In all the debating over budget cuts and what force size is right for the United States, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these numbers games represent real capabilities retained or lost. You often can’t appreciate the true worth of something until you don’t have it anymore. In any crisis, naval forces are usually first on the scene because, well, they’re already there. That is certainly true of the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups; there is always one nearby when the President needs one. The value of persistence and presence was brought home powerfully again in mid-August as the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) launched air strikes against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria around the Mosul Dam complex.
Now the strategic refocus on the Pacific has concomitantly led to a refocus on the carrier strike group’s immense importance in that theater—as shown by the Navy’s newly developed Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept. Veteran defense journalist and frequent USNI News contributor Dave Majumdar provides a detailed look at this new battle-network construct with all its pros, cons, and controversies. Is the NIFC-CA effort “merely a way to provide a justification for existing programs rather than a genuine effort to tackle the real challenges to the carrier’s relevance in future wars,” as some are arguing? Even if you buy into it, Majumdar notes, NIFC-CA still will need some refinement to come to full fruition—and jointness, as so often is the case, is part of the prescription. “While the concept has merits,” writes Majumdar, “there are also some fundamental flaws—the NIFC-CA effort lacks any meaningful cooperation with the U.S. Air Force and could be vulnerable to enemy electronic or cyber warfare.”
Keeping strike groups properly supplied and replenished, whether by sea or air, so they can be ready when and where needed, is vital. For the past 60 years, the venerable C-2A Greyhound has reliably fulfilled the Navy’s carrier on-board delivery (COD) mission. But today the youngest aircraft is 24 years old, meaning the fleet will have to start being replaced in 2020. As the service ponders the future role of the COD, three options have been floated: modernize the Greyhound, switch to the V-22 Osprey, or return to the S-3 Viking. Dr. Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, argues that the decision should not be based on cost alone; it must take into account the strategic considerations of Navy operations in the years ahead.
Maintaining presence and capability is also an ongoing concern for the Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance (MPR) force. The MPR’s typical pattern is to train stateside squadrons, cycle them through a forward operating area, and then demobilize them when they return. However, Lieutenant Michael Glynn believes there’s another way to maintain the same presence while being mindful of budgetary concerns: the permanent deployment of four forward-based squadrons. “This force structure would ensure identical forward presence and support to combatant commanders while affording deep savings,” he argues. “Significant cost reductions could be made by minimizing active personnel costs and eliminating the need to train, mobilize, deploy, demobilize, and learn a completely new theater and set of threats.” Better yet, these funds could be reallocated to purchase new platforms, sensors, and weapons for the Fleet.
As the Navy seeks to meet the increasing challenges of the 21st century, a look back at its history can provide guidance on what to do (and not do). Commander Phillip Pournelle, a frequent Proceedings contributor, reminds us of the importance of preparation, even in the face of an uncertain future. The Navy did this quite well in the years after World War I, cultivating an iterative cycle of war games, analyses, and exercises that paved the way for victory in World War II. The Cycle of Research clearly has held us in good stead before, Pournelle observes, and therein lies a lesson for the current force: “We urgently need to revive that process today to help us prepare for future political-military-economic competitions.”
Captain David Adams is troubled by the Navy’s recent refocus on large-scale conventional war at sea, writing that “this siren’s song draws our Fleet to rocky strategic shoals by reinforcing our service’s deep reticence to navigate the messy, complex dimensions of irregular wars. Just as we would like to put such wars in our rearview mirror, the dawn of irregular warfare is breaking across maritime horizons.” Revisiting the lessons from then-Lieutenant Niel Golightly’s 1990 prizewinning Proceedings essay, Captain Adams cautions today’s naval planners against repeating Golightly’s three strategic mistakes—all of which overlook the realities of irregular warfare. The Navy’s most necessary pivot is neither geographic nor geopolitical, he believes, but rather “it is to alter our operational construct to confront the maritime implications of the evolving character of war.”