Cap-Sizing

By Commander Stephen J. Benson, U.S. Navy

The Strategy and the Naval Context

The National Security and the National Military Strategies of the 1990s embrace an increasingly broad range of operations for naval forces. The U.S. Navy's traditional role now is playing opposite a diffuse, sophisticated, and ill-defined threat, while at the same time the service struggles with the clear direction to go forth responding to crises and shaping the security environment on a global scale. In a world divided into a narrow zone of wealthy, cooperative democracies and market economies and a broad, unstable zone containing most of the world's land and population, this is no mean task. Whether it is engagement or enlargement; enhance security, bolster prosperity, and promote democracy; or shape, respond, and prepare, the complexity and scope of the tasking has been quietly appreciated by the professional naval officers who read the documents.

The U.S. Navy is committed to a growing worldwide effort. With a shrinking force structure, it increasingly is shouldering security responsibility for an expanding political and economic agenda. Western security obligations are outpaced by political and economic agendas in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, the energy-rich states of the Caspian Sea, and along the southern rim of the Mediterranean. Our Navy has been tasked with setting security conditions in these and many other areas that lie well beyond the margins of stability.

Successful execution of the National Security Strategy in this dynamic environment requires a balanced application of the nation's political, economic, and military apparatus. The naval force structure plays a key role in that balancing act. It must be postured for flexible and sustained employment across a broad range of missions, from peacetime engagement to deterrence and on to war fighting. It must be able to dominate unilaterally, and it must be relevant in its application to shaping the international environment—from the most capable coalition partner down to those areas of the world where foot mobility is faster than mechanized mobility and where nations are just now beginning to grasp the security dimensions of their exclusive economic zones.

The U.S. Navy will need a multidimensional force structure to shape the global maritime security environment, one that allows effective and efficient operations from the most benign military involvement to the most aggressive and violent undertaking. Today's naval force structure is capable of controlling the blue water against a determined, sophisticated adversary; nevertheless, the U.S. Navy's future looks to the littorals, and it is there—as well as in the forward-presence and engagement roles—that the force structure comes into question. Will it support overlapping crisis-response operations in uncertain, non-permissive, and hostile environments while carrying out shaping activities on a global level?

Shaping Considerations

The current National Security Strategy directs the political, economic, and military elements of national power in a global effort to enhance security, bolster prosperity, and promote democracy. America's traditional allies already enjoy high levels of security, prosperity, and democracy, so the U.S. national strategy must then envision at least a modest shift toward the nontraditional and unshaped countries. As senior Navy leaders begin to embrace the scope and complexity of the naval piece of shaping, they will be faced with a unique set of force requirements that cannot be met simply by the naval forces that are standing by to respond. What is becoming clear is that for the U.S. Navy, shaping has a distinct character. The simple recognition of the water space involved in shaping will drive the solution to more and smaller naval platforms.

The utility of smaller platforms has been seen in the deployments of patrol craft and Coast Guard cutters to the European theater. These platforms have provided invaluable service to fledgling democracies and their defense organizations. They have enhanced and promoted cooperative maritime security arrangements, based on the principles of national sovereignty and international law. This low-cost/high-payoff engagement spreads U.S. influence to high-interest countries that are struggling with tough decisions on future international political, economic, and military ties. The future naval force should be able to shape at levels similar to the patrol craft and the Coast Guard cutters. If brought further out of balance by "capsizing," its utility in this role will diminish.

Responding Considerations

The capital nature of the U.S. Navy force structure and its support elements is all-encompassing. Programs such as the LPD-17, DD-21, Joint Strike Fighter, and V-22 converge on a high-tech, high-cost, multimission path to hyper-dominance. When operating together, they will be the unchallenged rulers of the sea. Their relevance to the practical execution of national strategy, however, as well as their cost-effectiveness, cannot go unchallenged. Soon, it will be as if a city were forced to respond to every misdemeanor with a SWAT team. There will be an unwillingness to task a smaller force of such high value (each platform being a national asset) with the more routine and risky chores associated with shaping and responding. In a practical sense, this translates into a loss of operational flexibility, as well as a loss in our ability to manipulate a full range of constructive ambiguity—a characteristic uniquely exploited by naval forces.

