Overlooked in the CNO’s CSIS Speech

by admin on October 5, 2016

So the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, gave a speech at CSIS, and everyone is excited about his surprise termination of the term “A2/AD”.

That’s all well and good–I have hated the A2/AD debate since the term crawled out from the torrid fever swamps of swarm boats and carrier killers (Read this, for example:)–but there was something a bit more interesting than A2/AD in the CNO’s speech that risks being ignored/overlooked.

It was his simple call to focus on the Naval mission:

To me, everything must be appreciated through the crystal clear lens of enhancing the Navy’s ability to conduct its Title X mission, as discussed in “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” which states that the U.S. Navy will operate at sea and be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat to protect America from attack and to ensure the nation can project strategic influence around the globe wherever and whenever necessary in support of our national security policy objectives.

That’s solid stuff–usually Navy doctrine is formulated by the CNO, presented once and is promptly forgotten.

But I’m glad this CNO is revisiting his doctrinal foundations. Framing is important. Focusing on the Navy’s mission doesn’t–like A2/AD, or “Carrier Killer” or “Small Boat Swarm” or “Little Green Men” throw the United States immediately into fear-driven, defensive-oriented tactical discussions–discussions that often exaggerate threats and make our competitors 20ft taller than they actually are.

“Pearl-clutching” and fear-mongering worked in the neatly bi-polar Cold War, but today, in a more multilateral world, fretful talk bolsters American competitors. The United States can no longer afford to endow competitors with overblown wonder-weaponry or unmerited skill. America must learn to manage threats and challenges without fear.

Changing this approach is going to be hard. Leveraging fear is baked into America’s national security community; far too many careers got built on overestimating the Russians, or by fearful pearl-clutching over Carrier-Killers and Swarm Boats.

Fearlessly managing challenges is hard. So it’s really heartening to have somebody like the CNO stand up and say “stop this nonsense”.  The Navy mission is a far more healthy staring point for American maritime strategists, the American Congress, U.S. industrial stakeholders and the American public alike.

MTMNM_map_listGeography Counts!

Another healthy suggestion that got overlooked in the A2/AD story is this:

Potential adversaries challenge us in different parts of the world. Those areas have different geographic features like choke points, islands, ocean currents, and mountains. Different geographies dictate a wide variety of concepts and technologies that enemies will use to fight in those different areas. This variety has a major impact on how U.S. naval forces best seize and maintain the initiative.

This is good. Sailors need to understand the region they’re working in, and their fleet–or the part tasked to be responsive to aggression–must be molded to work, fight and win there.

Part of that is understanding the physical characteristics of the potential battlefield–but it’s also about understanding the wider context–the regional diplomatic interlinks, the regional balances of power and all that other good stuff. In a multilateral world, all that stuff really matters–and can tip the scales between peace and war…and victory.

Hopefully the CNO will follow this “clear-talking initiative” up with an effort to de-emphasize bilateral comparisons–comparing naval strength of China and the United States is interesting (and scary), but comparing the naval strength of China (with about 1.7 basic aircraft carriers) with all the other naval forces of Asia (with a whole bunch of big carriers, little carriers and other nascent flat-decks) is more informative–suddenly making the dragon look a bit more like a paper tiger.

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