Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | May 12, 2010

Naval Decline: It Starts with the Small Stuff

The function of navies, most of the time, is to achieve national objectives without having to come to blows. Naval superiority is one of the most effective forms of deterrence and influence a nation can have. But when the deterrent works effectively, political leaders too often begin to assume that the secure stasis maintained by projecting naval power will simply persist if the naval power is withdrawn.

The thoughts of Defense Secretary Bob Gates appear to be shifting in that direction. In a speech to the Navy League last week, he questioned the need for the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers and suggested the programs to build new-generation destroyers and ballistic-missile submarines were in jeopardy. Equally disquieting were his musings about the price tags of existing naval platforms, in the context of an allegation that the Navy has not advanced beyond a Cold War mindset.

Each of the services has come in for its share of such criticism since 1991; in many instances it’s justified. Gates’s goal of cutting the defense budget is also not necessarily objectionable in and of itself. And the goal of streamlining and improving our weapon systems to meet emerging threats, rather than remaining stuck on old concepts, is always appropriate.

But everything has to be done on the basis of a valid understanding of the threat – and that’s where Gates’s remarks are jarringly ill-timed. There is a greater threat to US maritime dominance than Somali piracy. It has been on display this spring in multiple theaters. The threat is regional navies establishing maritime power over the seas and chokepoints through which global commerce passes, and setting up arbitrary regimes of regulation and permission.

The two most obvious actors in this regard are Iran and China. Iran chose unilaterally to detain and inspect two foreign merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz during her big military exercise in April. The Iranian press has also celebrated two unusual and provocative moves from that exercise and one being held this week. In April, Iran’s navy sent a small reconnaissance aircraft, a Fokker F-27, to make a close approach to USS Eisenhower, our Nimitz-class carrier on station in the Persian Gulf. In the exercise this week in the Gulf of Oman (the approach to the Strait of Hormuz from outside the Gulf), Iranian forces warned a US reconnaissance aircraft out of the exercise area.

These actions seem minor and incremental because they are. But small regional navies take such provocative actions against dominant navies only if their national leaders think they can get away with it. The more Iran thinks she can get away with, the greater will be the naval force required to counter the provocations. If it becomes a naval problem for the US to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to global shipping, the small guns and low-lethality weapons suitable for antipiracy operations will be badly outclassed. Only the big, expensive platforms Gates decries can do that job: aircraft carriers, Aegis cruisers and destroyers, attack submarines – and lots of them.

China’s navy, meanwhile, conducted its largest long-range deployment to date in March and April 2010. This deployment involved a task force of 10 ships and submarines making passage – twice – between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako, during which Chinese helicopters made close approaches to the Japanese destroyers sent to monitor their activities (see IISS map). While the broad strait between the Japanese islands – the Miyako Strait – is an international waterway through which commercial shipping passes routinely, the Chinese navy’s use of it is unprecedented and obviously provocative. The Chinese task force proceeded to the South China Sea and performed exercises, including naval bombing simulations, in the Spratly Islands and near the Strait of Malacca.

Map produced by International Institute for Strategic Studies

The significance of these actions cannot be overstated.  Japan is a US ally, of course, and long time rival of China.  Like Iran, China does just as much as she thinks she can get away with, taking action that Japan is bound to find objectionable but that falls short of a casus belli.  China’s action did, however, prompt Japan to issue threats to move forward on seabed exploration near the Senkaku Islands that Tokyo disputes with Beijing.

But the major naval deployment also occurred in conjunction with China’s declaration of a new policy of patrolling fisheries with armed patrol ships in the South China Sea, ostensibly to protect her fishing fleet.  The record of piracy in the South China Sea, however, implicates syndicate crime from China along with insurgent groups from the Philippines and Indonesia, which use it to make money.  The political origin of China’s new patrol policy at least as usefully traced to the dispute in March 2009 over the presence of the US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea, south of Hainan Island.  It was at that time, as reported here last year, that China began the program to arm and repurpose fishing vessels to serve as patrol ships.

The Impeccable event of 2009 is a superb illustration of the basic principle I’m getting at in this piece.  Impeccable is an unarmed surveillance ship, and therefore, to enforce our policy of having her operate – as she is entitled to – in the international waters south of Hainan Island, we dispatched an Aegis destroyer to provide her a security escort.  Nothing short of an Aegis destroyer – one of the expensive platforms Gates attributes to the Navy’s Cold War mindset – would have been up to the job.  The capabilities of an Aegis destroyer represent, in fact, the minimum required to perform that function in the South China Sea, where the potential threat comes from China.

