The USN And Long-Term Strategy Part II:

by admin on October 3, 2013

1153493734_3139Please indulge me as I continue the strategy discussion from earlier this week…where I tally a few concerns about the Navy’s lack of a defined strategy beyond an anodyne rehash of “uh, we just do stuff…from the sea!”.  To sum up my position so far–my hope is that the U.S. Navy starts to fix upon some defined strategic goals and works to align DOD and wider USG with them (rather than vice-versa).

A well-defined strategic goal would help the US national security community work harder on right-sizing force allocations and get more comfortable in assessing risk, in accepting that risk, and then operating effectively in environments without requiring overwhelming–and disproportionate–force overmatch.

2) An aimless Navy leads to aimless investment:

The adoption of a “crisis-response” Navy has led to an almost cult-like devotion to tactical overmatch.  Look, I really, really like the “crisis-response” mission (See my Boston Globe/NYT piece on this here), but with some caveats–America must be realistic about risks.  It is impossible to entirely mitigate risk in every mission.  The US Navy can do an enormous amount with a basic patrol vessel.  But if Navy leadership is pressured to mitigate risk all the time, it invariably leads to fighting pirates with a do-anything, ballistic missile-defense ready DDG-51.

And that, we know, is strategically stupid.

But the overarching government concern seems to be more focused on risk aversion–“get mission X done but, under no circumstances are you Navy folk to take any risks that might, potentially, complicate things for us here in DC”–than in getting the most benefit out of the most modest investments.

In effect, the Navy has been incentivized to just go and hit tiny problems with the biggest hammer they can fund.  And that isn’t a recipe for good strategy.

Overwhelming force is fine, but it isn’t needed all the time. Look how China used minimal force to achieve, in the South China Sea, one of the single most successful, strategically important naval victories in the past 25 years.  After spending a decade taking over outlying Vietnamese islands, China, in the early ’90s, embarked upon a major act of aggression–a land-grab off the Philippines.

The land-grab (or, more technically, reef-grab) was a smashing success, and China did this with next-to-nothing in terms of force.  The entire Navy’s primary anti-aircraft weapons were guns.  At the time, the PLA(N) only had about 20 missile-shooters in the fleet, each capable of firing off a few short-range surface-to-air missiles. China also had only a handful of land-based aircraft capable of repulsing an eviction effort.

But China didn’t need the force because it was secure in the knowledge that the United States, sulking after getting kicked out of the Philippines, would not come to the aid of their former ally–so China went and acted, opening up a path to claiming the entire South China Sea.

By taking an educated, well-informed, well-thought-through risk, China was able to efficiently apply minimal power to win a big strategic victory.  If we look for a comparable American effort, all I can really point towards are cases of operational overkill in response to a crisis.

Take Operation Warden, the intervention in East Timor–an operational success, but–with the benefit of twelve years of hindsight–tactically…Did we really need to deploy a cruiser (USS Mobile Bay) there at the time?  Were Indonesian subs really a threat that required deploying all manner of ASW defenses to protect the cruiser?  Did the intricate preparations to secure the resources used to, in turn, secure a nation from some lightly-armed rag-tag gangs go beyond what was necessary (why not just land equipment capable of guiding aircraft traffic)?  Did un-needed force protection consume a disproportionate amount of resources?

In contrast, in the South China Sea, there were all kinds of potentially hostile sub-surface and aerial assets arrayed against the Chinese–and the Chinese Navy just shrugged and went and seized their targets, certain that nothing would happen.

In Timor, we kicked in the door using an overwhelming amount of resources.  Armed with a more comprehensive strategy, and empowered to work as an all-government team to reliably evaluate and accept risk, the Navy might have been  better positioned to articulate priorities and, in turn, invest and operate more efficiently.  We’d get more strategic “bang” for our operational buck, so to speak.

That’s easier said than done.  Even today, for the lack of scalable equipment/platforms, the Navy has a devil of a time calibrating responses to smaller-scale threats–the default position, for lack of any middling resources–is all out.  In essence, we either send a carrier or we don’t.  Now…China’s Navy may not be able to wage a full-scale war right now, but it certainly has done a great job handling routine crises within it’s strategically-defined area of interest.  And again, China’s larger strategic guide traces out a logical path for a scalable response–grow the small boats and escort fleets first, and then expand into larger, more ambitious platforms.

Regularly having too much force available is damaging in itself.  Aside from forming unrealistic expectations within Navy leadership that overwhelming force will “aways” be available, overwhelming force doesn’t encourage collaboration–I mean, why work with State to diplomatically neutralize the Indonesian Navy when we can just sink ’em with a flick of the wrist?  A little less security encourages better relationships–and forces better support–from other parts of government (and our allies). And in Timor, tight integration with the diplomatic side of the house might have paid real dividends.

At the end of the day, we didn’t really have any grand strategic goals at stake in Timor. If we did, maybe we’d have been better served taking taxpayer money used to support our big naval mobilization at Timor and using it to support post-pacification diplomatic engagement–corruption control, law-enforcement, or even sports programs.  Or something to retard China’s diplomatic march into the deep Pacific.  Hell, State only got around to placing an embassy there–three years after the intervention!

That’s not how we should play the game.

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