The surface warfare community’s future is in change. The next surface combatant must change the Navy, or the combatant and all who sail her will drift off to the margins of national defense. Change around us is so big that nothing can stay the same. In a defense world of cuts, trade-offs, and new technology, those who succeed will be those who seize change. The opportunity exists for surface warfare to seize the future of its own combatant, but it will fade fast unless one thing is understood:
The future we want for the surface combatant demands a different Navy.
If we want the next surface combatant to prosper, then that ship must be the harbinger of a naval revolution. That means we must be willing to define the Navy that goes with the ship, and the strategy that goes with the Navy—and you must be willing to seize the public agenda and tell your story of change. They call this a vision of change. The future belongs to those who have it.
Introduction: Beginning at the End
The surface warfare community needs a new vision, because its old vision is dead. This vision has to be bigger than just surface warfare, because only in that way will the surface combatant get a bigger job. If it doesn't get a bigger job, it will end up with a smaller job.
Vision is about both opportunity and survival, but opportunity is where the growth is, so that should be the focus of the next vision. Remember, vision is about identity. The old surface warfare identity was simple: The surface warfare community is an escort community.
This identity was secure in its place for the whole of an age—the Cold War world—and its place was not marginal. But when the age ended, its world died.
Why keep the escort ethos alive if it’s a dead-end identity? The answer is easy: No reason. But there are two reasons why surface warfare should find a new identity.
Reason Number One: Opportunity
Nothing is going on that will define the age.
- The American people are not sure what their defense should look like.
- The current regime has no idea how to frame future defense needs.
- No one has yet defined what the next big threat will be.
- No one knows for sure where technology is going, or how soon it will get there.
Reason Number Two: Survival
What is going on is a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest struggle over who will cut up the pie. All the hot buzzwords and slogans pretend to be new defense visions, but they are just stand-ins for the next vision. We know what they really are: They are leverage to control who gets what.
This is a moment when vision is everything, because everyone is looking for one, but no one else has one. And surely, if not soon, one will come along and take over. The new age, with its new defense doctrine, will tell the Navy what to do, and the Navy will then tell the surface warfare community what piece it can call its own. But that has not happened yet, and it’s possible—just possible—that surface warfare can put some of its electrical energy, some of its own charge, into the next vision.
This is all about building a new vision, but a vision has to be real; it has to have meat. So here’s the beef in brief:
The future will bring bigger threats but not bigger U.S. forces. If we have to fight, we will have to cross an ocean to do it. Assaulting an adversary across an ocean means lots of firepower that can get there and stay there—firepower we can pay for. Carrier and U.S.-based air power cannot give us that firepower. The next surface combatant can.
There are two paths the next ship can take:
- As the source of pure firepower in all dimensions— the battleship reborn
- Or, as a true, full-task assault ship—fusing the amphib and its own brand of strike firepower
- And then there is a third path. It’s called a frigate. It’s the downslide path.
I am writing this because I know navies—especially this Navy—as living cultures and institutions. As an outsider, maybe I can speak more plainly; maybe I can say things that can’t be said by others. If that is true, then maybe I should find a good framework to dump all this iconoclasm into.
There is a good one, where outsider shamans are asked to tell it like it is, and to tell the rest of us what is to be done. It is called a political strategy memorandum, and it is usually written by opinion researchers or political consultants. The message is rough, give-it-to-me-straight, but if it’s the right message, it can win elections. So I write this as if it were a strategy memo to the Democrat or Republican national committees, because sometimes an outsider can see things people on the inside don’t want to. That’s why every electoral campaign has one.
Aren’t you waging a campaign, too?
Do you want to win?
The real challenge isn’t staying alive, with three guided- missile destroyers a year. The real challenge isn’t getting a next surface combatant to happen. The real challenge is keeping the surface combatant at the center of the fleet. That was not a problem when Cold War budgets and Gorshkov’s gauntlet made the big fleet escort—our ship—so essential. But things have changed. Keeping its capital ships—its battle force (for carriers, like it was for dreadnoughts or ironclads before)—is the new Navy bottom line. Then come amphibs, for the littoral war mission. The surface combatant is sliding to the bottom of this mix. Fleet escorts just aren’t needed the way they used to be.
