Navy in search of a fresh strategy for the 21st century

By Art Pine

December 6, 2006

In the early 1980s, the Navy unveiled a "national maritime strategy" that dramatically altered America's Cold War military posture.

For the first time, the sea service argued that it should do more than merely escort convoys across the Atlantic; it should prepare to carry the fight to the Soviet Union's flanks, using aircraft, missiles, and amphibious landings of marines. And it should go after Russian nuclear submarines in the Arctic.

The admirals' bold plans worked beyond their wildest hopes. Almost overnight, the United States broadened its Cold War military strategy to give the Navy a bigger role. The Reagan administration used the document to justify its plans to expand the Navy to 600 ships -- the largest inventory of U.S. warships since the end of the Vietnam War. The strategy also spurred debate over naval tactics and technology.

Today, with the Cold War dead and buried, that strategy is obsolete, and the Navy is searching for a plan to fit the challenges of the 21st century -- from deterring a potential blue-water "peer competitor," which some analysts fear China hopes to become, to launching the kind of small, near-shore expeditionary ventures that seem more likely in the post-9/11 global war on terrorism.

The difficulty is, none of these threats is imminent. Although China certainly could raise such a navy by the mid-2020s, analysts don't know that Beijing has embarked on such a course; today, China's navy is no real match for the massive U.S. fleet. And conducting near-shore engagements against insurgents is primarily a job for ground troops; the Navy's main role would be to provide cover fire.

Moreover, these new missions require warships that are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Deterring a future blue-water Chinese navy would take an array of high-tech aircraft carriers, surface vessels, and submarines. "Littoral" warfare, as near-shore conflicts are called, requires smaller, less-expensive vessels. There's little overlap between the two.

Shipbuilding costs, meanwhile, are skyrocketing. The average price of the proposed DDG-1000, a high-tech destroyer conceived in the 1990s as a low-cost littoral vessel, is now $2.7 billion to $3.8 billion, and threatens to eat up the service's long-term shipbuilding budget. The Navy has 278 warships and is hoping to grow to 313 over 30 years -- a goal that will take an extra $15 billion to $22 billion a year to achieve, depending on the estimate.

Meanwhile, the rationale for an expensive Navy is becoming less apparent to the public. Look at television news coverage of the American military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you won't see much footage of Navy warships. Apart from some use of carrier jets, these are decidedly ground wars. And the soldiers and marines who are fighting them are ferried in by transport planes, not by amphibious landing craft.

"The question is, how do we describe the role of the Navy in an expeditionary age when there's no compelling naval threat?" says Robert O. Work, a retired Marine Corps colonel and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense-oriented think tank in Washington. "Unlike the Cold War, there's no single threat on which to focus. The kinds of challenges that the Navy will be facing are very broad."

The Navy's leaders are scrambling to resolve its future. Last June, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chief of naval operations, announced plans to draft by mid-2007 a national maritime strategy that would plot the mission and scope of the 21st-century Navy, providing policy makers with a beacon to guide them in planning the size and makeup of the fleet.

The Naval War College in Newport, R.I., is putting together the intellectual framework for the strategy, and once it's finished, the Navy will bring in outsiders -- think-tank wonks and academic experts -- to study the plan and offer advice. Mullen says he wants the final strategy document ready for public release by the middle of June -- a lightning-fast timetable for such a process.

For strategic and budgetary reasons, Mullen says, the new maritime strategy must take a broader view of naval power. He talks about a "national fleet" comprising both the Navy and the Coast Guard, which has the small-boat expertise for dealing with insurgents' threats.

Mullen is also seeking unprecedented cooperation from foreign navies and even from some large merchant shipping lines. Together, he says, like-minded navies could serve as a sort of global "1,000-ship Navy" that could work together to keep the peace.

But the Navy is facing challenging seas. With no Cold War-era pressure and with no single, visible nemesis like the old Soviet Union, there's no national consensus about what the future fleet should look like. Islamic terrorists have no navy and aren't likely to assemble one. Globalization has, however, given terrorists increasing access to sophisticated military technology.

The United States will no doubt maintain a strong naval presence in the Western Pacific indefinitely, both to discourage China from attacking Taiwan and to quell any serious provocations by North Korea. The Pentagon already plans to station another aircraft carrier battle group in the region over the next couple of years. But analysts disagree over how quickly China might become a serious maritime threat.

Accordingly, Mullen wants naval planners to focus not just on threats to the United States but also on the relationship between maritime security and the globalized economy, in which the United States and its allies depend more than ever on ship transport of goods and resources.

The United States takes more than 6 million cargo containers into its ports each year. The Navy hopes that the globalization angle will entice foreign cooperation.

The sharp contrast between the kinds of warships needed for the Navy's likely missions is a major problem for Mullen's strategists. Wayne P. Hughes, a retired Navy captain now at the Naval Postgraduate School, has suggested building a "bi-modal" force with "high-end" ships that could meet any Chinese challenge and "low-end" vessels for near-shore operations. But it's not clear whether that approach would do the job.

Missing from the debate so far is what the Navy may be willing to lose -- that is, what it can cut -- in order to reshape itself to the new maritime strategy. Estimates compiled by Eric Labs, a naval analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, show that the service's projected budget already seems inadequate to finance the 313-ship fleet that the admirals envision. Any major changes could well widen that gap.

Finally, some worry that launching the strategy in mid-2007 may be politically risky. The U.S. will be nearing the end of a lame-duck administration, Congress is apt to be polarized, and Americans are likely to be even more frustrated over the war in Iraq.

"I can't think of a worse time to publish a national maritime strategy," says retired Navy Capt. Joseph F. Bouchard, who has worked on similar projects.

Ronald O'Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service, is skeptical that the planners can come up with a compelling document that will help build public support for maintaining the Navy's share of the defense budget. The plethora of potential U.S. adversaries "makes it difficult to write a powerful, thematically unified strategy," he says, and "by trying to address everything, you run the risk of winding up with a document that says a lot of interesting things but has no powerful take-away message."

Indeed, Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a defense-oriented research group in Arlington, Va., views Mullen's quest as little more than a public-relations gimmick.

"It's hard to understand what sort of intellectual breakthrough can be achieved, given that the service already has devoted a generation to reflecting on this," Thompson says. "The problem the Navy faces is that it's not visible in Iraq, and everyone sees the ground forces and they want to put money there. This is essentially an effort to reacquaint the public with the fact that a big country needs a big navy."

Mullen told students at the Naval War College last year that the service's 1980s document succeeded because "it was a strategy for -- and of -- its time, and it worked, prevailing across presidential administrations, chiefs of naval operations, and varying budget cycles." But as Work points out, that plan was issued at a time of intense naval competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, when it answered a critical need.

Today, the Navy may be a casualty of its own success. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has helped put its major nemesis out of action and has won control of the seas.

No foreign navy comes close to operating the number of warships in the American Navy, Work argues. "Its fleet is more capable than any other," he says. "One would be hard-pressed to make a case that it's in danger of losing its lead."

By Art Pine

December 6, 2006