China has long asserted national prerogatives over her contiguous waters – waters, that is, outside the internationally-recognized 12-nautical-mile territorial limit – that go well beyond what other maritime powers like the US, Japan, Australia, Russia, and Britain recognize (see the linked piece “Sonar Wars,” on the Impeccable incident, above).  Those asserted prerogatives have been the basis of Chinese objections to the passage of US naval ships through the waters in question. They have also been the basis of China’s strong-arming of Vietnam in the international waters of the South China Sea (see here and here).  China’s intentions with maritime superiority would not be to maintain the freedom-of-navigation regime the US enforces; what Beijing would do is constrain, limit, and extort maritime traffic.  This is likely to begin happening very shortly with the “fishery patrols” in the South China Sea.

China is, in fact, putting together a force package that can deny the maritime space of Southeast Asia to the US and our allies.  This policy trend is analogous to Iran’s preparations to hold the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf at risk, but on a larger geographic scale.  Such a “sea denial” effort would only be undertaken in a serious clash of interests between the US and China – but to assume that such a clash could not occur is absurd.  Besides the security of Taiwan, there are the very basic US interest in unfettered global access to the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea waterways, and the equally basic interest in our allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines having the freedom to pursue their national courses unintimidated and unextorted by China.  These conditions are the ones that keep the Far East open, in balance, and non-hostile across the Pacific Ocean.  They cannot change without undoing our security in the Pacific.  But a shift in the naval balance of power – of who controls the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, and whose maritime policies set the boundaries for exclusive economic zone use and denial – would inevitably change those conditions from bottom to top.

Cheap, small, light-footprint, low-lethality weapons, and minimal force presence: these are inadequate to the task of counterbalancing a Chinese maritime thrust from East Asia.  The point is not even whether we will have to fight China; the point is what force level will prevent our ever having to, while enforcing our maritime policy.  The desired outcome is that China never succeeds in bringing her unilateral maritime-claim assertions to the point of confrontation, with the US or other nations in the region, most particularly our allies.  Unarmed reconnaissance drones and hydrofoil ships with small guns can’t achieve that outcome.  Only the expensive platforms Gates questions the need for so many of, deployed widely and often, are up to the task.

Small provocations that go unanswered turn into larger ones.  Iran and China have both engaged in such provocations this spring.  Today it would take only a moderate portion of our force level to make a show of force and send tacit but unmistakable messages.  But if we fail to do that, at the same time we are drawing down our most lethal and effective weapon platforms, the loss of superiority will be catastrophic.  Opponents will begin to act because they are no longer intimidated, and because they know it will take longer and longer for us to assemble an intimidating level of force.  Allies will begin to consider the wisdom of making other arrangements for their security.  The trend has already started.  Now is not the time to question the very need for our most capable naval platforms.



  1. Presumably, Gates knows all of this J.E.

    Certainly the Joint Chiefs have to know it and must have previously discussed these very concerns with Gates and the President. For to not do so would be tantamount to dereliction of duty. So they know.

    Which leads us to an intentional change of policy.

    Obama is most likely driven by a combination of gullibility and ideology. Gates has to know better.

    If memory serves, I recall a report that he has little input into decision making, that he and the Chiefs are ‘middle men’ charged with implementing what Obama and his ‘gang of four’ decide is in the national interest.

    If that is so, then Gibbs (!) has more say in national defense policy than Gates, in which case he is enabling the dysfunction, not ameliorating it.

    Admittedly speculative, if that is the actual circumstances in which he is operating, Gates is doing his country an active disservice. He would be doing far more for his country by resigning and exposing what’s going on, so that the public could direct Congress to put pressure upon Obama.

    Whether Gates is in agreement or is merely trying to ameliorate unwise policy choices in the administration, acting as the adult while the children play at ‘grownup’ is arguably of importance.

    But only if one agrees that acting as the adult is of more importance than actual effectiveness and the benefits that exposure would bring.

    In my judgment, the only way the trend toward downsizing critical defense systems will be stopped is if the American public learns of it though an unimpeachable source.

    That is unlikely to happen, which means that the elections of 2010 and 2012 are of critical importance. Many of us believe that should Obama be reelected, his policies will directly result in the eventual deaths of millions of Americans.

    Sadly, the American public’s gullibility and the mental laziness that leads to unthinking acceptance of liberal premises and panaceas… “drinking the kool-aid” will have led to our fate.

