The Greenert Gambit: Playing Moneyball with the Pivot to the Pacific

CNO’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Strategy Reflects Lessons of his Favorite Book

Sometimes you need a Brad Pitt, sometimes you need a Jonah Hill.
Sometimes you need a Brad Pitt, sometimes you need a Jonah Hill.

Armchair Admirals and defense analysts alike lit up the blogosphere when President Obama first announced the strategic “Pivot” from Mid-East counterinsurgency operations to the Pacific, with visions of Surface Action Groups, Carrier Battle Groups, and Amphibious Task Forces the like of which haven’t been seen since former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s 600 Ship Navy.  Alas, the CNO’s vision of that Pivot leaves many feeling like the victims of a Jedi Mind Trick: “This isn’t the Fleet you’re looking for.” 

Afloat Forward Staging Bases (AFSBs), Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs), Mobile Logistics Platforms (MLPs), and Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) will never be mistaken for surface combatants; however, they represent the product of a refined understanding of what wars we are likely to fight in the future, and a sabermetric analysis of what it takes to win the peace in the Pacific—presence, lift, and command and control (C2).  While facing significant fiscal constraint, by focusing acquisitions on affordable platforms capable of persistent presence in uncontested waters and afloat forward basing of expeditionary / special operations forces, Admiral Greenert is on the cusp of successfully employing strategic Moneyball in his 30-year shipbuilding plan.

According to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the purpose of the Pivot is:

“…strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.” 

Key to achieving these strategic aims is regional stability—a stability that can only be maintained with the confidence of regional power brokers that the status quo is acceptable and not threatened.  The U.S. supports freedom of navigation and defense of its allies against rogue actors such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) through deployment of conventional naval forces such as Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD)-cruisers and destroyers.  However, these ships do not provide an optimal platform for two of our largest mission sets in strengthening alliances and partnerships: Theater Security Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response (HA/DR).  Relatively low-cost, an ability to embark disparate and substantive payloads, and a capability to access littoral waters make JHSV, MLP, and LCS the optimal platforms for these missions.

In his recent book, Invisible Armies, Max Boot notes that the most prolific type of war throughout history is the insurgency.  Indeed, the last true state vs state war took place over the course of a few weeks in 2008 between Georgia and the Russian Federation, while formal insurgencies continue on every continent save Antarctica and Australia.  Since 1945 and the information/media revolutions, insurgent victory rates have increased from 29% to 40% (with caveats).  As the ability to access and broadcast information increases and fractures to different mediums, Boot hypothesizes that insurgent success rates will continue to grow; with it, insurgencies will proliferate.  The United States has spent the past decade refining our doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) to successfully implement counterinsurgency.  Having sacrificed this capability and capacity many times in the past to refocus on building large, conventional forces to engage in rare conventional combat, the Department of Defense has the chance to make a historic deviation and retain some of that urgently needed competence.  Bottom line: insurgencies aren’t going away anytime soon, and neither should naval ability to support counterinsurgency operations.

There exists a myth of “credible presence” in some corners of naval strategy.  This myth devalues the “sabermetrics” of presence, lift, and C2 for more traditional metrics of large-caliber guns, vertical launch cells, and radar dB.  Purveyors of the myth believe that absent a Mahanian armada capable of intimidating the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) to never leave their inshore territorial waters, our presence operations aren’t ultimately successful.  The myth operates under the false portrayal of the People’s Republic of China as a monolith, the same fallacy with regards some of our recent adversaries—Ba’athists, Islamists, and Communists.  The PRC and the U.S. conduct over $500 billion in trade annually, much of that through PLA and PLA(N) companies that would stand to lose their financial backing should a shooting war break out between the U.S. and PRC—an undesirable outcome despite the testy rhetoric of select PLA generals and colonels.  The question is not how to win a war with the PRC—I am confident that we can do that, albeit painfully.  The question that should drive our acquisitions in the Pivot is “how do we win the peace?”

The capability and capacity of JHSVs, MLPs, and LCSs to successfully conduct afloat forward staging and presence operations has been demonstrated by their respective ship class predecessors both operationally (Philippines, Africa Partnership StationSouthern Partnership Station, Somalia) and in exercises (Bold Alligator, Cobra Cold).  By focusing acquisitions on these platforms, we stand a greater chance of building on both our presence and afloat forward-staging capability/capacity.  While the Air-Sea Battle and its high-end carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious task forces is an essential strategy to deter armed aggression by China, the CNO is playing Moneyball to win the peace at a bargain price.
Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the OPNAV Staff and a graduate student of the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed by this author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Expeditionary Warfare Division, the Naval War College, or the United States Navy

11 thoughts on “The Greenert Gambit: Playing Moneyball with the Pivot to the Pacific”

