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Navy’s Chance for Reform, Slipping Away September 8, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest Blog

This is the third posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features David Axe, military correspondent for War is Boring.

Navy’s Chance for Reform, Slipping Away

by David Axe

It took the firings of two top officials, the truncation or termination of several major acquisitions programs and a heated, months-long political battle, but in the past year or so, U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has successfully reformed the once-hidebound U.S. Air Force. The “new” U.S. Air Force better balances the needs of today’s small, dirty wars against the potential for future, large-scale warfare against another powerful country.

Eight years of low-intensity warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant battlefields has prompted uneven changes across the U.S. military services. The Army and Marines, with the biggest investment in today’s conflicts and by far the most fatalities, have been quickest to adjust their force structures, weapons plans and training. Gates’ concerted effort finally shoved the Air Force in the same general direction. Only the U.S. Navy lags behind. Today, the Navy is the military branch that has adapted the least to current wars. And it’s unclear whether that adaptation will ever happen.

For the Army, Marines and Air Force, recent changes have been about balance. The emergence of so-called “hybrid war,” which combines insurgent tactics with high technology, as seen in Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza, has underscored the wisdom of that balance. In the U.S. military, only the Navy is truly out of balance.

The Army and Marines responded to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in basically the same ways: both services grew in total manpower, added a modest number of infantry units, and heavily reinforced units for surveillance, logistics, air transport and civil affairs. Some high-tech weapons programs were axed, in favor of cheaper, more numerous systems suited to counter-insurgencies. At the same time, both ground-combat services retained a strong core of forces tailored for high-end combat against other armies.

The Air Force initially resisted any change, instead remaining committed to its modernization plans from the 1990s, which hinged on purchases of as many as 381 F-22 stealth fighters. Last fall, Gates fired Secretary of Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, both Raptor boosters. The firings cleared the way for new leaders and fresh ideas. In quick succession, the Pentagon truncated the Raptor buy to just 187 airframes, delayed a number of other “big-war” programs including the stealthy “Next-Generation Bomber,” and in their place added plans for hundreds of armed drones, light airlifters and small, cheap attack planes — all at a cost far below what it would require to pay for small numbers of stealth fighters and bombers. But like the Army and Marines, the Air Force remained committed to winning any future conventional war, through a huge investment in stealthy F-35 fighters.

The above reforms to the land and air services were codified in the initial wave of policy and program announcements that flowed from the Obama Administration’s defense team. In April, Gates detailed major changes to existing acquisitions programs. This was widely seen as a preview of the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, which is due for release early next year. Strangely, Gates said very little about the Navy in his April announcements, and since then has added little of substance related to the sea service. By law, the Navy is required to file an annual 30-year shipbuilding plan, but this year the sea service declined to do so.

While the air and land branches pursue bold new futures, the sea service seems to be locked into the same course it has sailed since before the Iraq war. And it doesn’t appear that the QDR will change that.

For decades, the Navy has been built around its aircraft carrier battlegroups and amphibious groups. The numbers of each, and the total number of warships in the fleet, has declined modestly, while the average size of ships and their aggregate combat power has increased greatly. Today the Navy has just 280 major warships, compared to nearly 600 two decades ago. But owing to the collapse of any serious competitors, and the rapid advance of American technology, “in terms of overall fleet combat capability, the US Navy enjoys a 13-navy standard,” according to Bob Work, a former naval analyst and current Navy undersecretary.  That means the U.S. Navy is as capable as the next 13 world navies combined. By contrast, the British Royal Navy, during the height of its supremacy in the 19th century, pursued only a two-navy standard.

With such overwhelming conventional superiority, the Navy has a rare opportunity to reform, in benign conditions, in order to address capability shortfalls. These shortfalls lie not in the realm of state-on-state conflict, at which the Navy excels, but in small, low-intensity conflicts and stability operations. The Navy could play a more meaningful role in today’s small wars, if it possessed the right equipment and mindset. That means a willingness to invest in smaller, cheaper ships capable of operating closer to shore.

Not only are reforms necessary to prepare the Navy for waging small wars, they would save money over existing plans — which are clearly unaffordable. Work estimates the Navy needs as much as $20 billion annually for new ships in order to maintain the existing force structure. But in the last decade, the Navy has been appropriated just $12 billion per year, on average. Vessels for low-intensity conflict rarely cost more than a few hundred million dollars apiece; traditional big-war ships rarely cost less than a billion. A single DDG-1000 stealth destroyer costs as much as $4 billion, and the Navy is buying at least three of them.

