Over to whom?

November 2012


With the Big E coming home for good, the NIMITZ acting a bit old and busted, there has been a lot of discussion as of late about the ability of the US Navy to do what she has become accustomed to doing; projecting power globally from the sea with almost impunity – and the large-deck carrier being the tool primarily used to do so.

Through gross program mismanagement, myopic POM-centric rice bowl games, and simple parochialism – much of the nuance, depth, and flexibility of what was on those decks are gone as well, most notably the loss of the S-3, ES-3, organic tanking (fighters tanking don’t count, silly goose), and independent long range strike – gone and replaced with a deck of jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none RW and light fighters with AEW thrown in for character.

Add to that the ongoing “to the right” extended deployment of our Amphib “small deck” carriers (yes, I know, I know, I know) and their ARGs, funkyesque methods of Fleet number counting, and the expected contraction in shipbuilding budgets that all but this ordered to say otherwise accept will be the new norm – then more and more smart people are trying to step back and get the larger view.

What exactly are the larger Strategic implications of the clear decline in the US Navy’s global reach?

As is often the case, to help break the intellectual gridlock, it is helpful to bring in outside views. Over at the UK blog Thin Pinstiped Line, Sir Huphrey speaks with big medicine. The whole post is worth a read – but everyone should ponder the below a bit.

The reality is that the USN now is probably in the same place as the RN found itself in the mid-1960s – mid 1970s. Reduced budgets, elderly vessels still in service, while the new designs (T42s, 22s) were taking longer than planned to come into service, and yet operationally committed across the globe.

The ability of the USN to operate with impunity across the globe, steaming where it wanted on its terms, and able to stand its ground against almost any aggressor has gone forever. Todays’ USN remains a fiercely capable and strong navy, but its ability to exert unlimited and unchallenged control of the high seas has gone, probably forever. Instead it would be more realistic to judge that the future USN will provide a capability to deploy power into some areas, but only at the cost of reducing capability and influence in others.

In a classic, “over to you” moment as the Royal Navy slowly retreated West of Suez after the late 1950’s unpleasantness, and with the final moment by Prime Minister Wilson in the annus horribilis that was 1968 – the world approaching mid-21st Century is stuck with a quandary.

The British at least were handing things off, indirectly, to her daughter; a relatively smooth transition to a nation that was cut from the same cloth and whose interests were more often than not those interests of Britain.

If, as Sir Humphrey states, we face a future where the global capability of the US will decline in proportion to her navy – then who will be there to fill the gap? Multiple smaller regional powers? A rising power? Status quo, but thinner? Nothing?

None of those three are in the interests of the US.

Willfully abandoning territory – enough of the “global commons” PR stunts, please – to the whims of whatever power has the will to take it, is a classic description of a nation in decline. In our case, that would be a willful decline – but almost all declines are willful.

Is everyone on board with that? It is a choice.

Hat tip BJ.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Aviation, Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security
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  • This rings very true, but it is very important to remember that we have a choice. The US CAN afford to maintain a great Navy, we just can’t have that and unlimited social welfare too. The UK at the time made a similar choice, though from a much much smaller economic base. We have the capability, do we have the will?

    • CharleyA

      We can afford to have both if: 1) we raise revenues; 2) move to a smaller garrison / National Guard land force; or 3) deploy effective financial oversight. I like #2 – there is plenty of money in the DoD budget, but it is not well spent in terms of force structure, acquisition policies, and continued crazy waste.

      • No, you can’t because the thirst for social welfare programs will ALWAYS increase faster than any possible revenue stream.

      • CharleyA

        Rational social welfare programs is what I mean. Can be done. Plenty of examples around the world. I might add that there are plenty of irrational programs around as well, that won’t be around much longer.

      • The_Usual_Suspect61

        “Rational Social Welfare Programs” is an oxymoron. Sometimes “free” is too high of a price. When bureaucrats are doling out OPM, they can never give away too much – only too little. Social programs are killing America.

