Naval forward presence—here, the Enterprise (CVN-65) in Souda Bay, Crete— just may be the most cost-effective means of preserving America's security in the 21st century. The problem is, the Navy hasn't proved it.
The U.S. Navy has a significant problem. By choice of policy, the number of ships in the U.S. fleet officially is tied to the forward-presence mission. In an effort to preserve force structure threatened by the downsizing potential of the 1993 Bottom-Up Review and the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Navy's leaders pushed forward presence to the top of the service's mission areas. In fact, recent briefings have referred to forward presence as the strategic concept of the Navy.
In contrast, the force structures of both the Army and the Air Force are tied to the warfighting requirements of the current military posture of preparing for two near- simultaneous major theater wars.
The Navy's logic in postulating the primacy of forward presence was prompted by the war-gaming models used in both defense reviews. The models indicated a lesser requirement for naval forces in fighting the two major theater wars than the current 12 aircraft carriers and 300+ ships. To forestall further Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)-mandated reductions in force structure—force structure that might be declared in surplus of requirements—the Navy launched a campaign to ensure that OSD remember the "unique contributions" of naval forces in the explicit mission of forward presence.1
This campaign for recognition has been—until now—quite successful. The first effort was to convince then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin that effective overseas presence merited a level of naval resources greater than the analytical models indicated was needed to prosecute the two major regional contingency strategy. This was followed in 1994 by a classified report compiled under the direction of Rear Admiral Philip Dur that attempted to link specific naval force packages to specific forward-presence tasks.2 Also in 1994, "Forward . . . from the Sea" carefully articulated the continuing value of forward- deployed naval forces to the future security of the United States. The results of this campaign were seen in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, which stated that "the demands associated with maintaining overseas presence play a significant role in determining the size of our naval forces."3 It is widely perceived within the Defense Department that the Navy "won" the interservice rivalry battle of QDR 1997, by being able to fend off any potential further cuts to the centerpieces of its force structure—aircraft carriers.
But there is a downside to this success. In tying Navy battle-group force structure to presence, QDR 1997 implies that the 12-carrier-battle-group force is not needed for fighting two near-simultaneous major theater wars. In contrast, the report clearly states that 12 amphibious ready groups is the number needed for such war fighting. In other words, it has become common wisdom that the only reason the U.S. Navy maintains its "large" number of carrier battle groups is to satisfy all the presence requirements requested by the unified commanders-in-chief (CinCs).
The Navy's leaders seem to have accepted the too-many-carrier-battle-groups-for-warfighting assessment, which was based on modeling originally done by the RAND Corporation. In fact, in a recent article, former Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Archie Clemins maintains that "we have transitioned to an era when supporting our national interest in peacetime requires a larger force structure than any near-term warfighting requirements would."4 Admiral Clemins argues that 15 battle groups are needed to provide "consistent presence in the three major theaters—the Mediterranean, the Arabian Gulf, and the Western Pacific." But even he does not argue that 15 are needed for the two-major-theater-war strategy.
So, what's the problem? If OSD buys the logic that 12, or perhaps more, carrier battle groups are needed to maintain a military presence at the three major deployment hubs, why question it? If they persuade Congress to keep funding replacement aircraft carriers, what difference does it make that they view these carriers as part of the shaping portion of today's "shape, respond, prepare" strategy, rather than a critical component of "respond" and "prepare"?
The problems may not be evident today, but they will become so in a future without defense budget increases. As Admiral Clemins points out, our forward-deployed naval forces are being stretched ever thinner in trying to keep up with CinC requirements and multiple contingencies. In contrast to the Air Force, however, which declared itself "operationally broke" following Kosovo, it is hard to argue that the Navy is being strained by the very mission that is justifying its existence.
The problems also will become evident as the strategic visions of our sister services focus on their own "contributions to America's forward presence"—which they will, particularly during preparations for the next major defense review, QDR 2001.
Having disparaged the need for naval forward presence, and proposed that a "virtual" presence of satellites and U.S.-based bombers could suffice for our defense needs, the Air Force now has discovered that its aerospace expeditionary forces (AEF) provide forward presence.5 Pilots on the first "overseas deployment" of the B-2 bomber—actually a brief stay on the island of Guam—declared it a forward-presence mission in the press. Officers at Air Mobility Command have pointed out that the AEF is not simply a responsive element, and that "in the future, the AEF will also have a forward presence role that we hadn't planned [for] in the past."6 A USA Today reporter, who was allowed to fly aboard the U.S. Air Force B-52 that "fired the first missile aimed at Serbia" during the Kosovo crisis, quoted an airman explaining the mission as follows: "last night we received an (order) which changed our 'forward presence' mission to a strike mission."7 The forward-presence mission referred to was the movement of the B-52s from their home at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to RAF Fairford, England. Previously, the Air Force would have referred to this movement as power projection.
