More Henderson, Less Bonds

By Commander Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy

A Look Back

In April 2009, a Proceedings article, titled "Buy Ford, Not Ferrari," generated considerable debate. The article proposed a decrease in the number of carrier strike groups by one or two to free up manpower and funding to solidify commitments to mid-range expeditionary strike groups. It also recommended an increase in spending on more numerous, less technologically sophisticated, and cheaper surface craft that would form Influence Squadrons and increase U.S. presence in critical theaters.

From the start, visceral objections erupted against cutting the number of carrier strike groups, an option now approaching inevitability because of fiscal constraints and the carriers' vulnerability - perceived or real. But much of the debate suggested that the squadron itself had been largely accepted in function with only its form remaining a source of contention. Criticisms of the various platforms seemed to focus on the questionable utility of the Influence ships in a high-end conflict. One persuasive criticism argued that the Navy can't afford to buy vessels that could make no contribution should the nation find itself in a naval war with a peer competitor.

The international strategic environment that defines the backdrop for naval operations continues to evolve, with fewer support missions in the Persian Gulf but rising challenges in the waters of the Philippines and Indonesia, increasing agitation in the Caribbean and Central and South America, as well as growing threats along the shores of Africa. The rise of China as a Pacific naval power is defining the future test for the Navy.

Accompanying these challenges is an austere fiscal environment, partly the result of the United States remaining mired in a broad recession. Thus, defense spending has decreased, and the naval shipbuilding budget has remained stagnant at or around $13 billion a year. That these tribulations should manifest themselves just as the Navy approaches the mass retirement of the Reagan administration's "600-ship Navy" platforms (if you buy them all at once, you stand to lose them all at once) only compounds the problems facing naval force managers.

One can only shove so many ships into a $13 billion procurement bag. The price tage for Littoral Combat Ships is $600 million. Ballistic-missile-defense Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers/San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships/Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines come in at $2 billion. Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine replacements cost $6 billion. And Gerald Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers set us back $10 billion. This continues to suggest a need for a new, cheaper, yet larger force structure.

The Nature of Influence

The goal of one nation's diplomacy is for other nations to align their interests with one's own, or at least not set themselves in direct conflict. Countries pursue diplomacy through a variety of means, one of which is the forward deployment of naval power to areas of national interest. Some nations interpret the presence of American naval units as stabilizing elements that ensure the security and cohesion of the local political-economic environment. Others take umbrage, viewing U.S. ships as elements of coercion and restrictions against the expansion of their own influence. No nation ignores gray-hulled warships flying the Stars and Stripes.

For nearly 20 years none has challenged the supremacy of the United States in the open-ocean, blue-water environment. Increasingly, the contest of ideas is being waged in niche arenas, in the littorals, the near-shore green-water areas, and up and down contested riverine estuaries that provide concealment and cover for terrorists, pirates, and warlords. It is in these areas that the slow erosion of law and order is an accepted fact of life, and it is in these areas that the U.S. Navy must go if it is sincere in its strategic premise that preventing wars is at least as important as winning them. This is the environment of the Influence Squadron.

It is a naval force tailored to missions both new and old. Harking back to the founding of the republic, Influence Squadrons will be numerous enough to combat piracy - the only naval mission actually enshrined within the U.S. Constitution - and strong enough to take on terrorists who smuggle weapons across the seas as well as interdict the drug lords whose products kill more Americans per month than al Qaeda has in its history. Larger numbers of platforms will also enable Influence Squadrons to both provide local medical assistance in the form of vaccinations and respond swiftly to natural disasters and thus prevent epidemics of such diseases as dysentery and cholera.

In addition, the simplified characteristics of the Influence Squadron's platforms will help the Navy to build partnership capacity and perform security force assistance missions without over-awing local coalition partners with Aegis-level technology. These missions will extend and solidify the continuing U.S. role of defining and administering the global political-economic system. To perform these missions, Influence Squadron commodores will need a strong and varied complement of platforms to cover low-end missions. Function, in this case, will follow form.

Getting Specific

To embed a credible capability to operate in the porous inshore waterways where criminal and terrorist networks abound in the South American, African, and Pacific island areas of operation, each Influence Squadron should have one riverine detachment assigned. These would be composed of one 49-foot riverine command boat to provide mobile liaison, communications, and command-and-control capabilities; three 38-foot patrol boats to conduct inland waterway patrol and interdiction to preserve rivers for friendly use as lines of communications and to deny the enemy their use; and two 33-foot assault boats to deny the use of rivers and waterways to waterborne and immediate shore-sited hostile forces by barrier and interdiction operations.

This detachment would cost approximately $40 million and represents the current standard riverine detachment force. Its composition and equipment have been proven under wartime conditions on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and it should be maintained. There has been some thought, given that the Navy has proposed standing up a fourth riverine squadron, to transitioning the riverine force to up-armored 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats. But this option, although cheaper in the short run, would be more expensive in decreased mission capability in hostile environments and lives lost.

