(See R. Work, pp. 34-43, December 2021; P. Giarra, p. 63, January 2022; G. Wroble, p. 51, February 2022; J. Hyland, p. 73, April 2022)
Secretary Work’s exhaustive critique of successive arguments for forward presence proffers a false choice between the presence of U.S. naval forces in transoceanic theaters and the fleet’s combat readiness. The fleet is intended to protect our vital interests. To the extent those interests are transoceanic, we are well served if our forces are regularly and often in those theaters’ proximity. As to combat readiness, when our putative foe was the Soviet Union, our most combat-ready ships and squadrons were those deployed to European and East Asian theaters. (I will admit an exception to antisubmarine warfare readiness of 7th Fleet units deployed during Vietnam.)
The Secretary is rightly critical of combatant commanders’ seemingly insatiable appetite for forward-deployed naval forces. In fact, the unstated culprit since the end of the last century is Central Command, and the mistaken nation-building exercises undertaken in the Middle East, which were said to require the commitment of multiple carrier and expeditionary strike groups. The Pacific commander was able to meet much of his required “presence” with the Japan-based forces. Beyond that, the other geographic commanders cannot be seen as having contributed to the “too few ships and too many commitments” conundrum.
A supporting corollary that cites the 2017 ship collisions as manifestations of a mismatch between operational tempo and maintenance appears rather far-fetched. The ships involved were assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15 and homeported in Yokosuka. The ship repair activity there has typically provided outstanding material support for decades. Maintenance shortfalls may exist, but if the commercial repair facilities in the United States operated by BAE are not up to the task, one can question the wisdom of decommissioning the six destroyer tenders and several repair ships when the Navy gutted its support forces as a partial contribution to the “peace dividend” after Desert Storm. In a similar lapse of logic, the service also abandoned the Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activities in homeports.
Training readiness at home and while deployed in a presence role has certainly declined and may have suffered from a lack of realistic targets (including simulations) and instrumented ranges that gauged the effectiveness of systems and the skills of those who operate them. The loss of facilities in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands was indeed painful.
In short, to the extent that the fleet is adjudged not ready to “fight and win,” we have arrived at this state almost by design.
It is useful to recall that when the Soviets were the problem, we maintained a steady-state posture in the Med for more than 25 years—comprising two carrier task groups, an amphibious ready group, four to six submarines, and a variety of supporting forces. Those 40 to 50 ships were, by most measures, the readiest formations in the Atlantic Fleet. In addition, those forward-deployed forces provided the official sizing algorithm for the Atlantic Fleet as confirmed in congressional testimony.
The solution to tensions between a smaller Navy and burgeoning threats is not to abandon forward presence. Instead, we should tailor our deployments and modulate operating tempo with two goals in mind: combat capable and credible formations; and forces configured to address the actual threats we are likely to encounter at sea and from hostile shores. If that leaves combatant commanders with fewer forces and reduces the number of extended deployments, so be it.
—RADM Philip A. Dur, USN (Ret.)
I agree that “Navy warfighting and material readiness should no longer be sacrificed on the altar of forward presence.” Secretary Work’s words could not be more pertinent, as the length of carrier strike group (CSG) deployments continues to set records. Missed in the count of days deployed, though, are the number of days a ship spends at sea for training events, group sails, fleet weeks, equipment tests, and a host of other events that require ships to spend time underway. These days often come at the expense of crucial shipboard maintenance that can only be done while in port.
There are multiple causes for the extra and unexpected time at sea, but one of the most significant is the complete failure to execute the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP). When unveiled, OFRP allowed for 6 months of shipyard maintenance, 8 months of predeployment training, 7 months deployed, and 15 months of sustainment during a 36-month cycle. As designed, this cycle would ensure that carriers deployed sequentially and that the Navy would operate on a supply-based model rather than a demand-based one.
In fact, a 2016 study forecasted that the Navy would have at least five carrier strike groups ready for tasking by 2020. However, two decades of “presence ops” in the Middle East have severely damaged the Navy’s combat readiness and its ability to ensure its surface fleet is properly maintained. Pushing ships to operate on deployment for longer periods than what the OFRP allows has to be paid for somewhere—either by decreasing the length or scope of the post-deployment maintenance period, shortening the follow-on training cycle, or extending the next CSG on deployment until another CSG is ready. Most recently, the decision to maintain and even increase carrier presence in the Middle East in 2019 and 2020 resulted in the nation having only one deployment-capable CSG to cover the August 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal— an actual mission requiring naval operational forces. What would have happened had another crisis occurred simultaneously elsewhere in the world requiring a CSG? Shifting from a forward-presence mindset to a readiness one will require flag and civilian leaders to make conscious and tough decisions on when, and for how long, ships deploy. Doing so will pay enormous dividends not only in the material condition of our warships, but also in the mental and physical well-being of our sailors.
—LCDR Ryan Pounders, USN
Dr. Mahnken’s article is well-meaning but makes multiple assumptions, is too narrow in geographic focus, and avoids issues raised by China’s long-range antiaccess/area-denial systems.
First, an assumption: Robert Kaplan and John J. Mearsheimer have pretty consistently made the case that a more pluralistic China could just as easily be more nationalistic and more assertive for a Sino-centric world order. If integrating China into the world economy did not already lead to democratic reform, why should we continue to hope for that outcome? It is not a foregone conclusion, at least.
Second, while we should not abandon the first and second island chains, the People’s Liberation Army has uniquely invested such that the U.S. Navy can never again deter China as it did in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. We should not seek to run headlong into an increasingly capable multidomain kill web. Despite this, the author proposes the “outside force” mass outside the first (not second?) island chain—within range of H-6 bombers and DF-26B antiship ballistic missiles? It is unclear where around the first island chain land units would be authorized to deploy to complicate Chinese decision-making: Is it a certainty the Philippines, Indonesia, or Vietnam would side with the United States to fight on behalf of Taiwan?
Third, while acknowledging a protracted war would have an economic dimension, the author makes little mention of the Indian Ocean and the Chinese trade that flows through it. In To Rule the Waves, Bruce Jones called India “a great thousand-mile dagger thrust into the heart of China’s Indian Ocean ambitions.” Why not use the geography of the Indian Ocean, which shapes trade passing south of the subcontinent, and operate near or outside Chinese conventional strike range? Interdicting Chinese trade with aircraft carriers and surface units while submarines fight it out in the Pacific would be a better inside/outside force construct.
A small, distributed, and submerged inside force, supported by aircraft deployed from outside the second island chain could deny China its Pacific objectives in the short term. Combined with a credible, long-term Indian Ocean cost-imposition campaign, this would deter China in much the same way Dr. Mahnken advocates. This would represent a comprehensive Indo-Pacific vision.
-LT Kyle Cregge, USN