A recent article in Air Force magazine laid the groundwork for a cost comparison between the forward presence and warfighting capabilities provided by an aerospace expeditionary force and those of a carrier battle group.8 Naturally, the battle group was found wanting in both categories. And because an AEF essentially is a carrier air wing without a carrier, there is a bit of unsophisticated truth to such a claim: an AEF obviously is less expensive than an air wing with a carrier, particularly since current plans call for the long-range portion of the AEF to remain U.S. based. This gives a false impression that the Air Force can perform the presence mission cheaper than the Navy.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. Army maintained a warfighting presence in Europe, and continues to do so today in Korea. But the end of the Cold War removed much of the justification for maintaining heavy armored divisions overseas. Similarly, many experts expect a peaceful reunification in Korea. During the force reductions following Desert Storm, the Army appeared to downgrade the direct importance of a substantial overseas presence, arguing that military attachés and foreign area officers now constituted forward presence. More recently, however, Army leaders have proposed the concept of "strategic responsiveness."9
Strategic responsiveness refers to the Army's future vision of being able to respond to overseas crises within 96 hours with sustainable U.S.-based forces. Even the Army concedes the difficulty of achieving such an objective in the immediate future. Effective strategic responsiveness would require prepositioning a great deal of war material overseas, which makes the concept vulnerable to the very threat it was created to avoid—in-theater preemptive strikes on forward-deployed forces. The only near-term solution would be to return to a mix of Army overseas presence and strategic responsiveness forces. This reinforces the image that the Army's version of presence is a sunk cost, and that a strategically responsive force would be cheaper than buying more ships.
At the same time that our sister services are jumping on the forward-presence bandwagon, diluting the argument for a strong naval forward-presence structure with requests for such forces of their own, the logic of naval forward presence faces attack from the opposite direction. For a number of years, the analysts of the OSD Office of Net Assessment have studied the potential for regional powers to develop antiaccess strategies. Antiaccess—also referred to as area denial, and in its original conception, as anti-Navy strategies—is the ability to deny U.S. forces entry to a region to conduct combat operations.10 In the worst-case scenario, a regional power could use a large inventory of relatively cheap ballistic missiles, potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction, to destroy fixed bases and any forward-presence forces within the region. Following the initial attack, the enemy could use ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, antiair defenses, submarines, and mines to prevent U.S. forces from entering through choke points or lodging on allied territory.
Proponents of the view that antiaccess represents the warfare of the future assume that forward-presence naval forces—particularly surface ships—are not survivable in that environment. To them, forward presence is a dead mission. Civilian critics have used the antiaccess argument in calling for reductions in the numbers of aircraft carriers and carrier battle groups. To some extent, their proposed replacement force would include more submarines, but primarily it would focus on U.S.-based aircraft and a strategically responsive Army.
The Handwriting in the Report
It is possible to defend naval forward presence from these intellectual attacks, but awareness of the importance of naval forward presence seems already on the wane throughout the Defense Department.
The Navy has long argued that there are at least four primary objectives of a forward-deployed posture for U.S. naval forces:
- Deter the outbreak of war
- Be positioned to respond rapidly to crises
- Shape the future security environment through engagement
- Demonstrate U.S. resolve in foreign policy objectives
Of these objectives, the only one that has been quantitatively measured is the positioning to respond rapidly to crises. As a rough measure, the Center for Naval Analyses maintains a data base of naval responses to crises and contingencies. One of the recent operations that the Navy has used to argue the value of forward-presence forces is the interposing of carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits, notably in 1996 and 1998.
However, none of these contingency operations—nor any of the typical deployment operations of naval forces—was included in the Secretary of Defense's March 1999 report to Congress, U.S. Military Involvement in Major Smaller-Scale Contingencies since the Persian Gulf War. This report, which presumably represents the official DoD view of how U.S. forces are being used in peacetime, goes as far as to imply that the primary impact of naval involvement in smaller-scale contingencies is on Seabees and fleet hospital units.11 Although there is a segment on maritime sanctions enforcement and mention of Navy involvement in two humanitarian assistance operations, the overall impression is that naval forward-presence forces have relatively little involvement in contingency operations. The term forward presence is not mentioned anywhere in the report, and a casual reader would conclude that contingencies can be solved only by deployment of land-based forces from the continental United States.
Here is where the logic of tying the Navy's force structure to the forward-presence mission holds the greatest liability. If, as the March report suggests, naval forward-presence forces have but small roles in crisis response and contingencies, such forces essentially are luxuries that may have some relevance in peacetime diplomacy but little usefulness in crisis and war. This is not an impression that bodes well for the future of a military service.
