For the past two decades U.S. naval power has not been directly challenged by another nation. The Navy’s ability to conduct large-scale operations and sustain forces overseas has been unparalleled. It is less certain whether the Navy will remain dominant throughout the present decade. It may face asymmetric challenges rather than a peer force in the classical Mahanian model of naval competition. Such challenges could well include shifts in foreign-policy objectives and result in shortfalls in the effectiveness of our naval power.
During the 20th century America’s interests became global. Will the high cost of sustaining such interests overshadow the necessity of meeting financial and social obligations in the United States? How will this affect America’s foreign policy?
In his speech to the Detroit Economic Club on 27 August 2010, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen addressed the same point, going so far as to call U.S. debt the greatest threat to national security.1
This is a critical consideration for our Navy. Will it be compelled to reduce forces and restrict regional engagements to fit within the construct of a “frugal superpower,” as author and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman predicts?2 As he glibly stated in his commentary, “See how you like a world of too little American power—because it is coming to geopolitical theater near you.”
Friedman cites the heavy debt burden the United States must confront, increasing from about 4 percent of total American output to about 18 percent. The financial demands will compel American political leadership to seek foreign-policy commitments that cost and do less. The net result may be a more dangerous world.
So, what does “do less” mean to the Navy?
There is no clear program for how to tailor the U.S. Navy to meet security challenges at all levels of threat and still do less. There are those who offer reduction schemes. The recent report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force refers to a “restraint strategy” that proposes to:
• Build and operate fewer aircraft carriers and associated air wings;
• Operate fewer ballistic missile submarines;
• Build and operate fewer tactical submarines, destroyers, and littoral combat ships;
• Reduce the number of expeditionary strike groups; and
• Cancel future maritime prepositioning ships.3
Determined advocates for American sea power may choose to dismiss all of these ideas, but Friedman and others present a compelling argument that the Navy will have to find a way to do the job with less.
Beyond force structure and force modernization, the Navy may face reductions in forward deployments. Imagine the impact to security strategy when U.S. 7th Fleet amphibious assets and their Marine ground and air component no longer base in the Japanese archipelago. What if that decision was not even subject to the current political confusion in Japan, but was made in the Pentagon to retrench costs and recover the cash flow of payroll and logistics in the U.S. economy?
Alliances and collaboration with regional partners may be reduced to a cost-benefit balance sheet. This underscores the potential for asymmetry between foreign-policy demands and the naval forces available. In short, there is the risk that the Navy may not be in the right place at the right time with the right forces to achieve American foreign-policy objectives.
Asymmetric Warfare with China and Iran
The risk of destabilizing the relationship between policy and naval assets would result in much greater success for asymmetric warfare. China and Iran are considered to present serious challenges to the effectiveness of U.S. sea power missions. Great attention is being paid to China’s naval modernization and evolving anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and it is pursuing asymmetric capabilities.4 However, considering the extent to which China and the United States are mutually interested in maintaining political stability and improving economic development, China may seek peer status with our Navy, striving for transregional reach to assure its access to and protection of resources.
Iran could be the biggest beneficiary and threat in the context of future naval warfare. Asymmetry has been part of its naval warfare doctrine since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. It embodies both its revolutionary principles and its historical objective of geographical dominance over the Persian Gulf.
During that war, Iran’s maritime operations consisted of successful attacks on merchants and a failed blue-water campaign against the U.S. Navy. Attacks on merchant traffic were carried out by the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy small boats with naval gunfire support from IRIN combatants, coastal defense missile batteries, and naval mines. The latter accounted for the majority of damage to vessels, including the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) on 14 April 1988.
The U.S. Navy responded to the incident by attacking IRIN forces under Operation Praying Mantis. Consisting of littoral combatants purchased during the shah’s reign, the IRIN attempted to mount a counterattack, which U.S. air superiority, advanced weapons, and coordinated tactics thwarted. The defeat of the IRIN shook its self-confidence.
When Tehran realized that it could not sustain successful littoral or blue-water operations against the U.S. Navy, it adopted asymmetrical warfare. The successes of its small-boat attacks legitimatized such warfare as a viable low-cost strategy.