We know this is gut-true—so make the surface combatant something different. That should not be so hard, because it has been changing into something different ever since Tomahawk came along, ever since helos made “distributed aviation” a reality.
The real challenge is making the surface combatant the main element of Navy firepower. Again. And this means, simply, a new Navy.
To meet this challenge, the surface warfare community must do six things:
- We must witness the future in the present.
- We must testify how our present course just won’t deliver.
- We must show how to do it better.
- We must seize the imagination high ground of the future.
- We must capture authority with insider allies in Washington, D.C.
- We must show the American people that this is the military they want.
The simple response to this challenge would be to say: “We’re not in this business; we’re not even allowed to do this. So forget it; it’s above my pay-grade. Strategy and policy are handed down from on-high. We do what we can with what’s left.”
But a challenge shouldn’t be easy. We can do these things, maybe through a strategy of indirection, maybe over the transom, who knows? But no one can deny us our vision (only we can do that).
If we want to tackle the challenge of change—change in our favor—there is only one requirement, and only one real limitation. The requirement is to speak as one: for the surface community to be a single voice pushing change. That is the limitation: unity of vision. If Marines can master unity, why not us?
Where We Are Today & Where We Are Going
If the age had its voice, as did the Cold War, then we would do what we were told. It is very important to understand that no new age has come to replace the old. This is the surface combatant’s opportunity, because no one has the true authority to tell us where we are going. Those shaping Defense policy today have only the limited authority that comes with their jobs. They control real things, such as budgets, programs, and people, but their control exists only for today. They don’t know how to steer us toward the future, so they build for what is. But what is, is changing. A strategy of remaking the ship would make no sense if the Navy’s course was set—but it is not set. World change, and change in the United States, is favoring a strategy for a new surface combatant, and a new Navy.
When I said, “Nothing is going on that will define the age,” I mentioned that there are four missing pieces that favor a new vision:
- The American people are not sure what their defense should look like.
- The current regime has no idea how to frame future defense needs.
- No one has yet defined what the next big threat will be.
- No one knows for sure where technology is going, or how soon it will get there.
What’s in our favor?
How Americans want to be defended.
When I say Americans are not sure what their defense should look like, I mean that most Americans do not have fixed notions of what programs or force levels they like. This is in contrast to Cold War days, when the people had passed off on all the core parts of our force posture. Now they have a very hazy notion of precisely what weapons we need, and in what number. But they do have some strong notions about defense goals. Americans also know what kind of force they want to achieve these goals. To the American people, the ideal military looks like the following:
- It’s small.
- It’s really high-tech.
- No one else can touch it.
- It can take anyone else on—and out—very fast.
- It’s not good for fighting in Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, or Vietnam.
This is what focus groups in the Chicago area told me. They ranged from farmers in DeKalb County to yuppie lawyers overlooking The Loop. Their message was strikingly similar. The older elite types still wanted policing forces to run the world, but their younger, boomer partners wanted none of it. I ran these focus groups a couple years ago, but current polling continues to bear out the same message. Americans speak with an overwhelming voice:
No world policing,
But forces no one else can match.
We fight only for truly vital stakes,
But U.S. forces never go in under U.N. command.
Americans want military forces that can take on any real threat to the United States—and when they say threat, they mean threat. So the search for a new ship, and a new Navy, has two big advantages with the American people:
- Americans want forces that can really defend them.
- Americans want lots of precision firepower, not lots of police power.
A Visionless Administration
The primal urge of the current regime is to avoid conflict, while cutting, or “saving,” as many defense dollars as possible. When it comes to the future, and the remote chance that some threat may come ambling along, it’s all “hedging strategy” (don’t get rid of anything), “keep our options open” (continue new stuff as R&D forever), and “keep our powder dry” (preserve the industrial base). This all adds up to classic peacetime thinking:
- Stay out of trouble.
