If you walk the hallways of the Pentagon these days, you can sense the power of Donald Rumsfeld’s team ebbing away. The military senses it too, and has become perceptibly less concerned about the opinions of political appointees. Senior officers know that if they just wait a while, the big thinkers will be gone, and many of the bold ideas about transforming defense will go with them. Rumsfeld tried to do too much from a narrow political base, and never did the hard work of broadening that base. Now it’s too late.
Academics no doubt will reflect on how Rumsfeld’s final act provides yet another, eerie resemblance to Robert McNamara’s tenure as defense secretary. For those who are concerned about building a defense posture for the new millennium, though, the focus of interest is shifting back to the individual services. They have their own ideas about what America’s future defenses should look like, and will move quickly to fill the vacuum formed by Rumsfeld’s waning authority.
A key cluster of issues arises from an internal assessment of Navy plans prepared by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The study has been turned into a twelve-hour briefing that makes numerous recommendations for trimming or redirecting modernization initiatives. For example, it proposes to delay fielding an unmanned aircraft fleet for maritime surveillance until midway through the next decade — which is tantamount to saying never. Another part of the assessment suggests cutting back the Navy’s fleet of 55 attack submarines to somewhere in the range of 37 to 44 boats (with 41 looking like the most likely number).
Both proposals raise important questions about the military’s future reconnaissance capabilities. About two-thirds of submarine mission days are currently dedicated to clandestine intelligence gathering. Much of this involves eavesdropping on enemy navies, but the most important missions are taskings from the CIA or NSA to monitor shore transmissions. The stealth and persistence of submarines makes them uniquely suited for listening in on the radio-frequency transmissions of littoral states. Although the low profile of submarine masts makes it hard to intercept line-of-sight transmissions, peculiarities of the coastal climate sometimes trap information in a way that facilitates eavesdropping.
As adversaries have learned to anticipate the intervals at which various orbital eavesdropping systems pass overhead, they have become adept at concealing transmissions. They also can resort to low-power transmissions beyond the reach of orbital collectors, or arrange transmission routes at right angles to orbital planes, minimizing interception times. Airborne collectors potentially could address these challenges, but not in countries with well-defended airspace. So the issue of reducing submarine forces deserves close attention. Proponents of a smaller force say that by forward deploying more subs and giving each dual crews, they could get equal intelligence-gathering capabilities out of a smaller sub fleet. Maybe. But let’s make sure these ideas work before we start cutting back on submarine modernization.
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