The Roots of Forward Presence: Economic Security
One of the realizations that appears to have been lost in the contingency debate is that naval forward presence has been, and remains, the prime protector of U.S. economic security. From the founding of the republic, our economic expansion has been largely a product of foreign trade—initially raw materials and, later, manufactured goods. Today, the product includes information, but even this travels over routes that pass through the sea, air, littoral, space, and cyberspace mediums in which the Navy operates. Throughout, access to raw materials, markets, trading partners, and information has been guaranteed by naval forces capable of conducting sovereign operations in the regions where U.S. access has been threatened. No other military means can do this without the acquiescence of potentially competing nations.
With their strong signal of U.S. interest, forward-deployed U.S. naval forces remain the most flexible instrument in our repertoire of overseas military strength. The reasons for this are obvious, historical, and nonparochial: unlike overseas land bases, the seas and the skies above them are international commons, in which we require no nation's permission to operate. Acting independently, the United States can choose its level of involvement in regional crises, without having to depend on the actions of any other state to achieve results. If desired, a U.S. naval battle group can be very visible, or, at almost a moment's notice, it can be moved over the horizon or out of the region.
Forward naval forces produce a very small logistics footprint overseas. This reduces regional sensitivities toward U.S. overseas presence and, at the same time, lessens our exposure to terrorism significantly.
Together, these capabilities guarantee the unfettered world access critical for our economic growth. Because of the problem of "proving" economic benefits, however, the Navy has not made much of an effort to justify naval forward presence on these grounds. The most extensive effort has been a Naval Postgraduate School study correlating naval presence (or lack thereof) in the Arabian Gulf with fluctuations in spot oil prices. Other efforts have indicated effects on Asian stock markets from naval movements in the Taiwan Straits during periods of tension between China and Taiwan.12 Such research should be pursued aggressively, to incorporate the economic security argument into a new definition of naval forward presence.
A New Model of Forward Presence
The problem is not the validity of the forward-presence mission but the way we are describing it. We no longer can use the slogan crafted by Rear Admiral Dur, describing naval forces as "forces for presence, shaped for combat."13 To the American public, military forces are—and should be—forces for combat, and the growing perception is that naval forward presence is but a small aspect of military engagement to shape a peacetime world. We would be wiser to describe the Navy as "forces for combat, shaping (world events) through presence."
If presence is a declining industry in an antiaccess world, then strong, survivable combat forces are America's real defense. We cannot afford to describe the Navy as anything other than a robust combat force that also can perform the peacetime presence function.
To a considerable extent, the Navy should adopt an approach from the Marine Corps' playbook. Although the Corps gives itself considerable credit as a part of the naval forward-presence mission, it does not describe itself primarily as a forward-presence force. Rather, it sees itself as a combat-capable contingency force, whose forward presence both deters land war and enables U.S. response. In the same manner, the Navy should depict itself as a force capable of defeating antiaccess strategies, and thus as the enabler of U.S. joint warfighting strength.
One method would be to adopt a strategic concepts formula that portrays forward presence as integrated into three other primary Navy mission areas: deterrence, power projection, and sea and area control.14 Another would be to focus on the Navy's emerging land attack and theater ballistic missile defense capabilities as the breakers of potential opponent antiaccess systems.
But of most value would be a redefinition of naval forward presence to focus on its role as an enabler for joint engagement and response. To do so would require reducing the Navy-only flavor of presence deployments and viewing them as sea-based engagement of U.S. forces.15
The difference is not mere terminology—although, the term presence seems a bit passive for all that such operations entail. Rather, it would require greater direct linkage to joint capabilities. Network-centric systems might provide such a linkage by requiring cross-service information exchange and sharing among all combat platforms.16 Another method would be the construction of joint littoral supremacy ships that would serve as multiservice deployment platforms.17 A third would be the development of the mobile operating base, the proposed off-shore joint service platform that could substitute for vulnerable or unavailable fixed land bases.18 And, last, the development of highly survivable platforms tailored specifically to littoral warfare, such as the Streetfighter concept, would optimize the warfighting advantages that forward presence brings to the joint table.19 All four methods appear to increase the value of forward presence for joint warfighting in times of crisis or conflict and for economic security in times of peace.
The Near-Term Fix
Redefining naval forward presence cannot be done overnight, but there are some near-term "fixes" that the Navy could adopt to make its arguments more viable—in other words, to "prove" forward presence.
- Take on the RAND models directly. Based on RAND's assessment of a war in Korea and the Arabian Gulf, only six carrier battle groups are needed to ensure a favorable outcome for the United States. But what if the intervention is anywhere else—East Asia, for example. What if it were in Indonesia or the Philippines? Would six carriers be all we would need?
