'Straight Talk on Forward Presence'

By Captain Robert C. Rubel, U.S. Navy (Retired)

However, if sequestration continues, the name of the emerging naval forward-presence game will be efficiency; extracting precise levels of strategic effect from smaller and perhaps less-capable forces. To quote Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert in his testimony on the effects of sequestration: “We would not increase our global deployed presence, which would remain at today’s level of about 95 ships in 2020. The lethality inherent in this presence, based on ship types deployed, would be less than today’s 95-ship presence.” 2 In order to keep executing the strategy without incurring unanticipated risk, some clear thinking is needed. Following is a proposed framework that would underpin such thinking based on military capability rather than presumed and unmeasurable effects such as deterrence.

A useful method for disciplining thought is to define the arena in which the possibilities for action must occur. In military-planning circles, this is commonly known as a collectively exhaustive list of enemy capabilities (or less important, own courses of action). Although many times aspirational, creating such a list, or perhaps defining terms such as the “spectrum of conflict,” means that all possibilities for action or for definition are contained within it, reducing the tendency for metaphysical or euphemistic thinking. In the case of naval forward presence we will establish a forward-presence capability available in a particular area, ranging from immediately available, war-winning forces down to “virtual presence,” meaning no actual forces are on scene. By parsing various levels in the spectrum we can create a basis for calculating minimum essential forces given national strategic objectives and acceptable risk. While we can discuss such a framework openly in Proceedings as a matter of general professional dialogue, actual planning based on it would need to be highly classified, with public pronouncements being euphemistic, as they are now.

War-Winning Power Forward

Dispensing with terms such as “dominance” and “overwhelming,” we will define the strongest forward force posture as that calculated to defeat the local adversary outright. Categorizing this force in such a way is of some historical interest, because it was one of the options that emerged in the development of the 2007 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) . 3 Associated with a presumed national grand strategy of maintaining U.S. primacy, the war-winning option was meant to reduce risk in two key theaters (East Asia and the Middle East) but also to have enhanced deterrence and dissuasion effects. In the process of writing and staffing the document, this option was toned down and euphemized to become “combat credible forces.”

Deterrence and dissuasion aside, at least three issues are problematic with such a force definition and structure. First, not knowing in advance what a war would be about exactly, how would we know what it would take to win it? Second, the other services would be involved, and the effects of their contributions, presumably in synergistic cooperation with the Navy, would be hard to calculate, leading to a form of overkill and thus inefficiency in terms of naval forces calculated to be necessary. Finally, large force aggregations tend to have catalytic effects, not the least of which is the stimulation of reactions on the part of potential adversaries, such as renewed efforts to counteract that force. This results in security dilemmas. There are of course gradations of such a force structure, but the insight we get is that more is not necessarily better.

Assured Defense. The 2003 Iraq invasion aside, the United States is generally a status-quo power, meaning that our policy is that current borders (Crimea being a current exception) are legitimate. Our fundamental military objective is defense of existing borders of allies when they are threatened. Thus our second level of forward force aggregation is that which is sufficient to conduct a successful defense of threatened allies. Some of this is land-oriented, but there are several naval scenarios, the most challenging being Taiwan. As with war-winning power forward, several problems arise with using this as a basis for force/risk calculations.

First, force-level calculation depends significantly on how well the attacked ally fights or is expected to fight. Second, it must not be a static structure and doctrine, because a motivated aggressor will design around it. Third, this structure might also have adverse side effects. Allies would be tempted to “free ride;” they might also adopt policies more provoking to potential aggressors than if the U.S. defensive umbrella were not present. Finally, as with a war-winning force, its purpose might be misinterpreted as offensive and could thus generate security dilemmas.

Delay/Disruption. The next level down is a force sufficiently strong to prevent an aggressor from achieving a quick fait accompli, and able to keep the fight going until surge forces from the United States arrive. There are a number of advantages to this kind of force. First, it does not require the numbers needed by the first two levels of force. Second, the logic of disruption puts the United States in the position of designing around an enemy force rather than the other way around. This is a considerable advantage that has not been fully appreciated by a U.S. military that is accustomed to being dominant.