An example of the adverse effect on operational flexibility occurred as a result of the downing of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes (CG-49). The Vincennes was sent to the Arabian Gulf on short notice because she was the best platform to counter the Iranian Silkworm missile threat. After becoming entangled in a small-boat gun battle in the northeastern Gulf, the Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner. Questions were raised as to the theater commander's judgment in allowing a ship of such high value to be caught up in a small-boat gun battle. These questions were met with clear statements that the Vincennes was the right platform in view of the overall threat. However, with no decrease in threat—in fact, one could argue that the threat was greater after the shoot down—the Vincennes's relief, the Mobile Bay (CG-53), was canceled. An abrupt shift in priorities had been made, a shift away from the sound warfare principles that were in place when the Vincennes was diverted to the Arabian Gulf. Fortunately, at the time, the U.S. Navy had ample frigates to provide presence (at an acceptable level of risk).

Preparing Considerations

Regardless of the uncertainty that the post-Cold War world may hold, any analysis of future blue-water threats must measure in decades the evolution of a true naval competitor. This is a comfortable position from which the most dangerous employment scenarios can be covered. However, there comes a point at which excessive emphasis on increasing the strategic and tactical advantage achieves decreasing returns for national strategy. The presumption that a naval force, which more than adequately provides this advantage, can, in its spare time, also cover the most likely employment scenarios is fundamentally flawed. In addition, there is the possibility that this same force could reach a point where its overwhelming strategic dominance actually inhibits the kind of grassroots engagement activities and trust and confidence building needed to shape the security environment. If this possibility goes unconsidered, the U.S. Navy risks being an unprepared force, a force out of touch with the whole future, and limited to doing business only on high street when the majority of the action is being conducted in the tenderloin district.

In 1997, the U.S. amphibious force executed the simultaneous crisis response operations Silver Wake and Guardian Retrieval. In split configuration, the amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit was prepared to respond to the fall of both Albania and Zaire. These operations were executed flawlessly in a threat-free maritime environment. If, however, it had been assessed that the Albanian and Zairian coastal patrol forces possessed a surface-to-surface missile capability, and their allegiance could not be determined, would Navy leaders have been prepared to respond with LHD-ls, LPD-17s, and DD-21s? When weighing the risks and costs, perhaps naval forces would not have been suitable.

An unbalanced naval force structure equates to lack of preparedness. It will put the nation in a situation similar to what occurred at the height of the Cold War, when inordinate priority was placed on nuclear forces to the detriment of conventional forces. Cooler heads prevailed when it became evident that the president did not have at his disposal a full range of military options to adequately carry out his strategy.

A Modest Shift

Naval force utility will be enhanced by a modest shift toward more and smaller platforms that can sustain shaping activity over larger areas with greater access and relevance to the host countries. Technological advancements in weapon systems, combined with network-centric warfare, would make these platforms suitable as force multipliers in crisis response and war fighting.

Additional benefits would be derived from adapting these platforms for foreign sale. There is a strong international demand for smaller warships, and the U.S. shipbuilding industry certainly could build the best product. Sold in large numbers, the export versions could be offered at reasonable prices, complete with combat systems that equate to the national security ambitions of numerous developing navies, as well as other downsizing naval powers. A wider dispersal of shipbuilding contracts also could broaden and strengthen a naval shipbuilding industry plagued by the lowest budgets in decades.

This is a departure from current thought. It is offered as an example of how to address the National Security Strategy and get the most benefit from what definitely would require an increase in the Navy's budget. If, however, there is a fundamental disconnect between what national strategy is asking of the U.S. Navy and what it can deliver, then a departure is necessary. Those who believe we can continue to do more with less are deluded. Albert Einstein once observed, "The perfection of means and the confusion of ends seems to be the tenor of our times." As the U.S. Navy races to perfect its means, it must not lose sight of the ends.

Commander Benson is assistant strategy officer, Southern Region, Commander-in-Chief, Naval Forces Europe.

 

 
 

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