June 1, 2009  

Carrier culture shock

The Navy’s maritime strategy does not go far enough in reshaping the fleet

As the Obama administration formulates its approach to national security policy, it would do well to start with reading “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the Navy’s new maritime strategy. The document is at once a bold argument for a new direction in foreign and national security policy, an inadequate plan for a U.S. maritime grand strategy, and a symptom (and perhaps call for help) of the Navy’s current operational crisis. Each of these points will present themselves as the new administration develops its national security program.

The maritime strategy was developed by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen, but published after his accession to the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The document calls for a bold departure from unilateralism and one-dimensional policy and places the military with diplomacy, coalition-building and international development as elements in a unified national security policy. In this regard, Mullen adumbrated the outlook of the Obama administration while in the service of the prior administration.

The document states: “Our nation’s interests are best served by fostering a peaceful global system.” And later, “Although our forces can surge when necessary, trust and cooperation cannot be surged.” The document also calls for those engaged in national defense to have greater depth and appreciation of the “cultural, historical and linguistic” aspects of the places to which they are deployed.

Mullen, who has publicly called for diplomacy in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, has augmented his views in publications and public addresses. In a speech at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, Mullen said, “it is really important to see the world through other people — other people’s eyes, not just our eyes. … And America has a way of looking through the lens, sometimes, too often exclusively through our own eyes. And we are living in a world now where that just isn’t going to work.”

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen has stressed the need to integrate inputs from other parts of the government, e.g., State, Commerce and Agriculture, and decried the extreme atrophy of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which he says must be rebuilt. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has called this approach a new, expanded concept of “jointness.”

In an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s publication Proceedings, Mullen cited the reversal of public opinion in favor of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in Muslim Indonesia in response to the Navy’s highly effective relief effort following the tsunami by saying that it showed a side of American power “that wasn’t perceived as frightening, monolithic or arrogant.” Such soft power — aid, diplomacy, cultural exchanges and trade — is being used increasingly as a tool of an overall national security strategy by the Chinese.

In moving from a forceful volte face at the level of foreign policy, however, the document is deficient in delivering on its claim to constitute a maritime strategy. Most notably, the document fails to detail a force structure or procurement program to support the conceptual redirection of the Navy. As close as the document gets is its call for coordination with allied navies in providing tactical and support functions. This has been criticized as outsourcing the areas in which the Navy is inadequate, rather than dealing with those inadequacies head on. It also leaves unanswered what the U.S. should do when taking action requires, in part, the navies of other nations that may not support a particular American military objective.

This “strategy reality disconnect,” in the words of Hans Ulrich Kaeser of CSIS, is a glaring problem with which policymakers must come to terms. The term “1,000-ship Navy,” which is sometimes used by Mullen, does not appear in the document, but a concept that relies on the U.S. Coast Guard and foreign navies for most of those ships is a tacit admission of the shipbuilding crisis facing the Navy — a crisis created by over-reliance on costly and maintenance/reliability-challenged technology and abysmal acquisition policies resulting in delivery schedule delays and massive cost overruns. Consequently, the Navy (as is also the case with the procurement crises in the other branches of service) spends more and more money to buy fewer, more expensive ships while shrinking in size.

In his Proceedings article, “DOD On a Glide Path to Bankruptcy,” defense budget expert John D. Christie states that if current trends were projected out, “the entire defense budget would be required to buy one aircraft carrier early in the 22nd century.” This, in the words of CSIS’ Kaeser, has brought about a situation where “the most serious threat to the U.S. Navy is the U.S. Navy.”

Troubling disconnect

The problem is more fundamental than the inability to move from the Navy’s current 283 ships to its previously stated goal of 313 ships (it was as high as 568 during the Reagan administration). Regardless of what the right number of ships might be, the real questions are: Is the composition of the Navy in line with the new maritime strategy, and are both in line with actual future requirements and threats? Central to that question is the Navy’s culture, which remains fixated on the aircraft carrier and a strategic concept of combat against peer navies derived from World War II and war gaming against the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. And therein lies the troubling disconnect.

The document states that in the future, peer navies and rogue actors “will almost certainly rely on asymmetric attack and surprise, achieved through stealth, deception or ambiguity.” In an appearance at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Mullen called for all U.S. forces to become “more adaptable,” “less footprint” and “more agile.” Yet the maritime strategy does not make that leap from a “great white” blue-water Navy to (using Mullen’s term) an “expeditionary force” that is able to operate effectively in green and brown water.

The aircraft carrier is an enormously expensive platform requiring an enormously expensive entourage of escort and support ships and aircraft. The new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier alone will cost $14.5 billion, not factoring in overruns. The aircraft carrier, however, presents a very large and visible signature. Carrier groups can be trapped by mines and sunken ships. Carriers are also vulnerable to quiet and maneuverable diesel submarines, such as those employed by the Russian and Chinese navies. The vulnerability is amplified by the Russian Navy’s development of super-captivating torpedoes, which travel at 200 knots, and by supersonic cruise missiles such as the Russian Sunburn and Sizzler and the Chinese Yingji. Although the Navy maintains that the aircraft carrier is invulnerable, Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the Pacific Fleet, admitted that our ability to defend against these missiles is uncertain. The Navy will not even be capable of doing a test of our defenses against these missiles until 2014. The fact that since 1996, three U.S. aircraft carriers (Independence, Kitty Hawk, Carl Vinson) have been “sunk” in war games by the Australian, Chilean and Dutch navies (not relying on any of those advanced technologies) does not give much comfort. In addition, in that same time period, the Russian and Chinese militaries, without being detected, have come close enough to have sunk an aircraft carrier at least three times, the most recent being in 2006 ,when a Chinese Song-class sub surfaced in the middle of the Kitty Hawk’s carrier group. Add to this that in one war game, the 5th Fleet sustained heavy losses from very low tech gunboats armed with anti-ship missiles, and the need for a wake-up call is clear.

A new standard

As a maritime superpower, America must have a Navy that is second to none, but that standard cannot be measured in dollars spent ineffectively, or in tonnages or in glitzy Top Gun images. We need to catch up with the strategic environment in which surface ships are highly vulnerable and in which speed, maneuver and stealth are the keys. We need to reverse the decline in anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasure capabilities. We need the ability to insert and remove Marines and other ground forces quickly. We also need to make certain we are investing in capabilities to secure our ports and coastal waters.

The time must come to an end when expenditures on large, outdated ships, over-reliance on complicated and temperamental technology, and cost overruns crowd out the funding and development of a mission-effective and cost-effective craft for use in the littorals — a need demonstrated in the recent piracy attacks off Somalia. When the crew of a single Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is equivalent to the entire Foreign Service corps, we should stop and ask whether the face we present to the world and our approach to national security are out of skew. We have to ask whether spending $14.5 billion on the new Ford-class aircraft carrier is the best return on investment in combating terrorism and in promoting true national security, rather than its illusion? Do we have the right weapons for the future, and do we have a coherent national security policy that leverages and integrates all the tools at our disposal?

These are among the most urgent questions that President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the new secretary of the Navy must resolve.

David W. Wise is a businessman who resides in Annapolis, Md., and who writes frequently on public policy. He is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University.