April 1, 2007  

Own the blue water

“Partner in the brown water; secure the green water; own the blue water,” is a colorful new Navy mantra. It refers to the need to work closely with other nations to operate in the riverine and sea-land interface environment, to ensure access in the littoral and to maintain dominance in the open ocean — or blue water — environment. Although the Navy will operate closer to shore, it will not cede supremacy of the high seas. And although potential adversaries are not vying for open ocean superiority today, one cannot assume that will be the case in the future.

“We have not and cannot afford ever to abdicate our dominance in the blue water,” said Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, deputy director for surface warfare.

There are two major reasons why we need to have a blue-water capability. The first is the current or near-term threat, and the second is the future threat.

Advances in technology and the proliferation and low cost of long-range weapons systems and sensors have pushed the boundaries of the littoral into what has been traditionally considered “blue water.” In the past, our blue-water capabilities were to counter any other force contesting or challenging our use of the high seas, whether those forces were air, surface or submarines. For example, the Soviet threat included numerous classes of attack and strategic submarines, surface combatants and long-range aircraft, and even a nascent aircraft carrier capability. The Navy also had to stop a formidable number of ballistic missile submarines from breaking out into open water. Badger and Bear over-flights of carrier battle groups were common.

We have little of that today. The Navy is operating closer to shore. Those forces are still trying to counter submarines, aircraft and surface ships, but the size and magnitude is different, because potential adversaries are not attempting to deny us the open ocean; they are attempting to deny us access to their near-shore waters. The threats are often from smaller combatants with less endurance, land-based aircraft that don’t need the range of a Badger or a Bear, or submarines that do not need to deploy halfway around the world. Knowing that adversaries can employ air, surface or undersea environments mandates that the Navy retain proficiency in those areas.

The Navy faces challenges in the blue-water environment today that were not present during the Cold War, said Rear Adm. Ray Spicer, commander of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, now deployed to 5th Fleet.

There has been a proliferation of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), available around the world, as well as an increasing number of countries with capable submarine forces, especially quiet diesel subs. Emerging submarine technologies, such as air-independent propulsion, permit extended submerged operations.

More adversaries will be capable of operating high-performance systems, flying sophisticated combat aircraft such as Flankers and Fulcrums, as well as maritime patrol aircraft with longer-range anti-ship weapons.

“The weapon technology available now enables almost any aircraft to be a formidable threat,” Spicer said.


Enhanced surveillance capabilities from multiple sources, including commercial leases, make it even move difficult to mask movements. Spicer said the world is a less stable, less predictable place. “The threat is more asymmetric and can come from a coalition of countries or sophisticated and well-financed nongovernment actors,” he said. An example of this is Hezbollah’s use of a C-802 anti-ship cruise missile against an Israeli Saar-5 class corvette.

While the threat has changed, the Navy has changed, too. “We have seen a loss or reduction of some U.S. surface engagement capabilities, such as Harpoon and SM-1,” Spicer said. “The Navy is buying fewer ships, and that has led to a reduction of our shipbuilding industrial base. Alliances are fragile and less dependable.”

Although many multimission Navy ships are more capable than their predecessors, some newer ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), will be minimally manned but feature focused capabilities.

“We need to keep sea lines of communications open. Ninety percent of world commerce moves over water. The flow of oil out of the Middle East is more important than ever before,” Spicer said.

Although much of that trade follows established sea lines of communication and passes through the littoral or via vulnerable choke points, most commerce that reaches the U.S. by sea still must cross the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

The U.S. reduction in overseas bases, coupled with contemporary political constraints, has made persistent presence more difficult. We face uncertainty in our agreements and rights with host nations.

To maintain maritime dominance in the blue water, Spicer said, the U.S. needs ships with sustainment and sea-keeping capabilities, that are capable of sustaining damage and still carrying the fight, and robust logistics. “Our Navy must be proficient in both anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare. We must continue to have a capable and proficient fleet, well-trained sailors and a strong shipbuilding industrial base.

“We need to achieve the CNO’s goal of the 1,000-ship navy, and that requires interoperability with our coalition partners in communications; a common operating picture; and shared tactics, techniques and procedures.”

The 1,000-ship navy concept extends across the warfare spectrum, from brown water to ballistic missile defense, exemplified by the U.S. partnership with the Japanese navy.

Dedicated organic unmanned systems such as Maritime Global Hawk will be important for maritime patrol and surveillance, in the air, and on and below the surface. More ASW assets are needed, Spicer said. Every aircraft is an ASW asset, but the only dedicated carrier strike group asset is the SH-60B/F. The E-2 airborne early warning platform will require an air refueling capability. Long-range strike missions from a carrier in the blue-water environment will require nonorganic air refueling assets. Spicer also said he believes the growing air-to-air threat will require more capable air-to-air weapons along with better precision weapons against surface targets.

In examining requirements for the blue water, Eric Wertheim, author and editor of “Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World,” asks two questions: Who is a threat now? Who could potentially threaten us in the future?

The growing global economy has intensified the race for resources. Most of those resources travel in the littoral, but almost all of our overseas trade crosses oceans in ships. Trading between our major partners takes place across blue water. So it continues to be an imperative to exercise control over vital resources or the path for resources.

