The (smaller, faster, cheaper) future of sea power

We have the world's largest navy. They have speedboats and machine guns. What now?

SEAL trainees on the move in 2005. Both the Navy and Marine Corps have plans to boost the ranks of their special forces. (Getty Images / Joe McNally) SEAL trainees on the move in 2005. Both the Navy and Marine Corps have plans to boost the ranks of their special forces.
By Drake Bennett
April 19, 2009
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IN THE PAST few years, with the US military battling vicious insurgencies, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, there has been plenty of talk about the nettlesome nature of the challenges it faces: "irregular warfare" and "asymmetric threats" are the catch phrases of the day. A military long oriented toward stopping Soviet tanks on the plains of northern Germany and facing down potential adversaries with the promise of nuclear annihilation has had to retool, both physically and mentally, to combat opponents that are as elusive and tenacious as they are low tech and loosely organized.

The Army has transformed its counterinsurgency strategy, moving away from a reliance on "shock and awe" to a suppler set of tactics that play off of local culture, political fissures, and the leverage that development aid can provide. If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is the limits of overwhelming military might.

Still, when most of us think about irregular warfare, the images we have are Fallujah, or eastern Afghanistan, or perhaps Vietnam. But as the recent standoff with three Somali pirates highlighted, asymmetric battles aren't just limited to land. And though the Maersk Alabama incident ended unequivocally in the favor of the US Navy, the image of a 9,200-ton guided-missile destroyer called into action against a lifeboat only drove home the sense that this isn't really what today's US Navy was built to do.

In fact, the front-page coverage of the piracy problem comes in the midst of a broad debate over the Navy's identity - what its mission should be, how it should be armed, how its sailors should be trained. At its heart is the question of just how concentrated our naval power should be, whether it makes sense to rely as much as we do on a relatively small number of immensely powerful, cutting-edge weapons platforms. Some voices, both in and out of the Navy, are arguing that it needs, in essence, to spread itself thinner, to rely less on the might of its aircraft carrier groups and to field instead a fleet of smaller, faster, cheaper ships.

The worry is that, despite its unquestioned preeminence on the high seas, the American Navy may not be equipped to protect us from some of the smaller scale but still lethal maritime threats we face. Piracy is one of them, but it's hardly the most dangerous: seaborne terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, and human trafficking are others. Almost all of them have taken on a new urgency as the seas grow more crowded, and at a time when military planners have to worry as much about stateless threats as more traditional opponents. And in a climate in which the Pentagon budget the Obama administration proposed two weeks ago seeks to shift billions of dollars from the development of big-ticket weapons systems to the unmanned drones, special-forces teams, and other measures vital to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pressure on the Navy to change is only likely to grow.

"Terrorism, insurgencies, eight years after 9/11, the US Navy is still not built and equipped and trained to deal with them," argues John Patch, a retired Navy commander now teaching at the Army War College. "They don't have a hammer to hit this nail."

Within military circles, there is a sense that the Navy, traditionally the most conservative of the services, is playing catch-up. But it has started to make changes, commissioning smaller warships meant to operate in coastal regions, developing new submarines (and retrofitting some old ones) to deliver SEAL teams to potential hot spots, using aerial drones to gather intelligence and experimenting with unmanned patrol boats, and ramping up a program that gives young officers intensive training in the history, politics, and culture of the countries to which they will be deployed.

Some officers and experts, however, caution that, alarming as they may seem, irregular threats should not be the Navy's primary concern, and focusing too much on them may in the end distract from larger-scale developments with global implications - the fast-growing Chinese navy, for example, and the tensions it is creating in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans.

Still, finding the right mix of responses for a grab bag of dangers is not a new problem for the US Navy. And in facing today's asymmetric threats, it can draw on a tradition of irregular warfare that stretches back - through the riverine patrols of Vietnam, the PT boats of World War II, and the expeditionary force that quashed the Philippine independence movement a century ago - all the way to the Navy's campaign in the early years of the Republic against the North African Barbary pirates.

