Many of the decision points in our lives can be sorted into four specific guiding questions. They provide an excellent means of evaluating our decision, our choices, and most effectively melding what we need with what we can afford. The questions can correspondingly apply to selecting a college, or to prospective employment. They work well when designing and building a house, or buying a car. Purchasing insurance. Even when deciding on marriage. What are these four questions?

  • What can I live with?
  • What can I live without?
  • What can’t I live with?
  • What can’t I live without?

Simple questions, really. But their answers require a good deal of thought.

They are also questions that should be asked when developing National Security Strategy, and its subcomponent, National Military Strategy. Those questions need to be asked as we determine the size, posture, and capability of our military and its supporting industrial base. Those four straightforward questions must eventually be asked of our Navy at a number of different levels.

The first is to address the size and capabilities/capacity of our Navy. What can we reasonably expect our Navy to do? For how long? In how many places at once? Hard questions that demand realistic and informed discussion. Currently, we have a Cooperative Strategy that cannot be executed under any but the most benign conditions on the world’s oceans. How long are we going to continue to make promises to ourselves and our allies that we cannot keep? What are we willing to have the courage to say openly that we cannot do with current capabilities?

Related to the above queries, but not identical, is to ask how big will our Navy be. Numbers tossed around in the previous decade and a half range anywhere from 340 down to the current 285-ish. (The disparity of 55 ships is equivalent to the strength of two Royal Navies, so it isn’t trivial.) Yet, the budget realities and the cuts made to shipbuilding projections point to a number closer to 260, if not lower, by the end of the decade. While it is true that 260 modern warships have tremendous combat power, it is also axiomatic that they cannot have the same global forward presence that 340 warships, some with somewhat less capability perhaps, can have.

The next level at which the four guiding questions need to be asked is the level of ship design and shipbuilding. This cannot be done in isolation, but must be informed by serious and exhaustive discussion regarding what Admiral Zumwalt called the “high-low mix”. How many capital ships of extensive capability are required for our missions, and how many of lesser but more appropriate capabilities does the Navy need? It is this level in particular that the Navy seems unable, in fact abjectly refuses, to answer. Not every ship needs every capability. When we believe it does, we end up with multi-BILLION dollar platforms chasing skiffs off the Horn of Africa, and a fleet so expensive that the risking of a single unit for a dangerous but necessary mission becomes all but unacceptable.

There has been much discussion of those issues in the pages of Proceedings, and among Naval Officers and strategic thinkers, Naval enthusiasts, and the legions of the Great Unwashed who blog the intertubes. One of the more interesting remarks in this regard was an assertion, perhaps rightly, that with its current philosophy and unwillingness to address the high-low question, the Navy is incapable of building a platform in between the under-gunned and unsurvivable LCS and an Aegis-capable Arleigh Burke.

So the question of the mix is not new. Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote of it with his Buy Fords, not Ferraris in the April 2009 Proceedings. Discussion at the last three USNI/AFCEA West conferences was rich with commentary. In this month’s Proceedings, Norman Polmar evokes Plan URR with his A Paradigm Shift, asking whether a much larger number of STOVL carriers would be more effective than a small and likely shrinking number of $15 billion dollar CVNs. (A hat-tip woulda been nice!) When I asked the question of high-low mix at this year’s Shipbuilding Panel in San Diego, the panelists all but admitted that there hadn’t been much discussion on the subject, and that the goal was still 313 ships.

The final level at which those four questions above need to be asked is in the experimentation with “Optimal Manning”. Anyone who even occasionally glances at this site knows my aversion to reducing crews of ANY equipment or weapon platform below what is required to drive, fight, fix, and maintain. The biggest decision for the Navy has to be defining “optimal”, and to whom the term applies. Is it “optimal” for the Navy leadership to show reduced manpower costs to our Congresscritters while our warships continue to experience serious maintenance issues and are not mission capable? Do we want crews so thin that there is only time for eating, sleeping, and operating? No time for training in the myriad skills and requirements of basic seamanship, damage control, or weapons proficiency? Do we want crews that have no ability to absorb any casualties without compromise of mission?

Again, difficult questions. Senior Navy leadership, and senior Defense Department officials, are going to have to make some hard calls. The answer is not to exhort our Sailors to do “more with less”. That bit of self-delusional platitude is the path to a head-on collision with the realities of combat, with usually catastrophic results.

The discussions must be informed, serious, and realistic. And they need to be soon. In May, USNI/AFCEA will be holding the Joint Warfighting Conference in Virginia Beach. The theme is “Joint and Coalition Forces; The Inflection Point. What to Hold and What to Fold?” Without these discussions, commentary will again be nearly blind speculation, akin to a hand of five-card stud, but deciding which cards to keep and which to discard without looking at them. If we continue to insist on playing our cards in such a way, we ought not to be surprised if the betting patterns of our potential adversaries change accordingly.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Aviation, Coast Guard, Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Piracy, Proceedings

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  • TheMightyQ

    All of these questions are correct and necessary to ask. The answers are both simple and complex. Simple in that we already know how to find the answers. 1. Determine priorities. 2.Ensure adequate forces are in place to fulfill the obligations those priorities place upon us.
    The true difficulty really lies in the question of whether senior leaders have the intestinal fortitude to tell the truth, no matter what, and politics be damned. Added to that is the factor of never wanting to be the one to say, “We can’t do that mission.” However, if the higher priority of a functional, warfighting Navy wants to be maintained, then there are missions to which we must say no.

  • URR, You said,

    “The discussions must be informed, serious, and realistic.”

    Given the decisions w/respect to shipbuilding made in the last 25 years, I have reservations that many “informed” senior leaders will have the brass to do what you suggest. A good portion of the Navy has fallen prey to Madison Avenue-like gimmicks of advertising and PowerPointing (new verb) into the future. We can’t afford our acquisition process, nor can we afford more of business as usual. To get to “serious, and realistic” we need less of the shennanigans that landed us in this predicament and more of the voices (many in this venue and Proceedings) crying in the wilderness.

    John Boyd said, “We can’t just look at our present experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experience and the strategic world we live in.”

    For instance, talk to contractors other than the ones with incestuous relationships with the USN–part of the revolving door, as it were. There are plenty of serious thinkers who comment here and at Galrahn’s ID, who have splendid ideas that won’t put us in the poor house. Articles have been written (and thankfully, you referenced many of them) that betray a level of insight to reality that I do not see in Navy leadership.

    And you can bet, the Navy will respond with the “do more with less”—largely because curiosity and imagination can’t be found where it counts.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    First things first. Why can’t we build a new ship that won’t fall apart in a year or two?

    (I’d put Byron in charge of BUSHIPS if we still had that.)

    Speaking of John Boyd – will we ever see the likes of Admiral Thomas F. Connolly again?

    – Kyon