Sea control is the sine qua non for all Navy functions, missions, and endeavors. To get it and keep it requires large, fast ships, control of the air and sea, and strong antisubmarine and mine countermeasures forces.
Keeping first things first is not easy in an atmosphere of change. The emphasis on operations in the littorals to strike targets ashore, to send Marines to distant shores, and to support Army and Air Force deployments correctly mirrored the world situation after the Cold War, but important as these tasks are, they are not the primary purpose of a navy. A navy's first purpose is to control that portion of the seas of interest to its country. Establishing that control requires creating forces far in advance of the need and understanding the time necessary to execute the tasks-neither of these is of concern outside the Navy.
In his explanation of this function and its historical value, Alfred Thayer Mahan postulated that the target of any navy is the fleet of the enemy. If today another peer fleet existed anywhere in the world, that fleet would dictate much of the design and operational occupation of the U.S. Navy. But because there is no other naval force that looks like a real fleet except for the Royal Navy—a close ally—there is an assumption that threats to U.S. control of the seas do not exist. This assumption underlies the preoccupation for using the Navy to attack targets on land, to transport and support land forces, and to execute diplomatic missions: all important but secondary missions.
This fantasy of omnipotence exists for a number of reasons. Because the United States has not fought a naval battle since 1944, the entire defense establishment assumes we will not have to again. With the exception of a short period in the 1970s-1980s when the Maritime Strategy outlined what the Navy would have to do in the event of war with the Warsaw Pact, the potential for conflict over use of the sea has not been a matter of interest outside professional naval circles. Even within those ranks, many officers were lured into areas of specialization that have little to do with sea control.
The intense desire by secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to "transform" the nation's armed services post-Cold War and a "myopic focus on power projection operations" energize views, opinions, and debates that ignore control of the seas.1 Admiral Mahan's first commandment of maritime power—freedom to use the seas for our purposes and to deny it to others of our choosing—has lost its relevancy, especially in those arenas where jointness is the only acceptable mantra.
In today's joint environment, service-specific concerns are akin to heresy, and events at sea are of interest to few outside the uniformed naval service. Only the Coast Guard is a partner in maintaining the sea control that U.S. policy makers and the leaders of the other services take for granted. Now that the Navy can operate with so little dependence on shore facilities, the original reason for expansion of the Marine Corps—to seize bases along the path of advance—has evaporated. Thus, even the Corps no longer is an ally in the strategies and tactics surrounding sea control. In any endeavor, only Navy officers bring an understanding of the requirements and time constraints for operations at sea and the importance of dominating that environment to enable other actions outside North America. When expressed, such views often invoke cries of parochialism from counterparts in other services, political superiors, and sometimes even Navy officers.
In the Navy's public presentation of its roles and missions, "Sea Power 21," the concept that sea control is the sine qua non for all functions, missions, and endeavors is not evident. Yet, control of the high seas is the first requirement for operations anywhere. To get to the littoral one first must cross Mahan's "wide common."2 Although potential enemy fleets have sunk into apparent insignificance, to use the oceans as a maneuver space as contemplated in Sea Basing, the U.S. Navy must be able to control both that part of the ocean from which the United States plans to stage attacks and the lines of communication that tie it to the North American continent.
Today, more than in any previous era, technology offers small naval forces unprecedented capabilities to inhibit, obstruct, and for a time even deny use of the sea to powerful fleets that outnumber and outgun them on every level. While the hierarchy of the Department of Defense focuses on conflicts ashore, China, India, Indonesia, and others have or promise to possess both equipment and trained manpower that can deny the United States free use of the seas. Political leaders may ask, "Where are the carriers?" during moments of crisis, but this does not translate into an appreciation of sea power. In the question and expected answer there is not a thought that the routes to get the carriers to the crisis might be subject to interdiction or the area in which they operate contested.
Thirteen years ago, Admiral Isaac Kidd warned, "We have had too many campaigns in benign environments since World War Two at sea. We have long ago come to expect it."3 The present fascination with the Sea Base assumes the environment for such a base will be benign. However, the proliferation of submarines, mines, precision-guided missiles, and tactical aircraft has created means for even small nations to be formidable menaces. When layered together and manned by resolute personnel, these menaces become not just an inconvenience or difficulty but a threat to U.S. use of the sea-at least in some areas and for some time.
The 1982 Falklands Campaign offers stark evidence of the problem of a force at sea exposed to effective and determined, albeit far less capable, opposition. The lessons of that war remain valid and relevant:
* Far is hard.