To extend influence into the coastal realm, several low-cost candidates for coastal patrol craft are available from small U.S. commercial shipyards heavily invested in new construction techniques that allow them to build sturdy composite hulls in the 100- to 200-foot range for relative low cost. Some of these shipyards have already sold their designs to foreign navies.

For example, Maritime Security Strategies Inc., based in Tampa, Florida, has employed yacht-construction techniques to create coastal patrol craft with a 6-foot draft; 150-foot length; a gun; a scalable C4I (command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence) capability; and room to take vertical replenishment, launch and recover unmanned aerial vehicles, or host a shipping-container-size mission module aft - all priced to go at $20 to $40 million a copy. These capabilities combined with low costs make this particular platform attractive not only for the U.S. Navy, but also for our regional coalition partners who would like to have ships similar to our own to foster better security cooperation. Each Influence Squadron commodore should have four of these vessels commanded by lieutenants to cover the close-in, shallow, green-water environment.

In what is commonly referred to as the littoral, the Navy needs a ship capable of dealing with local security issues, yet inexpensive enough to be purchased in large numbers by the United States and its coalition partners. Austal's 90-meter multi-role vessel (MRV), with its 40-mm naval gun, 500-square-meter logistics deck, helo deck, and hangar, seems to meet all the mission requirements. In addition, its 28-day endurance and the fact that it can be built in a U.S. shipyard only adds to its attraction. While many critics might point to its aluminum hull technology, the same used to construct the joint high-speed vessel (JHSV), this ship seems perfect for littoral sea-control operations. The United States should trade Tiffany-priced capabilities for sheer numbers to increase American presence. Under these conditions, three such vessels, at a cost of $150 million each and commanded by lieutenant commanders, will be included in each squadron.

The MRVs will be supported by one JHSV assigned to each Influence Squadron. The Swift (HSV-2), the prototype of these fast (50-plus knots) aluminum-hulled, wave-piercing catamarans, has already proved its utility in the influence/engagement arena where it has served in a variety of roles ranging from forward staging platforms for Marines and special forces, providing intra-theater combat cargo lift of up to 600 tons of men and materiel, and carrying supplies during humanitarian-relief operations.

HSVs have already served as global fleet station hub ships off the shores of Africa and South America, passing thousands of pounds of medical and food supplies to local populations and civil organizations. JHSVs will have a certified flight deck for landing manned helicopters and a state-of-the-art C4I suite. With an endurance of up to 4,000 nautical miles, the JHSV will be the critical logistics link that will tie together the riverine, green-water, and littoral elements of the Influence Squadron. Led by a commander, these ships are conservatively priced at $170 million dollars a copy.

The All-Important Mother Ship

The final element of the standard Influence Squadron is the mother ship. This is the platform that will serve as the central dispersal point for food stores, spare parts, medicine, construction materials, and fuel supplies for all the other components of the squadron, transferring these supplies by way of vertical or connected replenishment techniques. Mother ships will serve as the home of the squadron commodore, staff, the training cadre, a two-helicopter detachment, and a small, flexible Marine security force. They will carry the riverine detachment boats either on deck or in their holds, deploying them with cranes and assisting the coastal patrol craft during long transits.

Mission modules configured within Conex storage containers for the PCs, MRV-90s, and the JHSVs can also be carried on or below the mother ships' decks, providing additional tactical flexibility. Mother ships should also have the capability to launch, land, and maintain helicopters as well as having ample storage capacity below decks and elevators and cranes to move materials from the ships' holds to topside staging areas. As a home base for a Marine security force, the mother ship will allow the squadron commodore, in consultation with his Marine force officer in charge, to embark a scalable Marine contingent on one or multiple ships within the squadron for security operations at sea or ashore.

As a command vessel, the mother ship should also have a sound command-and-control capability. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy already has this type of ship in production, the Lewis and Clark-class T-AKEs. At $400 million dollars each, the price is more than right, given the capabilities these ships bring to bear.

The last element of the Influence Squadron, the string that binds all the other elements together, are the numerous and relatively inexpensive unmanned platforms to provide air, surface, and undersea surveillance as well as communications relay nodes. Exemplar platforms such as Thales' Spartan Scout unmanned surface vehicle, Insitu's Integrator unmanned aerial vehicle, or Bluefin's autonomous underwater vehicle, maintained and deployed from all squadron ships, will exponentially expand the commodore's as well as the theater commander's awareness.