- Adopt the antiaccess paradigm but interject some reality to the suppositions. Granted that a number of nations will have ballistic missile forces that could threaten all land bases within their regions, how many will have the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to target moving ships at sea? Even the Soviet Union found this unaffordable in the Cold War. The best guess is that, in the near term, perhaps two or three nations could attempt to do so, even with information technology available on the open market.
- Stop describing our sister services as the "war-winning" forces, and the Navy and Marine Corps as merely the "entry forces" or "enablers." The Army, for example, intends to transform itself into a light, rapidly mobile force without the heavy armor that we previously assumed was war winning. If, as recently retired Marine Commandant General Charles Krulak often suggested, future wars will be primarily in the littorals, who is to say that a Navy and Marine Corps-centered joint team is not going to be the war-winning force?
- Increase our enabling capabilities in an antiaccess environment and tie our vision and doctrine to a broader group of strategic concepts than just forward presence.
- Pursue the analytical "proof" that demonstrates the importance of naval forces to economic security.
- Broaden the term forward presence to include the sea-based engagement capabilities that joint forces could provide. In other words, forward presence forces should be conceived as the United States' sea base from which our joint armed forces can operate in a world in which land bases are becoming increasingly vulnerable.
There are compelling reasons for naval forward presence, properly defined and described, to increase in importance as an element of our overall National Security Strategy in the 21st century. Historically, a strong naval presence acts as a buffer that other nations find difficult to penetrate, and as a means of access into regions in which our interests lie. Our global maritime power is a means to enforce world peace, a potential war winner, and a key player in maintaining our economic security. To accomplish all of this requires forces for combat, shaping through presence. This allows a sea power, in the words of the 17th-century political philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, to "take as much or as little of war as it desires."
Captain Tangredi is senior military fellow of the QDR 2001 Working Group at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. He previously served as head, Strategy and Concepts Branch, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and as commanding officer of the USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49).
1. Adm. Henry H. Mauz, Jr., USN, "The Value of Being There," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1994, p. 26. back to article
2. RAdm. Philip A. Dur, USN, "Presence: Forward, Ready, Engaged," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1994, pp. 41-44. back to article
3. DoD, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, May 1997, p. 23. back to article
4. Adm. Archie Clemens, USN, "Where Is the Peace Dividend Now?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1999, p. 44. back to article
5. "Air Force Says It Can Offer Presence in Peacetime," The Wall Street Journal, 27 February 1995, p. A7; and Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall, "What presence means to the Air Force," Air Force Times, 3 April 1995, p. 19. back to article
6. "U.S. Air Force to Rework Strategy: Aerospace Expeditionary Forces Will Become a Forward Presence," Defense News, 22 February 1999, p. 46. back to article
7. "Given the Phrase 'Rock 'N Roll,' B-52 Launches First Strike of Conflict," USA Today, 25 March 1999, p. 1. back to article
8. Rebecca Grant, "The Carrier Myth," Air Force Magazine, March 1999, p. 26. back to article
9. The Army conducted a "Strategic Responsiveness" conference (cosponsored with The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis) on 2-4 November 1999. back to article
10. One of the best discussions of this concept is Thomas G. Mahnken's "Deny U.S. Access?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1998, pp. 36-39. back to article
11. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Report to Congress on U.S. Military Involvement in Major Smaller-Scale Contingencies since the Persian Gulf War, March 1999, p. 28. back to article
12. Both studies are summarized in Sally Newman, "Political and Economic Implications of Global Naval Presence," in Naval Forward Presence: Present Status, Future Prospects (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, November 1997), pp. 47-59. back to article
13. Dur, "Presence: Forward, Ready, Engaged," p. 44. back to article
14. Cdr. Sam J. Tangredi, USN, and Cdr. Randall G. Bowdish, USN, "Core of Naval Operations," The Submarine Review (January 1999): pp. 11-23. back to article
15. This discussion uses the original, broad definition of engagement as put forward in the administration's National Security Strategy of "engagement and enlargement (of democracy)." More recently, the Joint Staff has adopted a more narrow definition of engagement that means only military-to-military contacts and combined exercises. The Joint Staff definition, which influences the creation of theater engagement plans, misses and belittles the whole purpose of engagement. back to article
16. VAdm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN, and John J. Gartska, "Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998, pp. 28-35. back to article
17. Cdr. Sam Tangredi, USN, "A Ship for All Reasons," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1999, pp. 92-95. back to article
18. Adm. William A. Owens, USN, High Seas (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), pp. 162-66. back to article
19. In Proceedings, see VAdm. A. K. Cebrowski and Capt. W. P. Hughes, "Rebalancing the Fleet," November 1999, pp. 31-34; LCdr. Dave Weeks, USNR, "A Combatant for the Littorals," November 1999, pp. 26-30; and Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), "22 Questions for Streetfighter," February 2000, pp. 46-49. back to article