Is all the recent commotion over America’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific much ado about nothing, or is there substance to President Barack Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance? This is the fundamental question the Department of Defense—and more narrowly, the Sea Services—must answer as we draw down from a decade of sustained combat operations. A lack of substantive action will only serve to undermine America’s credibility with its allies and partners, not just in the Asia-Pacific, but globally. Without meaningful, deliberate, and visible efforts to reinforce long-standing alliances, forge new partnerships, reset and recapitalize the joint force, and invest in new capabilities, our adversaries will only be emboldened to challenge American interests and upset the geostrategic balance in the region.
We cannot overlook the fact that the United States is executing this transition against a backdrop of extreme fiscal constraints and amid what is perhaps the most acrimonious political landscape in recent memory. As such, the challenges are many and opportunities few for DOD to succeed in this context without hollowing the joint force in the process. While this strategy will require an investment in all elements of our national power, we must specifically address the obstacles faced by the Navy and Marine Corps in adequately resourcing and executing the strategy.
Shangri-La Is Still Elusive
At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta emphasized a set of four shared principles that would form the framework for American engagement in the region. He broadly defined these four concepts as follows: adherence to international rules and order, partnerships, presence, and force projection.1 While partnerships are certain to feature prominently for the Navy–Marine Corps team under this strategy, two of those shared principles—presence and force projection—are worth further scrutiny, considering DOD’s resource limitations as they relate to the Navy and Marine Corps. Properly resourcing the Department of the Navy to adequately uphold these two principles will ultimately provide the foundation for lasting and effective partnerships in the Asia-Pacific.
First, regarding presence, the geographic scope of the region is one of its defining characteristics. Simply put, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean begets long transit times from traditional U.S. homeports and broad distribution of our Fleet to secure our interests. Although today’s Navy clearly punches far above its weight relative to the fleets operated by our forebears, the numbers don’t lie. The argument that today’s networked battle force as a whole “is greater than the sum of its parts” is compelling to a point. Navy Under Secretary Bob Work articulated this thesis very effectively in May’s edition of Proceedings, observing: “The heart of the National Fleet is a Navy–Marine Corps team that is transforming itself from an organization focused on platforms to a total-force battle network that interconnects sensors, manned and unmanned platforms with modular payloads, combat systems, and network-enabled weapons, as well as tech-savvy, combat-tested people into a cohesive fighting force.”2
However, one cannot overlook the fact that physical presence equates to ships, submarines, aircraft, and our Marines and sailors on station on the high seas, showing the flag in foreign ports and engaged in exercises with our allies and partners throughout the region. That presence not only demands considerable investment from the Department of the Navy and Congress toward modernizing and recapitalizing the Fleet, it requires careful stewardship of American taxpayer investments made in years past.
The increasing frequency of deployments exceeding seven months is just one symptom of a Fleet already stretched thin. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert publicly stated in response to questions about sustained deployments of this length: “If we continue through, if you will, the next five years, at the pace we are at today, the answer . . . is no, we can’t run at that rate.”3 Yet the CNO recently signaled that the trend toward longer deployments is not set to subside in the near term: “When I look at the plan, our commitment, and the force out there, and as we’ve told our folks out there, you can anticipate about a seven- to seven-month, 15-day deployment in the future.”4
Further exacerbating this problem, and by the Navy’s own testimony, are the budget-driven decisions to retire seven cruisers and two amphibious landing ships well before the end of their projected service lives. In addition, the delayed procurement of an LHA-class amphibious ship and a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) will only hamstring our ability to meet mission requirements in the western Pacific. Without properly resourcing our Navy and Marine Corps as they rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, we undertake significant risk. That equates to burning out our assets more rapidly, gapping essential mission requirements, and most important, expending our most precious resource: our sailors and Marines who will be forced to cope with longer and longer deployments and ever more demanding maintenance requirements for their aging platforms.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
The unfortunate reality is that today’s Navy numbers 285 battle-force ships, and while the Fleet is set to grow under the current 30-year shipbuilding plan to a total of 300 by the end of the decade, it will remain insufficient to meet the demands of our combatant commanders (COCOMs). In public testimony before Congress, the Navy has stated that it would need a Fleet sized at 500 ships to meet the validated demands of our COCOMs. Trends in the global-security environment, most especially in the Pacific Command (PACOM) area of responsibility, clearly indicate that these demands will not subside in the immediate future. Indeed, COCOM appetite for naval assets has only increased in the past six years, from 20,068 operational days requested in Fiscal Year 2007 to 32,915 in FY12.
