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The United States cannot escape the Soviets’ eagerness to bring conventional naval forces into the discussion of arms control. The U. S. Navy must be ready to join the naval arms control issue forcefully, constructively, openly, and with more knowledge than anyone else at the table.
Casual reading of the daily newspaper over the past three years suggests that the time of conventional arms control has come. While there are few agreements yet, there is a great deal of talk. Most of it centers on arms reductions in Central Europe to stabilize the conventional balance in the wake of the widely praised Stockholm CDE (Conference on Disarmament in Europe) agreement in 1986 and the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) agreement in 1987.
Ground and air forces in Europe are the focus of the current dialogue between East and West on arms control. Naval forces have not entered the discussion except in the form of somewhat predictable public Soviet proposals and Western responses.1 If for no other reason than the Soviets’ keen interest in linking ground force reductions to naval reductions, the subject of naval arms control will receive increasing scrutiny by our allies, the U. S. government, and the American public.
Naval forces are one of the few force categories in which the NATO alliance has a generally recognized edge over the Eastern bloc. In arguing for the West’s need for this edge, proponents point out the special requirements of a transatlantic alliance. NATO and the Soviet Union have different security problems. The NATO alliance depends on sea lines of communications; the Warsaw Pact does not. However, the Soviets apparently believe they have an analogous problem: They assert that they need large ground forces because they have long land frontiers.
The Soviets’ argument omits the offensive posturing of their massive combat-ready ground forces in Central Em rope. But the Soviets might point out that our naval forces are also largely offensive in nature and are also combat ready. We could reply that our maritime strategy is defensive in purpose. The Soviets might counter with, “Maybe, but your naval forces look as though they are postured for offensive operations; and how do we know you would not employ them offensively in a crisis?”
While the critics of the maritime strategy are skeptical about the feasibility and effectiveness of offensive thrusts launched from close to the Soviet Union and question the survivability of carrier task forces in such a role, the Soviets do take such threats seriously. The evidence suggests that they believe that mounting effective attacks against such carrier forces poses a major combined arms problem they must solve. Recently retired Commander of the Soviet General Staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev painted a sobering picture of the carrier battle group threat.
The arguments over intent, posturing, and unique needs could go on endlessly. The Soviets are certain to make every effort to bring naval forces into the discussion of conventional arms control. For NATO to gain at the bargaining table a highly asymmetrical reduction in Eastern-bloc ground forces may require a quid pro quo in the form of some (perhaps token, perhaps asymmetrical) reduction in NATO naval forces. This problem is not likely to go away just because we consider the Soviet position to be of little merit.
The U. S. Navy’s position on naval arms control proposals has been, “Hell, no.”2 This posture, while understandable, is likely to be ineffective if the Soviets are successful in portraying our bargaining posture as costing NATO a conventional arms control treaty to its advantage in Central Europe. We need to understand the options, arguments, and counterarguments more fully if we are to protect the Navy, the nation, and the NATO alliance from important potential adverse effects of naval arms control agreements.
Naval Arms Control—Again?
Naval arms control is not a new topic. But linking naval arms control with agreements on reducing the size of other types of forces is new. Some will remind us that there have been prior attempts to include naval arms control with arms control of ground and air forces. The 1899 Hague Conference comes to mind. While that conference addressed a wide range of arms control issues, it did not link ground and naval force reductions.
The first three decades of the 20th century saw numerous attempts at naval arms control. Indeed, the 1922 Washington Treaty resulted in the destruction of major naval forces to meet treaty limits. The focus of the Washington and the subsequent London treaties was on specific classes of ships, their size and armament, and gross naval tonnages. Specified ratios and limits were set. The demilitarization of bases in the Pacific was addressed, but the regulation of operating and deployment patterns was not-
Naval arms limitation treaties may have moderated the tempo of the arms race in the 1920s and 1930s, but those treaties soon were violated. No rigorous inspection regime was created to monitor treaty performance because no reliable tools, such as “national technical means,” were available to detect violations.
These treaties provide several lessons for a future naval arms control treaty. First, in order for naval arms control to be effective it must accommodate the different needs of the parties for the tools of naval power. Simple pro rata cuts across types of systems, while easy to understand, can exacerbate existing problems or raise new ones.
A second lesson is the need for tight, enforceable monitoring and inspection, and the means for making compliance in the mutual best interest of the parties to the agreement. But deeper lessons exist as well. Arms control is a means, not an end. Even if all sides had honored the Washington and London treaties, for instance, war probably would have come anyway and the results would not have been much different.3 As an example, during World War II, Japan ran out of carrier aviators before it ran out of carriers. The Washington and London treaties could not have measured the important U. S. capability to support continuous offensive naval operations, far from fixed operating bases.
