The restructuring of the Navy since the end of the Cold War means that fewer ships and sailors are available to carry out commitments; yet there has been little or no decline in operational tempo. Despite the reduction in the size of the fleet, the number of ships deployed and the percentage of ships under way on any given day remain roughly at Cold War levels. Because of the accessibility provided by the world's oceans, our naval forces often are on the scene as a crisis develops or are the first to arrive. They will continue to provide the first line of response, projecting U.S. power by performing missions in a number of critical areas: attacks against land-based targets, amphibious operations, theater ballistic missile defense, force projection, evacuation operations, maritime interception, and air dominance in the theater of operations.
With ever fewer ships in the U.S. fleet, protecting our operational naval assets against attack takes on even greater importance.
The Ability to Sail in Harm's Way
The United States must prepare to face a wider variety of threats, emerging unpredictably, employing varying combinations of technology, and challenging U.S. armed forces across the range of conflict. Advanced technology will make possible great increases in specific military capabilities, and in the hands of an adversary, it makes force protection at all levels significantly more important.
Unless there is adequate protection, new operational concepts also will make our forces more vulnerable, especially in the littorals, where U.S. ships are particularly easy targets. The concept of dominant maneuver, for example, requires that our forces conduct sustained and synchronized operations from dispersed locations—a single ship may be assigned to a remote location to perform an important time-critical operation, such as theater ballistic missile defense. This dispersion reduces the risk to the total force, but it greatly increases the need for single-unit self-defense capability.
The consequences of not responding to the missile threat can be deadly. The sinking of HMS Sheffield by low-flying antiship cruise missiles during the Falklands Conflict showed how vulnerable even the most modern warships are in combat conditions. The badly damaged USS Stark (FFG-31), hit by two missiles fired accidentally by Iraqi aircraft, is a reminder of the human cost. Onboard fires claimed 37 U.S. sailors, and only the heroic actions of the crew saved the ship. Acts of terrorism, such as the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the recent U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, highlight the threat to U.S. forces ashore or in the near-land littoral. Small numbers of sophisticated arms and the proliferation of weapons of all kinds exacerbate the difficulty of providing force protection to our forces deployed overseas.
Even an isolated terrorist action could cripple our nation's ability to respond effectively. A successful attack on a forward-deployed aircraft carrier in a crisis location, or against amphibious ships just offshore, would be an embarrassment, and combined with the potential loss of life, could result in the delay or cancellation of U.S. actions.
In an uncertain world, the ships of the U.S. Navy are out front, providing an around-the-clock deterrent military force. With the growing emphasis on littoral warfare and more frequent crises overseas, they continually are being placed in harm's way. Our naval forces must be able to defend themselves against antiship cruise missiles and other lethal air threats. Ensuring adequate force protection is the key to their survival. It will require both active (theater air and missile defense) and passive (information superiority and force dispersal) measures.
Threats in the Littoral
Central to the need for force protection are the air-defense capabilities of U.S. naval forces against increasingly lethal antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Many of the defensive sensors and weapons in our Navy today were developed during the Cold War to counter the Soviet blue-water threat, and moving into the littoral has strained systems designed for best effectiveness in the open ocean.
Operating in the littorals adds complexity—rapid pop-up threats, reduced detection range, land clutter, and the presence of commercial ships and aircraft. Our combat systems must struggle to perform correctly in a maritime battle space far more complicated than that foreseen by their designers, even as the reaction time available to defeat an incoming antiship cruise missile is compressed from minutes into seconds. Acute situational awareness, the ability to discriminate among hostile, neutral, and friendly forces, and the capability to immediately respond to and defeat threats are required for the survival and mission effectiveness of naval forces today and in the future.
The antiship cruise missile appears to have become the worldwide weapon of choice for attacking U.S. forces at sea. The current generation of threat missiles is faster, stealthier, flies at lower altitudes than ever before, and is highly accurate. And because they are relocatable, these missiles often are hard to strike and can be launched from a variety of mobile vehicles, including aircraft, trucks, ships, and submarines.
Today, nearly 70 nations—including Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—have deployed air-, sea- and land-launched antiship cruise missiles, and the proliferation of advanced technology suggests that this number will continue to rise, as will the missile inventories of many nations. Already, countries with goals and values hostile to those of the United States and its allies possess up-to-date, combat-proven weapons. International marketing of Russian ASCMs, sea- and land-launched variants of Chinese ASCMs, and French surface-, air-, and submarine-launched Exocet missiles have made these weapons available to nations whose indigenous capabilities lag many years behind the technologies available to them on the open market.
Forward-deployed naval forces must be ready for contingency missions that require them to sail in harm's way, in particular, to face antiship cruise missiles that are becoming more difficult to detect and engage. A single-unit self-defense capability—or force protection—is the key.
Admiral Rempt is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theater Combat Systems. He has had three ship commands.