Is a Navy without Ships Still a Navy?

Captain R. V. Gusentine, U.S. Navy
  • Increase the size of our riverine and maritime civil affairs forces to expand into and sustain those assets in all theaters;
  • Create a remote area aviation, or "bush pilot," program—as a mission-critical enabler for our maritime civil affairs teams, riverine forces, joint special operations forces, and interagency partners; and
  • Orient our naval academic institutions toward core curricula that help us understand the socio-cultural, political, military, and economic dynamics associated with littoral populations and their relationship to our national security.

Plan a Potluck and Invite the Klingons

It took approximately 40 years to institutionalize jointness at the tactical level. For true interagency integration, we are 60 years and counting. Twenty-three years after the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, jointness is yesterday's news, but even noting that, current threats are forcing us toward the next generation of collaboration: operational interdependence—tactical to strategic—with U.S. federal agencies and Coalition partners. Interdependence is a relationship similar to the practice of potlatch of Northwest Native Americans—modern day "potluck" to the rest of us: the practice of contributing capabilities and resources such that the best of everything arrives on the table. In order to accommodate broader integration and opportunities for comparative advantage, the Navy should:

  • Invest in and institutionalize relationships and capabilities with the joint force, interagency community, and our Coalition partners;

  • Cultivate a "Starship Enterprise" culture in which joint, interagency, and coalition "extra-terrestrials" live, work, and deploy regularly on board with us; and

  • Anticipate a future in which Navy staffs without permanent joint and interagency representation are unheard of and combined coalition deployments are the norm.

Sense and Surge

In Book VI of The Art of War , Sun Tzu wrote, "The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle; for if he does not know where I intend to give battle then he must prepare everywhere; and when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere." In an era of constrained resources that will pressure us to be forward-deployed everywhere all the time, the Navy must continue to enhance its capacity for global maritime consciousness-a nervous system that will allow us to sense growing points of concern at their earliest indication and surge efficiently, as required. Some global roaming will be required, but it should be done in a shared effort with partner nations and land-based surveillance capabilities.

In this century we are recognizing the nuances between being informed, being aware, and being conscious. Greater awareness will allow us to make better-informed decisions and conduct efficient, targeted, and clever operations. A shared global consciousness will enable us to move from the surgical operations standard in conventional warfare to the operational "acupuncture"—applying the right force in the right place at the right time—that will be required by an irregular global future. To augment this sense-and-surge posture we should also recognize that we haven't exploited all the efficiencies afforded us in the information age, such as the capacity to influence events well before shifting colors pierside: you don't always have to get there to be there . We should also invest generously in our international and language programs and create a global network of foreign area officers, maritime liaison officers, and defense and naval attaches, develop relationships with partner navies, cultivate "friends in low-places," and keep our finger on the pulse on the maritime domain.

Call in the Transformers


Plug-and-play should take on a whole new meaning in the Navy. In these times of hyper-cyclic technology advancement, when in six months the latest information technology (IT) device can be rendered as obsolete as a toaster, does it make sense to manufacture things to last 50 years? Imagine a future operational design in which force transformation is a core competency, people form the basic Navy unit independent of platform, and ships are managed more like rental cars and "transformers" than seagoing monuments-a composite maritime enterprise in which adaptive design and reconfiguration have the creative agility exhibited by IT industry leaders.

Consider a people-centric Navy in which the mix of relevant shipboard systems is determined by the CO's "user-defined" tactical preferences and the crew's predeployment mission analysis. The scale of real military advantage in an irregular future will be based on our near-term investment in innovation architecture-the organizational mechanisms we put in place today that will enable us to adapt to changing circumstances. In the future, the power to adapt and evolve accurately and efficiently will far outweigh any capital investment in non-returnable best-guesses.

Can we develop the technologies required to transform an aging aircraft carrier into a destroyer and a littoral combatant? If so, the ability to recycle will emerge as more important than the stuff we recycle. An irregular future will require our Navy's core competency to be redefined as a capacity to quickly redesign and reconfigure the force to counter emerging threats. By doing this, the Navy will take a leadership role in rethinking our military's posture for irregular warfare. The "maritime supremacy" model for the future is not "outspend, out-build, and outnumber," but instead, "reassess, refit, and redirect."

Recruit for Irregular Threats

If history teaches us anything, it's that we need to prepare for the unexpected. In October 1805 the British Navy relied on Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's leadership, tactical creativity, and audacity to beat the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. What the navy didn't do was to make two arms and the use of both eyes prerequisites for command-at-sea. We should rethink our personnel policies as we right-size our force and identify what human skills and physical attributes really count in a 21st-century Navy, a force that is being shaped by unmanned and network-centric capabilities. Our human-resource strategy should include recruiting and retaining in uniform physically disabled patriots with exceptional IT skills—asymmetric thinkers who are, as I wrote in the July 2003 Proceedings , "uniquely proficient at understanding and countering asymmetric challenges because of the creative solutions they craft daily to succeed in a non-disabled world."