The Navy has long fought in the "irregular environment," says Rear Admiral Philip H. Greene Jr., director of the Navy Irregular Warfare Office. "We have a legacy of engagement, and we're very proud of the mix of forces that we now can bring into this environment."

Perhaps nowhere is American military dominance clearer than in its Navy. As large as the 13 next largest navies combined, it boasts 11 aircraft carriers to Russia's one - the Chinese navy, despite its rapid recent growth, has none. While most nations' navies restrict themselves to patrolling territorial waters, the American Navy rules the open seas, steaming forth from bases around the globe.

The size and structure of the Navy are legacies of the Cold War. Overwhelming naval power, American strategists thought, was vital to countering the superiority of Soviet ground forces in Europe - in theory it would allow the United States and its NATO allies not only to overwhelm the far smaller Soviet navy, but to take the fight to the Soviet homeland with carrier-based planes. At the same time, our fleet of nuclear-missile-armed submarines wandered the world's oceans to ensure that even a devastating nuclear attack on the United States wouldn't wipe out our ability to respond in kind.

This mission was offensive, rather than defensive, and left little room for smaller seaborne threats, even if those threats were aimed at the Navy itself. Stephen Flynn, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as a Coast Guard patrol boat captain in the 1980s, and recalls being called in to guard a guided-missile cruiser in Norfolk harbor when the Navy was worried about a potential terrorist attack on the vessel. "They were asking me how I was going to protect the Navy," he says.

But the Navy's attitude changed with the 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, when two suicide bombers in a skiff full of explosives blew a hole in the hull of the American destroyer. The Navy instituted a "force protection" training program for sailors, teaching them to use small arms and chase down shipboard intruders. Ship defenses that had been focused on missiles, torpedoes, and aerial attack were augmented with weapons to take out smaller, close-in threats. In particular, the Close-in-Weapon-System, a robot-guided Gatling gun installed on most American ships to shoot down missiles and attacking aircraft, was modified to take out incoming watercraft as well.

In the years since, other fighting forces have helped perfect the art of asymmetric naval warfare. While the Tamil Tigers are today near defeat, for years they inflicted heavy losses on the Sri Lankan navy with a fleet of fishing trawlers and freighters, and speedboats used in suicide attacks. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, has wreaked havoc on the Nigerian oil industry with a ragtag flotilla of small craft, crippling offshore oil platforms, blowing up pipelines, and kidnapping and killing oil company employees and Nigerian soldiers.

The Iranian navy has built much of its fleet around what naval strategists call "swarming tactics," employing loose packs of light, fast boats that quickly converge on larger ships in sneak attacks. And in a massive 2002 war game that pitted an unnamed rogue Persian Gulf military "Red Team" against the US fleet, the Red Team, led by a retired Marine lieutenant general named Paul Van Riper, was able to sink 16 US vessels - including an aircraft carrier - in a matter of minutes using coordinated attacks of swarming small craft and cruise missiles.

The US Navy has taken steps to respond to these sorts of threats. It is developing what it calls the Littoral Combat Ship, a fast craft a third of the size of a destroyer meant to operate in the near-shore waters where irregular navies usually are, and with the capacity to carry and put ashore dozens of Humvees full of troops. Like many US Navy programs, it has been plagued by cost overruns, but in his 2010 Pentagon budget recommendations Defense Secretary Gates ordered three of the ships and set the goal of eventually buying 55.

And, as the Somali pirate hostage standoff drove home, among the best assets the Navy has in asymmetric situations are the SEALs. Founded by President Kennedy as the Navy's unconventional warfare and clandestine arm, they got their start carrying out counterinsurgency missions in Vietnam and have become perhaps the best known of the military's special operations forces. And while today they often operate far from water - tracking Taliban leaders in the mountains of Afghanistan, among other missions - the Navy has in recent years been working to find ways to better incorporate them into naval missions.