* "Smaller, cheaper, less well armed combatants can be a very false economy."4
* Even small air opposition can be nasty to ships wedded to operations ashore.
* No land bases are likely to be available where useful.
* Conventional submarines are trouble even when they are not a real threat.
Geography. In the world of instantaneous news, distance means little to policy makers ensconced in remote headquarters and connected to the action by broadband communications. However, geography continues to be a major consideration in both the speed of response and the logistics of establishing a Sea Base. Even with strategic warning, the time needed to assemble an assault force at the scene of action is measured in weeks. Maintaining the Sea Base and supporting deployments of land forces requires command of the sea-lanes from the continental United States as well as to the area of operations. The farther away the affair, the more forces and time are required.
Long distances also stretch logistic elements, necessitating more, large, and fast ships. Ships must carry enough fuel to run at high speeds to close the operating areas in timely fashion and to operate for reasonable periods distant from the oiler. Experience in the Falklands and later has shown that ships need to be large enough to carry sufficient numbers of people to sustain a long fight, to allow changes to be made quickly, and to provide strength and volume if the ship sustains damage. In particular, crew accommodations must be generous. The design for a ship to operate for six months in the Western Pacific or Persian Gulf is very different from that of one meant for two weeks in the Gulf of Mexico, i.e., one's own littoral sea.
Damage Resistance. If a ship is to go in harm's way, more than speed is required to provide a margin of safety and ensure the persistence that enduring operations in a distant sea require. In the Falklands War small warships and amphibious ships proved surprisingly vulnerable to single hits. Lacking in armor or size, they did not have strength and compartmentation and had little reserve space to allow the crews to rally, as they did in the Cole (DDG-67) and Stark (FFG-31) incidents. While armored ships are things of the past, steel superstructures, reserve buoyancy, and compartmentation above and below the waterline all add to a ship's ability to survive a hit. These considerations also increase a ship's size and cost, but the return in battle is manifold.
Control of Air. In the Falklands, the Argentine air forces demonstrated what even moderately capable airplanes can do against a flotilla locked into supporting a land campaign. In just over a month of sporadic attacks, the Royal Navy lost 2 destroyers, 2 frigates, a landing ship, and a large merchant ship being used as an auxiliary aircraft carrier. Another destroyer, 14 frigates, and 2 landing ships were damaged by air attacks. Most of this was done by bombs from A-4 Skyhawks, planes then 20 years old.
This air threat not only damaged the invading fleet but also forced major ships to maneuver well clear of the shore, complicating British ground operations. Once the engagement is joined, controlling the air over the sea is as important as over the shore. When prepositioning ships are involved, this control becomes vital because these valuable but vulnerable assets must close on easily identified ports alone well-defined routes.
Operations at sea are not insulated from air and missile attack when in range of enemy shore bases, and not all enemies will bury their planes in the desert. Air defense includes but must not be limited to the ability to attack enemy airfields. Interceptor aircraft over the battle space and antiair and antimissile weapons within the strike force still will be needed. Though few countries maintain a tactical air fleet as capable as the Argentine Navy, more and more possess ballistic and guided missiles with precision and ranges adequate to pose a threat to a force tethered to shore.
These threats and missions are fairly well recognized within the Navy, but fleet air defense, not a top-drawer topic amid bombing runs on Baghdad, is a one-service issue. That the Navy can control the air over the distant seas and littoral lands—probably without Air Force help, at least for a while—must remain a primary objective. Such defense includes not only capable interceptors and missiles, but the whole panoply of supporting units. In the Falklands, the lack of long-range early warning coupled with the short endurance of the Harriers severely handicapped the operation's air defense.
Land Bases. Future conflicts are not likely to occur at times or places of one's choosing. The remote Falkland Islands were viewed as an unlikely place for a conflict (as was Afghanistan). The nearest land base available to Great Britain was at Ascension Island, 3,300 miles away. all the tanker support the British could muster was needed to permit the Royal Air Force's pathetic one-bomber sorties from there. Logistic ports were not available in the South Atlantic until after the fighting was over, when casualties were evacuated through Montevideo.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, deployment planners were shocked when long-time allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia denied overland and overflight access. This episode reinforces the Navy's argument that forces ashore are less secure and less employable. This reasoning chiefly has been used to justify carrier aviation, but the sword cuts two ways. The Navy's use of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) for scouting and long-range surveillance depends on the same availability of land bases. Abandoning these functions in the carrier air wing cuts into the ability to control sea and air space because the MPA may not have bases within reasonable distance of the scene of action.
