Tags: Leadership, Maritime Strategy, Shipbuilding
Sebastian Abbott from the AP had a nice article from AFG last week that got me pondering again on what the Navy is missing that the Marines and Army are receiving by the metric ton; combat experience. Outside SEALS, SEABEEs, and a few other specialized units – for all intents and purposes our Navy has not been stressed by prolonged, direct combat with the enemy during this conflict. FRP and presence ops are not combat.
This is what got my attention – after nine years of continual combat, even a learning institution such as the US Marines are still relearning fundamentals;
The Marines patrolling through the green fields and tall mud compounds of Helmand province’s Sangin district say they are literally in a race for their lives. They are trying to adjust their tactics to outwit Taliban fighters, who have killed more coalition troops here than in any other Afghan district this year.
“As a new unit coming in, you are at a distinct disadvantage because the Taliban have been fighting here for years, have established fighting positions and have laid the ground with a ton of IEDs,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “You have to evolve quickly because you have no other choice.”
Despite the previous occupants, the Marines who pushed out with Ceniceros that fateful afternoon said they didn’t realize how dangerous the mud compounds to the south of the base were until the Taliban unleashed a stream of machine-gun fire, pinning down two Marines.
“We kind of snuck our nose in the south to see what the south was about and we found out real quick that you don’t go south unless you have a lot of dudes,” said Sgt. Adam Keliipaakaua, who was leading the patrol.
All the services have history departments, they have recommended reading lists, they teach military history at the Service Academies and War Colleges – but does it sink in where it need to sink in the most, in the places where decisions are made on how to train, equip, and otherwise prepare this nation for war?
There are few things in this line of work that can bring clarity to the mind more than actual combat. It has always been true that at the end of a conflict a military has a fairly good handle on what works and what does not. True in 1945 in Europe and the Pacific, 1972 in Vietnam, and 2008 in Iraq.
After a war winds down though, the rough concensus starts to break down as the second guessing takes place, the think tanks start overthinking, and some advocates do a better job than others in selling their version of victory. That starts the process of separation of what is needed, and what is wanted.
The unsexy and difficult tend to be starved or forgotten in time. New and upproven theories come to the front in a time of peace with the promise to go around the unsexy and difficult to make war all shiny and new – or better yet, distract from the requirements of the unsexy and difficult, as only in peace can you get away with ignoring the sexy and difficult things such as logistics, damage control, and young men holding ground with a rifle.
The problem is less the cliche of “Fighting the last war” as much as forgetting what happened during the last war. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s central theme of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam is in a large part the question of the degree our military is a learning institution. Unlike peacetime where a PPT or White Paper can avoid the hard truth of reality if sponsored well – in combat, the truth comes out through blood and treasure.
The wars of the last decade have been land wars and the ground services, Army and Marines, have had to learn more than the air and sea services. Just the nature of the war. Though there are many – some of the Lessons Learned/Identified are not new at all. No, they are things that were learned and written in blood decades earlier- but forgotten in the ease of peace. Just a few examples from the ground side of the house.
- RPG cages/Slat armor: Plenty of pictures of them on Strykers and other armored vehicles now, but not so starting early on in this war. The RPG dates back to WWII, so you can’t say their impact on light armor is a new issue. When RPGs became common in Vietnam, we put our 113’s in cages of one type or another. Very effective – and very forgotten. Like the next example, lives were lost, memories came for the fore, redneck engineering held the line until official production – and now we have them again. No excuse.
- Unarmored HUMVEEs/MRAP: All you needed to know about their need was learned and forgotten in Somalia. Israel and Apartheid South African experiences spanning decades also gave clues. The story by now is well known – as it was on 10 SEP 01. No excuse.
- Inadequacy of the M-16/M-4 and its varmint round, the .223/5.56mm: Tired but true argument. All discussion should have ended when the M-14 was brought out of storage wholesale mid-decade and serious talk came up towards a 6.5/6.8mm round – but the G4 guys seem to have beat the G3 guys, again, on this with a classic bureaucratic holding actin – sadly. Same institutional concept that ignored Gen. Mattis when he was MARCENT and wanted MRAPs for his Marines. The amount of our own countrymen’s blood on the hands of our accountants and non-warfighting Staff Weenies is enough to leave anyone gobsmacked. Back to the subject at hand, I recommend anyone who wants to defend M-16 series talk to MG Robert H. Scales, USA (Ret.). No excuse.
- The joy of armor. I love the Canadian example from AFG on armor, a lot. It isn’t that they didn’t learn the lessons – it is just they learned the wrong lessons. Too much peacekeeping since the end of the Korean War and the lost perspective from the end of garrison duty in Germany after the Cold War had left the Canadians within a year of getting rid of all their tracked armor. They also let the wrong people run their internal national messaging – tanks are symbols of masculine militarism, etc. When reality squatted on their national bellybutton picking, they just had a few Leopard 1s left. It didn’t’ take long for the Canadian dead from AFG to scream for tanks, as the reality of combat brought the unique skill-set of the tank to the front. Where do we find our Canadian brothers now? With a nice gaggle of Leopard A2s. They also are bringing back the CH-47. No excuse.
- Irreplaceable tracked vehicle: In the same line as the Canadian idea – we too had fallen in love with the wheeled vehicle. They have their place – but are not all things for all places. Strykers are great as long as you don’t, ahem, have to worry about IED – but if you can’t leave the road to engage the enemy or get away from a kill zone – then all you are is a death trap. We mostly knew that —- but this still makes the cut because there was a growing school that wanted to get rid of all tracks – they are still around – experience in the field says you can’t …. again.
