It’s been an eventful 12 months for the Sea Services, and as we do every May, we pause to review the many notable accomplishments of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard during the past year while at the same time scanning the horizon for any new challenges lying in wait. At times it seems those challenges are never-ending, whether they be potential adversaries overseas or the more immediate, everyday issues our armed forces face as they adapt to leaner times and longer to-do lists.
The Navy’s surface fleet in particular has been hard-pressed. Its mission set has grown while its numbers have decreased, and this has taken a toll on readiness. Addressing this critical shortcoming was the responsibility of Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy. When he took over Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in 2008, he found that the Aegis cruisers and destroyers had suffered ten years of maintenance lapses, and he immediately set out on what he calls his “journey” to find out why and what could be done about it. As NAVSEA’s chief engineer, Admiral McCoy had worked mostly on submarines and aircraft carriers and never saw the kinds of problems the guided-missile ships were having. So why not incorporate the same practices from the submarines and carriers into the surface fleet? In an interview with Proceedings, the admiral lays out what he and his team did for the past five years, efforts bolstered by the findings of the 2010 report of the Fleet Review Panel headed by retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle, and the brighter future he sees for the surface ships that will be fulfilling the increasingly critical ballistic-missile-defense mission.
Those ships, and the sailors that man them, will have their hands full, from the Far East to the Middle East. “A struggle is under way for mastery of Asia,” notes regular Proceedings contributor and Navy Reserve Commander Thomas G. Mahnken. “Its course and outcome will be vital to the security of the United States, our allies, and other states in the region.” In terms of forces and strategy, the United States is ill-prepared to address the challenges in the Pacific, and if war were to erupt with a peer competitor such as China, it would most likely be protracted and costly. To prepare for such a conflict, the country must adopt a “forward-leaning” strategy that balances the need to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. forces while maintaining our commitments.
But China isn’t the only foe that would give the United States a protracted and costly fight. As tensions with Iran continue to simmer, Commander Daniel Dolan and Professor Ronald Oard, instructors at the Naval War College, speculate on what might be in store for the United States if it tries to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear-weapons aspirations. Citing examples from the Vietnam War, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia (Operation Allied Force) and Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, the authors paint a picture that should give pause to advocates of bombing Iran.
Were such conflicts to actually take place, they would no doubt begin with carrier-based aircraft playing a vital strike role. That means putting the major assets of the Fleet, the aircraft carriers, within range of Chinese missiles or Iranian swarm boats. Is there another way? Navy Commander Phillip Pournelle thinks so. “More than two decades into the missile age,” he observes, “a new breed of weapons has emerged that will greatly change the way we fight.” The rise of autonomous attack systems, he notes, marks the next step in the “Precision Strike Regime” and heralds not so much the end of the aircraft carrier as a shift in its priorities—a shift that, ironically, returns the vessel type to its long-abandoned, originally intended purpose—that of combat scouting for the Fleet, but one now composed of what the author has termed “missile carriers.”
As always with the Naval Review issue, a special thanks to all those contributors who go the extra distance to bring us the latest developments within the Sea Services: Scott Truver; Robert Holzer; Joe DiRenzo; Chris Doane; Commander Jan Jacobs, U.S. Navy (Retired); Lieutenant Colonel John Berry Jr., U.S. Marine Corps (Retired); Shashi Kumar; and Sam Morison. It’s a year-long process of compiling the information from various sources and then several months to write it up—all while working their normal day jobs! I think I can speak for our readers when I say it’s highly valued and much appreciated.