Supremacy in the air and on the sea is necessary to make Sea Base a viable concept. To be able to operate around the clock, anywhere there is water-the heart of Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark's present ad campaign-the Navy must be ready to bring surveillance and reconnaissance capability in from the sea, just as it must bring airborne early warning assets.
Submarines and Mines. These weapons are the 21st century's fleet-in-being, a force inferior in strength but a menace until destroyed. Small navies possessing these weapons can influence campaigns all out of proportion to their own size and experlise. In World War II, one hundred times more resources had to be devoted to defeating submarine attack than to mounting it. In the Falklands Campaign, one small conventionally powered submarine, not particularly well handled and never a real threat, caused havoc. The Royal Navy's major surface forces had to maneuver to try to avoid it, and antisubmarine forces expended almost all their ordnance on what appear to have been false contacts.
As the Germans demonstrated in two wars, submarine threats are not restricted to the enemy's littorals. Enemy submarines may seek to interdict the logistic train at choke points or even off harbor entrances on U.S. coasts. Maritime Prepositioning Force ships will be particularly lucrative targets; their ports of departure identified well in advance, their destinations obvious, and their cargoes equivalent to a World War II convoy. Assuming that shipping routes will be free of threat is based on hope, not experience. The Royal Navy's presumptions in this regard before World Wars I and II quickly were shattered by the Germans with small numbers of submarines. For any conceivable conflict, the lines of communication to the Sea Bases will pass through choke points that invite submarine attacks. More serious, an aggressive enemy with submarines might choose to employ them in the U.S. littorals rather than in his own.
Again, the Falkland Campaign teaches: "ASW is an all-weather, 24 hour task."5 Improving ASW capability by organizational arrangements, training, and better equipment is not a total solution. The around-the-clock character of this effort must be reflected in the manning of ships and command centers, as well as in the size and duration of exercises. ASW is slow, tedious detail work. Twenty-minute rotations on sonar stacks translate into significant crew size for any ASW vehicle. Crews must be large enough to be able to work around the clock for months.
Mines offer another mechanism for small navies to thwart and delay a more powerful enemy. Their presence cannot be assumed away, and even when channels have been swept, they cannot be completely discounted. The ability to detect and clear mines remains an important priority, and Admiral Stan Arthur's admonition that the United States should immediately sink anything sowing mines in international waterways, regardless of conditions of peace or war, needs to be taken seriously.6 The United States may dominate the surface and even the air, but until it can dominate the undersea space at and en route to operating areas, movements of forces may be in jeopardy.
The issues associated with command of the sea transcend technical developments. The extent that technology adds to expertise depends greatly on the personnel using it. This is especially true in antiair and antisubmarine warfare, where success requires coordination of large numbers of diverse equipment and people. Perfecting the techniques that yield success requires major exercises with all of the resources involved. Such skills decay over time-rapidly when senior leaders are relieved. Officers also must gain practical knowledge of the technology to recognize its potential applications so as to grasp its place in the arsenal of maritime warfare. Such skills require extended practice at sea. Hopefully, the new Fleet Response Plan will create opportunities to reestablish command competence in combined arms operations.
"Sea Power 21" is a good guide for the future, and a good explanation of the utility and capability of the Navy. However, experience from the only maritime war in the second half of the last century suggests the current Navy position needs some shoring up. On the first day of a conflict with a determined enemy that has invested in even a small navy, the U.S. Navy will not have the control of the sea on which all joint plans rest. How long it takes to get it will depend on how well the Navy digests the lessons of the Falklands War and listens to the advice of its prophet, Alfred Thayer Mahan.
1 LCol. Frank G. Huffman, USMCR, review of The Challenge of Maritime Transformation: Is Bigger Beller? by Robert Wouk, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2003, p. 99.
2A. T. Mahati, The Influence ofSeapower Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890), p. 25.
3 Adm. Isaac Kidd, USN (Ret.), "Gulf Crisis Is Re-enforcing the Lessons of Maritime History," Seapower, January 1990, p. 53.
4 Department of the Navy, "Lessons of the Falklands," summary report, February 1983, p. 3.
5 Department of the Navy, "Lessons of the Falklands," vol. 1, February 1983, p. 13.
6 Adm. Stanley R. Arthur, USN (Ret.), interview, "Desert Shield/Desert Storm, The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War," Faircount LLC, January 2001, p. 113.
Admiral Holland is a retired officer who spent most of his service in submarines. Since 1972, more than 50 of his essays have been published in Proceedings and other periodicals. he is vice president of the Naval Historical Foundation and was Proceedings Author of the Year in 2002.