The new Virginia class nuclear submarine, for example, has the capability to stealthily deploy SEAL and other special-forces teams using a small sub piggybacked onto it, and some older Ohio class submarines have been retrofitted with a similar capability. The number of SEALs is set to grow in coming years, and the Marines, too, are expanding their special-forces ranks.

Seeing the success of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy has also begun deploying its own - a drone launched from the USS Bainbridge destroyer gathered crucial intelligence during the Somali pirates standoff.

The Navy is also testing unmanned boats as a possible solution to the problem of how to patrol vast stretches of water like the ocean off Somalia.

Navy officials are also quick to point to their efforts to work collaboratively with the other American maritime branches like the Coast Guard, with its expertise at boarding ships and interdicting smugglers. Rear Admiral Greene emphasizes efforts to reach out to local governments and navies in areas of concern like the Gulf of Guinea, to take advantage of local knowledge and to try to help address the political roots of regional instability. To further facilitate these collaborations, the Navy has greatly expanded its Foreign Area Officers program, which gives young officers an intensive education in the language, politics, and cultures of countries to which they will be posted.

Still, those naval scholars and officers most concerned about asymmetric threats see these changes as little better than a face lift. The Littoral Combat Ship may be smaller and cheaper than a destroyer, but it's still a large and very expensive ship - too big to be maneuverable in a truly littoral (i.e. near-shore) environment and probably too expensive for the Navy to be able to afford more than a few dozen. A better solution, argues Milan Vego, a professor of operations at the Naval War College, would be to take that money and spend it on a larger fleet of smaller, simpler ships - lightweight corvette warships, for example, and patrol boats that are updated versions of the Swift Boats that plied the rivers and deltas of Vietnam. That way the Navy could be in more places at any one time, which makes sense in a world in which many threats are diffuse and individually weak rather than concentrated and powerful.

"We have too few ships, and the ships are too big," Vego says.

Some have suggested reshaping the organizational structure of the Navy to take better advantage of these smaller ships and the tasks they're suited for. In an article in the current issue of Proceedings, a magazine put out by the US Naval Institute, a Navy commander and historian named Henry Hendrix argues that the Navy should no longer be oriented around its mammoth aircraft carriers, which he argues are of limited usefulness, enormously expensive, and vulnerable to the types of torpedoes and missiles smaller navies increasingly possess.

Instead, he proposes creating a new category of warship group called the Influence Squadron that would combine two transport ships and a destroyer with a Littoral Combat Ship, a patrol boat, and the M80 Stiletto, an even smaller, highly maneuverable craft. The squadrons would patrol the world's coastlines, chasing pirates, interdicting arms smugglers, and carrying out the Navy's traditional public relations task of providing a highly visible reminder of the reach and ubiquity of American sea power.

Such a change would also demand a basic shift in thinking among naval officers, argues Martin Murphy, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Long accustomed to the freedom of maneuver and broad buffer that comes with operating in open water, much naval doctrine isn't well suited to the messiness of irregular coastal fighting. The sheer cost of the ships that make up much of the fleet, Murphy adds, have made leaders reluctant to put them in situations where they might be lost or damaged.

To operate in the coastal environs where irregular threats tend to cluster, officers and strategists would have to grow more comfortable with the uncertainties that entails.

"In shallow water, there are plenty of obstacles, and surprise and deception are much easier to deploy against a ship. Electronic sensors are not likely to be as effective," he says. "It requires a different attitude about risk."

Because of the cost of any warship and the length of its lifetime in service, changes like those Vego and Hendrix propose would be long-lasting. And some thinkers in the Navy are reluctant to fundamentally reshape the force to face problems that may prove ephemeral or immune to military solutions.

Others worry that an undue focus on asymmetric threats could obscure other increasingly symmetrical threats. "I also think we've got to keep focus on the big picture," says Ron Christenson, a retired rear admiral who's now an executive at Lockheed Martin. And the big picture, he and others argue, is China.

"They're announcing they're going to go big, with submarines, aircraft carriers, and long-range missiles," he says. "And that threatens only one major power in the world, and that's us."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail