As 2008 comes to a conclusion, the time has come to reflect on naval activity for 2008 and offer some reflection regarding the most important developments of the year. My list will undoubtedly leave out activities that others believe are important, and will also undoubtedly include items that many don’t believe belong. So be it, I am but one observer who looks at periods greater than one year at a time as a practice, but note that in certain years specific actions, events, activities, and items occur that carry with them long term effects that may or may not be immediately evident.
5) The X-47B. No single military technology introduced in 2008 has the potential to radically reform an entire military function like the X-47B has to reform Carrier aviation. The X-47B becomes the prototype for changes yet fully analyzed regarding how naval forces will attack and defend the from the sky over the seas in the 21st century. The ability to add range, payload, and endurance to sea based strike aviation will enhance the most important military capability of naval forces today, and has the potential to overcome many of the limitations of carrier air power the US Navy has dealt with since WWII. The X-47B is far from a sure thing, it must overcome challenges both technical and political to be fully realized, and even then the current platform cannot replace the human being as the decision maker of life and death. However, it is a step towards the future, an evolution towards a model that can potentially advance the US Navy beyond the latest generation of capabilities challengers are producing, and with that the X-47B offers the potential of a capability well worth the time and investment.
4) International Anti-Pirate Armada. The desire to build coalitions and shared security initiatives has long been a purpose of the modern US Navy, and the slow but deliberate development of an international armada off the coast of Somalia to fight piracy has been nothing short of brilliant to observe in formation. Big ideas start with small implementations, and the big idea of shared security responsibility from responsible global economic powers in the form of combating piracy in unison may seem like a small thing, but it is a big step towards better things. The initiatives that fail usually do so by attempting to do too much at once, beyond the means and political will of participants. The international anti-piracy armada on the other hand demonstrates that starting from a small foundation and working up produces positive momentum, and has the potential to be the foundation for similar shared security arrangements in the 21st century. The idea that one nation cannot do everything alone isn’t unique to the United States, and is appealing to the global community that understands shared costs, shared risks, and shared ideals can be the foundation for shared responsibility against the shared threats to the global commons.
3) Satellite Shootdown. While politically, both domestic and international, this event was handled with the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, at the technical and professional level this event represents everything that is right in regards to commercial – government – military cooperation. Using the best and brightest throughout industry and government, the US Navy was able to make the technical adjustments and calculations necessary to utilize a weapon system to perform a mission the weapon system was never designed for, and overcome enormous challenges to hit a target only a few feet wide moving at 13,000 mph above the atmosphere of the planet. Oh by the way, it was a direct hit. This represents the very best example in 2008 why evolution using existing technology is always the most productive model for developing new capabilities at lower cost, and while the Navy gets the praise, credit the private sector workforce in the industry as well for the brilliant demonstration of national science and technical power.
2) Soft Power Deployments. While major naval battle groups to the Middle East still capture the attention (and imagination) of political rhetoric, the real demonstration of national naval power that caught my attention this year was the many proactive humanitarian deployments globally. Whether it was the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) Pacific Partnership deployment, the USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) African Partnership Station Deployment, USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51) for the Navy Diver-Global Fleet Station 2008, USS Boxer (LHD 4) and USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) for the Continuing Promise 2008 deployments, or the various other deployments including the USCGC Dallas (WHEC 716), HSV Swift, and the task orders of major assets that often get overlooked, like the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) following the Tsunami destruction in the central Philippines. While the response by naval forces for humanitarian support is nothing new, the dedication and focus of the mission profile as a major part of national naval power, and in particular the intentional deployment for that function, is relatively new. 2008 demonstrated that this expanded capability of national soft power offers long term promise of how military forces can support joint agency national power, a banner year for a refocus towards the use of true national power with military forces in ways other than the need to actually use force to achieve strategic ends.
1) Hybrid Sailor and Train To Qualify. The single most important development in the US Navy in 2008 is the Hybrid Sailor and Train to Qualify program realized with the Littoral Combat Ship. Even if the LCS platforms do not pan out, the Navy has made significant, perhaps revolutionary progress, by realizing the necessity and rewards of smarter, better trained, motivated sailors who are put in situations that require more responsibility yet more personal accountability. As volunteers who must meet qualification or be failed out of the program, it is hardly a surprise that Hybrid Sailors who qualify end up thriving in an environment of high expectations. I believe this often overlooked but critical change in philosophy of high expectations for sailors is the single most important long term improvement in how the Navy does business since the cold war. The model produces exactly the right foundation for long term benefits towards realizing highly trained small vessel crews able to support dispersed, complex networks of interconnected complex systems on several ships towards the ends of sustainable, distributed battle space presence and dominance. The long term benefits of Hybrid Sailors and the Train to Qualify program will reap rewards for the US Navy for decades to come, and in my opinion, will ultimately be reflected upon as the single most important and remembered evolutionary step towards a 21st century Navy.
Crossposted at Information Dissemination