleet or with aging aircraft. History has shown a disturbing American propensity for military atrophy during times of peace, a cycle that some feel is repeating itself.
Military preparedness is expensive in terms of dollars, but the savings are measured in American lives and the continued expansion of American democratic power.
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