    Just as Chamberlain’s policies in the 30’s, supported by the majority pacifist European public, led to that generations fate; in the space of less than a decade, 60 million unnecessary deaths.

  2. So what’s wrong with the mid level officers in all the armed forces? Are they all incompetents? At some point they must realize that their own families will be among the dead. The fields of battle won’t be in Vietnam, far, far away. I get a big kick out of the elites, very few of them are going to be on the must save list. Around SF I keep running into people who know a couple of types much wealthier than themselves and ever so slowly, even upper, uppers begin to realize that they also do not have enough money to be on the must save list. We are all Israelis now, but come to think of it that’s probably a good group to end up with if the battle commences.

  3. As Geoffrey asks, I also want to know why Gates or someone else in the know doesn’t resign and let the public know what is happening. This is such a disaster.

  4. So we continuing building these high tech platforms to manage low tech threats. But doing this so far has given us the smallest Navy in a century, and we continue to decline. How is declining number of ships making us stronger?

    Gates doesn’t want to weaken the Navy, but focus our priorities in other directions. Instead of a fleet that concentrates power in a declining number of assets, he wants to disperse our unmatched superiority in other directions.

    The Chinese and Iranians know they can’t match us in capability and firepower, so they don’t need to. They just hit us where we are weakest, which is combating asymmetrical tactics from submarines, mines, and cruise missiles, just as we were weak from contending with IEDs on land. They’ll hit our “soft underbelly”, not our seemingly invincible armor.

  5. Mike Burleson — welcome, and apologies for the delay in your comment posting. There’s a one-time approval requirement, but anything you want to add will post automatically from now on.

    I don’t think China wants to hit us at all. Beijing would much rather become formidable enough that we won’t try to intervene if the Chinese assert unilateral prerogatives over the SCS and SOM. We assist that process by choosing to let our sea control capabilities decline.

    The basic error I see in the “Gates” thinking (and that’s a shorthand characterization for convenience: I’m not picking on Gates, he just represents a particular mindset) — anyway, the error is this: assuming that since there is no unified global maritime threat, that means we don’t have to think about the maritime problem globally.

    Under that assumption lies the even more basic premise that maritime tradeways remain open and safe on their own. The tacit conclusion is that we can focus only on “Somali piracy,” or “keeping open the SOH,” and the rest of the global maritime space will remain in stasis, even if we’re not there.

    History gives no justification for these assumptions. What it demonstrates instead is that if there is not a dominant navy capable of exercising sea control in multiple areas, nations and non-state actors (pirates, but with differing motivations) create local exclusionary regimes. The regimes are designed to levy tribute on trade, create the need for “protection” revenues, and extort other nations politically in exchange for their maritime access.

    The reason we are so unfamiliar with that in the US is that throughout our national existence there has been a globally dominant navy: first the Royal Navy, now ours. But if we give up on global sea control — global enforcement of our “open door” policy for maritime commerce — things will look very different.

    If China controls the maritime space of Southeast Asia, or if Russia controls the Eastern Mediterranean, access to the chokepoints involved will not be free. It will come for others at a cost, most likely political AND economic. US alliances can’t survive that transformation of the maritime regime.

    This case could be laid out in exhaustive length (I’ve done it elsewhere); the point I want to stress is that it’s a very basic error to start our thinking about naval capabilities with local, proximate threats like Somali piracy, Iran in the SOH, or even China in Southeast Asia. Where we should start is with what our strategic objective is.

    I argue that it has always been, and should remain, keeping the global tradeways free and safe for universal access. That is a core US national interest. We also have to recognize the lesson of history that that situation doesn’t maintain itself. It requires a constant strain on the lines to keep it in stasis. That strain is maintained by US maritime dominance on a globally ready level.

    It doesn’t matter how many littoral combat ships we deploy to a problem: they will never be global sea-control platforms. That’s OK, we still need them for the job they CAN do. But they can’t punch through the SOH if Iran decides to try to close it, and they certainly can’t defy a Chinese maritime ukase in the SCS.

    Letting our sea-control fleet age out and attrition-through-decommission makes it more and more likely the US will be challenged locally by regional actors. Those actors don’t have to be able to symmetrically match our one-time global sea-control prowess; they just have to be able to make us choose locally between backing down and getting into a shooting war for which we have become ill-prepared.

    GB, I don’t actually think Gates see or understands that. You’d be surprised at how blind senior decision-makers can be to big-picture strategic concepts. Gates isn’t a big-picture guy and never has been.

