Watching the 41-year-old USS Enterprise (CVN65) standing in on her return from the war zone, two things struck me. Warships really cost a lot—but they sure last a long time. As we shape the fleet of the future, we had better get it right, because we do not have money to waste, and today's decisions will be tomorrow's Navy for a lot of tomorrows to come. Before we decide what to buy, we first must determine what we need and why we need it.
In Admiral Stansfield Turner's classic formulation, naval force structure in the Cold War served four missions—deterrence, presence, power projection, and sea control. It was sea control, however, that dominated, with presence and power projection largely tucked inside it. We were a blue-water Navy with a huge Soviet Navy to counter and global sea lanes to keep open.
During the Cold war, we got it right. We invented the carrier battle group and designed the integrated air wing, the modern cruiser-destroyer, and the powerful nuclear attack submarine, all with high-tech weapon systems and ever more refined processors and sensors. We were prepared for victory in any battle on the high seas. And then 11 years ago the Berlin Wall came down and we won it all. Alfred Thayer Mahan is dead. We have no fleets to fight.
Even so, we need the Navy and its unique contributions to our national security more than ever. With the right Navy, we do not require permanent overseas presence, host-country infrastructure, or another country's permission to assert our national desires. Naval force will take us anywhere in the world to reach out and touch some one, whether with diplomatic initiatives or high explosives.
But is ours the right Navy for the new world? Have we kept pace? The test lies in the shipbuilding plans embedded in the Navy budget. Sad news—we are on a foul course, seeing our nation's new defense needs not as a call for restructure and reinformation but rather as an opportunity to add on and build better what we have been buying all along.
Let My People Go
Our poor performance in planning tomorrow's Navy flows from two difficult problems internal to our service. The first is gigantic—the undying devotion of the dominant warfare communities to the three primary platforms. We solved this problem halfway by reorganizing the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, downgrading the platform czars from three stars to two. This cut the power of the submarine, surface, and naval air communities inside the on, but it did not bring them completely under control. Why? Because this excellent reform did not extend to Millington, Tennessee.
Yes, Tennessee. That's an odd place for the Navy to be, but that's where the Bureau of Naval Personnel moved and it is the bureau that still needs fixing if we are ever to free ourselves of the past's dead grip. When the Chief of Naval Operations revamped his staff, the platform mafias did not disappear—they just hid out inland hundreds of miles from salt water and the true nature of combat today. The times cry out for courage and imagination, but all the people who have anything to do with making a new Navy remain under the thumb of the old platform-dedicated, designator-unique assignment shops and screening boards that totally control their fates. Until this changes, none of the potential actors can seriously think about designing and buying a new Navy without grave career risk.
Our first step in crafting tomorrow's Navy must be a wholesale overhaul of the Bureau of Naval Personnel to remove career determinations from the absolute control of the three existing warfare communities, thereby shifting the emphasis from platforms to professionalism and freeing folks to do what is right. Only with this reform to the system that controls our people can we make decisions about warships in an objective environment that encourages new thinking and embraces a strategy aimed forward.
Reorder the Priorities
Our second large problem lies in our Navy's priorities. Those of the Cold War no longer serve the new global reality. We face no serious threats on the sea. Our new enemy lives in caves or hides himself and his deadly weapons in a labyrinth of presidential palaces. We need a revitalized sea-based force that moves its main emphasis from sea control to power projection and settles into a supporting role for war on the land mass. Let us use Admiral Turner's durable four-mission formula as our lens to see the new world.
Before we take on the tough ones, we can dispose of the two missions that change little. Presence is what you get after you have bought everything else. With a global posture that operates our Navy in forward zones, the presence mission is simply the summation of our capabilities in the other three missions. This is a lesser mission: we do not buy ships just for presence, nor should we. Indeed, the show-the-flag mission has become downright dangerous, as the USS Cole (DDG-67) incident showed.
The deterrence mission can also be set aside without further consideration. Our existing fleet of Trident submarines armed with the D-5 ballistic missile provides more than enough classic nation-destroying deterrence. Nonnuclear deterrence? We have seen no sign that prospect of conventional naval ordnance deters our new enemies, however useful it is when the fight starts.
Because we own the sea, the sea control mission can stand down until a distant and hypothetical future when a new peer competitor might build up a force that could eventually threaten us on the high seas. But, although we do not need very much sea control now, we can't risk a permanent reduction of our unrivaled dominance. This argues for deliberately choosing less blue-water force now in favor of our future ability to rebuild sea control faster than an emerging foe could challenge freedom of the seas.