      • grandpabluewater

        Demand rises to infinity for any free good. Supply reaches a limit due to cost and capacity, resulting in collapse into monopoly and rationing.

      • Plenty of examples around the world….really?

        Plenty of examples of countries with top-line Navies with rational social welfare programs??

        Pray tell where??

      • CharleyA

        That’s really not the question. Within the current DoD budget and its projected growth – discounting any sequester – money can be reprogrammed to fund the Navy adequately. Rice bowls / other services may be upset, but the funding is there. Particularly if rational benefit and tax reforms are enacted.

      • grandpabluewater

        Optimism in the face of corruption, intellectual inadequacy, and greed is usually less than rational. (Short form: It ain’t the way to bet).

  • No. You are correct, the navy made choices, and not good ones. We seem to be bereft of leadership that understands the importance of our global role, and the vacuum created as we “draw down.” There appears to be a general lack of seriousness in our navy’s leadership (shipbuilding choices, for instance). Unfortunately, our near term leadership appears to be more of the same.

    I disagree with our UK blogger, as I believe our navy will regain her rightful place, but not without much pain.

    • NEC338x

      I agree to the extent that it is possible to maintain a credible naval force. IMO, to achieve that we need to refocus the naval grand strategy on a “blue water” first approach in the wisdom of Sir Julian Corbett and ATM. That will require a foreign policy shift that I don’t see happening.

      To Cdr Sal’s question, I see the two most likely rising global powers being China and a resurgent Russia. Both are historical continental powers with military establishments that tend towards seeing the navy as a supporting arm of traditional army strategy. Thus they play right into Sir Corbett’s thesis. Minor regional powers still have to defend their interface with the high seas, lest they become a pierside fleet.

      I believe that future platforms need to be optimized for the high seas with a premium placed on speed and endurance at the expense of the swiss army knife. When your mechanical locker is getting thinned out its best to keep the most functional tools.

      • Absolutely!

      • grandpabluewater

        Admirable summary Brad. Shame you wandered into the wrong recruiter’s office long ago….

      • I look terrible in bell bottoms.

        But I’ve long stated the same with regard to land forces. It’s far, far easier for a maneuver capable army to adapt to COIN than to find out your COIN force has to fight a maneuver army.

        You can afford to lose a battle or two in COIN. You may not get a second chance in a maneuver war.

      • If I’m reading you right, you’re saying it’s a lot easier for a blue water navy to dominate the littorals, than for a littoral navy to dominate the blue water. If that’s so, I wholeheartedly concur!

  • As said previously, we will miss Admiral Harvey. He saw the future.

    • grandpabluewater

      and he killed it.

  • Is it possible to in some way quantify what the loss of presence will be? Is it 25% less coverage in Europe?

    Also, are US naval vessels forward deployed or do they deploy from the US coast? Would forward deploying ships help increase the amount of patrols they do at sea, and thus presence?

    Doesn’t the US already have army, air force and marines already pre-positioned in known hotspots, such as the Middle East and Asia? How much coverage does the navy need to provide?

    I guess what we really need to understand is how many international economic interests would require the US navy to protect, which would help us determine the shipbuilding/aircraft building plan, and take it from there. Then it would be clear what the loss of influence would be.

    As an aside:

    If the US navy is tasked with protecting the resupply of overseas US forces, it may conceivably require a force that can fight 2 naval battles against the following potential adversaries:

    China: roughly 259 ships (of which 120 are small missile boats) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_Chinese_Navy_ships)
    Russia:roughly 221 ships (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_Russian_Navy_ships)

    That would probably require a more aggressive shipbuilding/aircraft building plan.

    But if the only real threat perceived is terrorism, then the shipbuilding plan can be very light.

