As we reach the end of another year we thought we’d try to peer into the future and see what might be looming on the horizon for America’s Sea Services. To do so, many of our authors this month found it helpful to look to the past. History (along with hard-won experience) is often the best teacher. Sometimes you can’t know where you’re going without first understanding where you’ve been.
We start off this issue by checking up on an erstwhile adversary. For decades the Soviet Union’s military might preoccupied the United States and its NATO allies. With the end of the Cold War and the emphasis on irregular warfare and asymmetric threats since 9/11, Russia has slipped off the radar of many defense planners. Increasing concern over China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities has also contributed to this shift in focus. But nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum—and perhaps the same can be said of naval strategy. As retired Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn admonishes, the U.S. Navy’s “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific theater at the expense of the former Cold-War-frontline Mediterranean Sea is providing the opportunity for a phoenix-like Russian Navy to set its sights on, and beef up its presence in, this still-crucial corner of the global chessboard. With Russia having announced its intention of creating a permanent Mediterranean naval task force, Captain Fedyszyn advises that “American strategy would do well to consider the Mediterranean not a European subregion, but rather the nexus of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe.”
As the late radio personality Paul Harvey was fond of saying: “In times likes these, it’s helpful to remember there have always been times like these.” So with all the hand-wringing over China’s potential to limit access to the Pacific region, we would do well to remember this isn’t something new for the U.S. Navy. Although more than six decades separate the events in question, the history books seem to suggest that Imperial Japan’s strategy for fighting the Navy and contemporary China’s A2/AD tactics in maritime Asia have much in common. Both interwar Japan and modern-day China relied on innovative doctrines and technologies to give their nations a chance from a disadvantaged position. Naval War College professor Toshi Yoshihara believes that “interwar Japan is a powerful proxy for understanding China’s current anti-access program and for illustrating the universal appeal of anti-access. Such a historic analogy helps to see past the veneer of novelty around China’s anti-access efforts.”
Meanwhile, closer to home, the recent budget mess and the specter of impending cuts have complicated the Navy’s attempts to establish a future force structure, and the shipbuilding industry is just one of many to feel the effects. Naval shipbuilding is a costly endeavor. Furthermore, it’s a fragile enterprise, vulnerable to economic downturns that can lead to halting construction or laying off key personnel, both causes of irreparable industry deterioration. Examining case studies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, retired Navy Captain John L. Birkler and fellow RAND researchers John Schank, Mark Arena, Jessie Riposo, and Gordon Lee argue that in order for shipbuilding to stay viable over the long term, it cannot be allowed to languish due to the loss of trained workers, facility closures and their money-draining reopenings, or canceling or lengthening programs. “It is crucially important that decision makers inside and outside government address these industrial-base challenges and develop plans to preserve vital capabilities that might otherwise be lost,” they warn.
Beyond maintaining this valuable industrial base, “the acquisition of ships, ship systems, and aircraft is a succinct statement of the country’s strategic interests,” retired Rear Admiral William J. Holland Jr. reminds us. He takes us on a fascinating and even provocative journey back to the Cold War and reveals what took place behind the scenes when military leadership turned its collective undivided attention toward how best to deter and in the end, defeat, the Soviet Union and, in particular, its navy. “Technical developments directly reflected ongoing operations and thereby influenced both submarine acquisition and the strategy for their use,” he explains, and this led to the origins of the Seawolf class. Advanced capabilities allowed the Navy to conceive new ways of fighting its Soviet counterpart, and these concepts were incorporated into what would become the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s.
Finally, while American politicians and military leaders are loath to discuss—much less admit to conducting—nation-building, Captain David Adams writes that historically it has been a central military mission, particularly for the Navy. While the country may be weary from fighting an extended counterinsurgency in two theaters, we need to recognize that nation-building operations must be a critical component of our national-security strategy. Looking back at successful U.S. and British nation-building experiences demonstrates how uniquely suited navies can be for these exercises, Adams contends.