Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE BLOG
7 October 2015
It is disconcerting to read that the U.S. Navy is making itself into “an unsustainable liability” in the pages of PROCEEDINGS. This is the argument made by Captain R. B. Watts, USCG (Retired) in his essay, “Advocating Naval Heresy” in the June 2015 issue of this magazine.
Captain Watts writes that since irregular warfare is the most pervasive form of warfare confronting the United States now and into the future, the U.S. Navy should have a “small combatant that can deal with the complexities of irregular warfare.” However, he continues that because the Navy is a traditionalist organization, unthinkingly wedded to a Mahanian principle that capital ships remain the primary instruments of seapower, this need for a small combatant will go unmet as the Navy continues to focus on the aircraft carrier as its primary capital ship.
The Navy does not define seapower in terms of capital ships such as the aircraft carrier. Seapower is the enduring ability to project influence through the control and exploitation of the maritime domain to include the maritime littorals and the air above it to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives. Seapower gives the United States the ability to convert the world’s oceans – a global commons that covers more than 2/3’s of the planet’s surface into a medium of maneuver and operations for projecting U.S. power ashore and defending U.S. interests around the world. The ability to use the world’s oceans in this manner – and to deny other countries the use of the world’s oceans for taking actions against U.S. interests – constitutes an immense asymmetric advantage for the United States, one so ubiquitous and longstanding that it can be easy to overlook or taken for granted. Projecting seapower is independent of a capital ship, and relies, instead, upon numerous ship types to include, surface combatants, amphibious ships and attack, cruise-missile, ballistic missile submarines, and aircraft carriers – along with underway replenishment ships for logistic support.
Furthermore the Navy bases its need for the type of ships it operates on enduring geopolitical realities and not Mahanian theory. First the United States exists as an island nation between two great oceans. Second the United States is and will remain a global leader with world-wide interests and responsibilities. Third most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are located not in the Western Hemisphere, but in other hemispheres, particularly Eurasia.
In response to these realities the United States has designed its Navy to cross broad expanses of ocean to protect America’s global interests, and if required, conduct sustained, large-scale operations upon arrival. Countries in other hemispheres do not design their navies to do this for the very basic reason that they exist in that hemisphere, where the action is, and consequently do not confront the
“tyranny of distance” or the conduct of operations without shore bases. Far from home base and operating in distant waters, the Navy uses the sea itself as its base to conduct the full range of military operations. Although bases on foreign soil can be valuable, they are not a requirement for the Navy, as they are for land-based ground and air forces. The Navy can position its forces near potential trouble spots without the political entanglement associated with the employment of land-based forces. Moreover Navy ships are integral units that carry much of their own support, and mobile logistics support can maintain them on forward stations for long periods of time. The United States needs a Navy with ships that have the range, mobility, endurance, speed, resiliency, multi-mission capability, survivability, and most importantly, lethality for global operations. This is the principal reason why the Navy has large, blue-water, ocean-going ships.
According to Captain Watts, the Navy continues to “assume that a modern Jutland” will be its future and builds capital ships such as the aircraft carrier that are no longer relevant to today’s threat environment – especially against the irregular threat. The aircraft carrier with its embarked air wing executes the full range of military operations – from deterrence, to humanitarian assistance, to large-scale combat operations, and to irregular warfare – to protect our national interests. Indeed history has shown time and time again that when our national interests are at risk, the aircraft carrier will be the first to answer the call.
There is no greater proof of the tangible effects of a carrier on global events than the initial U.S. military response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in early 2015 during an irregular warfare scenario no less – the very form of warfare that Captain Watts states is irrelevant to the carrier. The USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH with its embarked airwing, provided for 54 days the only armed response option for the Nation to blunt ISIL’s advance with air strikes and numerous related maritime-based effects. During Operation Iraqi Freedom from March to April 2003, because of regional basing restrictions, five carriers provided very different roles. For Northern Iraq two carriers provided eight aircraft “24/7” for on-call, close air support for small, independent ground units, keeping Iraqi Army divisions tied down. For Southern Iraq, three carriers exercised the full range of airpower missions from electronic warfare, reconnaissance, airborne early warning, to strike and interdiction. Again because of basing and overflight restrictions, carriers provided majority of air support to special operations forces in the fall of 2001 for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) that resulted in toppling the Taliban regime. They were the only viable option.