- Save money.
This is also an advantage, because it cedes what is most important to leadership: authority. By refusing to describe where we are going and what dangers await us out there, they leave that job to someone else. That someone else should be us. And building for the present is no assurance that it will be enough when the future comes knocking. For instance, look at the budget trends. Where’s bottom? Now look at a more disturbing trend, Jim Schlesinger’s “teeth-to-tail” ratio for DoD (Figure 1). During the last big buildup, we finally got the ratio centered just above 50-50. Today, it’s heading for 25-75 by FY 2000.
This translates into a Bottom-Up Review force that Les Aspin said is underfunded by $50 billion. That will swell to more than $100 billion over the course of the FYDP, even if no further cuts open up in Defense. This gives us a fleet of ten (or fewer) carrier battle groups in 2014. Period. The rest will have that hollow ring.
Why (you ask) is this an advantage in selling the next surface combatant? Let’s look at what this soon-to-be-hollow force may have to go up against. If the carved-out Bottom-Up Review force is not good enough to do the job the day after tomorrow, then it’s not good enough for today. That makes the argument for the next ship even stronger.
The Threat, Part One: What the Economic Revolution Will Bring
Planners always end today’s tomorrow in the year 2015—20 years. Think of the day after tomorrow as the decade after 20 years (to 2025). When we try to describe the threat the day after tomorrow, we must never agree to old arguments and snares. When they say, “Give me a scenario,” don’t. When they get belligerent, and insist, “Who is the enemy?” don’t tell them, because we don’t know—no one knows. But that means we’re still one step ahead of those who both don’t know and don’t believe it can happen. It can happen, and 6,000 years of civilized human nature tells us that, if it can happen, it will happen.
We can describe the enemy without resort to sci-fi stories and finger-stabbing at those who are our friends (and who may always be our friends).
We can describe the enemy the day after tomorrow, because we can see what change is doing to the world.
The threat the day after tomorrow starts with change that looks benign. Experts tell us we are in the throes of economic revolution, the likes of which we have not seen since the coal and rail and iron revolution of another century. It is built around information, they tell us, and it will change the way all humans live. I believe them.
But what exactly does this mean? The first thing it means is huge new labor forces entering the global marketplace. China, India, Southeast Asia: The measure of goods they will produce will be prodigious, but more than their productivity will be their growing skill. How long before these great new economies are producing at our level, or close to it? What of China, India, Brazil? Don’t assume achievement, but don’t deny it. Benign change that is good for everyone in macro-textbook terms may show us a very different picture in real life.
The Threat, Part Two: What New Technology is Bringing
In Popular Science or Popular Mechanics, neat stuff is always just around the corner. So it must be for aspiring powers. For years, we have waited for Arab states to reach military maturity, where their grand, gleaming arsenals could finally give Israel a run or cause us actual discomfit—but it never happened.
The technology is less important than the society using it.
The going-great-guns economies of South and East Asia have no problem with technology. They are not at our level, nor are they likely to be soon, but they are good—and we can get to them only by crossing the Pacific.
So two pieces are in place:
- Big economies, with
- Lots of smart people who know the latest in technology. But this is no threat. Today, Germany and Japan have great power and good people. They also have no interest in fighting us.
It’s not the economy. It’s the ideology we have to worry about.
The Threat, Part Three: Rise of a New Idea
Imagine the world of the near future. There is much more trade. We no longer think in terms of the G-7, the seven industrialized economies of the West. Instead, there are a score of big producers. It’s a different world economy, and it’s a different political world. Instead of industrialized Europe and Japan, the United States has to worry about the whole world. The balance of power is much more complicated.
In the good old, Cold War days, it was just us and the Soviets. And by the way, we controlled all the real producers: They were either NATO or Japan. Period. In the future scenario, the United States controls no one, not even Europe and Japan. In just 10 or 20 years, say the world looks a lot more like the world of the late 19th century—and it’s on its own. We’ve resigned as trustee. It is a world of economic shake-down and upheaval, and there is a dark side. Here is where we should look for the threat the day after tomorrow.
