Mobilization is unspeakable—until we need to do it. Then, mobilizing our forces and our industrial base is a long process. With the rapid nature of modern warfare, time is a luxury we cannot afford. We should learn our lessons from the past to avoid repeating the failures of our history.
Mobilization has little meaning for military professionals today, and therefore is discussed rarely. This was not the case in 1937; mobilization was actively discussed, defined, and had immediate relevance. Mobilization saved the nation then and produced a new fighting force in the process. Today, it is time to reexamine the meaning of mobilation for the Navy and its relevance to the first quarter of the 21st century.
Since 1991, the United States has been cutting its armed forces to levels comparable to the 1920s, without a concomitant strategy for mobilization. The National Defense Act of 1920 directed the Assistant Secretary of War to prepare an industrial mobilization plan to prevent a repeat of the stumbling that occurred during World War I. In 1922, the Planning Branch wrote what in 1924 became the Industrial Mobilization Basic Plan. A series of industrial mobilization plans followed through 1939.
Running in parallel with the industrial planning were the "color" military plans. Each color denoted a potential enemy. They were largely theoretical, with the exception of War Plan Orange, which focused on Japan. In 1939, with the threats more clearly defined, five "Rainbow" plans were developed in earnest. Each plan was built around a separate scenario—most of them concerning defense of the western hemisphere. In the summer of 1941, the Victory Plan was added to the documents needed to mobilize manpower, the economy, and the national industrial base for war.
Naval planning focused on War Plan Orange, and Japan's powerful navy. The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty of 1922 limited the size of the major powers' navies. This was followed in 1930 by the London Naval Treaty, which was designed to end the naval arms race by limiting the number of warships being built by the major powers. The U.S. Navy was under attack then and was being used as a political foil—because getting at the heart of world problems was too difficult for the politicians.
Driven by the constraints placed on battleships and cruisers, and by smaller Depression-era budgets, auxiliary forces were developed by a small band of officers, who were willing to risk their careers. These auxiliary forces, tasked to scout for capital ships, were comprised of submarines and aircraft carriers. The young Turks who pushed their development saw greater military potential in these new technologies than did many senior officers of the battleship Navy.
The remarkable thing about the auxiliary fleet, or light fleet, was that it had the right mix of quality and quantity by 1941. Initially carriers and their air wings were relatively inexpensive to build—compared to battleships. The Langley (CV-1), Lexington (CV-2), and Saratoga (CV-3) were conversions. The carrier concept matched well with the national industrial base, because commercial enterprise was chasing the commercial air market. Military contracts simply paid the overhead and research-and-development costs. Building a large empty ship without turrets and armored plate from the keel up—like the Ranger (CV-4)—was still a relatively simple and cheap proposition. As lessons were learned in operating aircraft carriers, and as the threat became clearer, the carriers and their aircraft became more refined. Their flaws and strengths were tested in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, and the carriers were found to be adequate. The Essex (CV-9) class went into production in 1941 as the standard design for the war. The right mix turned out to be a quality ship delivering a quantity of firepower, with a minimum amount of manpower being placed at risk.
Thus by 6 December 1941 mobilization plans had been drafted, a national strategy had been defined, and all the tools had been fashioned, tested, and integrated into the fleet. But the professional naval force, while significantly upgraded after 1935, still was not capable of the enormous undertaking that awaited. It was a force adequate to perform initially in the "come as you are" role—to buy time for the nation to mobilize.
It is fortunate that we are not at a similar point in history as 7 December 1941. Nevertheless, professional naval officers must understand that another harsh destiny could await—perhaps 20 years in the future. In many ways, our situation is similar to the Roaring Twenties, a period of economic boom and military downsizing. It was a period of declining military budgets and political use of the Navy to resolve larger issues. It was a prelude to darker times.
What lessons can be learned from that period when mobilization meant life or death to the nation?
- The Navy has demobilized and the fleet may fall below 300 ships. We have passed the point where our two-ocean Navy remains adequate for one sustained theater war but has become inadequate for either global conflict or a war of naval attrition.
- The high cost of today's ships, aircraft, and submarines will add to the quality-quantity imbalance in the Navy today. Missiles—the current answer to the quantity problem—are not even close to fulfilling all the projected wartime requirements.
- The main battle line of carriers-cruisers-submarines, in their present configurations, represent a cul-de-sac, as battleships and cruisers proved to be in 1941. The force must be maintained, but it should be accepted that its future mission may be to buy time for mobilization.
- The United States had almost six years of warning time and two years to come to full production before World War II. Today, our world leadership role no longer provides the distance and protection we had in 1941.
- There are no plans on the drawing board for a light force to be mobilized. It is out there—somewhere—in bits and pieces but still needs to be drawn together.
At present, whatever the new light force will be is now diffused, ill defined, and varied—just like the threat. This is how things should be, with one exception. We need a mobilization plan that embodies a vision of what the new naval light force should look like.
