by DAVID AXE
In a few pointed words, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates challenged six decades of U.S. Navy tradition. “Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates said at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Washington, D.C. on March 3.
Paul McLeary, a reporter for Defense Technology International, described the audience of industry officials and naval officers nearly “chok[ing] on their lunch of beef and fish.”
Since the U.S. Navy flattops helped scour the Pacific Ocean of Japanese forces in World War II, big-deck aircraft carriers have dominated America’s at-sea defense planning, its shipbuilding budgets and even its maritime culture. The problem is, potential enemies, unable to match carrier-for-carrier with the Americans, have devised ways to “asymmetrically” undermine U.S. maritime superiority.
“No one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the us to a shipbuilding competition,” Gates said to his shocked audience. “Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages — to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.”
Asymmetric threats Gates cited range from Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles — one of which disabled an Israeli corvette during the 2006 Lebanon war — as well as Iran’s “ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats in order to challenge our naval power in that region.”
Gates also referred, in veiled terms, to China’s increasingly sophisticated near-shore surveillance-and-missile defense complex. “At the higher end of the access-denial spectrum, the virtual monopoly the U.S. has enjoyed with precision guided weapons is eroding — especially with long-range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon.”
The sum of these innovative and low-cost threats is the looming obsolescence of the U.S. Navy carrier force. Against a clever enemy, “a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially a $15-to-$20 billion set of hardware at risk,” Gates said.
At the same time that asymmetric threats are eroding the Navy’s conventional superiority, irregular threats — pirates, smugglers and extremists — represent a growing threat that can’t be countered by multi-billion-dollar warships. “The nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war,” Gates said.
“Any future plans must address these realities,” Gates asserted. And that bring me to the third and final issue: the budget. … [W]e have to accept some hard realities. American taxpayers and the Congress are rightfully worried about the deficit. … [W]e have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3-to-6-billion destroyers, $7-billion submarines, and $11-billion carriers.”
“We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms — thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.”
One Navy planner had anticipated Gates’ call for reform. Beginning last year, Captain Jerry Hendrix, a strategist at the Pentagon, began calling for the Navy to devote roughly 10-percent of its $15-billion-a-year shipbuilding budget to building a large number of small, inexpensive warships organized into “Influence Squadrons.” Each squadron would comprise around 10 ships and cost a billion dollars.
Swapping just one carrier group for Influence Squadrons would add perhaps 100 vessels to today’s 280-strong fleet. Breaking the fleet down into more, smaller vessels would reduce the risk of catastrophic strikes on singular, captial-intensive vessels … and would also allow the Navy to have ships in more place, simultaneously, to chase pirates and smugglers.
Not only would this fleet be more affordable and arguably more survivable, it might actually be a better fit for America’s role a stabilizing power. “What if presence … was actually the most critical naval mission?” Hendrix asked.
It’s not clear what Gates has in store for the Navy, but his earlier decisions might provide hints. In the past year, the secretary has curtailed the Air Force’s $60-billion F-22 stealth fighter program, canceled the Army’s $200-billion Future Combat Systems family of vehicles and axed all but three of the Navy’s $3-billion DDG-1000 stealth destroyers. While existing Navy plans do not project significant changes to the fleet for at least 30 years, Gates could resist those plans.
If he does, and if his comments this week form the basis of his alternative plan, the world’s largest and most powerful naval force might be on the cusp of profound change. The concentrated fleet of large, expensive vessels that emerged from World War II could give way to a more balanced fleet including large numbers of small, cheap ships.
If Gates is right about the threats facing the U.S. Navy, this new fleet would be more effective as well as more affordable. But reform means shaking up a culture, and the vast industry that caters to that culture. “I know as well as anyone that part of the problem lies outside the Defense Department,” Gates said. Changing the Navy means outlobbying the shipbuilding industry. That could turn out to be the fight of a lifetime.