Category Archives: Strategic Outlook

Predictions and forecasting.

Trees Without a Forest

A good measure of a military’s intellectual health is it’s dedication to firmly connect present procurement to future purpose. In discussions with peers in the American Navy, I often find myself a lonely voice of pessimism about our future and capabilities. However, LT Albaugh’s article about LCS inadvertently highlights how our procurement vision has managed to stray so far from the path. The U.S. Navy does force-planning through a bureaucratic balancing act of risk aversion rather than making the hard decisions necessary to handle outside threats.

 

LCS is the perfect example of this inability to commit. When viewed alone, it is a vessel with relatively even capabilities across the board. However, having no relative weakness is not the same as having any strengths. LCS represents an unwillingness to take risks. It is too big to truly be a littoral/riverine boat (PCs would be better). It is too slow to make up for its weak hull and poor weaponry (European corvettes would be better). It is not fast or strong enough to penetrate areas under enemy control, nor advanced enough to perform high-end ISR in those areas(submarines and aircraft would be better). Its real purpose today is clearly as confused as it was 8 years ago. It almost seems like the sole justification for the project really is, as Mr. Albaugh indirectly implies, that it exists. This tepidness is indicative of the Navy’s overall strategic planning. LCS’s attempt to be everything has made it nothing, and is now designed specifically to not risk a weakness for a particular strength.

 

Compare LCS to the Chinese Houbei-class missile boat. While American defense planners are unable to commit to overly generic systems that are already on the factory floor (F-35), the Chinese navy has committed to a vessel perfectly suited to its area-denial mission. Smaller and of the same hull material and speed of the LCS, the Houbei is weak in many areas by design. However, it is specifically created as part of a particular strategy. With the ability to stealthily approach and then quickly deploy 8 C-803s into an enemy ship, this little mosquito packs a greater ASCM threat than any brawler American ship-of-the-line. When under the aegis of home-turf, the Houbei is an invaluable piece of a very recognizable operational concept. The firm direction of the Chinese investment outclasses by far the strategic waffling behind LCS.

 

While our competitors learn from and move past their mistakes, we fret over and defend ours. In the past, defense planners forgot that as in the commercial world one can only choose two of the following: cheap, fast, or good. Now, we have forgotten to decide what we actually want before we choose, ending up with: expensive, drawn-out, and poor. There are incredible ideas that the American Navy is capable of executing in the future: unmanned aviation, surface drone motherships, long-range rocket gunnery, REAL patrol boats, SSGNs that create strike opportunities in environments where enemies deny us the surface and air. However, our constant attempts to re-shape ourselves for a single weapon system we “like” or have sunk too much cost into is creating a force-planning disaster; it is becoming less writing on the wall, and more a wall itself.

Strength in Weakness?

USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) just completed her acceptance trials today. Though a small step in itself, it is yet another reminder that this class is coming soon to a fleet near you. Just considering the Freedom-class variant, LCS-5 and -7 are under construction and funding for LCS-9 and -11 was approved in March. Though any fresh news about this class roils the waters of debate in the naval blogosphere, let’s step back and examine where the class has been, and where it is going.

LCS is not streetfighter. This much is true. Critics point to the ship’s fitness to defeat anti-ship cruise missiles and other anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats, small crew size and its resulting effect on damage control, lack of proven mission modules, and a host of other design and cost factors as reasons to reduce or discontinue the LCS program.

These critics rightly identify tactical weaknesses inherent in the LCS platform. Why do we need to reconsider their analysis?

One good reason is that strategy should drive tactics. LCS is a poor power-projection platform, but is that the strategic role we want or need to ask of it?

The fact that states are often unsure about the intentions of others drives foreign policy and strategy-making. The same tools we produce to defend our interests could also be used to attack. Many smart people think this uncertainty is the reason why wars occur. Whether this is actually the case or not, it’s clear that China believes in a Realist, zero-sum view of the world. So, you ask, what does this have to do with LCS?

The persistent uncertainty that things-that-go-boom produce can be resolved in part if military technologies can be clearly identified as either offensive or defensive. A rifle is a pretty poor example of this principle: it is equally suited to attack enemy forces as it is to defend friendly forces. A tomahawk missile, on the other hand, is designed primarily to attack. So it is with many missile systems. It makes me think back to The Hunt for Red October: “Would you characterize this as a first strike weapon, Dr. Ryan?” Think of it another way: if I drove the pickup truck I recently bought (used, of course) down your street, would you believe that it’s only for self-defense?

LCS is a defensive technology – it is defensively useful by allowing the United States to secure the seas from lawlessness and engage with allies and partners to help prevent China from expanding their influence through “soft power” means. Months ago, Rear Admiral Rowden called this idea “flags on halyards. LCS is therefore the ideal platform to park near China – it allows us to maintain influence in the region while preventing China from claiming that the US Navy is a menace to their security. LCS would indeed be a poor choice if the US strategy against China was one of power projection. However, it’s not immediately clear to this humble blogger that’s true. Other strategies have been proposed which rely less on our ability to “kick down the door” and fight China a la WWII. This latter strategy would incur huge costs in lives and treasure. LCS represents an alternative strategic vision – one that paradoxically transmutes tactical weakness into strategic strength.

