Sea Basing is seductive, but it is a dream that needs a wake-up call. Planners must reassess their assumptions in the cold light of a dawn that reflects reality, not wishful thinking.
The U.S. Navy can do it all ... the United States can wage war alone . . . and Washington can do all of this affordably. Some defense transformational analysts now planning strategy and force structure base their assessments on one—or all three—of these assumptions, in part because contemporary strategists divine a future in which Navy units will operate increasingly without coalition support and without access to nearby ports or airfields. Political-military trends of the most recent U.S. engagements notwithstanding, taking these assumptions for granted indefinitely is dangerous.
Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom confirmed once again that none of the three can withstand serious scrutiny. The U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and the administration should reconsider the costs and potential consequences of Sea Basing and evaluate more realistic solutions to the problems that planners apparently deemed "too hard" when they embraced the concept in the first place.
Sea Basing, according to the Naval Transformation Roadmap, is all about capitalizing on the inherent mobility, security, and flexibility of naval forces to overcome access limitations.1 It aims to reduce both the need for vulnerable logistical stockpiles ashore and the demands on strategic and intra-theater lift. When fully implemented, it will—theoretically—free joint forces from their tether to forward shore-based support by improving the reach, persistence, and sustainability of forces based afloat. 2
There is another side to the story, however.
First, the U.S. Navy cannot do it all. Time and again, when the Navy goes to war, shortcomings require coalition maritime support. U.S. mine warfare assets, for example, consistently lack the breadth and depth to accomplish their mission. The Navy does not devote enough focus or funds to this less-than-glamorous specialty to achieve competency, let alone preeminence in the field, and this is unlikely to change. The Navy probably will continue to lack the number of surface units required to conduct many missions across the maritime spectrum. The dwindling number of Navy merchant-escort hulls, for example, will make the next major theater war even more challenging than were the last two off Iraq where, even with Coalition maritime support, vast areas went without maritime presence.3 Indeed, the rare Navy vessel patrolling the sea lanes outside the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz during either operation stands as a telling example that our Navy cannot do it all. (Coalition naval assets were indispensable to operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa). Few question that the Navy can remain the dominant maritime strike and sea control force, but it cannot be everywhere.
Neither can the United States wage war successfully alone, a fact supported by a national history replete with relevant examples worth examining. World War II stands as but the last: a long-term victory achieved through multilateralism, consensus, and a coalition that, to some degree, endures today. After the United States became a superpower during the 20th Century, however, it more often resorted to unilateral military might and became less effective. Recent U.S. military and technological superiority has rarely granted easy victory and has not assured long-term strategic success. Although Washington broke the back of the Soviet leviathan to a large degree by outspending Moscow, America could break its own back by following a United States-against-the-world political-military agenda.
Further, it is increasingly clear that contemporary coalitions are not easily assured, partly because of U.S. unilateralism; coalitions du jour often seem to be mere window dressing. The recent Gulf Wars and their aftermath reveal some of the side effects of this unilateral approach: U.S. military forces over-stretched, spiraling war costs, and foreign policy under siege. Any expectations that military supremacy alone should automatically translate into effective U.S. policy in these circumstances is simple naivete. On the contrary, U.S. prestige suffers overseas because of cultural ignorance and arrogant methods reflecting the flawed rationale of the three assumptions. Sea Basing reinforces the idea that we do not need any nation's help, further entrenching our powerful but aloof military posture.4 It is, in effect, a maritime Fortress America approach.
Finally, the United States cannot do it all affordably. Even with Navy downsizing and ship/squadron decommissionings as offsets for funds diverted to recapitalization and transformation goals, too many acquisition programs are competing for too few dollars. If we can't support a surface force structure necessary to accomplish all missions, how can the Navy hope to support the additional costs of Sea Basing? Frankly, there is little hope of bringing this less sensational vision to fruition when it must compete with so many higher-visibility programs.5 Consider the major acquisition programs associated with Sea Basing :
* Maritime Prepositioning Force-Future (MPF[F]) shipsfirst unit scheduled to be contracted in 2008.6 Cost estimated at $1.5 billion apiece, with some design concepts envisioning a ship displacing more than a Nimitz. (CVN68)-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.7
* Fast Combat Support Ships (T-AOE[X])
* An expanded Combat Logistics Force (CLF).