Focusing on numbers, tonnages, ratios, armaments, and other fashionable measures associated with such major end items as ships can mask other factors that may be equally or more important to the naval balance and the efficacy—and safety—of naval arms control.
Beyond the Bean Count
A second means of naval arms control is to limit deployments and exercises. As an example, in The Control Naval Armaments (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1975) Barry Blechman cites the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, which limited naval deployments on be Great Lakes, and the Montreux Convention of 1936, which governs passage of warships through the Turkish traits.4 He examined “naval disengagement” in the "mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and concluded hat there was little likelihood of an agreement for limiting deployments in those areas in the near future. History confirms that judgment.
There are other, less attractive possibilities: limiting naval manpower, training resources, or funding. The enormous difficulty of establishing mutually agreed-upon data baselines and verifying compliance argue against giving these options much consideration. Similar insurmountable difficulties bedeviled the protracted Mutual Balanced Force Reduction negotiations oriented to arms control in Central Europe.
Regardless of the merit of these arms control options ‘Individually, for the sake of discussion, we will assume hat the Navy must argue its case for and against various naval arms control proposals before national policy councils. This advocacy is likely to occur in an environment where naval arms control may be perceived as the price of a larger arms control agreement that may be of benefit to the United States and its allies in other areas. Let us look at some of the likely characteristics of the upcoming dialogue by posing representative arguments for and against force reductions and limitations on force deployments and exercises.
Argument Number One: The force of budget realities argues that U. S.—and perhaps allied—naval force levels will decline. We should capitalize on this inevitability by attempting to get the Soviets to pay a price for these naval reductions.
Counterargument: This argument contains two questionable assumptions. The first is the premise that the United States scales its naval forces to budget projections dictated by considerations other than security. That continuing argument in public policy remains to be resolved. Political leaders of both parties maintain that we should buy only the naval forces we need and that such forces are affordable.
The second questionable assumption is that the Soviets will play the game. Evidence indicates that the Soviets take a very conservative view of what they need to provide for their national security. Except for their nuclear- powered fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), much of their naval posture has a definite defensive cast. They seem to think most of their forces do not threaten us and that they need them as long as we posture our forces on an offensive naval strategy.
Marshal Akhromeyev and others have raised the analog of the Soviets’ need for an edge in ground forces. They argue that if the West sees a need for the reduction in such ground forces, it should understand that the Soviets see the need for a commensurate reduction in NATO naval forces. The counterargument to this line of reasoning is this: It is one thing for the Soviets to have massive offensively postured ground forces at a high state of readiness in Central Europe, and yet another for us to have naval forces scattered across the globe—in most cases, far from the Soviet Union—in a variety of readiness postures incident to peacetime training and deployment. The Soviet analogy would carry more weight if the United States maintained four carrier battle groups (CVBGs) continuously in the Norwegian Sea.
Argument Number Two: We have been at a force level of 12 carrier battle groups before without adverse consequences and that was with serious readiness deficiencies, particularly in manning, training, and selected munitions stocks. We should be able to discharge our security commitments with 12 fully ready battle groups and trade off the equivalent of three groups of older, less capable ships for a commensurate Soviet reduction in Soviet naval forces.
Counterargument: This argument highlights the asymmetry problem. Soviet submarines are our principal worry. They threaten our battle groups, our sea lines of communications, and our nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) as they confront their SSBNs. The Soviets’ principal worry with regard to conventional naval forces is our carrier battle groups. This proposal lets the Soviets trade away a relatively cheap bargaining chip in exchange for seriously degrading the capability of ours that is their principal naval concern—one that we use to compensate for deficiencies in other areas.
The number of battle groups needed is' a judgment call, and is sensitive to the scenarios that one uses to size force requirements. But some rules of thumb can put the numbers in perspective. Battle group effectiveness is an exponential, not a linear variable, depending on the number of groups involved. Thus, two CVBGs operating together can often be three or even four times more effective than one. The reasons for this go beyond some Lanchestrian force-on-force calculation and lie in the inherent nature of continuous combat air operations and the geometry of the naval battle (360° in three environmental regimes simultaneously and continuously).
If one accepts some form of this exponential rule and projects it to a strategic context, 12 CVBGs might be only 65% as effective as 15 CVBGs. As an aside, one might observe that the Navy has been persuasive in citing the relevance of this exponential relationship tactically but has scarcely mentioned it in a strategic context. Strategic marginal “products” are likely to be more important for some forces than for others.
At some point, of course, the law of diminishing returns applies. Since Joint Chief of Staff requirements for 20-22 carriers in wartime have been articulated at various times in the past 15 years, it is unlikely that the law applies at the 12-15 CVBG point. Foreign and domestic CVBG opponents generally do not argue that 12 or 15 CVBGs are too many in wartime. Rather, they argue that the marginal resources could be better spent in peacetime on something else where the marginal return is greater.
