The Navy is considering how to navigate the new strategic landscape depicted in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s view of the future
By JASON SHERMAN, Special Correspondent
When U.S. Navy ships launched air wings and cruise missiles into Afghanistan in November 2001 as part of the opening global-war-on-terror salvo, service brass had every reason to think the fleet was up to the challenges of the post-Sept. 11 world.
More than a year later, on the eve of the March 2003 “shock-and-awe” assault on Iraq, the Navy’s top officer dashed off a note to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld proudly declaring the sea service was ready to respond to the nation’s call. Indeed, by every measure at hand, the Navy executed its mission there brilliantly.
Since then, however, Rumsfeld has outlined a new strategic landscape with contours that are prompting Navy leaders to examine how well the service is prepared for challenges of the next two, or even three, decades. Other service chiefs are doing the same.
Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, offered his blunt assessment to an audience of shipbuilding industry executives and service brass in January, warning that the Navy is not “correctly balanced and optimized for the future we’re facing. … The Navy that we possess today must be reshaped to deal with the challenges that we [will] have in the future,” he said at a conference organized by the Surface Navy Association.
Specifically, the sea service must be organized and equipped to deal with a wider set of missions than the major combat operations for which it is optimized today. These include a key role in homeland defense, peacekeeping missions and support of post-conflict stability operations.
The need for change was underscored by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz before Christmas in the form of $30 billion in cuts, including $14 billion to key Navy modernization programs, with much of the money sent to help pay for improvements to the Army.
Among the Navy efforts that took major hits in the adjustments to the 2006-2011 spending plan were the next-generation destroyer program, Virginia-class submarine buys, procurement of the San Antonio-class amphibious ship and the size of the aircraft carrier fleet. Some believe those alterations could be a bellwether of things to come.
Critics of these cuts note the decrements were imposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget and not accompanied by analysis. Pentagon officials involved in the budget adjustments maintain the actions were well considered and backed by analysis.
Navy programs that avoided the budget ax include efforts key to the service’s transformation efforts, including the Littoral Combat Ship and the conversion of Ohio-class submarines to fire conventional missiles and ferry special operations forces. Yet many defense strategy experts see a clear pattern in the budget cuts that suggests traditional Navy modernization programs are not in step with Rumsfeld’s new vision of the future U.S. military.
His focus on new types of threats is several steps beyond the emphasis on force transformation that was a major priority in the first four years of the Bush administration. But he wants the military to be ready for more dynamic and frightening scenarios than those in the recent past.
That vision was spelled out last year in the 2006 Strategic Planning Guidance that recast into four categories the types of threats the U.S. military should prepare to face: conventional, irregular, catastrophic and disruptive. Of these threats, the U.S. military is well prepared to deal with only one: an adversary that attacks with conventional air, sea and land forces.
Rumsfeld and key deputies — including Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, and James Thomas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans — have warned that they intend to pare back investments in weapons programs where the U.S. military enjoys a comfortable “overmatch” against potential adversaries. The goal is to redirect funding to improve capabilities against a wider range of challenges, including “irregular, catastrophic and disruptive” threats.
Because U.S. military power is widely recognized, the Pentagon expects there is little chance of being directly challenged by a conventional enemy in the near future. More likely are “irregular” threats, attacks designed to erode U.S. power in unconventional ways, such as the hit-and-run tactics of the Iraqi insurgency. Less likely, but of growing concern, are “catastrophic” threats, such as the Sept. 11 attacks. These aim to cripple U.S. leadership and power with surprise attacks on symbolic and high-value targets.
The fourth type of challenge, considered the least likely to materialize soon, but also the one to which the United States is more vulnerable, comes from “disruptive” technologies. These include breakthroughs in sensors, information technology, biotechnology and miniaturization on the molecular level — capabilities so spectacular they would quickly erode many aspects of U.S. national power, including a military advantage.
What does all this new focus mean for the Navy?
Vice Adm. Joseph A. Sestak Jr., deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs, is now asking just that question. Under his direction, the Navy is considering how to adjust its Blue Water force that is optimized to fight conventional adversaries on the high seas into a fleet that can make important contributions in the coming decades against a very different kind of enemy.
“This is a tough challenge and trying to get right the Navy’s part of that I think will take some time,” said Sestak.