On an annual basis the deployed Influence Squadrons should be joined by the hospital ships Mercy (T-AH-19) and Comfort (T-AH-20) to become Medical Service Groups. Alternatively, the PCs and JHSVs can be configured to provide medical support at the pier in austere ports. One need look no farther than relief operations in Indonesia (2005), the Philippines (2009), or Haiti (2010) to understand that this form of medical diplomacy has been an overwhelming success in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Acting in conjunction with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and receiving funding and other logistical support from interagency institutions such as USAID, these ships have brought both standard and sophisticated medical capabilities to regions that would otherwise go without.

It is difficult to overstate the positive public impact these missions have had in the past and could have in the future. Terrorism and unrest against the United States will not occur in villages where the elders are grateful in the knowledge that an entire generation will reach maturity because Americans came with compassion, concern, and professionalism in gray and white ships to give vaccinations and perform surgeries to correct birth defects and other abnormalities. This is a truly positive "influence" in people's lives.

What Happens in a High-End Conflict ?

As stated previously, the most often heard critique of Influence Squadrons is that with rising peer competitors in the world, the U.S. Navy does not have the resources to waste on assets, such as the lightly armed PCs and MRVs, as well as JHSVs that would have no utility in a high-end conflict. But in the face of an increasingly anti-access/area-denial strategic environment, the Navy will likely find itself imposing an economic blockade of the enemy, slowly depriving the opposition of critical resources before methodically rolling back the perimeter. In such an environment the Navy will need coastal patrol vessels and MRVs, and lots of them, to patrol a boundary defined by hundreds of archipelagic islands as well as vast areas of open-ocean to interdict blockade runners. To keep these vessels on station and our conventional high-end forces supplied, we will need the JHSVs and T-AKEs normally assigned to each Influence Squadron during peacetime to carry the freight.

So, there it is. An updated Influence Squadron arrayed against the entire scope of steady-state engagement missions, ready to help prevent wars and able to contribute to winning them. Some might ask why the Littoral Combat Ship is not included within the Influence Squadron, and the answer would be is that it is, at more than $600 million a copy, too expensive for the capabilities it brings to the environment. Taken as a whole, each squadron will cost the nation $1.35 billion, less than the cost of one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (or two LCSs), but having the ability to provide ten ships' worth of naval presence, credibility, and compassion forward in the areas deemed most likely to serve as the seedbed of problems in the future. A wise man once said that there is no such thing as notional presence and one cannot surge credibility. He may have been more right than he knew, and historically, now is a good time to conclude by re-examining a basic precept of naval strategy.

What is the base nature of naval power ? What is the critical component of national power that the Navy brings to the day-to-day friction that is the geo-strategic reality ? Since World War II, the Navy's force structure has been aligned to its power-projection mission, the ability to take the hurt to the nation's enemies over the horizon, to go deep downtown to the enemy's capital and critical infrastructure.

For good or ill, the United States has largely defined the global political-economic system that exists today. Global trade through the free, unencumbered use of the international commons is a major component of this system, and the U.S. Navy has been its guarantor for more than 60 years. However, the declining number of surface combatants has compromised the Navy's ability to administer the system. Regions to which we no longer have enough ships to deploy, or for that matter no longer visit, find themselves adrift and either sink into instability or seek another power to maintain order.

In our absence, we may find that someone else has taken it upon themselves to redefine the rules of the neighborhood, stating, for instance, that an exclusive economic zone has more sovereign characteristics than the United States is prepared to acknowledge. The U.S. Navy could respond by conducting a freedom-of-navigation exercise, but soon we will go away for a prolonged time, and the new rules will begin to reassert themselves again. But this time they have a bit more legitimacy, because the U.S. Navy is, once again, not there. To define your environment, you have to be present.

In Moneyball, a baseball general manager advanced the theory that what really mattered was getting on base to create the opportunity to score. The discussion here suggests that naval presence is a strategic end in itself; as long as you are present, you establish and maintain the rules in the area where you operate. In ten years, through an alternative shipbuilding scheme that converts one high-end platform's worth of investment per year into ten less complex ships, the U.S. Navy would gain 100 ships' worth of war-preventive naval presence.

Remember, the high-end portion of the Navy does not just go away. Ninety percent of the shipbuilding budget would still go toward these platforms. And, as stated in 2009's "Buy Ford, Not Ferrari" article, they would still be sailing to hotspots or being held in high readiness in home waters in case someone attempts to intimidate an Influence Squadron. It is a truism that only a fool plays with a grizzly bear cub in the woods, because the mother bear may be just over the hill. Our high-end force will remain over the hill, ready to respond. The Navy can finally do what A Cooperative Strategy for 21st-Century Seapower calls for: preventing wars by increasing its presence through investing in cheaper and more numerous Influence Squadrons.

Commander Hendrix is a strategist assigned to the Pentagon. A former U.S. Naval Institute General Prize winner, he has a Ph.D. from King's College, London, and wrote the 2009 Naval Institute Press book, Theodore Roosevelt's Naval Diplomacy.


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