If one is to pursue balanced force reductions seriously - those reductions should bring about equal measures of pain and benefit. Therefore, as the number of battle groups is reduced, the threat to those battle groups should be reduced commensurately (reduced numbers of Soviet Backfire bombers and SSNs and SSGNs). Conversely, as the numbers of U. S. and Soviet SSNs and SSGNs are decreased, the number of antisubmarine warfare forces should be reduced. These relationships are neither symmetrical nor necessarily linear in their effects, yet symmetrical reductions with presumed linear effects are the most appealing to the uninformed because of their superficial “fairness.”
The appeal of the “fairness” issue and the nonlinear effect of mutual—even symmetrical—reductions are two of the most significant problems the Navy faces in taking a constructive role, and being seen as constructive, in the naval arms control dialogue.
Argument Number Three: Since the United States and its allies have an edge in the quality of their forces, an arms control regime that reduces the quantity of forces on both sides works to our advantage since it moves the competition to our strongest domain.
Counterargument: Two premises in this argument need close examination. Does quality vary as a function of quantity, and is the quality gap closing?
The quality versus quantity relationship implies that as quantity declines, some of the released resources will be applied to improve quality. This raises issues as to which nation has the most will, discipline, and internal resource allocation consensus to divert resources to buy more quality and which nation has the most “growth headroom” to apply those additional resources most productively. Most would argue that the Soviet Union has the greater opportunity in both areas.
As to whether the quality gap is closing, Soviet progress in submarine quieting and submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) development offer little comfort. While one can cite examples of a sizable U. S. advantage (e.g., computer technology), it is less clear today than it was ten years ago that the U. S. advantage overall is either significant or growing.
This brings us to another dimension of the argument. At some point, quantity matters. The issue becomes one of which nation has the biggest naval surplus over its minimum needs. The salient point is that NATO lives or dies by its ability to keep its sea communications open. Its navies must be adequate to discharge this task. The Soviets have no corresponding dependence. Their navy is not essential to the viability of their major alliance, nor indeed for protection of their vital national capabilities (SSBNs aside). If these counterarguments are accepted, the United States and the Soviet Union have some minimal need for naval forces that is not particularly sensitive to their opponents’ naval force levels.
Naval and other force advocates on both sides understandably want it both ways: when the threat increases, more forces are needed; when the threat decreases, it is suggested that there is some minimum level that is needed regardless of marginal changes in the threat.
Argument Number Four: The value to NATO of an arms reduction agreement in Central Europe that involves Symmetrical Eastern-bloc reductions is so great that we should accept some U. S. and allied naval reductions even if they are disadvantageous to us in a narrower naval context.
Counterargument: Without knowing the exact dimensions of such an arms reduction agreement it is impossible to weigh the net gain or loss to NATO in giving up naval forces. But we should heed several caution flags:
► Naval reductions will be concrete and largely verifiable. Compared to ground and air force reductions, the numbers to be verified are relatively small and difficult to hide. Readily verifiable asymmetrical NATO naval reductions, balanced by asymmetrical Warsaw Pact ground force reductions, which are much more difficult to verify, would be a dubious bargain for the United States.
► The lead times for rebuilding naval forces is longer than the lead times for rebuilding ground and air forces. If there is a treaty breakout, NATO will be at a major disadvantage in regaining its naval edge.
► Reductions in NATO naval forces may result in the loss of our edge over the Soviets in exchange for a less serious balance in air and ground forces that would still be adverse to NATO. An edge in one realm may be more important than a decreased deficit in another.
Argument Number Five: If we cannot safely orchestrate mutual naval force reductions, we should try to eliminate some weapons that destabilize superpower relations— particularly during a crisis. One such weapon that comes to mind is nuclear and conventional SLCMs. Shouldn’t we agree to set a cap on the weapons on both sides?
Counterargument: This argument portrays all the difficulties with naval arms control set out in the various counterarguments to this point. SLCMs serve different purposes for the two navies, which deploy them in different numbers. They have displayed different levels of technical ability in developing, deploying, and employing them. To cap the number, or to set limitations on range, size, or payload, would penalize the more technically advanced and proficient power. For the foreseeable future, that power is the United States.
The proposal is typical of those that superficially seem equitable, reasonable, and mutually beneficial. Yet they mask such critical factors as varying needs, current capabilities, and development potential.
A simplistic variant of the proposal is to negotiate an arms control regime that sets limits only on offensive naval weapons. Such a proposal overlooks the flexibility of most naval forces. Even if they are designed for a defensive purpose, those forces have enormous capabilities for offensive employment. The reverse is almost as true.
Force Deployments and Exercises
Argument Number One: We should essentially demilitarize some sea areas by bilateral agreements between the Warsaw Pact and NATO nations. Candidates are the Arctic and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.