Streetfighter was designed to aid the Navy in it’s power projection role – a role that dominated strategic and force planning in the late 1990s. Rather than compare LCS to an idea designed for a different strategic era, the first consideration should compare it to the strategic requirements of today. LCS fills a niché for a forward-deployed vessel that can advance American interests and influence without undue provocation. The United States can and should provide naval forces for sea control and power projection, but LCS may help ensure that we don’t need to place the entire battle force in harm’s way.

Tactical strength does not always translate into strategic usefulness. We would do well to remember that, as the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power” says: “preventing wars is as important as winning wars.”

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

Coral Sea Redux?

Earlier this week I attended the Battle of the Coral Sea 70th Anniversary Commemoration at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Memorial. Rain earlier in the morning threatened to push the event indoors, but the weather was blessedly cool and dry. Yet storm clouds might be gathering on the horizons of the Australian-American partnership the ceremony celebrated.

 

70 years ago, a clash of carriers handed the Japanese their first major defeat in the war in the Pacific, turning back an invasion force enroute to Port Moresby. As the Australian ambassador noted on Tuesday it also signaled a change in Australia and New Zealand’s defense formulations. Britain’s ability and responsibility to defend her imperial possessions and former colonies formed the bedrock of the nations’ pre-war planning.

 

According to the honourable Kim Beazley, the structure of British imperial defense “had crashed on land with the Japanese capture of Singapore, and at sea with the sinking of the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse.” The American decision to risk carriers to parry the southern thrust threatening Australia – while so much else in the theater was at stake – was praised and highlighted as one of the key moments later bringing the nation under the American security umbrella, where it has remained ever since.

 

A Future Crisis

Could Australia face another crisis and restructuring of its strategic security arrangements down the road? This depends much on the ability of China and the U.S. to play nice. Australia is bound to the U.S. in the ANZUS treaty, a firm defense alliance between the two nations and New Zealand (the Yankee/Kiwi portion has been much less firm, but is improving), and has contributed forces to major American-led military conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan. Just last month, U.S. Marines began to deploy to Darwin, Australia, as a step towards strengthening ties (unofficially, in the face of growing Chinese regional clout).

 

Coming soon to a down-under near you.

However, Australia is much more commercially dependent upon the Chinese than the U.S., exporting less than a quarter of the goods to the U.S. it does to China, its biggest trading partner by both exports and imports. A serious spat between the two nations could cause Australians to rethink the benefits of their closeness to the Americans, especially if the cause of the row was of only marginal importance to the Aussies.

 

Similarly, the Chinese could begin to apply economic leverage to force Australia to scale back the level of its security and basing commitments (although done poorly this could risk a backlash). Conversely, the Chinese want to boost their own ties with Australia. In an April interview, Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia pointed out:

Beijing has recently asked, or warned, Australia to build stronger security and strategic dimensions into its ties with China, to bring them more in balance with the very strong trade ties. In fact, Australia’s military already has quite good relations with the People’s Liberation Army and has provided a conduit of contact during phases when U.S.-China and Japan-China military-to-military ties were in trouble.”

Might Australia decide in the future it’s better to step from under the American umbrella and risk rain rather than a lightning strike? Might the Royal Australian Navy’s highly skilled mariners and expanding fleet be kept in port in the event of a conflict?

 

Some voices are already cautioning against more closely embracing the American military build-up in the Asia-Pacific, warning of the danger of being drawn into “someone else’s” fight with the potential for dire economic consequences. This appears to be a minority opinion among the public and politicians. According to the Lowy Institute, 85% of Australians are to some extent supportive of the U.S. alliance. As Mr. Medcalf states:

if Canberra is asked any time soon to make hard strategic choices between China and the United States, the signs are clear about the choice it would make—it has intensified the alliance with the United States.”

Yet Mr. Medcalf also correctly points out 15% is a substantial minority, and could grow as the American footprint expands in Australia. I don’t foresee Australia dropping the U.S. for China as its main strategic guarantor any time soon, but if the relationship between the two nations is handled poorly by either side, and its benefits not fully explained, the Chinese would be only too happy to exploit the opportunity and apply pressure to limit Australia’s commitments.

 

The Americans can help ensure this doesn’t happen. Proactive prevention of the sort of liberty incidents that so inflamed relations with another key partner to the north are vital. Aggressive goodwill diplomacy and exchanges can remind the Australian public of shared values.

 

And of course, events like the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea remind both nations of shared sacrifices. Said Ambassador Beazley:

As the distribution of global power becomes more diffuse, it is useful for us to have as a reminder American risk-taking for its friends at a time when the US position was by no means the superior one.”

Coverage of the commemoration down under: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/us-flags-stronger-security-ties-with-aust-20120503-1y228.html