Using fast-attack craft, Iran has refined successful swarm tactics—evolved into elaborate detect-to-engage sequences—as the basis of its naval strategy for combating and deterring U.S. naval operations in the gulf. The detection phase begins with Iran’s network of coastal-surveillance sites, which provide overlapping coverage of the maritime operational picture. Small-profile, lower-signature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer further capability for classifying targets and over-the-horizon targeting. Such targeting provides the third-party data required to use bearing-only missile launches from its landward antiship cruise-missile sites.
Collections conducted by friendly merchant traffic and intelligence vessels posing as such can visually identify, classify, and paint targets, aiding the employment of the missile sites. Unconventional midget submarines may be known for their collections capabilities, but primarily would perform combat operations. The submarines could covertly lay mines and conduct naval special-warfare operations. Special forces teams inserted on merchants using the submarines would turn the vessels into suicide ships.
The primary asymmetric weapon Iran may employ is the missile-armed fast-attack craft. Equipped with missiles with ranges to their horizon, these vessels could disable the defenses of a warship and close in a matter of minutes. Lightly armed high-speed craft would assist, distracting the warship, driving it into the missile-armed craft or disrupting its situational awareness. Once the warship was crippled, the lightly armed craft would close and destroy it.
The procurement of modern military technology allows Iran to collect and classify contacts while eluding detection, employ firepower to weaken shipboard defensive systems at standoff ranges, and finally achieve close-in destruction. Concealment, mobility, and superior situational awareness give Iran first-strike capability.
Countertactics and Technologies
Has the U.S. Navy done enough to prepare surface combatants for Iran’s asymmetric doctrine? U.S. ships have been armed with self-defense weaponry that can only be employed inside the threat’s firing range. The Navy has limited capability to classify and engage the threat outside its weapon-release range. Navy ships should incorporate asymmetric capabilities. Surface combatants must be able to identify, anticipate, preempt, and defeat irregular threats. Augmenting ships with UAVs and UUV will allow them to determine the threat and respond before an attack.
Remotely operated vehicle systems already support surface combatants. Armed with sensors, they have assisted in providing over-the-horizon surveillance allowing ships to assess contacts. Still, systems such as Boeing’s low-cost ScanEagle UAV can provide limited collection on contacts.
Stationing a squadron of vertical launch and takeoff UAVs capable of carrying various payloads would permit ships to classify and prosecute these threats outside the vital area. Employing several that contain signals collection, radar, and additional early-warning sensors can extend the detection range of a ship. Once an unknown or possible hostile contact is detected, UAVs could be vectored in for visual identification. If this cannot determine the intent of the contact, UAVs could employ nonlethal weapons such as flares, lasers, and high-frequency noise, which would quickly determine the contact’s intent. Thus the UAVs would be building an accurate operational maritime picture for a surface combatant and give it time to react to the potential threat.
Once a contact is declared hostile, UAVs such as Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout could eliminate the threat. These aircraft have the endurance and payload capacity to support a ship transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) could also support a transit through the strait. As in the case of UAVs, several would be required to be attached to the surface combatant. Their primary mission would be to conduct remote clandestine surveillance. The Sea Stalker, a torpedo-size underwater robot, could locate, exploit, and collect data on the particular contact including submarines, before the surface combatant begins its transit.
UUVs also could be employed to conduct mine warfare and antisubmarine operations. Sensors could conduct bottom mapping, grid lay-down, and active/passive and influence sweeps. Support from UUV sensors combined with combatant capabilities creates a comprehensive undersea picture. UUVs could prosecute both mines and submerged vessel declared to have hostile intent outside of their firing range.
There are many reasons to believe that the United States will continue to be challenged to provide the global capabilities that the Navy embraces today. This risks a conflict between foreign-policy and security objectives and a markedly reduced naval capability. This mismatch will ultimately encourage regional actors to increase their asymmetric warfare capabilities. Are we doing as much as we should to win an asymmetrical conflict at sea?
2. “Superbroke, Superfrugal, Superpower?” Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, 4 September 2010.
3. Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward, Project for Defense Alternatives, 11 June 2010.
4. Air Sea Battle—A Point of Departure Operational Concept, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010.