Economists naturally see the good side of their revolutions: more goods, more energy, more money for everyone. But revolutions don’t just happen. That’s why we call them “revolutions,” meaning that old ways get overturned, that whole ways of life are killed off, like so many victims of The Terror or the Gulag.
Old industries die, and millions are thrown into uncertainty, with good factory pay swapped for a lot less wage in what polite society calls “the service sector.” And this is in the so-called developed economies. What about the places where the revolution is really hot, where societies are literally torn apart by growth?
Talk about the big new economies of Asia. How do they get there? What do they look like when they arrive? Remember, iron and coal and cotton meant sweatshops and child labor and pollution so gagging it is beyond our kinder and gentler imagination. Industrial revolution meant that English and German and French and U.S. societies were physically ripped up and then restitched.
People rebelled; modern democracy was born of the rebellion against the world of iron and coal and cotton, and industrial revolution surely led to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and more. Should we expect any less from the people of Asia who will suffer the same terrors of change?
Remember, too, that economic revolution led to a revolution in ideas that not only had vitality but also were aggressive, missionary, and full of fight. The great 20th-century wars grew out of the struggle over these ideas. Very simply, the economic revolution of our times will make for social revolution, and finally, a revolution in ideas.
By ideas, I mean fundamental notions about how to live and do business; the kind of ideas that in this century we called ideology, but that those who believed called truth; the kind of ideas that immolated some hundred million of us in two world wars.
The next enemy America faces will be an idea.
The great economies and their peoples are just the clay of future war. They await that spark, the current that charges them, changes them, sets them against us. We can describe the next enemy without naming it, because the places and the peoples that will make the next enemy already exist. It is just that the name of the enemy does not exist today in any form we can recognize. The idea that will make an enemy does not exist—now.
Won’t happen? We can hope. But if it does happen, hope will not help us. Real danger for America is not a weapon [technology]. Real danger is not even the hand that holds the weapon. Real danger is the idea that moves the hand. This is the last piece, the hardest piece, in any future vision of the national defense, but it is the missing piece that we ignore at our peril.
What’s Going Against Us
A new vision for the surface combatant has a lot going for it. It also has two things going against it. And these have one thing in common: resistance to change.
Resistance to Change: In Roles and Missions
It doesn't make sense that defense reform should slow down change. But here are some reasons why it will:
- When CinCs do the mission job, it means that what you see is what you get: the status quo forever. Why shouldn’t it? That’s their job: to make sure we can do the operation right. The CinCs know what’s best, right? They’re right on top of things, right? They know what’s going on, and what we really need, right?
You bet. But they know what we need to do the job today. There is no reward for thinking: tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow? Captain’s mast with the top civil- tan. Giving missions to the CinCs means we prepare to fight for today only. Remember Churchill’s Ten Year Rule, which said in the 1920s that Britain would not face a major war in the next ten years? And every year, the rule got advanced by one more year? We have something like that today. It’s called the Unified Command Plan. The UCP is America’s version of the Ten Year Rule.
- Big, umbrella commands mean everyone cooperates. Competing is bad. This thinking fits the spirit of the age; it sounds progressive. But it means making sure no one gets hurt. That means keeping things as they are. First place on everyone’s priority list of what not to change goes to manned strike aviation.
America has only one air force, the United States Air Force. . . . The other Services have aviation arms essential to their specific roles and functions but which also work jointly to project America’s air power. —Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Report on the Roles, Mission, and Functions of the Armed Forces of the United States
Aviation is center stage in this report, and everyone is assured of their piece of American air power. Air power is still the everything slogan; your status will defined by how much of it you have.
► Military efficiency in lean times means efficiency in aviation programs. That means you all share the eggs, and you sure don’t touch the manned-strike basket. Weaving a new basket is thus unthinkable in a world where duplication and redundancy are the two top evils. You don’t think up new ways of doing business when you’re trying to simplify what you’ve always done.