The key to a credible mobilization plan is the Navy's leadership—the Admiralty. Without their attention to the problem, there will be no support to institutionalize the process of mobilization. A quick look at the Defense Department telephone book finds no flag officer, directorate, or sub-directorate that has mobilization as its primary focus. Fears are understandable that a flag-level discussion of mobilization may be tantamount to admitting the Navy cannot meet all its missions. The Army crossed that line after the Vietnam War, and its ability to mobilize the reserves and National Guard helped bring to bear the political will, national resources, and public backing in the Gulf War that was lacking in Vietnam. Discussing mobilization at the flag level is just the medicine Navy needs to shake off the long-term post-nasal drip it has suffered since 1991.
Second, there needs to be a series of lively debates about mobilization. What is the state of the current national industrial base? Perhaps the right charge is to give the responsibility to the war colleges, keeping the subject academic and theoretical (and at minimal cost) to start with, like the "color" plans. War games with new light forces proposed by military, civilian, or interagency groups would stimulate interest and evaluate ideas.
Third; there needs to be a re-institutionalization of mobilization. This carries the danger of being captured early on by the establishment Navy. Nevertheless, it eventually must become part of the system and process. The selection of officers to go into this field initially is important. An onslaught of the "best and brightest" is not endorsed, nor is selective detailing of only the professionally crippled. It should be a calling for visionaries, who believe that their work will be vital 10-20 years from now.
Fourth, we must build a light force. As the concept of mobilization takes root, new technologies and tactics must go to sea to prove their worth. Survival rules should be harsh. Manpower and financial limits must be set that will infuriate those who are trying to build a mobilization force that will survive combat. The force must solve the quantity-quality ratio problem, while not financially breaking the Navy—and the nation.
The Light Force
What should the light force look like? Who knows? But keeping it in an amorphous state will throw the field open to the great minds out there who have visions that should reach the podium. Some bedrock principles should be observed:
- Adopt technology rapidly. A future threat likely will have parity with the U.S. Navy in one or more areas, and may have superiority in others. We must have a mobilization force that can upgrade weapons and sensors rapidly or replace them wholesale with new ones. The current national industrial base uses modules and containers to achieve this end. The key lies in the standardization of interfaces from mechanical and electrical to electronic and software.
- Reconfigure to meet the threat. The wide array of weapons and sensors designed to meet the threat must allow the war fighter to combine them in various configurations rapidly, at all levels of combat command. A huge advantage will be gained if the light force can be reconfigured as rapidly as aircraft can be reconfigured today.
Available space is a key criterion in the ability to reconfigure ships. Aircraft carriers are reconfigurable because of their large spaces; cruisers and destroyers are not. Smallness also is a key criterion for components. The smaller anything is, the lighter it is to carry—and more can be fit into the available space.
Modularity is another key criterion. This implies compatibility at an interface—the ability to pull things out and plug replacements in that is essential for quick repairs. On a larger scale, modular implies "containerized." This form of packaging—especially of weapons and sensors—can mean the rapid removal and installation of a completely different capability. In a war, a clear advantage is gained by the side that can bring technologies to the field faster than the opponent. In a fully modular-containerized navy, the antiair module can be replaced quickly by an antisubmarine module if needed. Thus the vessel doing the transporting can be mission tasked in short order—negating the need to build a new ship to meet the threat.
Mobility is a third key. Modular, containerized weapon systems could be shipped rapidly using the worldwide intermodal system as it exists today to handle containerized cargo. The light forces' rapid adaptability should be keyed to the mobility to move weapons, systems, and sensors fast to reconfigure the fleet to the current threat.
- Meet the economics of war. War for the professional comes down to the ugly choice of risking two of the nation's greatest treasures: money and manpower. The fleet today is expensive, small, and capable—but only in certain areas, such as antiair warfare. The light force must be designed to add numbers to the quality. It must have tactics that account for numbers and lack of quality. The integration with the fleet in being and the mobilization fleet must be worked out before 2020.
- Be user-friendly. The mobilization fleet must be based on the premise that the average civilian, once mobilized and given six months of training, can operate it. Development of this training program should be given to the reserves. The reserves have the right mix to cement the interface between the professional peacetime force and the civilian wartime force.
- Meet a two-year window. This requirement makes the light force real—not just a fleet-in-being. Since warning time may be much shorter than it was for World War II, the light force must be ready in less than two years. It can do this only by matching resources to the national industrial base. The resources need not attempt to meet the current naval strategy at first. As a threat develops, however, the Navy should select the options offered by the free market that will best achieve the national objectives. The naval strategy should be the resultant, not the driver.
The unspeakable act of mobilization needs to find a voice; history demands it. Mobilization planning will give new direction and underpinning for naval strategy. It provides a reasonable solution to the perplexing problems of missions-versus-budget. We live in turbulent times. Mobilization planning can help stabilize the present and clarify an uncertain future. What we need most is a flag officer who will drive the debate and make the case that mobilization planning is a vital undertaking that will complement—not overshadow—present force planning.
Captain Brown retired recently from active duty as Director of Plans and Policies, Joint Interagency Task Force East, in Key West, Florida. He also served as commanding officer of the USS Anchorage (LSD-36).