In December, Sestak established a “Global War on Terrorism Cell” of nearly a dozen officers to provide Navy-wide requirements, mission, analysis, modeling and plans to support policy-makers.
As this body commences its work, Navy leaders have staked out two themes in the war on terror that they will advance in the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, a sweeping assessment of defense strategy.
The first is a need for sea basing, a concept that envisions a flotilla of ships serving as a staging area for huge numbers of ground forces to launch attacks. While this idea predates the new strategic challenges Rumsfeld recently outlined, Navy leaders believe sea basing will foster the sea service’s ability to deliver on three strategic capabilities sought by the Office of the Secretary of Defense: speed, access and persistence.
The promise of providing these capabilities has attracted support for the concept from combatant commanders around the world, said Rear Adm. William Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff.
However, just what a sea base might look like has not been decided. The Navy would like for the sea base to be built around recapitalization plans for its maritime prepositioning fleet and big-deck amphibious ships.
Specifically, the Navy is offering a vision of a new fighting logistics ships with a flight deck big enough to send hundreds of Marines ashore in rotorcraft and launch Joint Strike Fighters. This Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future) — possibly based on derivatives of commercial vessels — would replace the big-deck Tarawa-class ships.
Critics of this approach say the concept of sea basing needs to give broader consideration to Army needs and opportunities to utilize Air Force capabilities.
Another unique naval mission, perhaps overshadowed by current events in Iraq, will be in protecting the maritime approaches to the United States from catastrophic attack. This, too, is a mission the Navy moved toward before Rumsfeld outlined the new strategic challenges.
Sestak said the service is working closely with the Coast Guard to establish a Maritime Domain Awareness effort that will push far out to sea the nation’s “borders” and, with contributions from other federal agencies, protect the waterways from terrorists or weapons smuggled on ships targeting U.S. soil.
While these arguments for naval power are advanced, the Navy staff is examining what might constitute naval power in the future. Will the ships and systems the Navy plans to buy adequately address the nontraditional threats? If not, what in the service’s shipbuilding plan should change?
Sestak’s deputies are poring over the Navy’s requirements asking these questions.
“I think the budget climate that the Navy finds itself in now will put pressure on all of its programs and require scrutiny of everything,” said Robert Work, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They’ll ask first, ‘How does this thing help the global war on terror and how does it help us fight the war we’re in?’ Second, they'll ask, ‘How does it help us recapitalize the fleet for the future?’ It is clear that this budget is going to put the former over the latter, at least in the near term.”
That could be good news for the multimission Littoral Combat Ship program being developed. Originally envisioned to sail in shallow waters where there was contested access, it could find more regular use as a launching pad for special operations forces or interdicting ships ferrying terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, or even leadership interdiction operations closer to shore.
The near-term focus may also be a boon to the SSGN submarine program, which is removing nuclear-tipped Trident missiles from select Ohio-class boats, replacing them with up to 154 cruise missiles and space for special operations forces.
Sestak’s staff is keeping its eye on missions such as swiftly defeating adversaries who would challenge the Navy in coastal waters, supporting land campaigns with the other services against a regional power with a weapon of mass destruction and protecting the U.S. homeland.
While many requirements are already covered by the forces and weapon systems fielded for conventional warfare, there is an emerging set of naval missions and capabilities unique to the global war on terrorism, service officials said.
Among these is the need to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to fill gaps in coverage where terrorist operations or movements are suspected. This would accompany an integrated maritime surveillance picture that could be used in the effort to identify terrorists or threatening weapons on ships headed toward the United States.
These missions go in hand with a wide range of others, including the need to quickly launch precise conventional air and missile strikes on terrorist targets; provide big-decked ships and logistics support for ground combat forces against terrorist elements overseas; provide forces capable of conducting prompt interception and boarding or stopping of vessels of any size in maritime regions where terrorist operations or movements are suspected.
Along with these tasks, Sestak’s staff is refining naval capability requirements for defending against air threats, swimmers, small craft and specifics on executing homeland defense missions.
Whether these activities will translate into significant changes in Navy modernization plans, its force structure or even its force sizing, should become clearer this summer as changes to its six-year spending plan are proposed as part of the 2007-2011 program review. Many analysts expect big changes are on the way.
Said Work: “I believe the Navy is very serious about this.”
Jason Sherman is senior correspondent for InsideDefense.com, part of the Inside the Pentagon family of newsletters, based in Arlington, Va.