Resistance to Change: In the Navy
First point of resistance: Enough change, already!
The Department of the Navy has undertaken revolutionary changes. . . . The results are a Navy-Marine Corps Team focused on a new strategic vision, “. . . From the Sea. ” —Department of the Navy 1994 Posture Statement
If this is true, how can the Navy itself be an impediment to the very cause it trumpets so loudly? It’s simple, really. “. . . From the Sea” was really about change. And “. . . From the Sea” was a big effort. This means simply that the Navy has exhausted itself thinking about change. Some even get testy when faced with yet another future:
The world changed.
There was no escaping it.
So we changed, too.
Don’t talk to me about new changes.
Second point of resistance: Don’t take away my capital ships!
. . . the Bottom-Up Review acknowledges that the Navy sortie generation rate in the first two to three weeks of a conflict is of profound importance in preparing the arrival of our sister services. ... We believe that twelve carriers are extremely important for our national military strategy. . . . —Department of the Navy 1994 Posture Statement
Circle the wagons, keep the big boys at all cost! Manned strike aviation is everything, and carriers are the soul of manned strike aviation. So the Navy is in the ironic place of choosing aircraft over ships. But it cannot buy enough of them to do the job. And rockets and missiles will get better and better, smarter and smarter, cheaper and cheaper,
doing the same job.
[And the argument behind this is not Block IV Tomahawk, or today’s tactical missile systems. It’s what comes after.]
The Good News
There’s good news here? Yes.
There is a strong argument for a big threat the day after tomorrow.
This happens to be the one threat the American people want to prepare for.
Littoral warfare gives the Navy-Marines the assault role against this threat.
But they’ll never pull it off with aircraft alone—the aircraft we ’ll have then.
Resistance to change will never be overcome, but it can be sidestepped. It can be co-opted. It can be used to advantage. Tomorrow—the next 20 years—have already been programmed. Relax—let it happen. But as we all wander down the road toward the day after tomorrow,
- The contours of the threat will be harder to wish away.
- The shortfall in air power will be harder to disguise.
- Our naked battle groups will be harder to clothe with words alone.
Assert the next surface combatant as this happens. Offer the new ship as assistance to those in need, the carriers that suddenly can’t do it all. Make the new ship indispensable, both to aviators and Marines. Make the new ship a strategy-maker, not a strategy-breaker.
Programming Strategy: A New Navy
There are two action parts to this strategy. They do not demand that the old ways be taken by the horns and overthrown; their goals are more subtle and more modest. The first objective should be to shift the way people think about some fundamental things. The second objective should be to show how the next surface combatant can do some of those fundamental things. The first part targets thinking inside Defense. The second targets the American people and those who might help us among the Washington elite. The strategy will work only if it speaks the truth with words that Americans will listen to. Two of these words are witness and testify.
Witness: to have personal knowledge of, to have been there
Testify: a declaration of truth under oath
Too much of defense-speak from the last age was doubletalk. Who, save C-Span addicts, listens to Secretary of Defense budget hearings? The jargon-agenda ruled: Strategy jargon is for justification. Americans ignored the word- jockeying, because they believed that when it came to national defense, enough was a lot. They had decided on big forces, so they put up with the budget-justification game. But the problem today is that decades of strategic-argument-as-budget-justifying has emptied the words of their actual content, of their capacity to persuade.
The world is a more dangerous place.
Ask any American. No one believed that painted shibboleth when it was trotted out at Cold War’s end. Americans still want a big, bad military machine, because they don’t want anyone to push us around in the future. They will pay for that; they won’t pay for a glorified global SWAT team. So step one in the strategy for the next surface combatant is telling this story right.
(1) We must witness the future in the present. Stop trying to rationalize naval roles and missions for a barren, peacetime present. Give the American people a real reason for naval forces. Tell them what is to come—and that we have been there.