Moreover, a smaller force size might reduce the tendency of allies to free ride and would be less likely to have adverse catalytic effects. More risk, however, is associated with this force. In the event of a fight, we can expect losses and the enemy to make some gains. Its very logic means that quick victories either way are not in the cards, with all the potential for escalation (assuming the fight is against a major, nuclear-armed power) that brings. Such a force must be constructed carefully to avoid sending a message of weakness.

Trip Wire. In areas where the consequences of aggression aren’t so dire, smaller symbolic forces can be used—in the event of aggression, ordering these forces to get involved, or if they are attacked preemptively, provide the United States with a casus belli so it can surge major forces into the area. This option could be executed in several ways. The first is to do it with battle-force units such as individual Arleigh Burke –class destroyers. The other is to use small units like littoral combat ships (LCSs), joint high-speed vessels, or perhaps auxiliaries.

Of course, the lethality of small units can be increased with the installation of various kinds of missiles. However, despite the advisability of up-gunning LCSs and other types, a danger arises in outsized claims of capability to justify investments. This could lead to unclear euphemistic thinking, and planners might fail to detect when force reductions or shifts in technology turn what are meant to be disruption forces into trip wires. Expecting disruptive performance from trip-wire forces is unrealistic and a fundamental error in policy, strategy, and planning. It is in this area where terms like “dynamic tasking” and “credible deterrence” come into play. As policy pronouncements they may have utility, but behind the scenes the thinking must be very clear about what constitutes a disruptive force and what is simply a trip wire. Counting on a few ships with advanced technology, especially defensive systems, to make up the difference between disruption and trip wire is a dangerous game.

Virtual Presence. Here again, at the bottom of our presence apparatus, we have an option that was briefly considered (and quickly rejected) during CS21 development. Associated with the grand-strategy option of offshore balancing (as we defined it during the project), the Navy would adopt an almost exclusively surge posture. This would be especially true if the service decided to invest all its resources in large combatants and had no small vessels to act as trip wires. The advantage to this option is that it would in theory maximize Fleet combat readiness and cost the least to execute. Any deployments not associated with crisis and war would be episodic. The United States would rely on policy pronouncements and overall force size, character, and readiness to have deterrent effects.

Randomized Deployments. Part of the original logic of the Fleet Response Program was to break the predictability of station-keeping and introduce uncertainty for potential aggressors. In theory, randomizing, or at least breaking the pattern of deployments, would provide deterrence with fewer forces. Whether or not deterrence is enhanced, the net military effect is that none of the functions in the options here can be reliably performed. If forces happen to be in the right place at the right time, they can function as either trip wires or disruption forces depending on their strength and capabilities relative to the enemy and the situation. However, the logic of such deployments is based on creating uncertainty in the minds of potential aggressors, not on having an assured capability in a specific place at a specific time.

Since deterrence is a presumed effect on the minds of others with whom communication is limited, any deployment scheme based solely on randomization is essentially a faith-based exercise. Randomized deployments are better than no deployments if we want to increase the odds that some forces might be readily available in case of natural disaster or other crises, but the reality is that they cannot be considered the basis for maintaining a true military capability forward in particular areas. It is in this arena that a term like dynamic tasking can work mischief if we are not careful and do not have a clear idea in the background exactly what strategic functions must be performed.


U.S. naval forward presence has been about more than deterrence and defense; it has served to reassure allies, build trust and confidence, provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and more generally (if not an explicit task) condition the world to the routine presence of U.S. naval forces in the seas around Eurasia and the other continents. While these are all worthwhile tasks, they have mostly been spinoff functions of combat forces deployed forward for defense and deterrence purposes. One analyst attempted to calculate the return on investment of naval forward presence in positive terms related in part to engagement, but was forced to admit that it could not be done. 4 This points up the inherent difficulty with attempting to define a list of engagement levels as we have done with defense capability.