If there is no substitute today for the Soviet navy to challenge the U.S. for blue-water dominance, it doesn’t mean that a peer competitor could not rise in the future. India and China have huge populations, burgeoning economies and voracious appetites for energy. If they expand their naval presence to assure the security of their maritime commerce, they could obtain the force structure that might well have a significant blue-water capability.

Many analysts point to China as the new blue-water threat. To be sure, China is building a new, large, blue-water-capable navy. With its global trade and thirst for energy, such a development seems inevitable. India is another large country with new economic wealth and, like China, a growing demand for imported energy. The Russian navy is still very capable — at least on paper — and in possession of many blue-water assets. Alliances still play a role, and there will continue to be regional and theater alliances opposed to American interests.

“There won’t be a big fleet coming out to fight us,” Buzby said. “No one else can shoulder the cost of operating a big fleet, and I don’t see someone else building another fleet comparable to our Navy. But potential adversaries can acquire a lot of capability without a lot of infrastructure.

“If we fail to pay attention to the blue water another growing economic power would fill the void to further their economic interests.”

Spicer added, “If we are not structuring our Navy now to face that potential threat, we risk not being able to meet it.”

Today, trade routes are threatened at choke points or within striking distance of the littoral. However, a future peer competitor would have the capability of threatening merchant traffic in the open ocean. “We have to ensure enough of our fleet is made up of highly capable multipurpose combatants that can operate across the full range of warfare. It’s never going to be just a littoral problem for us,” Buzby said.

Just as the U.S. is relying on unmanned systems, a growing number of countries will be able to afford far-ranging capabilities they do not have today. This will become an increasingly difficult challenge for the U.S.

Anti-ship cruise missiles can be launched from land, air and sea. Many countries have the French-built Exocet ASCM. New ASCMs travel at hypersonic speeds. Russia is developing the ramjet-powered SS-NX-26 ASCM, the Mach-2.5. The joint India-Russia surface- or air-launched BrahMos and BrahMos A cruise missiles are designed to fly low to strike surface targets at a speed of Mach 2.8, with a range of nearly 200 miles.

“For these very stressing threats, we’re developing new systems, but we’re also using the systems we have in smarter ways,” said Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, deputy director of the Surface Warfare Directorate for Combat Systems and Weapons. “For example, NIFC-CA (Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air) is the next revolution in air defense, and it is as much of a revolution as was Aegis. By putting an active seeker on the front end of a standard missile, and taking advantage of a networked, single-integrated air picture, we can kill threats at much longer distances than we ever thought possible.”

The Russian navy still has a formidable strategic submarine fleet and continues to test its newest submarine-launched ICBM, the SS-NX-30 Bulava missile, which will have a range of 5,000 miles and reportedly carries a 550 kiloton yield nuclear warhead.

More nations will obtain ballistic missiles. The biggest challenge will come from the ability to place multiple and independently targeted warheads on these missiles, compounding the defense against them. Steerable warheads will soon place warships and other nonstationary targets at risk.


The Navy doesn’t really have the option to abdicate its blue-water responsibilities.

“The problem with being the world’s superpower is you have to do it all. You don’t have the option of just being good at a few things. You have to be good at everything. In fact, you have to be the best,” Wertheim said. During the Cold War, the U.S. could rely on allies for certain missions such as mine warfare and coastal operations. “Today, however, we face threats that are not shared by all of our allies. We have to face them ourselves, so our force has to be more balanced than ever.”

The new Littoral Combat Ship and DDG-1000 multimission destroyer will be optimized for the littoral environment. DDG-1000 will have unmatched war-fighting capabilities in and near the littoral and provide dominance in the interface between blue and brown water. DDG-1000, however, has significant capability in all dimensions for blue-water warfare. Likewise, the Navy’s current fleet of Aegis cruisers and destroyers, built for the blue water, must be kept current through modernization to assure that dominance in the future. Newer attack submarines have better littoral capabilities but still retain superb blue-water proficiency. Aircraft carriers and their strike groups can control huge expanses of ocean. These strike groups will focus more on littoral missions, yet will be capable of providing blue-water sea control when needed.

Regarding anti-surface warfare, Spicer says the emphasis on employing aviation assets against enemy surface ships has led to degradation in ship-to-ship war-at-sea capabilities. Should a peer competitor emerge, those capabilities would again become important.

To sustain these forces in blue water, the U.S. must continue to operate a massive logistics force. Military Sealift Command is bigger than most navies. “Logistics is an Achilles heel,” Spicer said. But that sword cuts both ways. Any competitors to U.S. blue-water dominance must be present, and remain there, requiring their own sizeable logistics operation.

“We have to be able to project power, and bring the fight to adversaries wherever they are,” Wertheim said. “But those adversaries will always have the home-field advantage.

“Because we are a maritime nation, the bread and butter of our Navy is going to remain blue-water operations, even though the brown- and green-water operations will continue to be important on the peripheral,” Wertheim said.

Navy Capt. Edward Lundquist (ret.) served as a surface warfare officer. He works for Alion Science and Technology.