While we should be careful not to overuse the Soviet mantra “quantity has a quality all its own,” dismissing potential wartime battle losses and rationalizing a smaller Fleet size is a foolhardy gamble for the Navy and the nation. As naval scholar James Holmes astutely observed in a recent blog posting: “History is unkind to sea powers that invent fudge factors—golly-gee technology, tactical mastery, indomitable élan—to explain away numerical shortfalls. The interwar Imperial Japanese Navy had boundless faith in Japanese seafarers’ resolve and tactical virtuosity. Commanders talked themselves into believing that these intangibles would negate superior U.S. Navy numbers.”5
While a 500-ship Navy is neither an attainable nor a realistic near-term goal, Navy and Marine Corps leadership must turn a critical eye toward the future composition of the Fleet and innovative platform employment to meet core mission requirements of deterrence, forward presence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. Of particular concern are projected shortfalls in the Fleet workhorses: SSNs, guided-missile cruisers (CGs), and guided-missile destroyers (DDGs). Since 2006 the Navy has consistently advocated the need for a minimum of 48 SSNs to meet COCOM demands, although this number ranged as high as 55 in both the 1999 Joint Chiefs of Staff study on future requirements for SSNs, and the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
Current force-structure projections show a decade-long SSN shortfall, peaking at five boats in the late 2020s. Untoward events such as the USS San Francisco (SSN-711) grounding in 2005, the USS Port Royal (CG-73) grounding in 2009, the USS Hartford (SSN-768) collision with the USS New Orleans (LPD-18) in 2009, the USS Miami (SSN-755) fire at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in May of this year, and the USS Porter’s (DDG-78) August collision with an oil tanker just outside the Strait of Hormuz highlight that current Fleet size leaves us with effectively no margin for error to lose front-line warships for three to five years of unanticipated repairs. In addition, the Navy has revised its stated cruiser/destroyer force-level goal downward from a high of 94 to 90 in the latest 30-year shipbuilding plan.
This wrongheaded approach still leaves shortfall peaks of 10–12 ships both in the near term (2013–2016) and out-years (2030s). Reduced force structure coupled with unanticipated accidents (which are an unfortunate fact of life in the inherently dangerous business of operating warships at sea) will only increase the pressure on the remainder of the Fleet, resulting in extended deployments, reduced at-home dwell time, and the deferment of required maintenance.
Little New Power Poised in the Pacific
In terms of force projection, Secretary Panetta announced that the 60/40 distribution of naval assets between Pacific and Atlantic would be expanded beyond the submarine fleet (as articulated in the 2006 QDR) to carriers and surface combatants. While the higher Pacific presence that may result from this force-structure distribution is a step in the right direction, Panetta is largely taking credit for existing force posture. The 2007 maritime strategy (A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower) called for “credible combat power [that will] will be continuously postured in the Western Pacific.”
If one analyzes current Fleet distribution (speaking of major combatants, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers [CVNs], DDGs, CGs, and SSNs), it becomes clear that the shift toward 60/40 allocation of assets has been under way for more than half a decade. In fact, the Navy will not add a single SSN or CVN to the Pacific Fleet from now until 2020 (the SSN inventory remains flat at 32, while CVNs will number 6). Moreover, careful scrutiny of the administration’s plans shows that in rebalancing the remainder of the Fleet to the Asia-Pacific, none of the increase in ships assigned to the Pacific Fleet can be attributed to vessels commonly thought of as high-end combat platforms.
At the same time, to sustain its commitment to mission requirements in Central Command and the Indian Ocean, the Navy will need to maintain East Coast force structure because of shorter transit times to this still-relevant area of responsibility. To accomplish this restructuring of Fleet assets to the Pacific, the Navy is homeporting littoral combat ships (LCSs), joint high-speed vessels, and amphibious ships while allowing the retirement of numerous high-end warships without their replacement in kind. Appearances matter, and a hollow strategy that simultaneously erodes credible combat power in favor of less-capable vessels signals to allies and adversaries alike that we are lacking in resolve.
It is also important to note that the Navy is relying heavily on future procurements to sustain this force allocation. In this case, the Capitol Hill axiom “all dreams come true outside the Future Years’ Defense Plan (FYDP)” is an apt one, as close analysis reveals the bulk of the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts occurring outside the FYDP. DOD and Congress can only kick the can down the road so far without overburdening future administrations with completely untenable procurement bills. Given the force-structure issues discussed earlier, the Navy will be pressured to rob Peter to pay Paul, ultimately borrowing assets from the Atlantic to meet Pacific Fleet mission requirements. This is a perilous gambit that will leave American and allied interests vulnerable to exploitation.