The late Master Chief Carl Brashear exemplified this ability to serve and lead in uniform. In May 2008 then-Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Joe R. Campa Jr. bestowed the rank of "honorary chief petty officer" on Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Aviation Ordnanceman First Class David Eberhart. Despite battling cancer and being confined to a wheelchair, he was, according to a 23 May 2008 article in Hawaii Navy News , "ready to be a chief, run a division, and mentor Sailors."

We will continue to find that intellect, leadership, moral courage, and creative problem-solving transcend physical limitations and emerge as our most desired human attributes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, navies pressed people into service for their physical ability to run sail and load cannon. What will we seek in the future? Strong backs or bright minds? The right force is out there, if we have the courage to accept it.

Create Irregular Line Officers

Irregular warfare as a conceptual framework for campaign design and a budget mechanism seems to be emerging as the sequel to the war on terrorism, and like the latter will be a labor-intensive, rather than a capital-intensive, endeavor. Future irregular warfare will favor creativity, relationships, and tactical wisdom over platform-as-capability, presence-as-influence, and propulsion-as-purpose. And effective maritime security will center on people.

The Navy must recapitalize what it always refers to as its greatest asset—our people—and cultivate irregular experience in our ranks and new relationships by:

  • Establishing officer additional qualification designators and secondary naval enlisted codes for experience with joint special operations forces and interagency and Coalition partners;
  • Opening up the foreign area officers program to warrant and chief petty officers who want to earn their associate, undergraduate, and masters degrees, who also tend to be a more ethnically diverse group of foreign-language speakers, and are more likely to have relationships or family abroad; and
  • Reverse-engineering our reserve program to allow our active-duty officers and chief petty officers to serve as reservists with other government agencies.

The Navy must build an operational maritime force that can out-think any adversary on earth. It can only do so by filling its ranks with leaders with irregular relationships and experience who are prepared for the times ahead.

Become Marines sans Frontieres


Theater-assigned Fleet forces in a global security environment? Theater seams for capital assets with global awareness and reach? Pursuing global effects through the Maritime Domain Awareness concept was the genius of the past decade and is the correct approach, but without the additional authority for cross-theater operational execution, the concept's value will prove limited. We currently access information from diverse joint, interagency, and coalition sources, and the number of information/intelligence fusion centers already operating or planned is overwhelming. This "atmosphere of real-time global awareness" is a result of network-centric capabilities built over the last decade.

We are at a threshold. Our irregular future will soon render the operational level of war obsolete and replace it with a strategic sum formed of thousands of globally executed tactical situations. Taking advantage of new capabilities to employ our maritime assets worldwide—applying the right force in the right place at the right time—will require new authorities to conduct adaptive planning and coordinate and carry out operations without the theater seams that currently hinder their execution and operate, as Marine Corps General James Mattis defined, "at the speed of trust" against global challenges. The wars in U.S. Central Command have recalculated the value of theater-assigned forces, and increasingly our military forces (especially our capital assets and strategic capabilities) are being managed globally by central command nodes, continental U.S.-based commands such as Army Forces Command, U.S. Strategic Command, and U.S. Transportation Command. Bolstered by today's technology, the Navy's Fleet Forces Command should consider bidding for authority that transcends theater boundaries to think and plan globally and act locally to secure the global commons.

Balancing Act

On its present course, the Navy is likely to face increased competition for Pentagon dollars. Striking the balance between conventional naval power and irregular capabilities is appropriate—the former shapes our security environment in more ways than we often give it credit for and actually affords us the opportunity, and compels our adversaries, to think irregularly. But our Navy is not solely a deterrent force in resembling our nuclear arsenal, and it never has been. It has always offered much more. Today we face irregular warfare on a regular basis, and our nation requires more options and more hybrid capabilities than ever before. Achieving balance is what this QDR is all about.

In this period of unmanned and persistent strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets with global reach, networked capabilities, and advanced low-orbit and space-based technologies, our fleets may be rendered less effective in ensuring the security of the maritime domain. Is a Navy without ships still a Navy? The transformation of cavalry in the 20th century may provide some context. World War I-era technology rendered horse cavalry obsolete. Yet the missions that horse cavalry performed—reconnaissance and rapid maneuver—remain essential elements of military operations today. They are just performed by different means: namely, helicopters, unmanned systems, and information operations. The missions remain relevant while the means evolve. Horse cavalry has been relegated to parades and cemetery honors. Let's prepare our Navy for a brighter future.

Captain Gusentine is a Joint Specialty Officer with 23 years of active-duty service and is the director for operations, Special Operations Command, Pacific. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .


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