    • “I don’t actually think Gates see or understands that. You’d be surprised at how blind senior decision-makers can be to big-picture strategic concepts. Gates isn’t a big-picture guy and never has been.”

      I’m not surprised J.E. just appalled. Anyone involved in international decision making at the national level, even those delegated by decision makers to analysis and development of recommended contingency plans HAS to be a ‘big picture’ person. Otherwise, they will inevitably fail to understand strategic considerations and, at the national level, it is ALL about strategic considerations.

      Implicit to the assertion about Gates, “isn’t a big-picture guy and never has been” is that, he is manifestly unfit for the position he holds, a perfect example of the ‘peter principle’ (the assertion that “In a Hierarchical Organization, most employees will eventually be promoted to their Level of Incompetence.”). Of course, that is also manifestly true of Obama and most of his administration, so Gates is the norm rather than the exception.

      Which is probably part of why Obama kept on a Bush appointee. So, basically, we’re screwed and that our luck continues to hold up is all we can really hope for…

  6. Optimist, in your middle paragraph you are defining the “protection racket”.Our US elites have no concept that in nations all over the planet, if your family doesn’t have the money to hire the protectors, the family members can’t even safely venture across town. As a Roman Catholic who has lived her entire life in SF CA, it has always been easy to interact with immigrants in my own church communities who can tell you what it was like in their countries of origin. Our elites have no concept that other than in the US “honest cops” are in short supply. No wonder they don’t get that their Utopian worlds exist only in their imaginations.

  7. ” But if we give up on global sea control…”

    Haven’t we pretty much done that already, by building ships geared mainly for power projection on land, and even our destroyers with their ABM shield are for this? The only ships for sea control, i.e. commerce protection and littoral operations are the 30 very old Perry frigates and the aging Cyclone patrol boats which the Navy wants to part with real bad.

    The Navy has insisted the primary reason for their large carriers is to project power on land “in case we don’t have land bases for air support”. I agree this may be a problem, but if the we lose control of the sea, we won’t be able to do much power projecting. We have been very fortunate so far dealing with non-naval powers like N Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, but now we have challengers to this unprecedented reign on the high seas.

    The piracy problem is a grave symptom of this lack of control. Admittedly no big threat as of yet, but it is pointing the peer adversaries how they might get around our superiority. The Western navies move into the littorals with only a handful of frigates, without enough for proper control, and then the pirates move further out to sea, going for bigger game. Our ships are great but can’t be in more places at once, since capability doesn’t duplicate availability.

    The large ships need small ships for support. This too is historical. I completely concur with your assessment of the littoral combat ship, that comes with a frigate price on a patrol boat armament. It was almost the right choice, we should have bought patrol boats, or stuck with the original streetfighter design, that would have been 1/3 smaller and cheaper.

    We need more hulls in the water, since shrinking numbers with each new class (like the 3 destroyers bought instead of 32 Gates mentioned), is not a naval strategy. The SecDef isn’t trying to take away our superiority in ships, just use them more wisely, make them more relevant for today’s concerns.

  8. “The Navy has insisted the primary reason for their large carriers is to project power on land”

    That’s partly a result of our Navy not having had since WWII, a naval opponent worthy of the claim and partly justification for maintaining a budget sufficient to do their primary job of maintain open sea lanes.

    “Our ships are great but can’t be in more places at once”

    Therein I suspect, lies the problem, i.e. limited flexibility in thinking about the problem of naval combat in the littoral zone.

    Paul Simon’s lyric from the song ‘My Little Town’ applies, “It’s not that the colors (answers) aren’t there, It’s just imagination they lack”

    WWII proved the superiority of offensive aircraft against naval vessels, which is why we haven’t built any more battleships. Yet once again we seem destined to the relearning of that lesson.

    Suitably equipped combat helicopters and modified AV-8B Harrier II V/STOL attack aircraft operating off a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship is perhaps the answer. Basically, create a ‘mini’ carrier battle group…those aircraft could easily handle multiple threats of the type that Iran is posing.

    A Littoral Combat Ship reportedly costs about $460 million and can accommodate 2 combat helicopters and, has limited defensive capabilities.

    A Wasp-class amphibious assault ship costs about $750 million.

    The ships Standard Aircraft Complement is:
    6 AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft
    4 AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters
    12 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters
    4 CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters
    3 UH-1N Huey helicopters
    42 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters
    Sea Control
    20 AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft
    6 SH-60F/HH-60H ASW helicopters

    It’s defensive armament consists of;
    Two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers
    Two Sea Sparrow missile launchers
    Three 20 mm Phalanx CIWS systems (LHD 5-7 with two)
    Four .50 BMG machine guns
    Four 25 mmMk 38 chain guns (LHD 5-7 with three).