Further, Sea Basing envisions exploiting the next-generation nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN-78) the replacement big-deck amphibious assault ship (LHA[R]) and the High-Speed Vessel (HSV) program for support, with force protection from the next-generation destroyer (DD[X], advanced missile cruiser (CG[X]), and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).8 Despite Navy hopes that ship procurement funding would continue rising over the next decade, Congress approved only $10.1 billion for Fiscal Year (FY)-OS, a billiondollar decrease from FY-04's $11.3 billion.9
The money required for ships to support Sea Strike and Sea Shield (already receiving the bulk of the available funding) further dims the prospects for Sea Basing, especially in light of overall estimates to fund it: Roughly $8 billion just for the MPF(F) ships and possibly another $2 billion for smaller cargo-transports.10 Sea Basing vessel requirements include huge flight decks, lighterage onload/offload capabilities, plus spaces for troop berthing, ammunition, marshalling, etc., above and beyond basic cargo stores and headquarters capabilities. This is going to be one very large, costly ship class.11 Planners also envision the need for a new, very large vertical/short takeoff-and-landing (VSTOL) cargo aircraft.12 Expanded maritime repair and maintenance capabilities to support extended at-sea periods will require destroyer tenders not currently in the inventory. Finally, there will be significant personnel costs.
The Sea Basing Roadmap argues advantages well. Here is a look at some disadvantages:
* Insufficient air/surface cargo transport. Sea Basing requires massive amounts of lighterage and aircraft to move cargo ashore. Potential transports include landing craft, air-cushion (LCAC) and HSV-type craft. As of June 2004, however, the Navy had not identified a planned transport acquisition. While exploration of new hull forms is clearly desirable, over-reliance on specific platforms (such as the HSV), especially in an attempt to demonstrate transformational concepts, is shortsighted. The Defense Science Board considered the stark absence of lighterage and aircraft to move troops and materiel ashore as one of the concept's most compelling deficiencies.13 While a similar Sea Basing study concluded that it is a viable option for the future of expeditionary warfare, it provided the following caveat: "provided a robust aerial throughput capability . . . exists." 14
* Force size/support limitations. Sea Basing advocates plan to use existing aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships as interim Sea Base vessels, but at significant cost to their primary mission. The USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) served admirably during Operation Enduring Freedom, but minus her normal air wing could not accomplish many basic carrier missions. Consider commnd and headquarters functions: While amphibious command ships (LCCs) are ideally suited for staff and headquarters functions, the Navy has only two in commission—the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) and the USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20)—and these cannot serve continually as part of the Sea Base. Similarly, big-deck ships would have to expand staff spaces plus command-and-control capabilities to support a large joint staff headquarters, potentially forfeiting other functions; shipboard space, as we all know, is a zerosum game.
* Transport vulnerability. LCACs can put a significant volume of cargo ashore, but trucks, helicopters, etc., probably will have to move it farther inland—and the shuttle vehicles will require protection. Where will it come from? A Sea Base secure far at sea (references cite distances from 25 to 100 nautical miles) inevitably stretches the lines of communication to inland forces, a weakness exploited by adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
* Susceptibility to adverse weather. Fast, high-volume, at-sea transfer, especially in heavy weather, is difficult, sometimes impossible Current capabilities to move cargo, fuel, troops, and munitions in heavy weather are limited. Extended operational delays caused by bad weather have always plagued operations afloat. Don't bet that new technology will solve this problem.
* Reduced regional trade with the United States. Sea Basing would reduce regional trade, because stores, food, fuel, etc., would presumably come exclusively from the continental United States. This contradicts U.S. policy espousing expanded free trade to promote democracy and violates sound economic principles as more expensive cargo is shipped vast distances.
* Single point vulnerability. The United Kingdom's Operation Corporate in the South Atlantic to recapture the Falklands/Malvinas after their seizure by Argentina emphasized the impact that the loss of a single key logistics vessel can have; for the British, it was almost a showstopper. Major Sea Basing assets could present adversaries with a big bullseye.
* Unproved assertions. That Sea Basing can eliminate the need for shore bases is an open question. Planned capabilities seem rather grandiose—particularly the concept of joint logistics support—given the differences between service systems and the reality that present Navy requirements alone cannot be met.15 The vast armada of shipping required to sustain forces ashore during recent operations in Iraq is a testament to the daunting scope of the logistics tasks that Joint Sea Basing would face. One recent analysis asserted that Sea Basing will expand information-sharing and combat effectiveness with other nations in times of crisis;16 another stated that nations will find it politically and logistically easier to support a seabased effort than to contribute ground forces or to support operations ashore.17 This suggests the Sea Base will serve both allied and U.S. joint forces' logistics requirements,which is a conclusion hard to fathom.
