U.S. Navy’s Quantity Problem

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As naval technology gallops on, can fleets execute the same missions with fewer assets?

Eminent people say so; I have my doubts.

Officials like U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work point to scientific and technical advances that supposedly render numbers of ships and aircraft less meaningful than in bygone decades. Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft able to detect, classify, and track hostile contacts across wide sea areas and feed targeting information to U.S. Navy task forces represent one such innovation. Sea-service leaders also point out that warships now entering service are far more technologically advanced than the ones they replace.

The message, seemingly, is that quantity no longer has much quality of its own.

Yet there’s an otherworldly feel to such claims. It’s certainly true that each new generation of ships, warplanes, sensors, and weaponry is far more capable in an absolute sense than the generations that went before. True, but not especially meaningful.

One of today’s Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers, for example, would surely outclass an Aegis cruiser from the early 1980s, when that combined radar/fire-control system first went to sea on board USS Ticonderoga.

So what?

In most respects the Ticonderoga (in which I spent two happy months cruising the Baltic Sea in 1989) vastly outmatched its ancestors from Adm. Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet, or from Adm. George Dewey’s flotilla at Manila Bay. Such comparisons tell us little about our prospects in battle today. We build against present-day competitors, not our Cold War, World War II, or Spanish-American War selves.

Combat power is a relative thing, then, not an absolute one. We may be more capable. So are our competitors.

The only standard that matters is how well ships, aircraft, and weaponry perform against today’s adversaries in today’s tactical setting – not on battlegrounds of yore. As prospective antagonists mount fiercer, more sophisticated defenses of offshore seas and skies, navies must keep improving just to keep pace with the competition. By that unforgiving standard, it’s far from clear that American men-of-war have vaulted past their predecessors.

Furthermore, the fleet’s complexion is changing. In some cases, the Navy is replacing retired vessels not with like vessels of new design but with lesser – and less capable – ship types. Speaking at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue last month, Secretary Panetta announced that the Navy will take delivery of forty new warships in the coming years. That sounds impressive. But what kinds of hulls comprise that forty? The single-mission Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), for example, aren’t descendants of the multi-mission Oliver Hazard Perry frigates they replace. The Perrys were built to perform picket duty with the battle fleet, fending off aerial, surface, and subsurface threats. The lightly armed LCS has important diplomatic and maritime-security uses. It is no frigate.

This uneven shipbuilding program will dilute the fleet’s aggregate combat power at a time when the threat environment has grown increasingly stressful – witness the proliferation of air-independent diesel submarines, stealthy missile craft, antiship cruise and ballistic missiles, and other hardware useful for disputing U.S. access to “contested zones” around the world. Secretary Work’s boast that the low-end LCS will “kick [the] asses” of foes it encounters may be true. But it misleads. It’s one thing to apply a boot to the posterior of a pirate in a skiff, quite another to enter the lists against the likes of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The LCS is eminently qualified to do the former, but ill-suited to the latter.

Sea power is an interactive business in which prospective opponents may attempt to veto U.S. actions, and increasingly possess the wherewithal to make their veto stick. Whether the United States can accomplish the same globe-spanning goals it has pursued for decades with fewer assets is doubtful. A mismatch among policy, strategy, and forces looms.

Carl von Clausewitz advises statesmen and commanders to undertake campaigns in “secondary” theaters only if the likely gains are “exceptionally” promising, the enterprise contributes to success in the principal theater, and it does not imperil efforts in the principal theater. Only “decisive superiority” in the main theater justifies secondary efforts. Abiding by this formula requires setting priorities – namely, determining which zones on the map are critical and which are not. The corollary is that a nation should wind down military commitments in nonessential theaters in order to concentrate resources where needed most.

But declaring that some regions or missions are more important than others evidently demands that global powers make a hard mental leap. Few and far between are leaders like Adm. Jacky Fisher, the British first sea lord who brought home – and mostly scrapped – the Royal Navy’s detached squadrons of gunboats and light combatants a century ago. Fisher’s decision freed up resources and manpower in the Far East and North America that the navy sorely needed to gird itself for its arms race with Imperial Germany. Staying ahead of the German High Seas Fleet, which threatened the British Isles, constituted the greater priority by far.

Fin de siècle Britain pivoted homeward, largely evacuating U.S. and Asian waters and trusting to local powers to guard its interests there. It accepted risk while unloading foreign commitments. By contrast, I could retire comfortably tomorrow if I had a dollar for every time in recent weeks I’ve heard a U.S. official or pundit insist that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s metaphor of a “pivot” to Asia had to be discarded because it implied that America was turning its back on regions outside Asia. Hence the switch to the more neutral, less evocative term “rebalance.” But it’s worth rediscovering Clausewitz’s remorseless logic and Fisher’s clear vision and pugnacity. Washington ought to reacquaint itself with setting priorities.

History is unkind to sea powers that invent fudge factors – golly-gee technology, tactical mastery, indomitable élan – to explain away numerical shortfalls. The interwar Imperial Japanese Navy had boundless faith in Japanese seafarers’ resolve and tactical virtuosity. Commanders talked themselves into believing that these intangibles would negate superior U.S. Navy numbers. Their navy now litters the bottom of the Pacific – in large part because Rosie the Riveter and her comrades turned out warships and merchantmen like sausages during World War II, overwhelming Japan with insurmountable numbers. Quantity does matter. Let’s not succumb to the sort of thinking that beguiled Tokyo in those fateful years.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. He is writing a history of the US Asiatic Fleet. The views voiced here are his alone.

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