In his luncheon address at the Navy League’s SeaAirSpace Exposition May 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired a shot across the bows of virtually every community in the Navy and Marine Corps.
It started out as a good news speech, a pat on the back and reassurance that the Navy was not, ladies and gentlemen, slowly sinking. Gates certainly echoed Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work, late of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), in his review of current Navy strengths as well as a vision for the future fleet. Indeed some of the speech’s bullet points could have been taken right out of the CSBA report “The U.S. Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet” Work produced before leaving for his new Navy Department post.
“In assessing risks and requirements even in light of an expanding array of global missions and responsibilities – everything from shows of presence to humanitarian relief – some context is useful,” Gates said.
“The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
“The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as the rest of the world combined.
“The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines – again, more than the rest of the world combined.
“Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells. In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
“All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
“And, at 202,000 strong, the U.S. Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind – exceeding the size of most world armies.”
When Gates delivers a cataloging of superior capabilities in comparison with existing peers and rivals, it is time to set Condition Zulu.
While he praised Marines fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan early in his speech, for example, there was subtext. “For years now, the Corps has been acting as essentially a second land army. As General Conway has noted, there are young, battle-hardened Marines with multiple combat tours who have spent little time inside of a ship, much less practicing hitting a beach. Their critical work well inland will be necessary for the foreseeable future.”
What followed was not so subtle.
Gates said the DoD “must continually adjust its future plans as the strategic environment evolves. Two major examples come to mind. First, what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire – in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?”
“Second – aircraft carriers,” Gates continued. “Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040. To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities,” he said.
Oh, and that so-called “fighter gap”?
“These issues invariably bring up debates over so-called “gaps” between stated requirements and current platforms – be they ships, aircraft, or anything else. More often than not, the solution offered is either more of what we already have or modernized versions of preexisting capabilities,” Gates said. “This approach ignores the fact that we face diverse adversaries with finite resources that consequently force them to come at the U.S. in unconventional and innovative ways. The more relevant gap we risk creating is one between the capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow.
“Or consider plans for a new ballistic missile submarine, the SSBN(X),” Gates said. “Right now, the department proposes spending $6 billion in research and development over the next few years – for a projected buy of twelve subs at $7 billion apiece. Current requirements call for a submarine with the size and payload of a boomer – and the stealth of an attack sub. In a congressional hearing earlier this year, I pointed out that in the later part of this decade the new ballistic missile submarine alone would begin to eat up the lion’s share of the Navy’s shipbuilding resources.”
There had already been some talk of a Virginia-class derivative for SSBN(X) rather than a clean sheet of paper design, and that possibility now seems much closer to becoming a reality.
“At the higher end of the access-denial spectrum, the virtual monopoly the U.S. has enjoyed with precision guided weapons is eroding – especially with long-range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon. This is a particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multi-billion-dollar blue-water surface combatants, where, for example, a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially $15 to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk.”
If the audience interpreted this to mean that the risk of an expensive asset being killed by an anti-ship missile could markedly raise the risk of a prospective sister ship being killed by the budget axe, they might just be right.
To LCS program supporters, however, the future looks bright.
“Last year’s budget accelerated the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, which, despite its development problems, is a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy’s big, blue-water surface combatants. The new approach to LCS procurement and competition should provide an affordable, scalable, and sustainable path to producing the quantity of ships we need.”
Now, Arleigh Burke DDGs are armed to the teeth and built to take a hit and keep fighting, with advanced damage control and Kevlar armor, but they are pretty expensive too. So when you future LCS sailors are standing watch off a hostile shore, sweating in the evening humidity and trying to figure out if that was heat lightning or the flash from a salvo launch of Silkworms, remember the most important thing: you and your self-defense suite of a single RAM launcher, a 57 mm gun, maybe a couple of 30 mm, and some M2 .50-calibers are at the tip of the spear when it’s too dangerous for a Burke.
Consider yourself lucky to be part of the vision for the future, which looks increasingly unmanned.
“This means, among other things,” Gates said, “extending the range at which U.S. naval forces can fight, refuel, and strike, with more resources devoted to long-range unmanned aircraft and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; new sea-based missile defenses; a submarine force with expanded roles that is prepared to conduct more missions deep inside an enemy’s battle network. We will also have to increase submarine strike capability and look at smaller and unmanned underwater platforms.”
Since range is not the strong suit of today’s manned naval strike fighters, this could mean that a UCAV is looking more likely to be part of tomorrow’s Carrier Air Wing. So unless a carrier takes a UCAS-D straight in the spud locker during upcoming testing, you young naval aviators may want to begin preparing to say hello to your new wingman Artoo Detoo.
While Gates praised the most recent Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan as a step forward, he also gave warning that hard times were coming with respect to the budget, saying, “it is important to remember that, as the wars recede, money will be required to reset the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the conflicts. And there will continue to be long-term – and inviolable – costs associated with taking care of our troops and their families. In other words, I do not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions. At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to 6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.
“Though I have addressed a number of topics today,” Gates said, “I should add that I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But, mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities.”
After seeing the real-world consequences to Army and Air Force programs following similar speeches, there was little doubt that his words were indeed marked. It was a speech that made clear that virtually everything is on the table, and that Gates is willing to kill major programs and more in order to carry out his vision.