* Continuing need for secure beachheads, ports, and airfields. Sea Basing embraces logistical self-sufficiency, which dictates expanded afloat fuel and stores capabilities. Vessel and force size probably would have to expand to meet such requirements. Even if this were done, it is difficult to see how Sea Basing could eliminate totally the requirement for ports, beachheads, and airfields. "Sea Power 21" describes Sea Basing as an operational-level capability that relies on the strategic basing support of overseas friends and allies outside the joint operations area. It does not devote enough attention to tactical staging ashore.18
* Extended on-station time requirements. Extending onstation time by rotating crews can be a force multiplier, but the concept is predicated on a vessel's capability to remain deployed without shipyard or pier-side maintenance. "Sea Power 21" argues that afloat platforms will perform critical repairs, but does not address the dearth of current or planned Navy maintenance and repair vessels.19 Current ship classes were not designed with extended on-station forward deployments in mind; they will surely deteriorate absent planned maintenance. Crew rotations, while feasible, may dilute unit cohesiveness and thus reduce readiness.
* Sea Base force protection. Defending the Sea Base, especially when its components are dispersed among several ships, will require dedicated escorts, and a recent war game concluded that protecting future strike groups and Sea Bases would require them in large numbers.20 The operational independence of faster combatants tasked with other missions, however, would presumably mean at least temporary separation between Sea Base and strike-group ships. While new ship classes are well suited for Sea Base security, the task could anchor them to it, preventing their use for other missions. Some theorists view Sea Basing force protection as an organic requirement, not distracting other hulls from their primary missions.21 This is hard to imagine without an extensive self-defense suite on each Sea Base unit. Interestingly, the current MPF(F) design has no self-protection capability.22 One must not succumb to the siren song that the U.S. is invulnerable at sea; even the mightiest fleet is vulnerable to decades-old weapons like wake-homing torpedoes and low-technology asymmetric threats: Consider explosive-laden dhows.
* No near-term operational capability. War game scenarios set the fielding of a Sea Base not before 2015;23 the Defense Science Board thinks we could have one by 2020.24
PowerPoint presentations depict Sea Basing as a panacea for fleet and ground force sustainment, but little empirical data suggests it can succeed. Even now, the U.S. fleet is experiencing extended deployments and shortened maintenance and training cycles—literally turning the screws off the ships to meet commitments. Expanding the mission will further strain the force.
In a sense, battlefield victory in Afghanistan and Iraq came too quickly. Casualties were relatively light because of overwhelming Coalition military superiority and the basic toughness of Coalition troops. No one can take that away from them. The U.S. military juggernaut, however, remains vulnerable to irregular forces armed with rocketpropelled grenades and Kalashnikovs—and it depends on a mammoth logistics tail that probably cannot be sustained from the sea.
A candid U.S. Army assessment of the logistics support for ground combat forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom highlighted significant shortages in spare parts, food and water, and even medical supplies, fuel, and ammunition.25 How can a Sea Base hope to succeed where a strong shorebased supply effort had trouble? U.S. decision-makers should consider cheaper, more attainable means to achieve joint/coalition logistics at sea and ashore, to include expanding regional presence and engagement at every opportunity, explaining our motives and goals, and recruiting allies to ensure access in time of crisis. Without access and basing, U.S. forces probably would be required to make a forcible entry. But U.S. leaders who espouse the idea that America can do whatever it pleases at the time and place of its choosing suffer from a misconceived hubris that fails to account for history, military limitations, and the American way of war.
One must consider the overall costs of Sea Bases sufficiently advanced to provide some degree of operational independence to a joint force commander; marketing an unproved capability that promises "all things to all people" is risky business. Transformational arguments aside, U.S. leaders must remain wary of costly or platformcentric answers to age-old challenges such as access, presence, and basing.26 History is replete with illustrations of successful joint/combined warfare based on coalition/alliance-building and friendly regional political and economic relations that ensured regional access and combined support. Lacking such access, the ability of the U.S. military to seize ports, airfields and beachheads to facilitate power projection ashore is an existing, cost-effective contemporary option.
Sea Basing logic, if taken to extremes, suggests that the United States should renounce relationships with foreign partners and regional engagement, sailing instead over the horizon to the solitary sanctuary of international waters. It is naive to think that the answers to our strategic predicaments can be found in technology. Sound diplomacy, strategic statecraft, and the operational art of war are viable means to achieve U.S. aims. Abandoning these principles to chase after the chimera of buzz-word strategy is an invitation to disaster.
