One Cheer Only
By Peter Dombrowski
Navalists should be pleased that Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson issued his white paper, “The Future Navy.” In theory, the CNO’s words could bring order to the vigorous debates over the Navy’s future fleet architecture.
But they also may be disappointed. The document reaffirms familiar truisms and papers over current controversies—disagreements about the missions of the amphibious force, for example. More important, “The Future Navy” will not communicate well enough with the wider national security community in a way that will make the necessary resources more readily available.
If the Navy asks for more resources, Congress must either vote for substantially higher defense spending or break the historical balance among spending on the three military departments. Either choice will require major changes to past congressional spending patterns, Pentagon thinking, and/or interservice division of labor.
The CNO thus missed an opportunity to make a more powerful case to the President and Congress—two audiences already favorably disposed to the Navy—for growing and transforming the service. A receptive audience should be provided strong arguments. Unfortunately, the white paper does not offer persuasive evidence as to why and how the Navy needs to grow quickly. Without a compelling strategic vision firmly linked to the nation’s military strategy and enduring international objectives, the Navy simply will not be able to convince the nation to provide more funding.
Two essentials of an effective strategy are prioritization and sound assumptions. Given that resources are scarce and the demand for security is infinite, the Navy must articulate why the future will be won or lost in the maritime realm, what maritime threats matter most, and why the Navy’s approach to countering these threats will succeed.
Although “The Future Navy” warns of the growing power of both Russia and China, it does not sufficiently distinguish between them in terms of capabilities and intent. The two present very different maritime challenges. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy is large, growing, increasingly sophisticated, and nakedly ambitious to undertake global operations. The Russian Navy is projected to shrink in coming years, is largely out-of-date (although blessed with pockets of technological excellence), and focused on its coastal defense and deterrence missions. Russia, while capable of causing trouble in its immediate neighborhoods (the Baltic, the Arctic, and the Black Seas), does not have the economic, financial, or human resources to challenge U.S. naval primacy on a global scale. China, while also able to cause local problems, has the resources and willpower to challenge the United States even in regions long thought secure.
The Navy needs to articulate which country is the primary or pacing threat. Simply listing a number of undifferentiated threats while asking for more resources begs the questions of what matters most and why.
Strategists also often emphasize the importance of making sound assumptions. “The Future Navy” is rife with contestable assertions. First, it assumes that speed matters, tactically, operationally, and strategically. While this is a common belief among U.S. defense planners, it bears greater scrutiny.
The white paper argues that the Navy must expand quickly to counter Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, among others. But from a strategic perspective, this does not make sense. Battles may be won or lost quickly, but wars—especially conflicts where primacy over the international system is at stake—take far longer to be settled. Great power competition is generational. Germany’s challenge to the global order lasted decades (from the 1860s to the 1940s) and involved innumerable crises and multiple major wars. Long-term strategic competition with China (or Russia) will not be won or lost quickly, nor will short-term surges in shipbuilding, even with the adoption of innovative capabilities (much less modest changes in acquisition practices) save the nation.
“The Future Navy” also assumes that forward presence is an unalloyed good for U.S. national security. When the United States was preoccupied with playing whack-a-mole against terrorists, intervening against insurgents, or dealing with rogue states, forward presence may have made sense. Today, this position is less defensible. With the nation facing a continent-sized, nuclear-armed geopolitical challenger, a more prudent approach is required. Accessing the last miles of the potential adversary’s littoral or expending vast resources to defend the most basic aspects of international maritime law with forward-deployed naval assets is imprudent. What is required is both a more powerful response and a more nuanced approach.
This is not meant to criticize “The Future Navy” for not being a full-fledged strategic vision. After all, the CNO already issued “A Design for Sustained Superiority” in January 2016. But the new document is less compelling than it should be because it does not rest on a sound strategic foundation. When the Trump administration does issue a new national military strategy, the Navy will be in a better position to advocate for the resources necessary to fulfill the President’s vision.