    • grandpabluewater

      With sea power one make take as much or as little engagement with the land power as one pleases, move one’s own land forces where one will at little risk en transit. One make make a lodgement ashore at limited cost, and generate military power from a port and an airport in close communication within the lodgement. If the land forces are defeated ashore, they may retreat in good order to the lodgement, be taken away by the Navy and once strategy, tactics,logistics and leadership are adjusted, renew the battle elsewhere and when.

      Without it, logistics and reinforcements are fragile and success is unlikely.

      Concentrating on a tactic with a strategy just means the enemy will change tactics to one that has been neglected.

      Why doesn’t anybody know and execute the fundamentals.?

      Oh yeah, we elect ideologs, not patriotic pragmatists.

  • Valcan321

    Cut back on the Army and some on the airforce. The airforce is a massive waste of manpower and money.

    Im not talking about them not being worth it or doing their job im talking all the little crap. They use far more people to maintain the same amount of aircraft. They refuse to do CAS the way others have told them. They only kept the A-10 and invest in the AC-130 because i they didnt they might lose the job OF CAS itself to the Army (which in reality should be doing it in the first place).

    So yea make them change they wont havn’t been made to they control the Pentagon and DoD.

    Invest the money saved from the airforce and army to the navy. Stop buying 150-200mil dollar multirole fighters. Invest in a aircraft capable of doing the refueling job for the fleet. Invest in a food LONG RANGE airsuperiority fighter amd invest in a good attack aircraft like the A-6 was. After that choose wisely i’d say more subs or more dedicated frigates using a common hull design.

  • Matt

    Strictly talking carriers…. with the UK building 2, Japan 1 and France’s existing 1 it seems we as an alliance will be getting more super carrier capacity. The light carriers/amphibs from South Korea, Japan, Australia and many EU countries will also bulk us up. Our future light carriers America and Tripoli will also add to available carrier capacity. We can and should do more like adding a 12th super carrier and designating the America class as purpose built carriers instead of amphibs and then build more amphibs.
    To be honest if the Navy isn’t happy about the ship count then someone needs to be screaming about it louder. I have not heard anyone demanding 15 CSGs even though the demand is there. From where I sit everyone seems more or less content. China sure seems motivated to build up their Navy though. We should match our allies and all rise to the occasion. Someone has to be willing to dispense with the happy talk and demand a fleet worthy of the tasks at hand.

    • Wharf Rat

      I like your thoughts here. But what is missing – as part of the whole, is the subject of attack subs. When we talk power projection – I never hear that as part of it. The VA class subs are the best in the world and you won’t know they’re there – until you’re dead. That said – we need to build three per year to maintain numbers. But that won’t happen with Mr. Foodstamp president in office.

      • Matt

        Right on. Third sub for sure and even fourth if we could sell them to Australia, Japan or some other very close ally. We could get more capabilities and help allies and not pay 100% of the bill. If F-35 is good enough why not VA subs which allies need? At least sell them LA’s and add VA’s quicker. Even leasing one or the other would free up capital to buy more VA. But your right, no will no way with a food stamp culture.

    • Wharf Rat

      And yeah – we need more CVN’s, not less.

      • grandpabluewater

        CVN’s, CG’s, CA’s, DD”s FF’s AO/AOE/AFS/AE/AD/AS/ATF plus S-X, E-X, C-X, A-X, F-X and SS and SSN’s (land based aircraft we can just convert.

        Dump Pax Oceana Americana…Get Bella Oceana Chaotica.

    • grandpabluewater

      Not following old Gramps too closely, eh?

      • Matt

        Gramps I read you loud and clear. Many pieces make up the Navy but if you want to convince ordinary people to support a bigger Navy you should talk about carriers not supporting units IMHO. You have only limited time to change minds. Kind of like Democrats and welfare. Bait them in with flashy bling bling and and then tweak it up with actual requirements like supporting units. If they can use BS to convince people on dumb things why not use some BS to get some smart things that the country actually needs?