Tell it on the inside first, and get it added on to the current correct story, which Pentagon balladeers call “The Four Dangers.” It doesn’t put the four dangers at risk; it only amplifies them in the “out-years.” Add it to the brief for . . From the Sea.” Although the paper’s main focus is on “the fog of the littoral” of naval warfare in “regional conflict,” so is ours. We just want to show that littoral is not necessarily colonial—meaning, small, 19th-century style wars—and regional is not limited to send a gunboat—meaning, once our vastly superior forces get there, we do another Desert Storm.
Witnessing the future means telling it from the heart— but speaking from the head—about how big threats can rise with surprise, such as Nazi Germany did in just five short years; or how a downturn in the world situation can suddenly bust up old relationships, such as the Great Depression did for world trade; or how simmering problem places can just blow-up, taking everyone by surprise, such as China did in 1926. Surprise! And then great powers suddenly find themselves with conflicting interests.
Come to think of it, all three of those things happened in the same decade, 1926-1936. Five years after that, 12 million Americans were training for war. Remember how mentally prepared we were for this? In 1925, the Kellogg- Briand Pact was signed by scores of nations, abolishing war forever.
- We must testify how our present course just won’t deliver. Tell it like it is, as though we were under oath: The forces we are building now won’t be able to handle what’s coming, 20 years and more downstream. A smaller slice of the old style fleet just won’t cut it.
And the U.S. Navy—along with the rest of Defense—is doing just what it did in the 1920s. Like the battle force then, our battle line today is the world’s strongest, and we will, like the leaders of the 1920s, preserve our predominant weapon. But as Navy planners discovered around 1932, you couldn’t get to Manila with battleships alone, and that was just for War Plan Orange. In 1932, that was the U.S. regional contingency. Japan’s economy in 1932, stacked up against our own, was about where Italy’s is today.
We knew we couldn’t handle Japan in 1932, and when we finally fought Japan, our battle force was not about battleships anymore.
Testifying means telling it like it will be:
We will have a weak force in 20 years. Regional wars we call doable in 1994 will in 2014 mean war mobilization before we even think of waltzing in .. . from the sea.
The strategy for the next surface combatant has to get three things across right at this point:
- We should still have interests in Eurasia—but we can’t count on access.
- That means we must still be able to assault an enemy shore.
- If we can’t, then our forces exist to defend mid-ocean and archipelago (the Americas, Australasia, Japan, and Britain—at most).
- We must show how to do it better. New technology wired to different kinds of ships can give us the naval firepower we will need to face the next big threat. There is not just one right answer, and the answers we come up with are not just Navy answers: They are in spirit very joint.
- We have the foundation—called littoral warfare.
Littoral warfare so far has been good to minesweepers and amphibs and lifters and lighters of all sorts. And to carriers. But when it comes to surface combatants, the current genre sees more utility in frigates than in their bigger, costlier kin. A more challenging shore puts the surface combatant right where it should be.
- The aircraft carriers will be too busy to do the strike mission. . . .
Nine or ten carriers will have their hands full the day after tomorrow just getting us to the beachhead (if we still dare to call it that). They’ll be doing everything except theater strike: outer air cover, strategic recon, electronic warfare, air defense suppression, and some deep raiding. But these few will have their hands full providing strategic cover. What will provide the firepower for the battlefield itself? What will cover the littoral battlespacel That’s easy.
^ …and unable to do the ATBM mission.
How many hostiles the day after tomorrow will be pumped up on nuclear steroids, tactical-ballistic missiles, and close-to-real-time targeting? Twenty? Forty? Only son-of-Aegis can handle this threat, incoming.
^ The Marines and the next surface combatant are one.
The Marines are the centerpiece of the new Navy. The Marines, therefore, are the crucial allies, cherished customers, of the next surface combatant. If the next ship does their theater fire support, or if it goes farther even and carries them into battle, it’s a ship for Marines. This means they will defend it like a buddy in the next foxhole.
^ The Air Force and Army need this to succeed, or they are out of a job.
Air Force and Army had a whole age to themselves. Everything in our grand strategy came to center at last on a Central Front, that final cockpit of the Cold War imagination. The Air Force, which in the end lost its wild blue nuclear sky, came up with the perfect substitution in a Red Baron-like flock of fighters over Germany.