Engagement is best regarded as an investment, whether a useful spinoff function of having defense capability forward, or a strategic mission in and of itself that produces trip-wire capability at certain times and places as a by-product. One important consideration for planners is to not confuse the two strategic functions. Using defense forces for engagement is fine insofar as by doing so the desired defense capability is not compromised. “Star-bursting”—the splitting up of carrier strike groups and amphibious groups into individual ships to conduct widely dispersed engagement—is a routine practice. The potential problem with it is that it reduces group-training opportunities and thus readiness, and of course the physical dispersion reduces the combat capability of the force. If the deployed groups were meant to be disruption forces, star-bursting could turn them into only trip wires. Rigorous thinking at all levels about the difference between forward defense capability and engagement activity must occur.

Presence and Readiness

Secretary Work’s previous quote also indicates a trade-off between presence and readiness. Presence uses up ship service life just as flying does to an aircraft. More and longer deployments increase maintenance requirements. Star-bursting for engagement reduces the opportunities for combat training. These issues and others mean that a readiness price is to be paid when the Navy attempts to squeeze more presence out of fewer ships.

Balancing surge and presence forces to keep an adequate level of overall force readiness is, of course, the right objective. However, resource constraints create dilemmas in which adequate levels of either one or both are not possible. The trick is to be very clear about what the real trade-offs are. Here again, public pronouncements are one thing, but in the sanctity of staff spaces we must not attempt to reconcile difficult dilemmas via creative semantics. Doing so creates invisible strategic risk. Adherence to the framework provided herein will help staffs avoid that trap.

Making Plans

Military planning must take into account resources available. Deployment planning must not only consider forces that can be available for meeting current demands, but the long-term effects of such plans on the infrastructure of the service. Combatant commanders are oriented on the current situation and while they may have an appreciation for Service Title X force-providing challenges, they are not incentivized to voluntarily forego requests for forces based on potential downstream effects on retention or maintenance. Long-term strategic risk must be calculated and incurred at the national level.

Given that the services do not have operational command authority, and neither does the Joint Staff, the responsibility for making these hard decisions falls to the Secretary of Defense. There are good reasons why the National Security Act of 1947 established the existing lines of authority, but the fact is that there is no staff entity authorized to do conventional-force operational planning at the global level. In World War II, Admiral Ernest King, as Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet, had such authority over the Navy and could balance risk in the various theaters of operations as made sense from a global perspective. While recreation of such a position is not feasible in today’s world, it is important for the OSD Staff (assisted by the Joint Staff) to have a clear and disciplined operational-planning perspective. This is difficult in the Pentagon, where interservice, not to mention interagency, competition is keen, and staffers are all too accustomed to playing the political game through the adept use of semantics.

The five levels of capability-based presence defined here span the possibilities—the only possibilities—although there can be gradations between them. It would be well for planners to stick to these levels in order to clearly articulate to themselves, if not to the public, what specific forces are for in specific areas and what capability is realistically available. Terms like “credible,” “dominant,” “dynamic,” and other such adjectives should be outlawed from the planning process. That way, planners will not fool themselves into thinking particular force levels can do things they really cannot.

1. Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Fifth Annual Global Security Forum 2014, Washington, DC, 12 November 2014.

2. http://cno.navylive.dodlive.mil/2013/09/27/the-impact-of-sequestration-p... .

3. ADM Gary Roughead, USN, GEN James Conway, USMC, and ADM Thad Allen, USCG, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower , www.navy.mil/maritime/MaritimeStrategy.pdf .

4. Bradford Dismukes, “National Security Strategy and Forward Presence : Implications for Acquisition and Use of Forces” (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1994).

Captain Rubel is Professor Emeritus and former Dean, Center for Warfare Studies, at the Naval War College.


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