Counterargument: This argument assumes that each sea area is equally important to both parties to the agreement, which is not the case. The Mediterranean is vital to the defense of NATO’s southern flank. It is less important to the Soviets. A fairer arrangement (though not without problems) would be for the Soviets to eschew naval deployments other than transits in the Mediterranean and North seas and for NATO to forego naval deployments in the Black and eastern Baltic seas. However, as attractive as such a variant proposal might seem, it too compromises an important principal of free navigation. Moreover, it starts a possible incremental process of denying sea areas to naval power—a burden unequally borne by the preeminent naval power.
Argument Number Two: If we cannot demilitarize selected sea areas, each side should provide advance notification of exercises and deployments to those areas, particularly those close to the U. S. and Soviet homelands. Such notification would be consistent with current exercise notification and troop movement practices under the Stockholm accords.
Counterargument: Assuming compliance on both sides, such agreements would penalize most those nations with the best developed covert deployment capability and help those nations with the least capable ocean surveillance system. Similarly, they would penalize those nations with the greatest need for exercises and the most robust deployment capabilities. The net balance of capabilities and requirements between NATO and the Warsaw Pact is arguable. Less arguable is the verification issue, an area in which the Soviet record in arms control is suspect at best.
It takes little imagination to project a naval analog to the Soviet violation of the ABM (antiballistic missile) Treaty (Krasnoyarsk) into a future naval arms control environment. Disputes over intent, duration, or even the existence of alleged deployment violations provide a venue ripe for protracted and inconclusive dialogue on the continuing Krasnoyarsk model.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union conduct covert force deployments for intelligence-gathering and surveillance purposes. Because of the closed nature of the Soviet system, such operations are apparently more important to the United States than to the Soviets— comparative technical competence aside. Accordingly, an arms control agreement that requires notification of deployments works to our disadvantage more than it does to the Soviets’.
Argument Number Three: The most sensitive naval arms control problem is the threat to each side’s SSBNs by the other’s ASW forces. SSBN forces are a critical element of deterrence for both sides. Threatening such deterrent forces is inherently destabilizing. We should set up ASW exclusion zones to avoid destabilizing deterrence.7
Counterargument: This argument plays to a generally recognized Soviet weakness (defending its SSBN bastions against U. S. SSNs) and against a commensurate U. S. strength (the relative invulnerability of U. S. SSBNs).
A more practical problem is that of defining the “sanctuary” area. If it is too small, it helps the enemy focus his anti-SSBN forces. If it is too large, it denies sea areas to ASW forces pursuing other objectives, such as protecting the sea lines of communications. It is difficult to perceive any area delineation that would meet our needs, much less those of the Soviets.
The biggest challenges facing the Navy’s leadership in the emerging naval arms control dialogue is to demonstrate convincingly the nonlinear and asymmetrical effects of naval force reductions, and to counter effectively the comparability argument of trading off Soviet land forces for allied naval forces.
This list of arguments and counterarguments does not exhaust the proposals and the rebuttals, either in scope or in depth. It does suggest the dimensions of the issues, issues with linkages from conventional and nuclear arms control regimes to confidence building, deterrence, maritime law, alliance cohesion, force structure, ship and aircraft characteristics, deployment patterns, and exercise requirements.
Simple arguments denying the negotiability of the question are not likely to be sufficient—either within the U. S- government, with our allies, or in dealing with our opponents where we hope to gain much while giving up little in return. It is important for the Navy to understand every dimension of the issues involved in naval arms control and to be able to conduct assessments that integrate different values in different dimensions.
This understanding and the attendant ability to assess arms proposals is essential if the national leadership is to be given good advice in dealing with allies and opponents- This knowledge must extend to the formulation of counterproposals in arms control that would both illuminate the issues and provide a basis for constructive action. The Navy must be ready to join the naval arms control issue forcefully, constructively, openly, and with more knowledge than anyone else at the table. This requires preparation based on good analysis, an open mind, and a plan of action. Do we have them? Are we ready to deal with an issue whose time has come?
1For some recent Soviet proposals, see Commander of the Soviet General Staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, Pravda, 5 September 1988. For some counterarguments, see Admiral C. A. H. Trost, USN, “The Morning of the Empty Trenches- Soviet Politics of Maneuver and the U. S. Response,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1988, p. 15.
2See remarks by Admiral Trost before the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, 7 March 1988, “The Soviet Arms Control Offensive.”
3Barry Blechman, The Control of Naval Armaments (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1975), pp. 15-16.
4Ibid., pp. 31-33.
5For a defense of carrier requirements and force levels, see Admiral Trost’s Posture Statement in the Department of the Navy’s Report for the Congress for Fiscal Yetf 1989, p. 30.
7Ibid., p. 9.