    In addition, it has a 1,984 Marine Detachment vs the littoral combats ship’s small assault force.

    Obviously, the littoral class can navigate shallower waters but with the wasp class’ much larger complement of helicopters, that’s not a significant problem. Helicopters and attack aircraft can handle pirates and defend choke points in naval passages.

    • I´m not an expert but everything I ever read about the so called “Littoral Combat Ship” suggests that it is an essentially unarmed, fragile and undermanned speedboat with the price tag of a multirole frigate (a frigate of the sort built in Europe; I suppose they would find a way to turn a US-built frigate into a 20 year billion dollar boondoggle). And that does not include the “mission modules” of which there will probably not be enough to make the concept work.

  9. Mike Burleson — there has indeed been too great an emphasis (in my view) on projecting power over land in the last 20 years. I don’t see it going away any time soon, given the significance of naval power projection to both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

    But I did have a most melancholy moment preparing for our 2003 Nimitz Strike Group deployment when I learned that the ship’s ability to process passive sonar data had been entirely removed during her recore, and we would deploy with approximately zero carrier-centered ASW capability. That definitely looked at the time, and still does, like wishing away a problem. It’s emblematic of how we have allowed our ASW skills and system capabilities to atrophy fleet-wide. It’s not like China and Iran (and Russia, for that matter)have no submarines.

    And both are expanding their other naval capabilities rapidly. I was rereading the Sep 2009 ONI assessment of Iran’s navy today, and was struck by how out of date it already is, only 8 months later. The time has passed when Iran made a lot of noise but never got much done.

    What the Navy needs, to bolster a sea-control-oriented refocusing, is vision and comprehension from the national civilian level. That doesn’t exist with Gates. I actually think Gates is a nice guy, and things could be worse if Obama had chosen someone more doctrinaire and ideological in the Obama-leftist mold. But Gates definitely isn’t a big-flick/abstract strategic thinking kind of guy. He and Jim Jones between them dismantled the last vestiges of the “2-MTW” basis for force planning, and now there is no concept of interlocked global strategic objectives at all. Everything is sliced narrowly, either as a local problem or a narrow “type” of problem (e.g., nuclear proliferation, Al Qaeda/Taliban).

    Right-equipping the force to lob buckshot at Somali pirates is something we ought to contract to the Danes and Belgians, our noble NATO allies. Keeping the SCS free of a Chinese maritime hegemony that would affect every trading nation on earth requires conventional naval superiority — of a kind that only we can wield.

  10. You wrote “Right-equipping the force to lob buckshot at Somali pirates is something we ought to contract to the Danes and Belgians, our noble NATO allies”

    I can see where that would be enticing, but I worry when I see the Navy considering the fight off Somalia somehow beneath them, or that high end missile battleships and billion dollar amphibs can perform the mission adequately enough. They have been dealing with individual attacks quite well, and even made some headlines, but they are too few of them to make a lasting effect. This last problem has the admirals repeating the mantra that “piracy can only be defeated on land”, an astonishing statement for one service to degrade its own abilities, and promote another, meaning the ground forces.

    I would think this would be an opportunity for navies to ask for more hulls in the water, and lots of them, for historically navies have been essential in defeating outbreaks of brigandage on the high seas. Ancient Rome at its height, and the mighty Royal Navy, all were forced to contend with pirates at seem point. Even the US Navy could trace its birth and its first naval heroes to the Wars against the Barbary Pirates.

    We need small wars to prepare for the Big Wars, but for the Navy to only prepare for Big Wars, that never seem to come, means we are allowing a minor problem to grow and fester until it is becoming a major sore.

  11. All of these points are valid, IF WE HAD THE MONEY TO PAY OFF OUR DEBT with China. Til then we have to settle for non-provocation. We should cancel a few more programs, balance the budget, pay off the debt, THEN find our way back to muscularity. It won’t be ships that sink this country, it will be debt.

  12. Bart — welcome. Your comments will post automatically from now on. I don’t know how well non-provocation will serve us, since we do very little of the provoking ourselves. But you are certainly right that we have got to cut programs and get our fiscal house in order. We should start with the Dept of Education and the EPA, and work our way out from there.

  13. […] Now here’s the view of a retired U.S. naval intelligence officer: […]

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