We now fight only on land. In this new century, the nation’s combat will be on terra firma, with air-to-air combat and sea battles relegated to history and to a dim, unlikely future. Is the Navy becoming irrelevant? Sadly, the answer is yes—unless it is reshaped for two essential missions ahead.
Mission One: Maintain a sufficient fleet-in-being as hedge against potential threats to freedom of the seas, retaining enough industrial, technological, and training infrastructure to remain superior to any nation that might pose a blue-water threat. The Navy must drastically downsize its capital-ship inventory because its current cost cripples the second mission.
Mission Two: Support land warfare. This is now the Navy’s primary mission, and the current fleet works hard at it. Making best use of a Cold War fleet, however, yields much less support than the Navy could provide with a force built purposely for its new role.
A relevant Navy will require:
- Just enough attack submarines and surface combatants to keep Mission One alive—about half the current number. Protect assets in the near-shore area with them and with the new littoral combat ship, a design tuned to the new mission at a cost per hull one-tenth that of the complex new cruiser-destroyers and submarines on the drawing boards.
- Aircraft carriers as they are now, but hold the CVN(X) until Mission Two is equipped fully.
- Cost-driven replacements of aging combat aircraft that maximize ordnance delivery, even at the expense of air-to-air combat.
- Large numbers of sea-launched cruise missiles rebased to arsenal ships. Smart weapons do not need smart platforms and their huge per-round delivery costs.
- Just enough Trident submarines to maintain an adequate deterrent posture against rogue nations—six would do. Keep the four Trident cruise missile-configured submarines.
- Amphibious readiness groups, but with state-of-art ship designs and the concept expanded to embrace support of special operations forces (SOFs).
- Expanded logistics support of land war from more fast sea-lift and prepositioned ships, also expanded to embrace direct support of SOFs.
- Full commitment to mobile sea bases as a primary contribution to supporting land combat.
At the same time, major changes must be made to the shore establishment to gain efficiency and focus the Navy culture on its new missions:
- State that Mission Two is the Navy’s primary mission. Reorganize around it and move away from the bureaucracies entrenched to sustain Cold War platforms.
- Exercise strong leadership for change, from the top of the Navy to the deckplates. So far, the Navy’s answer to “transformation” is pursuit of a technologically refined version of its legacy force structure, not something fundamentally new that is tuned to future need.
- Break the backs of the three dominant warfare communities to stop perpetuating a blue-water navy frozen in the Cold War. As long as they call the tune, the surface, submarine, and aviation communities will starve Mission Two.
- Overhaul the officer personnel system to emphasize Mission Two’s priorities and shift the officer corps from its dysfunctional careerist orientation to one that is more mission based.
- Reduce end-strength through design-manning tradeoffs, innovative crewing, and aggressive use of commercial sources for nonmilitary work.
- Cut Navy bases to just what is needed.
- Make costs visible and justify them with mission metrics; eradicate nonmission spending.
- Rebalance the resource shares of the services: more Marine Corps, Army, and SOFs—and less Navy and Air Force.
These are enormous changes. An incremental approach is doomed, as is a wistful hope that the specialized parts of the Navy will put aside parochialism to serve the new primary mission. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark gets it. He has laid out the right framework and the right goals. But large numbers of his admirals and the rest of the Navy have yet to take up this bold challenge, change course sharply, and help him remake the Navy for the realities of the 21st century.