With this shift in our fundamental strategy, we can let the fleet size of sea-control assets dwindle while preserving two vital capabilities. We must maintain the industrial base to build a sea-control Navy if world developments call for a return to that mission. We also must retain enough sea-control ships to ensure that we never lose the crew skills, training infrastructure, and research-and-development base of a blue-water Navy.
What we don't need, however, is a large number of state-of-the-art warships. Unfortunately, what we have on the drawing boards and in the budget are straight-line extensions of the Cold War design vectors for these ship types: too fancy, too expensive, and too many. The ships in our current plans are overbuilt for the action they will engage in the foreseeable future. For example, they will be extremely quiet, but there is no one to listen. They are designed to be great at antisubmarine warfare, but none of our enemies poses a credible submarine threat. They will possess wonderful antiair warfare capacity, but we have proven that one week of hard work by joint forces can annihilate the air-threat potential of the kind of foes we now face.
If our Navy is to make its full contribution in the new-threat environment, it must be fully focused on power projection and reconfigured to meet two main goals: direct delivery of military mass onto the enemy's land area, and much expanded support of our nation's land forces ashore. And its cost must not be a dime more than necessary lest funding an overly grand Navy deny dollars to more urgent defense needs.
We already have strengths on which to build. Amphibious ships loaded with Marines give us the ability to put land-war forces ashore and sustain them from the sea. We should quit scrimping and give the Marine Corps what it wants. But we should go further and change both the game's name and its underlying principle, accommodating in our "amphibious" ship designs the subtle but absolute shift of emphasis from amphibious warfare to expeditionary warfare.
Joint requirements are even less well accounted for in our plans. The "amphibious" ship type should see its design concept expanded to embrace sea-based support of the highly mobile, light warfare that the Marine Corps and the Army practice today. Regrettably, our latest amphibious ships differ little from the past in both design and planned employment—we have not engaged our sister services in a creative way to rethink and exploit sea-based sustainment of the new war ashore.
Our second strength lies in the naval ordnance we pour directly onto enemy ground, from carrier-based strike aircraft and in the form of cruise missiles from surface warships and attack submarines. These existing weapons are the heart of our nation's striking power, but we should hammer down the cost of their delivery—having more aircraft carriers than truly required or firing Tomahawks from gold-plated warships steaming through an ever-peaceful sea is wasteful.
We do not need superior warships just to deliver smart weapons, nor a massive armada arrayed in self-protection. We can greatly lower cruise missile delivery costs with a new ship type designed purely to put a lot of ordnance in the air in a hurry. The concept of an arsenal ship, with hundreds of Tomahawk missiles loaded onto a stealth platform, remotely controlled with a tiny crew, should be promptly resurrected, constructed, and put in service as a new class of warship.
We also should reinvent the jeep carrier. The modern aircraft carrier is optimized for tailhook strike aircraft, but we now are also using them routinely to carry and support remotely piloted vehicles and Army helicopters. Why dedicate an $8-billion carrier when a low-cost, no-catapult aircraft carrier of smaller size and simpler design can do the job at one-fifth the cost and crew? We should augment and perhaps replace some of our all-up Nimitz (CVN-68)-class ships with a new Tora Bora class specifically designed for low-end support of land war.
We still will require cruiser-destroyers and attack submarines to keep near-shore waters tidy, but the ownership and replacement costs of our current fleet of these very expensive ships are more than we should afford. Perhaps half the current number of each type is about right to suit all needs.
The conversion of Trident hulls to nuclear-propelled guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) is a great idea, but sticker shock is an issue—this is a very costly way to put ordnance on target and land special forces on the beach. Is this the best expenditure of billions of dollars, or should we continue with the remaining numbers of attack submarines to deliver snake eaters and the arsenal ship to launch massive Tomahawk strikes? It is a narrow judgment that should be decided on a cost-benefit basis, however loud the SSGN's proponents.
It is important that this new Navy be much less expensive both in procurement and in life-cycle costs than the one we have now. We will need extra money to replace our aging naval aircraft and to buy the Osprey for the Marines. We also want to put new funding toward mine warfare and sealift, and to continue to explore network-centric warfare and remote-platform technologies. We will want to continue with aggressive research and development of future naval technologies, some for the new threat ashore and some to maintain our technological and operational edge for later potential use in sea control. And as noted above, we have some new ship types to buy.
We have a great open-ocean fleet, and we may need a modernized successor for a distant future. But most of what we have now is a costly anachronism. We must shift our primary emphasis to sea-based land warfare and build a new Navy designed to support it.
It is time for a wholesale transition to a better Navy tailor-made to fight the new war ashore, admitting that what we need is much more important than what we want.