  1. Moneyball is a great book but largely misunderstood. This is a good piece…but:

    – Going with the baseball analogy, isn’t the US Navy the Yankees (of navies)? Even with the current budget drama, it does and can massively outspend any potential rival. Billy Beane’s ideas resulted from necessity…with minimal resources he couldn’t compete with the richer teams. In this case the US Navy is still the richest team with the ability to (hopefully wisely) spend on the best players/capabilities.
    – Billy Beane focused on advanced statistics to definitively tie measurable player performance to wins. Since he couldn’t compete with the deep pockets teams to retain the services of Jason Giambi/Miguel Tejada/Johnny Damon/Barry Zito, he used advanced statistics to figure out what truly measured a player’s impact on wins. Of course in baseball, you’ve got 162 games of data every year to come up with those stats…of which there aren’t for naval operations or war at sea. Until someone comes up with “Win Shares” for Navy programs, it will be hard to truly measure a platform’s impact on security (do you get more national security “wins” from a cheaper ship/plane vs the high end and often vilified platforms like LCS and the JSF?)
    – Billy Beane as admitted that the lessons of Moneyball don’t necessarily apply to the post-season and its small sample size of fewer games. Journeymen unexpectedly get hot and stars can slump in a particular 7-game series…doesn’t the Navy need to be ready to win in the “World Series” (a worst-case hypothetical War at Sea scenario) as well as the Regular Season (Maritime Security and power projection in benign environments)?

    1. Thanks for the compliment, much appreciated!
      – The US Navy may be the Yankees in terms of our budget compared to other Navies; however, imagine that the Yankees now have to play multiple sports (multiple mission areas vs our competitors only having to focus on one or a few missions). Having the benefit of seeing some nice charts put together by Raytheon and CRS, we cannot afford the Fleet that we have for much longer let alone expand it. Resources will continue to dwindle as non-discretionary items such as healthcare and welfare eat our lunch. Certain mission areas are going to require “Moneyball” solutions. This is what CNO is doing. I assure you, we are very much in necessity.
      – I don’t know if I would call Bill James’ work ‘advanced statistics.’ James’ work was pretty well known (and dismissed). Billy Beane and his staff expanded on James’ work only in so much as to quantify the saber metrics required to make it to the playoffs and then extrapolate which affordable players on the market were capable of generating those stats. While there are stats for gross tonnage, vehicle squared / cubed, operations planning space in order to complete HA/DR, TSC and AFSB operations, I’m not sure that anyone has war-gamed the sum of a “moneyball fleet” in these mission sets vs a DESRON. My gut says moneyball fleet would win.
      – You’re right about Moneyball being about making it to the playoffs. But isn’t that the role of the GM? Strategically set up your team with the personnel resources necessary to make it to the dance. From there on in it is a series of tactical engagements. Same thing for the Navy. The CNO is not a warfighter. He lives the POM. His job is to man, equip and train (Title 10). It is the Combatant Commander’s job to oversee the tactical engagements in the context of an operational design that determines if you win the World Series. World Series also does not have to be kinetic. While the Cold War had plenty of kinetic events, didn’t the US Navy win on the high seas? I would argue yes. Likewise, the Moneyball Fleet has a limited role in a Pacific Conflagration with China, however remote of a possibility that actually is. This Fleet is designed to win the Peace, and I might add that the Chinese are building a similar Fleet for ostensibly the same purpose.

      1. Those are the results of political competition between the President and Congress, not the ability of the US to fund a strong Navy (however you define it). The US is still a very big, very rich country in comparison to everyone else. Inability to agree on an appropriations bill and an economic slump do not equal terminal national decline.

        1. By your logic Spain could reconstitute their legendary Armada at any time. Our nation is in decline, and barring any fundamental shift in mandatory spending accounts we will continue to have to make do with less.

  2. Back then, Spain (whose King also controlled Portugal, half of Italy, Belgium, Holland, and a bunch of other places including much of the western hemisphere at the time) was relatively big and rich. It is now not particularly big or rich anymore in comparison to the rest of the world. The US is (300M people, much higher per capita GDP than other big countries like China, India, Indonesia, etc)

    Big naval expansions and big new social programs are not mutually exclusive, see pre-WWI Britain (the People’s Budget and the Super Dreadnaughts) and Depression-era US (The New Deal and the Vinson-Trammel Navy Bill)

  3. Then in 1971 the administration officially decoupled the dollar from gold. National debt now exceeds $16T. If we continue with big naval expansions and big social programs while promising to pay it back later, how much longer do we project the dollar will have a value because the US says it does?

  4. Very interesting from both sides here. Do experienced Naval military leaders make reasonable judgments on future threats, strategy, and policy, then attempt to execute them over time – or do we keep spending large sums on a vision of yesterday’s world? Do we tread water, maintain some core pivot capability to adapt to unforeseen reality, and “wing it”? Can we be all things to all people in a world of increasing potential conflict and technology involving entities that may not fit the mold or “rules” of traditional a “nation state”?

    Looking at the dysfunctional Congress over the past several years that seems to exist in a parallel universe and cannot agree on the time of day, I doubt the present lawmaking body of this country can rise from the weeds long enough to intelligently assess and effectively deal with most any long term issue of national significance , as it continues it’s myopic fascination with “debt” -whatever this means in any given minute.

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