Without question many recent operations would not have been as effective or even possible absent carriers – they are an indispensable tool for national security. Studies have consistently shown the aircraft carrier provides the best combination of sustained on-station time, sortie-generation capability, sea-keeping, and defensive ability at the most reasonable value for the defense dollar. The aircraft carrier remains relevant despite technological advances among our adversaries that make access to the battlespace more challenging due to their flexibility, adaptability and lethality. While anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats are increasing in complexity, the Navy is evolving to address these challenges and outpace the threats through its Air Sea Battle concept. Looking more broadly at how a carrier operates with an integrated network of aircraft, sensors, and weapons, the carrier remains a viable and credible threat to any adversary. The aircraft carrier provides the Nation with an unequaled hard, soft, and smart power advantage in a single, responsive, flexible, and mobile package, unfettered by geopolitical constraints.
Captain Watts asserts in broad-brush statements that, “we need a small combatant that can deal with the complexities of irregular warfare and missions that move beyond our traditional paradigm.” Regrettably he does not describe what these irregular warfare complexities are beyond generalizing about the need for “developing a small, capable combatant to deal with the lower ends of conflict.” Offering no requirements for why the Navy needs a smaller ship, he opines that the Navy simply “hates small” despite the growing numbers of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in the Navy’s Battle Fleet Inventory and a recently announced program to upgrade their weapons and sensors. Not surprisingly he condemns the Navy over the LCS as ships that were “never wanted” and that will likely be replaced by “new and larger combatants.” Yet on numerous occasions the Chief of Naval Operations has publicly promoted LCS with its associated adaptive force package concept as a prime means for the Navy to respond to the entire spectrum of military operations to include irregular warfare.
Captain Watts considers the rise of the China’s Navy as a non-threat that is “at best, a public-relations event for the United States.” Seen in this light the rise of the China’s Navy must also be of little concern to Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Many security analysts agree that China is and will remain the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come. China continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program designed to improve its armed forces’ capacity to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts. Additionally, its military modernization program has become progressively more focused on investments for a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. For these reasons the Navy assesses China to represent both an opportunity and a security challenge.
The premises Captain Watts offers in his argument do not support his conclusion to the needed degree. The Navy does not have an animus to small ships such as the LCS. Additionally the Navy is an innovative, forward thinking organization as witnessed by its numerous efforts: (1) to leverage new technologies such as bio-fuels, directed
energy weapons, rail gun, and unmanned vehicles in the air, on the surface and below the surface; (2) to develop new operational concepts such as Sea Basing, Distributed Lethality, and All Domain Access; and (3) to employ its ships such as the Joint High Speed Vessel and Mobile Landing Platform in alternative roles. Moreover the Navy understands seapower and comprehends that seapower’s effort must be directed at an effect ashore. The Navy fully recognizes that the United States must be a seapower nation if the United States is to influence global security conditions. Freedom to use the oceans is absolutely essential for any United States defense policy to insure the security of the United States and our allies and partners. The current fleet of Navy ships – to include the aircraft carrier – with their unique combination of combat power, mobility, sustainment, and multi-mission flexibility are well suited to operations in a global security environment in which threats cannot be anticipated and prepared for long in advance. The Navy’s fleet of ships provides the United States with the ability to use the sea for whatever purposes are necessary to the Nation.
Captain Watts concludes his argument by calling for a “time for heresy.” The Navy welcomes his call to examine contrary opinions but that examination must be based on facts and underwritten by critical thinking that is fair and objective.
Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is the Deputy Director Strategy and Policy Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N51).