The next war holds no such comfort. They need the Navy, like it was D-Day or Okinawa, to seize the strategic lodgement, to be the initial assault echelon—or they can do nothing. When it becomes clear the carrier can no longer make that happen, they will be happy to promote the new ship that can. Maybe they won’t be happy. But chances are they won’t fight us.
Communications Strategy: A New Vision of National Security
The first campaign must be waged inside The Building; the second must be joined in public. It need not be fought directly by the surface warfare community, but the community must be united in encouraging—and supporting—those who do.
- We must seize the imagination high ground of the future. Americans of all kinds love high-tech war stuff. Give them a ship that wrests the Buck Rogers crown from the F-22. Give them a bridge to The Next Generation.
If you read Popular Science or Popular Mechanics, you see iridescent articles on wonder weapons all the time. Always, the attempt is made to declare every showcased system as state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope, and New Wave. But most of them do not sail—they fly.
“Top Secret—Reshaping the Look of America’s Air Power”
(“We chase down classified U.S. Air Force activity in California’s desert skies.”) or
“Secrets of the F-117”
(“Our test ride puts you in the pilot’s seat.”) or
“America’s $1 Billion High-flying 4,400 mph Ramjet”
(“A secret Nevada test site, and a new look at advanced aeronautics paint a portrait of Aurora, America’s newest secret reconnaissance aircraft.”)
You get the picture.
What about the Navy? Well, every now and then it gets some coverage—all positive. Or should I say, nice?
(“Rebuilding obsolete carriers for the 21st century.”) or
(“The Arleigh Burke is the state-of-the-art warship.”) See what I mean?
They’re trying to rub in some excitement, and they’re complimentary, but sober verbs like “rebuilding,” or wholesome honorifics like “state-of-the-art,” just don’t cut the same figure as the electrically charged “Top Secret,” “test site,” “chase down,” “test ride,” and “ramjet.”
Wow! Gee Whiz!
The next surface combatant needs some wow and gee whiz; it needs to build some excitement. When the Populars leak the first pictures of the next surface combatant, the captions should be buzzing. Don’t tell me this is unimportant. And don’t say ships can’t compete. Two articles in the Populars were wild about ships, but the trouble is, one was on Metcalf’s turtle ship, and one was on Lockheed’s black wraith. It got great copy: “Incredible! Navy’s Super Secret ‘Invisible’ Warship.” If only. . . .
Ever since aviation got off the ground for more than 20 minutes (say, after 1910), Americans have gone crazy over flying machines. But the fabulous success of Star Trek and its spawn show that Americans still bridge the myths of our becoming and the new myths of where we’re going through The Ship.
It is a long shot. And it is not a mission priority. But it has huge payoff; Reinvent the way Americans imagine The Ship.
- We must capture authority with insider allies in Washington. Sell the ship, and the strategy, to the reform-minded among the Washington elite. Get them on the bandwagon; excite them with something new. Surprise them.
This is a tricky tactic. It means going to experts and media and Hill honchos, and that sort of broad front push will surely draw fire. But if the whole surface warfare community—along with the Marines—is united, it will have the kind of tidal authority that comes with new ideas whose time has come. People with badges and titles want to keep them, and they will get on the bandwagon of a new strategy that seems like it’s already captured the future. Part of what will make it work is how many experts you can pull in to take the early counter-battery fire. Put them on point, make them the skirmish line.
Do the same on the Hill. Find the willing among the old Military Reform Caucus, and use them as stalking horses for a new strategy. I know some of these congressmen are pining for a good scrap, just waiting to have their defense embers rekindled. Bring on The New; these guys are tired of the dead-end court politics of defense. Their ranks have thinned, and they can be fickle, but they can be useful—and they can vote.