  • Boat School Grad

    THE Global Force for Good need not concern itself, or burden the taxpayers, or disturb the Flags social schedule with such nonsense as…

    “The ability of the USN to operate with impunity across the globe,
    steaming where it wanted on its terms, and able to stand its ground against
    almost any aggressor…”

    That is SO 1980’s.

    We hand out water and MRE’s now and would prefer to spend our time as a social experimentation and alternative energy Petri dish.

    Get with the program.

  • grandpabluewater

    so they can run away and not get hurt?


    The problems with the Navy don’t stem from a lack of money, but rather from a terrible mismanagement of available resources. We don’t have anyone capable of prioritizing.

    Everything is important all the time. No focus of effort, but a globally scattered mediocre effort. Carrier presence in the Gulf of 2.0. Really? Why? There isn’t enough work now to justify a 1.0.

    We sacrifice parts, maintenance personnel, and current readiness today to purchase JSF and LCS tomorrow. If we maintain what we have it will last a lot longer. What exactly do we need JSF and LCS to do that cannot be done with aircraft and ships in the inventory now?

    We have met the enemy and he is us. Our own leadership has proven incapable of running shipbuilding and is incapable of running current operations as well.

    We have plenty of money in DoD, but we insist on wasting it, then cry when there’s not enough to meet shortfalls we ourselves create by mismanaging what we have.

    Let’s not be so quick to point fingers at the rest of the government’s spending when we know damn well we’ve completely mismanaged acquisitions and operations for as far back as we have records. It was our bright idea to occupy a couple of countries for a decade each and it’s our bright idea to do what we’re doing now in Afghanistan. Life is hard, it’s harder if you’re stupid. DoD is effective, but a big dumb animal too.

    • Accountability would be nice. I realize DoD can’t pass an audit any more than the national government, but one would expect more from our folks in uniform—particularly our flags. When confronted, more often than not the shrug their shoulders and push responsibility up the chain. One would think, at some point at least one of them would level with us.

  • BTW…the shipbuilding isn’t a major component of the defense budget. Salaries are. I don’t have stats on me but I wouldn’t be surprised if US military personnel were the highest paid in the world. I’m sure Russia and China pay less, and I’m pretty sure Al Qaeda’s terrorists fight for free.

    So another way to maintain a sizeable conventional force would be to cut salaries. Or at least freeze all salaries at today’s numerical level (no cost of living adjustment), and cut new hire salaries by say 25%. As well take away lucrative retaining bonuses (like those the commandos get), etc, etc, and the defense budget will shrink dramatically.

    But that would lead to some people quitting…so to make up for the numbers lost, I guess a compulsory service act could be considered (isn’t this what one Republican congressman suggested?)…

    • grandpabluewater

      Cut pay, start at the top. Cut bonuses, start with the biggest. Cut those who have increased the most, the most recently. Cut the SES in its entirety. Cut perks, cut perks, cut perks.

      Cut, don’t eliminate. Then make a small cut to EVERYTHING.

  • RightCowLeftCoast

    In a world where due to budget constraints, we have created megaports where large percentages of our fleet are homeported, a few well placed and timed tactical nukes could theoretically take out a good portion of our Navy; same can be said of our other armed forces. Hopefully this does not ever happen. But with porous borders, and homegrown terrorist (see the case of 4 in Southern California) it maybe possible. There was a reason why during the Cold War the fleet was homeported in more places.

    As for the Navy’s ever shrinking percentage of the Federal Budget, even the larger defense budget is shrinking in terms of its percentage of the entire federal budget. What is not spoken of is the reason for the over 6 trillion dollars of debt created by the Obama Administrationalone, a large reason for it is the growing “non-discretionary spending”, made up of the ever growing entitlement programs. Like the UK, post World War II, they increased their entitlement programs, and due to this they could not continue to support a large force (navy or otherwise). We are early enough along this process that we, as a nation, can still choose our long term path.