Dr. Dombrowski is a professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department (SORD) at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College. He was formerly the chair of SORD and editor-in-chief of the Naval War College Review. He has participated in the drafting of naval strategy documents in the past decades.A Powerful Helm Order
A Powerful Helm Order
By Captain Sam J. Tangredi, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Urgency. That one word sums up the focus of Admiral Richardson’s 17 May white paper. Beyond the need for a larger fleet, the CNO urges both the Navy and the nation’s leadership to “shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency that our previous advantages may have afforded us.” In the CNO’s view, “time is of the essence,” because we are locked in a military-technological competition with potential maritime peers who seek to overturn international law and global political norms. As authoritarian powers that can ramp up their military spending without public debate, these potential peers (along with lesser threats) have a natural advantage in bringing new or recycled military technology rapidly to sea. As a summons to “get to work now to both build more ships, and to think forward—innovate—as we go,” “The Future Navy” provides the tone and direction needed if we are to maintain the maritime dominance that has served our nation’s foreign policy so well since 1945.
Some of the arguments and examples in the paper are weak, and stronger, more persuasive details are needed. Let’s dispatch the frail examples first so as to disarm the critics:
“As the world’s population rises, more of it is moving to the coasts.” True, but we have been saying that for decades.
“Maritime traffic has risen 400 percent over the last 25 years.” That could be explained much more effectively. When measured by weight and volume, 90 percent of international trade travels by water, and it was the container ship, not the Internet, that fueled globalization.
“Aquaculture production increased 13-fold.” That’s saying it has gone from very little to a bit more.
“Ninety-nine percent of all intercontinental telecommunications ride on undersea cables.” That has been true since 1850!
Quibbles aside, what the CNO’s paper does superbly is to articulate—in concise and modern terms—the reality every strategist and every national security official already knows but needs to be reminded of: “complexity and pace place a premium on the ability to respond quickly, something that naval forces do well by virtue of their forward presence and ability to operate freely in international waters . . . they are also uniquely persistent.” Special operations forces (SOF) are persistent if a host nation allows it, but they lack the punch when needed. A future “prompt global strike” missile fired from the United States may not be the best tool in a world of potential nuclear opponents. Those who dismiss the Navy’s claim as being the most agile international security tool—and thus suggest that resources should go elsewhere in the Department of Defense—bear the onus of explaining how recent land wars (such as in Iraq) have made the world safer. Admittedly, that is not a very joint comment, and certainly the CNO would not want to be associated with it, but it is a fact of geography and deterrence.
The problem, of course, is that the U.S. Navy’s global maritime dominance is weaker than it was in 1991, when we thought the whole world was our friend (except Saddam). But surrounding Scarborough Shoals, invading Ukraine, and routinely threatening other nations with nuclear annihilation and working to be able to do it are not friendly acts. All these potential adversaries are building or rebuilding naval power—and developing (or stealing) new naval technology faster. The CNO’s white paper points out ways to respond to this: increase the build rate of ships and aircraft, shift more to unmanned systems, develop reliable netting of the battle fleet, and build modular weapons canisters (note: not “mission modules”) and swappable electronic sensors and systems. Those are tough, but achievable, capabilities if the requirements and acquisition communities prioritize their achievement. Unfortunately, much of the acquisition process is now outside the control of the CNO.
The media has highlighted the fact that “The Future Navy” calls for “a more powerful Navy, on the order of 350 ships,” an idea already suggested by the administration. Given the trends and pace of competition and the need to deter potential aggressors of increasing strength, the CNO is right that “we need this more powerful fleet in the 2020s, not the 2040s.” However, most reports have missed a statement that is critical to improving the combat capabilities of the current Navy: “First, we need a year to consolidate our readiness and achieve better balance across the Navy . . . 2018 will be that year . . . even as we continue to grow the Navy.” If the CNO can reduce the maintenance backlog and fill the weapons magazines of ships and increase the rate of shipbuilding, he will have performed a feat unimaginable but a few months prior.
As a statement of fact, helm order, and vision, “The Future Navy” can be a powerful document. Now is the time for the rest of the Navy’s leadership to fill in the details. The need is indeed urgent—and that is the CNO’s point.
Captain Tangredi is a professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College, and a former head of the OPNAV Strategy and Concepts Branch and special assistant and speechwriter to the Secretary of the Navy. He has participated in the drafting of naval strategy documents in the past decades.