Then go to the real reformers. These are the new people in Congress, who represent the real new wave in Washington and in American politics: a movement against the entrenched national elite. It is hard to sketch this movement in just a few words, but it announced itself with Ross Perot in 1992. It is becoming the next Big Change in American politics. When this movement finally takes power five to ten years from now, it will tear down much of the domestic superstructure of the Cold War. Defense, too, will be transformed. Start seeding this opportunity now. The case for the next surface combatant—the case for a new Navy—could custom fit the next American agenda.
- We must show the American people this is the military they want. Americans want an untouchable force that can defend us for sure, but which will not stick us in impossible imbroglios. Show how this new ship, this new navy, gives them what they want.
American military power
That is built for the next big threat,
That asks the Navy-Marines to be the nation’s assault echelon,
That will do this job through the firepower of the next surface combatant,
could be very appealing to Americans.
Remember, Americans like the idea of being above it all. The carrier battle group is still the ultimate high-tech force for many, but that is changing. In 20 years, the carrier may more resemble Darth Vader’s Deathstar in the public mind than the valiant defender of U.S. interests abroad. I’m not saying this is inevitable, merely that it is likely. It is likely that ramping technology and looming new powers will make our handful of flattops look less and less magisterial.
Why am 1 picking on the CV? I'm not. I am trying to say that change is likely to leave some big piece of today’s fleet—the old fleet—behind. It doesn’t seem quite fair to say it like this, but then History is not always fair. I didn’t say obsolete, just less magisterial. For instance, the battleship was not obsolete in 1941, but for a truly magisterial price tag ($120+ million for a Montana (BB-67), instead of $20 million for an Enterprise (CV-6), all you got was a dozen 16-inch guns and 27 knots.
Regular people were still impressed by battleships through the war. However, by war’s end, the carrier carried the new weight of popular imagination. True, that was a wartime transition. Let’s give the great flattop another 20 good years. But let’s also look at the way the public might look at the ship that takes its place.
In the public mind:
- Size no longer = power.
- Great numbers of people no longer = order-of-magnitude competence.
- Huge stats no longer = great gasps of wonder, more likely they = waste.
- A demi-god in the cockpit no longer = heroic effort in the attack.
In contrast, people might respond better to:
- A small, dedicated team working wonders in CIC
- Using technology’s mind games to outwit and outflank the enemy
- With weapons that work like rapiers, not claymores.
This, of course, is the image from the original Star Trek. Twenty-five trekkie years have, paradoxically, prepared at least two generations of young Americans for the next U.S. Navy. Their collective imagination is tuned to combat as they envisage it from the CIC-bridge of the starship Enterprise.
This dream of the ship, I would humbly suggest, should be the emotional embryo of the Navy’s next capital ship.
Conclusion: Seize the Idea
What I offer is not the normal way to present the next ship. It is an end-around strategy that tries to advance the surface warfare community by changing the terms that we use to define national defense. This can only be done because there is no one at the helm telling us where we are going. That gives us a chance to put the rudder over.
But we would not do this for us alone. What is happening inside America, in the world, and in technology all should urge us to change the status quo. And it will be changed. That inevitable truth is an opportunity for surface warfare, but seizing this opportunity also happens to be doing the right thing.
Think about opportunity as Eric von Stroheim. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was the ultimate villain to American moviegoers. Hollywood copywriters dubbed von Stroheim: “the man you love to hate,” as he played one monocled Prussian martinet after another. This great actor summed up the enemy Americans wanted.
Americans want to fight—if they must fight—the Eric von Stroheim of the future. They do not want to fight Serbs, Somalis, or Ferengi.
Describing the Eric von Stroheim enemy of the future gives us a war in which an across-the-ocean assault is the intrinsic initial phase of that war. That assault cannot be carried off by carriers. It needs our ship. The future is not about analysis; the future is not about engineering.
The future is about an idea.
Very simply, the future is an idea waiting to be born;
Who voices it, owns it.
The U.S. Navy’s future belongs to the surface combatant, so the question at last is also very simple:
Do you want it?
Mike Vlahos is a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and an Olin Fellow at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the Johns Hopkins University, where he created a program in security studies that emphasized how different cultures learned from and prepare for the next war.