Flexible Fleet

Maritime strategy targets traditional and new age threats.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen is calling on the Navy to develop a sweeping new maritime strategy to reflect rapidly changing threats and missions.

In a June speech at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Mullen said the Navy can no longer follow Cold War-era strategies, but must become more flexible and agile to operate in an intertwined world and battle unpredictable adversaries. He acknowledged, however, that developing the plan and carrying it out would be difficult.

"Let's be frank," Mullen said. "The reason we don't have such a new maritime strategy already is that the scope and scale of the threat, the issues involved, the complexity of this globalized era and the staggering pace of change seem almost impossible to plan for."

Mullen's speech is the latest in his attempts to transform the service, coming just months after he unveiled a plan to build a fleet of 313 ships designed to serve as a blueprint for the service's technological future.

The strategy is a compromise of sorts for two camps inside the Navy: those who want to focus on technologies designed to fight the global war on terrorism, and those who want to transform the fleet to compete with a rapidly maturing Chinese navy, says Robert Work, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

"You have these two general groups," Work says. "The direction of transformation would be much different, depending on which group holds sway." Preparing for a possible altercation with China, for instance, would require the next generation of traditional platforms, such as the attack submarine and aircraft carrier. But anti-terror campaigns against nonstate enemies require smaller, nimbler sea craft, such as patrol boats.

Mullen's plan, Work notes, falls somewhere in the middle, in an apparent effort to prepare his service for a broad swath of potential adversaries. It would set aside substantial funding for new submarines, destroyers and carriers, but it also fields the lower-cost Littoral Combat Ship, which is designed to operate in coastal waters and counter asymmetric threats. The service also intends to create a naval force capable of fighting in rivers and possibly purchase a fleet of inexpensive patrol boats.

"The Navy will try to do both," Work says. "It really is now a juggling act on resources." Some lawmakers are wary, saying the strategy takes too many risks by retiring ships before their replacements are ready for the water.

The plan hit another snag recently when the Congressional Budget Office concluded that it would cost far more than Mullen's estimate of $14 billion annually to purchase new submarines, destroyers, carriers and other ships.

Transforming the fleet will be a difficult sell overall on Capitol Hill. House members in particular are moving to safeguard their prized programs, which Navy officials fear will pose substantial risk to the rest of the fleet.

As with everything else, the Navy's ability to carry out its maritime strategy hinges largely on the defense procurement budget, which many fear has hit its peak. "In FY '07, the Navy looks pretty good," Work says. "FY '08 is going to be a tough year, though."

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