By lex, on May 4th, 2010
In the spring of 2008 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was engaged in a simmering dispute with USAF leadership that, clearly considering him a member of a lame duck administration, openly disputed his position on the F-22 Raptor program. Gates wanted the service to focus more on armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used in the Global War on Terror, and less on exotic capabilities targeted towards theoretical wars. In the summer of that same year, when an embarrassing series of blunders with the Air Force’s nuclear weapons program became public, Gates seized the opportunity to show the junior service who was in charge *, firing both the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff.
Air Force got the hint.
Gates began his public campaign against the Raptor at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama. Speaking at a Navy League sponsored Sea-Air-Space symposium in Maryland this week, the Secretary shifted fires *:
An emphasis on large blue-water ships and expensive high-tech weapons ignores the realities of the world today, said Gates. U.S. enemies are unlikely to “bankrupt themselves” trying to compete with the overwhelmingly superior American Navy. What U.S. forces need are smaller, agile ships that are less vulnerable to ballistic missiles and swarming speedboats, Gates said. Potential foes such as Iran and nonstate groups such as Hezbollah are building high-speed antiship missiles with the intent of denying U.S. vessels easy access to coastal areas, Gates said.
“The Navy has been most consistently concerned about its size” instead of coming to grips with the asymmetric threats it will face in the future, he noted. Although the U.S. fleet has shrunk significantly — from about 600 ships in the mid-1980s to 286 ships today — the rest of the world’s navies have shrunk even more, Gates said.
The Navy has lost perspective on this issue, said Gates. “Some context is useful,” he said.
Given the “context” provided to the USAF in 2008, the message has undoubtedly been received within Navy: Change your spending priorities or I will start shooting people until I find someone who will do so.
The Secretary’s solution?
He suggested the Navy should pour more resources into long-range unmanned aircraft; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and sea-based missile defense, as well as small underwater platforms. The requirement for “low end missions” will not go away, Gates said. The Navy will need speedier ships that can chase pirates and an ability to operate in shallow waters in response to armed conflicts or humanitarian relief operations.
Well, long-range unmanned aircraft are cool – the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAS is already in development. But neither that, nor ISR are inherently naval missions (although sea-based missile defense is).
This vision moves us away from nation-breaking “Leviathan” capabilities and towards a smaller, cheaper coastal defense force that – rather than defend the US shoreline – polices trouble spots on the empire’s edge. But at least for me, it’s hard to see how smaller, cheaper ships operating well within range of shoreline anti-ship missile arcs is inherently a superior option. If push comes to shove you will tend to lose more, less capable ships – scale matters.
Submarines are tremendously lethal anti-surface platforms and possess a significant capability for precise, albeit pinprick strikes ashore using TLAMs. But they are not cheap, are challenged in the littorals and massively ineffective as pirate hunters. If your “problem” is that potentially hostile nations are so deterred by your current Navy that they do not attempt to field symmetrical forces – which by the way, is a good problem to have – increasing the submarine force offers no immediate benefit but rather issues an open invitation to compete with cheaper and equally stealthy diesel boats within their own regions. You can have 40 nuclear submarines to your adversary’s 10 diesel boats, but you’ve got to be everywhere and he merely needs to be at home.
Furthermore, a stealthy submarine might be anywhere, which – to your tinpot dictator inflated with his own self-importance – means that they are nowhere, at least until the sub-launched cruise missile enters his bedroom window. Their inherent advantage of stealth means that they offer little in the way of conventional deterrence. A carrier strike group off your coast, on the other hand, places a heavy finger on the scales of regional strategic calculus.
When you’ve spent the last 8-10 years running around smashing bugs in the pantry, it’s sometimes easy to forget what made it possible to stock the larder. Ours is an island nation, and trade is our nation’s economic lifeblood. Even with the late unpleasantness trade has for the most part run very smoothly under the protective umbrella of a global naval force capable of tamping down regional military competition and keeping open the maritime lines of strategic communication by which the vast majority of trade moves. Navy does so while also deterring provocations that could escalate into full-blown, inherently destabilizing conflicts. Give that up, and see what rushes in to fill the vacuum.
Our surface and carrier force are victims of their own successes – so large and powerful that no adversary can afford to contemplate construction of a peer force. Instead they must turn to area denial and anti-access weapons such as over-the-horizon cruise missiles and ballistic anti-ship missiles. But I have to ask: Having invested in a building, supporting, training and maintaining a blue water capability that dominates the maneuver area of the sea does it really make sense to downsize to a force that offers a more or less fair fight to those who have the advantage of interior lines for maneuver and logistical support? And are we really willing to concede that maneuver space based upon the threat of unproven weapons rather than do the traditional thing and create a counter-counter capability?
The Navy has time and again provided evidence of its unique capabilities as a deterrent force, ally-builder, democratic bulwark, kinetic force in its own right and force enabler in a broader conflict. The secretary’s vision appears to be driven not by Somali pirates that we seem unwilling to kill, nor by any diminution of the core responsibilities of the world’s maritime superpower but rather by spending priorities: The nation is hugely in hock and tax increases alone will not solve the deficit. Ergo, discretionary funding must be cut. Even though the proportion of GDP spent on defense *** is much smaller than in the past, DoD is by far the greatest cost center in discretionary funding; so-called mandatory funding accounts continue to mushroom by comparison ***.
So the question really comes down not to defense priorities but rather national priorities: What kind of country do we want to be?
The answer, for now, appears to be “something other than what we have been.”
There’s Change for you.
Maybe not so much.
* 10-01-2018 Link Gone; no replacements found – Ed.
** 10-01–-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.
*** 10-01-2018 Links Gone; no replacements found – was 07-13-2007 It’s costing to much and 07-25-2007 It’s costing too much redux neptunuslex – Ed.