1 David Olwell, "Implications of Sea Basing," Naval Postgraduate School Integrated Project Expeditionary Warfare 2002, http://www.nps.navy.mil/sea/exwar/EXECUTIVE%20SUMMARY.doc, 30 June 2004. The author assumes some knowledge of Sea Basing on the part of the reader.
2 VAdm Charles Moore Jr., USN and LtGen Edward Hanlon Jr., USMC, "Sea Basing: Operational Independence for a New Century," Sea Power 21 Series-Part IV, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2003, p. 80 at http://www.usni.org/Proceedings/Articles03/PROseabasing01.htm, 30 June 2004.
3 Cdr. John Patch, USN, "Don't Ignore Sea Control," U.S. Naval Institute Pmceedings, October 2003, p. 40.
4 LCdr John J. Klein, USN and Maj. Rich Morales, USA, "Sea Basing Isn't Just about the Sea," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2004, p. 32. The authors assert, "If we were to eliminate our land-based presence in favor of sea-based forces, our allies might grow even more wary of our perceived 'go it alone' attitude."
5 A Defense Science Board official recently stated "Coming up with funds to pay for these new ships and aircraft will take a 'miracle.'" see Sandra I. Erwin, "Military Bases at Sea: No Longer Unthinkable " National Defense Magazine, January 2004, http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/article.cfm7Id-131I, 30 June 2004.
6 AMI International, "The New Priority of the USN: Sea Basing," http://www.amiinter.com/seabasing.html, 30 June 2004.
7 Otto Kreisher, "Sea Basing," Air Force Magazine, July 2004, http://www.afa.org/magazine/july2004/0704sea.asp, 30 Aug 2004. The U.S. Marine Corps hopes to acquire up to 24 Sea Basing vessels.
8 Office of Naval Research, "Navy Learns A Few Lessons: An ONR Expeditionary Logistics War Game," 30 October 2004 at http://www.onr.navy.mil/media/release_display.asp?ID=145, 30 June 2004.
9 U.S. Senate, Senate S2259, DoD Appropriations Bill for FY 2005 (23 June 2004), htlp://rpc.senate.gov/_files/L43DoDApprop062304JG.pdf, 30 July 30 2004.
10 AMI International, op. cit.
11 Hunter Keeter, "Marine Corps Sea Base Effort Inspires Joint-Service Cooperation," Navy League, Seapower (June 2004), at http://www.navyleague.org/sea_power/jun_04_14.php, 10 July 2004.
12 Kreisher, op. cit.
13 George Cahlink, "Navy Eyes New Kinds of 'Connectors' Between Sea Bases, Forces Ashore," Navy League, Seapower, June 2004, http://www.navyleague.org/sea_power/jun_04_18.php, 15 June 2004.
14 Olwell, op. cit.
15 Navy Warfare Development Command, "Sea Basing," http://www.nwdc.navy.mil/Concepts/SeaBasing.aspx, 30 June 2004.
16 Clark, op. cit.
17 Moore and Hanlon.
18 Adm. Vern Clark, USN, "Sea Power 21 Series-Part 1: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2002, http://www.usni.org/Proceedings/Articles02/proCNO10.htm, 30 June 2004.
19 Clark, op. cit.
20 Olwell, op. cit.
21 Colonel Art Corbett, U.S. Marine Corps, and Colonel Vince Goulding, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), "Sea Basing: What's New?," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2002, http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_Sea_ 1102.00.htm, 15 August 2004.
22 Sandra I. Erwin, "Military Bases at Sea: No Longer Unthinkable," National Defense Magazine (January 2004) at http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/article.cfm?Id=1311, 5 August 2004.
23 Office of Naval Research, Sea Basing Wargames, http://www.onr.navy.mil/sci_tech/special/353_exped/sbw.htm, 30 July 2004.
24 Kreisher, op. cit.
25 David Zucchino, "Report says troops in Iraq prevailed despite supply, equipment issues," Los Angeles Times, 4 July 2004, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2001971861_supplies03.html, 30 July 2004.
26 John A. Gentry, "Doomed to Fail: America's Blind Faith in Military Technology," Parameters, Winter 2002-03, p. 88 at http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/02winter/gentry.htm, 02 August 2004. The author argues that over-reliance by the United States on technology and gadgetry to the detriment of human factors will eventually spell military defeat against a competent, determined adversary.
Cdr. Patch, a former Surface Warfare Officer, is a Naval Intelligence Officer with the U.S. Central Command. He deployed afloat with the command during Operation Enduring Freedom and then served with its forward headquarters in Qatar for Operation Iraqi Freedom.