James Holmes

Setting Naval Priorities

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James Holmes

Setting Naval Priorities

The Naval Diplomat on the USS Saratoga, China’s rogue pilots and setting naval priorities.

Setting Naval Priorities
Credit: Flickr/ Official U.S. Navy Imagery

A couple of bits of nautical flotsam and jetsam before we turn to the topic du jour, U.S. Navy grand poobah Jonathan Greenert’s latest missive on the direction of the service.

First bit of miscellany: last week a swarm of tugboats towed the retired aircraft carrier Saratoga away from her pier in Narragansett Bay for the last time. She’s been slumbering at our Pier 1 since 1998. Once lashed up to an oceangoing tug, ex-USS Saratoga promenaded slowly past the Naval War College before passing under the Newport Bridge, through the harbor, and thence over the horizon into Rhode Island Sound. Sold for an insulting one cent, the ship made her way down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, bound for a shipbreaker in Brownsville, Texas.

There this former mistress of the seas will be reduced to razor blades, as the old navy quip has it. The Naval Diplomat deployed in company with Saratoga 23 years ago. A nifty snapshot of the flattop steaming home from the Persian Gulf adorns my Desert Storm photo album.

In a way, though, the flattop’s departure came as a relief. A ship’s appearance matters. Metal and saltwater coexist uneasily even when you have a full crew on board for upkeep. Saratoga hasn’t had a crew since 1994, and the navy stopped painting and otherwise maintaining the vessel some years ago. Her discolored, weatherbeaten form was an eyesore. Her presence had come to dull rather than burnish the navy’s reputation in southern New England — not to mention in the eyes of the many national and foreign visitors to Newport.

And yet it was bittersweet that, rather than being accompanied by cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, Saratoga’s last escort fleet was a flotilla of tugboats. There’s a hollow feel to Narragansett Bay — once home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and to outsized seafaring personalities like Admiral Ernest King — now that the navy’s last warship has exited these waters. I suppose the bay is now officially a U.S. Coast Guard preserve, leaving education and training as the navy’s sole functions here. An era has passed.

Second tidbit: to follow up on the P-8 incident in the South China Sea, a friend emails to ask whether I think U.S. officials really believe the recent string of airborne encounters is the work of rogue pilots. Some have said so. That’s a tough question to answer short of becoming a mindreader. My guess: yes, they do believe it. Or rather, they’ve talked themselves into believing it. No one wants conflict with China, and officials can’t bring themselves to accept that Beijing means what it says about making the near seas a Chinese lake. Ergo, aerial freelancing is responsible!

Math whiz Jordan Ellenberg, whose book I’ve mentioned in these pixels before, might put it this way. U.S. spokesmen have succumbed to “the oldest false syllogism in the book:”

  • It could be the case that a squadron of PLA Air Force pilots has gone rogue rather than executing the wishes of China’s political masters;

  • I want it to be the case that a squadron of PLA Air Force pilots has gone rogue rather than executing the wishes of China’s political masters;

  • Therefore, it is the case that a squadron of PLA Air Force pilots has gone rogue rather than executing the wishes of China’s political masters.

If so, a kind of bizarro Occam’s Razor has taken hold among China-watchers. Rather than pick the simplest model that fits the facts, officialdom picks the simplest model that fits the party line, and thus what Washington wants to believe about China. If it’s unfathomable that the PLA is harassing U.S. aircraft in international skies as a matter of policy, then some alternative explanation must be true. QED. To mix metaphors, we bend over backward trying not to believe the evidence of our own eyes.

Now, on to the matter at hand (at last). Admiral Greenert (whose real title is chief of naval operations, not grand poobah) has taken to putting out occasional documents with snappy titles like Sailing Directions and Navigation Plan. That’s a play on U.S. warships’ voyages from point A to point B, whereby captains issue sailing directions to lay out the general plan for the journey and survey the surroundings along the course from point A to point B. The navigation plan fills in specifics, including such details as courses and speeds, port visits along the way, what have you.

Or if you want to get all highfalutin’ and Clausewitzian about it, the sailing directions set forth a logic, or policy, for the voyage while the navigation plan explains the grammar, or ways and means, for executing the mission. Ends, ways, means.

Released earlier this month, Greenert’s latest Navigation Plan charts the navy’s course for 2015-2019. Most of the commentary on it dwells on force structure, budgetary matters, and so forth. This is proper and fitting. It’s tough to execute an ambitious strategic or operational design without the wherewithal to do so. Check out Naval Diplomat pal Bryan McGrath’s review of the Navigation Plan, which presents a bleak but accurate prognosis of the situation.

Being a hairsplitter and a professor, though, I zeroed in on what CNO terms his “programmatic priorities” for the next budgetary cycle. In particular, he sets preserving “a credible, modern, and survivable sea-based deterrent” as priority #1. In non-bureaucratese, that means replacing the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, with a dozen boats of a future SSBN design.

The Ohio-replacement project is going to get expensive. Very expensive. Maybe ruinously expensive. That SSBN development could crowd out other shipbuilding priorities — nuclear attack submarines, future guided-missile destroyers, you name it — seems to be accepted wisdom among naval number-crunchers. Which raises the question: why does the U.S. Navy need a 12-SSBN fleet? You don’t need a dozen boats to keep a couple at sea at all times, each packing enough atomic firepower to deter or devastate adversaries. Could we get by with six Ohio-replacement boats, or eight? If not, why not?

More intriguing — to me — is Greenert’s priority #3, namely to “preserve the means to win decisively in one multi-phase contingency operation and deny the objectives of another aggressor in a second region.” Those are phrases replete with meaning. In Sir Julian Corbett’s lingo, the CNO is vowing to win a protracted war of positive aim, a campaign to compel one adversary to do America’s bidding, while at the same time waging a war of negative aim, a campaign meant to frustrate — or, in Sun Tzu’s words, balk — a second opponent’s designs.

That’s an intriguing benchmark for U.S. naval adequacy because it’s a relative one. Military specialists have a habit of determining how many widgets we can afford and buying those. That reduces prospective opponents to potted plants on which America works its will. Yet the enemy wants to win, and he gets a say in how our plans unfold. Accordingly, the only meaningful way to gauge combat power is in relation to likely adversaries pursuing goals of their own at certain places on the map.

The usual suspects, or likely antagonists the U.S. Navy may confront, appear to be China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. They’re the standard. There are lots of operational permutations within this wretched hive of scum and villainy. What does the navy need to, say, defeat China decisively while foiling Iranian wickedness in the Persian Gulf? What if Iran is the chief aggressor while China is the secondary concern?

Wargaming out such scenarios is a matter of operational prudence. Done properly, it might also supply a crowbar to pry more shipbuilding resources out of Congress. If the naval leadership can show that budget constraints are foreclosing U.S. options in theaters like the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf, reality may set in among lawmakers at last. The specter of failure — or defeat — has a way of doing that.