Resourcing the Rebalance
Ultimately, the Navy’s successful rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will hinge on its ability to meet PACOM demands for Navy and Marine Corps resources in the form of on-station mission days. Those mission requirements will only be satisfied by a balanced Fleet of roughly 346 ships—consistent with the recommendations of the bipartisan independent panel that assessed the 2010 QDR. To properly resource an Asia-Pacific-centered defense strategy, we should commit to building an additional attack submarine each year, with the long-term goal of sustaining a force of 55 submarines.
The Navy should also reconsider its decision to terminate the Zumwalt-class destroyer program at three ships. A revised goal of seven would allow the Navy to sustain two of these capable platforms deployed continually in support of PACOM missions. As the Navy learned with the termination of the Seawolf-class SSN at just three hulls, integrated logistics support for such a small class of warship becomes very costly and difficult, with each platform providing fewer aggregate mission days to the COCOMs over its service life. Finally, we must mitigate the cruiser/destroyer shortfall by increasing the build rate of our DDGs to sustain a fleet of at least 94. These long-term investments will preserve the Fleet’s high-end combat power and ease the burden on the existing force after years of sustained surge.
One of the cornerstone elements of the Navy’s shipbuilding strategy is an increased reliance on the capabilities promised by the LCS. Unfortunately, the desired capabilities and manning construct of the LCS are elusive and need to be reviewed. Furthermore, the logistics required to support this platform will necessitate a fundamental change in the Navy’s approach to LCS employment relative to the rest of the Fleet. I applaud a recent decision by Admiral Greenert to appoint an LCS Council to “drive action across acquisition, requirements, and fleet enterprises of the Navy” and am guardedly optimistic of its success.
The Navy deserves credit for its pursuit of platforms and capabilities such as the Virginia-class SSN and Virginia payload module, the P-8 Poseidon maritime-patrol aircraft, the development of an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike platform, and the broad-area maritime-surveillance unmanned aerial system. Integrated with the AirSea Battle concept, these programs are essential to successfully executing a strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and meeting COCOM demands. However, these initiatives alone are insufficient to address the security challenges presented by the Asia-Pacific, most especially the complicated issue of executing combat operations in anti-access/area-denial environments.
Countering Antiship Missiles
In addition, the Navy, through its offensive antisurface warfare program, will need to field a more capable replacement for the aging Harpoon antiship cruise missile (ASCM). The ultimate result must be an ASCM with much longer range to negate China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy advantage in this area and to address the proliferation of long-range ASCMs in the region. The substantial inventory of mines being held by regional navies should also be cause for concern and targeted investment by the Navy in addressing this very economical threat to our operations in the Asia-Pacific.
It is a well-acknowledged fact that the Navy’s mine-warfare skills have atrophied in recent years, and it will take significant focus from both procurement and training perspectives to address this vulnerability. Finally, as our competitors field stronger anti-satellite capabilities and challenge our dominance in the space domain, the Navy (in concert with the Air Force, which has considerable experience in this realm) must investigate ways to improve the redundancy and survivability of its constellation of communication satellites. Investment in these critical areas and fleshing out new tactics, techniques, and procedures for their employment will be obligatory until Fleet size can be restored and shortfalls rectified in the long term.
In sum, we face an enormous challenge in execution as we prudently rebalance our strategic focus to Asia. Ultimately, we cannot execute a strategy characterized more by rhetoric than investment in the capabilities necessary to accomplish our long-term objectives in the region. In the final analysis, the credibility of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific will be judged not by words. Rather, our allies will evaluate our strategy on the basis of concrete actions taken to equip our military with the tools necessary to serve as an effective instrument of national power that meets the singular challenges the region presents. DOD and Congress must work together to make the tough choices necessary to properly resource this rebalance without eroding the cornerstones of the world’s strongest Navy and Marine Corps. Our regional allies and partners, as well as our sailors and Marines doing the nation’s work above, on, and under the seas and ashore deserve no less.
2. Hon. Robert O. Work, “The Coming Naval Century,” May 2012 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 25.
3. ADM Jonathan Greenert, Navy League 2012 Sea-Air-Space Symposium Q&A, 16 April 2012, www.navytimes.com/news/2012/05/navy-greenert-stressed-fleet-cant-sustain-operational-tempo-050312/.
4. ADM Jonathan Greenert, Pentagon press conference remarks, 27 June 2012, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5072.
5. James Holmes, “U.S. Navy’s Quantity Problem,” The Diplomat, 26 June 2012 http://thediplomat.