Consider, for example, the homey, yet required, mission of convoy protection. The gripping, days-on-end battle °f convoy protection described in C. S. Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd provides stark contrast to the “wait for a launch indication and push a button” warfare that will characterize TBMD mission execution.
Some would argue that the days of convoy protection are gone. Others would point to the fact that while reliance on sealift is increasing, the number of surface combatants available to protect the increased sealift is decreasing—even as the number of countries acquiring advanced submarines proliferates faster than those trying to gain possession of ballistic missiles. Pause to consider the change in world attention if Iraq had possessed even one Kilo submarine that survived long enough to sink, or seriously damage, just one of the many ships carrying mechanized equipment to the Arabian Gulf. Of course, Iraq did not then possess a Kilo submarine, yet Iran now has two and is in the process of obtaining more, with the avowed intention of controlling the Strait of Hormuz.
It is dangerous to mix today’s littoral emphasis with modern diesel submarines and produce a resultant concentration aimed solely at shallow-water antisubmarine warfare (ASW). Better training and tailored systems have always been required in this difficult subset of an already challenging warfare area, but the most common lesson learned is simply that shallow water is asset intensive. Thus, as we wade in to concentrate on shallow- water ASW (which requires more assets), we are doing so with fewer ASW surface combatants than when we faced the open-ocean threat.
The next irony is that modern diesels are less restricted to shallow water than most people suspect. It is ironic that as the U.S. Navy turns its attention to the shallows, most potential adversaries are striving to gain open-ocean capabilities. Alas, convoy protection is only one of many less exciting, yet indispensable missions requiring surface combatants that may be outshone by the glitter of Theater Ballistic Missile Defense.
It is difficult to argue against the need to counter the proliferation of ballistic missiles among rogue states, or against the Navy’s ability to contribute along the lines of a “joint” solution to this problem. Perhaps TBMD is the ultimate antibiotic to counter the spreading Scud infection. As with any good drug, however, the possibility of harmful side effects should be discussed with the patient before the dose is administered. In this diagnosis, the patient is any one of thousands of surface warriors—past, present, and future—who hold the ageless missions of the surface combatant near and dear. So, should we swallow the TBMD pill?
In prognosis, it will not be just the fleeting love affair with TBMD that will contribute to harmful neglect of other missions. Rather, it will be TBMD coupled with the sheer lack of enough surface combatants to conduct all of the other missions required at sea. As battle groups deploy with fewer and fewer surface combatants to protect them, which missions will draw priority? One imagines the Aegis TBMD combatants being mustered and stationed to provide an umbrella of defense for the upper tier of U.S., favored nation’s, or some aggression victim's air space. Somehow, a billion-dollar Aegis combatant seems more at home in a TBMD station than escorting the T-AKR Deiiabola from Charleston to the Arabian Gulf to offload a mechanized brigade’s equipment. Yet Aegis-equipped surface combatants will soon have to do both. It is the escort duty that for years has been more typical of surface combatants. Though historically required to execute many missions, the utility infielder of the battle group is now tethered increasingly to the Tomahawk launch box and predictably will be tied increasingly to a TBMD zone.
These valid missions may have been folded into the surface combatant repertoire prior to the drastic downsizing of the surface combatant force structure. However, the recent and ongoing loss of many surface combatants equally equipped to execute the less sexy missions (e.g., plane guard, naval gunfire support, convoy, amphibious group protection, ASW patrol, and maritime interdiction) has contributed to a shortage of surface combatants to carry out all missions.
At a time of force structure subtraction, mission additions such as TBMD and Tomahawk produce conditions that—to the seaman—are like a natural fiber rope under heavy strain. The telltale audible protests threaten to part the line securing the surface combatant to all operations from the sea. To add capability, without a commensurate addition of availability, risks parting that line, and the backlash is a performance degradation in all surface-combatant missions.
The precarious balance between force projection and force protection, in which the dwindling surface combatant contributes on both sides of the scale, is upset by the reduced numbers available for duty. The balance is gone, and only undesirable choices remain. Normally unacceptable sacrifices in protection of the force will give way to projection of power and defense of randomly targeted civil populations.
So, once again, can we swallow the TBMD pill? The answer is that we must; however, we must not do so without first using the TBMD mission addition as justification for a commensurate increase in surface combatant force levels. The two-MRC scenario with the full range of surface combatant duty requirements—including a taxing TBMD and Tomahawk requirement—should be used as the baseline in calculating the numbers of required surface combatants.
An appropriately conservative estimate that accounts for training and maintenance cycles produces numbers in the range of 150 to 160, which is well above the planned 116. The actual number required is subject to extended debate. The point is, the TBMD mission will require additional ships. Keeping the planned amount of ships— without accounting for the new mission requirements—will lead to a siphoning off of surface combatants from seemingly less-urgent missions to those missions making the strategic front page news.
When adding capability, let’s not forget to add availability. The pleasurable moments for a good shepherd are few, but they are fewer still without enough shepherds to tend to the flock.
Commander Rosenlof is a surface warfare officer who completed his Executive Officer tour in the USS O'Brien (DD-975). He is on the staff at Headquarters U.S. Commander in Chief, Pacific, at Camp H. M. Smith in Hawaii.