- The gun on aircraft (USAF): Everyone knows the story from Vietnam, but as we can see with the USMC & Navy’s version of the F-35, we have not learned the importance of the gun as well as the USAF (gunpods don’t count). Infantry always enjoys a good strafing run – but recently it has also come to the attention of the COIN crowd that the aircraft cannon is a very precise and discriminating weapon. No GPS coord problems or laser designation challenges. No excessive explosions. Man in the loop accountability.
- Infantry: You never have enough infantry: Enough said. What is less sexy to a peace time green eyeshade number cruncher than a guy with a rifle in his hand? They are a pain until you have to go to war – then all of a sudden you remember that the Marines may have something there; everyone a rifleman. Talk to the Army non-infantry types who have done nothing but infantry work.
To forget and to wish away; this is human nature – and it is unavoidable. Things are forgotten either by neglect or intention – and when conflict comes, people are killed, battles are lost, and if you forget something bad enough – your nation is put at Strategic Risk because in the comfort of peace things were forgotten for the wrong reasons.
The longer you go between conflicts, the wider the gulf seems to be between what is needed and what is actually there when you show up. As it has been a very long time since the US Navy has been challenged at sea, the experience of the Army and Marines had me thinking, “What are the half-dozen problems waiting for us when war at sea comes?”
Oh, it will come – I don’t know when, and I don’t know with whom – but it will come. There are some things out there that we don’t know that will work well and others won’t. That is why you can’t put all your hopes in one system – you might have picked the lemon. There are, however, somethings that we will have no excuse for forgetting. History is too clear – the gaps too obvious to ignore. These are some of the known knowns.
- Damage Control: COLE, PRINCETON, TRIPOLI, STARK, FORRESTAL, ENTERPRISE and the whole British experience in The Falklands War demonstrate that automated DC is a myth and pipe dream. Destruction has its own plan. There is one critical thing you need to save a damaged ship and fight hurt; manpower. Multiple DC teams. Optimal manning is only good in a permissive peace time environment when you don’t have to deploy for more than a few weeks. Manning for ships such as LCS will make them a one hit wonder. They take one hit, and you’ll wonder what happened to them. Taking away DDG manning to such obsurd levels – including the DDG-1000 manning concept – and you will simply wonder, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” When we worry a lot about at-sea manning while our shore staffs bloat – you need to wonder if we are a serious, warfighting institution.
- Underway replenishment. Is there anything less sexy than an oiler? Follow the link and look at Hooper’s article here. Worth a deeper ponder.
- Organic refueling. So, does buddy tanking from one light strike fighter to another light strike fighter make you feel comfortable about our ability to project significant power ashore while keeping the CVN a healthy distance away? Do you really think we will always have USAF tankers based close to where we need to be to support us? Really? Fewer shorter range light strike fighters with their CVN closer to shore. Really? Speaking of unsexy, think the C-2 will last forever? Really? Who is doing your ASW again?
- Numbers in the game of ASW: You always … always … run short of platforms and weapons. Once the shooting starts and people start seeing submarines under every herring pod – check your Light Weight Torpedo inventory. If for some, ahem, reason your peace time LWT training and testing wasn’t what it should have been for the expected targets and environment, and they don’t work – what is your back-up weapon? How many SSN do you have, and they are doing what where? No excuse here at all. From WWII to the Falklands history is screaming at us, again – no excuse.
- NSFS: Anything less than 5″ is an insult and an embarrassment. Not archaic – ask anyone from the Falklands to Five-Inch Friday about it – again. Talk to the Marines what they think about a single mount 57mm gun with a non-functioning NLOS onboard as their NSFS.
- Redundancy in offensive and defensive weaponry: Back to the ASW example in part and a review of your standard issue WWII DD or DE. Ever wonder why they had so many different types of weapons – and so many? Well – in combat, things break or get broken – different types of targets are better addressed by different weapons. There are no training time outs in combat. A little close to the modern timelines … there was a reason certain warships were on the gun line off Vietnam and others weren’t. Numbers are hard from a PMS and manning perspective – but no one wants to be an O-ring or golden BB away from being Not-Mission-Capable when people are trying to kill you and a few hundred of your shipmates.
There, that is my dirty half-dozen of things that can/will be a problem due to neglect and complacency in peace. Your list may be different.
We should know the lessons of history, but are we applying them? I firmly believe that the Transformationalists are good people who are trying to find a better way – but they are putting too much on hope and not enough on critical thinking about practical matters. When you tell people your Amphibious Ships are too valuable to get close enough to shore to put Marines ashore – your idea of NSFS is a single 57mm gun and a few dozen missiles so bad the Army doesn’t want them – your open ocean ASW plans involve remotely piloted center consol fishing boats – and you tell people with a straight face that a Graf Spee sized warship with a huge superstructure radiating like there is no tomorrow within visual range of shore is “Stealthy” – then we should stop, pause, and reflect.
When our Fleet is challenged at sea again, will a modern day nautically-minded Tallyrand say of those who designed the Navy, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.“?
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- On Midrats 14 Sep 14: Episode 245: “The Carrier as Capital Ship” with RADM Thomas Moore, USN, PEO CVN