For perspective on the direction the U.S. Navy could take, consider the Israeli navy’s operations off Gaza, beginning in December last year. Scores of Israeli corvettes and patrol boats enforced a blockade against weapons smugglers while also destroying Hamas’s few boats and attacking coastal targets in support of land forces using small, precision weapons. The U.S. Navy would be hard-pressed to duplicate Israel’s efforts, as its major warships draw too deeply and maneuver too slowly to operate in crowded, near-shore waters — and it possesses too few small patrol boats for blockade duty.

Consider also the Navy’s experiences in stability operations in Latin America and Africa. Today, the Navy sends large amphibious ships on humanitarian missions across the developing world. But existing amphibs are too big for most ports in poor countries. The USS Kearsarge assault ship had to anchor miles off the coast of Nicaragua in August 2008 and was forced to shuttle doctors and engineers ashore in heavylift helicopters. When the helicopters suffered maintenance problems, health clinics ashore were nearly overwhelmed by angry patients, waiting for hours under the hot sun for doctors who were stuck on Kearsarge for want of transport. Similarly, in Gabon, West Africa, this spring, the USS Nashville landing dock missed a day’s worth of humanitarian activities in the city of Libreville, because the ship unexpectedly wouldn’t fit in the city’s one small port.

The Navy does pay lip-service to coastal operations in its support for the Littoral Combat Ship, an over-budget corvette that, at 3,000 tons displacement, isn’t truly a littoral warship. For coastal operations, the Navy needs more small patrol boats of just a few hundred tons displacement. For stability ops, the sea service needs shallow-draft transports. Both types already exist in the Navy’s force structure in very small numbers, and could be bought in larger numbers, cheaply. The Coast Guard is designing a brand-new patrol boat, and purchasing the first copy, for just $88 million. The Navy will buy several Joint High-Speed Vessel catamaran transports — ideal for small-port access and to support patrol boats — for around $100 million apiece.

But there’s little appetite in the Navy to invest even the small sums required for a big boost to small-war forces. “We are practically forcing them to build JHSV at gunpoint, and we cannot get them to admit there is a need for additional coastal patrol craft,” said one Navy officer who is advising senior naval leaders on the QDR. Even if the Navy does buy some small vessels, the officer believes they will be assigned to the “purgatory” that is the Navy’s new Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, a holding command for construction workers and river troops “which the Navy pays lip service to, but ignores consistently.”

Gates and the rest of the Obama defense team don’t seem inclined to force the Navy to change, as they did the Air Force. Instead, Gates seems to want to preserve the big-ship, big-war Navy as a hedge against future state-on-state warfare — this despite Gates’ apparent plan to do away with the old planning assumption that the U.S. military must be prepared to simultaneously fight two “major regional conflicts.”

There’s a bitter irony to the Navy’s failure to adapt today. In light of the $8-billion annual gap between the Navy’s existing needs and its likely future funding, the fleet will probably shrink in coming years, thus eroding the sea service’s current overwhelming superiority. It’s because of this superiority that the Navy can afford to experiment with new vessels and new ways of thinking, to better wage small wars. The window for reform closes, as the budgetary woes mount. The Navy’s time for change is now.



1. War Is Boring - September 8, 2009

[…] Read the rest at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight Blog. […]

2. The Navy’s Last Chance for Reform « New Wars - September 8, 2009

[…] call that the Navy reform for today’s conflicts. From the Stimson Center blog here is “Navy’s Chance for Reform, Slipping Away“: For decades, the Navy has been built around its aircraft carrier battlegroups and […]

3. Bill V. - September 8, 2009

Maybe you should talk to Marines and GIs on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they truly need ground support, they have openly criticized that the Air Force is next to useless. Navy and Marine Corp pilots will actually risk their necks and get down on the deck.

That’s why it is called “power projection.”

4. eg - September 10, 2009

The Navy has neglected special needs such Mine Counter Measures, Littoral warfare, etc until the need arises. Perhaps a little history lesson is needed. Where were the Wasp and Hornet lost?

5. Sea Links « New Wars - September 12, 2009

[…] Chance for Reform, Slipping […]

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