Cold War Transition, Part III: The Navy

Part I (Army),here

Part II (Air Force)here

Like the Army and Air Force, the Navy avoided moving away from the comfort of its Cold War strategy. During the first post-Soviet, the admirals clung to the philosophy that had driven acquisitions during the Cold War. That strategy had been based on controlling the sea, following the precepts of Alfred Thayer Mahan. The Navy built a large fleet that would, when war started, wrest control of the oceans from the USSR and her communist allies. The main theaters of battle were the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the western Pacific, and the Persian Gulf. The main threats were Soviet attack submarines, missile-armed surface ships, and attack planes flying from land. To fight in these theaters and against this enemy, the Navy built a fleet of aircraft carriers, attack submarines, and cruisers optimized to defend against air attack. Allied to that was submarines carrying a larger proportion of the American nuclear deterrent, whose job was to deter a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s the Navy responded to shrinking defense budgets by reducing the fleet rather than changing it. Thus, instead of 15 aircraft carriers, the Navy went down to 11. Similar reductions occurred in the number of attack submarines, cruisers, and ballistic missile submarines. This was the Cold War strategy, miniaturized. Despite the fact that no other nation in the world has anywhere near the naval power needed to dispute American control of the oceans (the sum total of the world’s aircraft carriers are fewer than the number the United States currently deploys), the U.S. still operates a fleet aimed at fighting exactly such a battle.

The conventional wars fought by the United States since 1991 have illustrated the oddity of this. The Iraqi Navy in both 1991 and 2003 was insignificant and easily handled. Serbia did not have a navy and neither did Afghanistan. In all those wars, planes from the aircraft carriers proved crucial in bringing American military power to bear. The rest of the fleet, however, was relatively uninvolved. Both submarines and cruisers did fire cruise missiles at Iraq as part of the initial air campaigns, but that was hardly the full measure of their capabilities. In essence, the Navy was gold-plated, with capabilities and costs far in advance of requirements. No longer was it as important what the Navy could do *at sea.* Instead, the critical question was what could the Navy do onshore *from the sea.*

To its credit, the naval leadership did try to respond to the changing situation, albeit in a somewhat confused way. First, and most effectively, the service started to build more and more amphibious warfare ships that could bring American military power not only up to the coast but bring it ashore as well. Second, the Navy began to build “Littoral Combat Ships” (LCS) designed to go into shallow waters and deal with the threats—mines, suicide boats, and so on. Finally, the Navy began to build a major warship, the Zumwaltclass, whose primary emphasis was its ability to project power on shore.

But here the Navy has run into continuing problems. The methods used to acquire weapons and equipment by the Pentagon is fundamentally flawed. The acquisitions program suffers from two continuing problems. First, most contracts are awarded on a “cost-plus” basis, which means that the companies awarded the contract get paid whatever it costs them to make the equipment plus a markup for profit. Essentially, the belief is that the cost of highly advanced weapons systems tends to be unpredictable and contractors should not be punished for it. There is some reason behind this, but “cost-plus” opens the door for dramatic cost overruns without any punishment. The second major acquisitions problem has been with the services themselves. They have a tendency to gold-plate its weapons, to add multiple revolutionary features to each new weapon, and, worse, continually to add new features during the building. The first tendency means that each program is dependent on not one new technology being built and deployed, but several. If just one goes badly wrong, the entire weapons system gets hung up. The second tendency (the addition of new features late in the process) means that the contractor has to go back and figure out how to fit the new feature into an already finished design, something that costs money and time.

This is true for all the services, but is exacerbated for the Navy by the sheer size and cost of ships. A new Ford-class aircraft carrier is likely to cost $12 billion in 2008 dollars. Overruns and problems in ship acquisitions are thus more costly and more noticeable. Both of the new ship classes—the LCS and the Zumwalt class—ran into cost overruns. In addition, the Navy added features, including the idea that theZumwalts would, in addition to their littoral activities, be able to participate in a ballistic missile defense mission. The results, not surprisingly, have been that these programs for new ships have been delayed time and again, come in at a much higher cost than estimated, and have not demonstrated the capabilities for which the Navy asked. In essence, by 2008, none of the new ships that the Navy was building was working out well. The result has either been the decision to curtail both programs substantially. The Navy will likely build many fewer Zumwalts and Littoral Combat Ships than it had planned.

The danger of course, is that the requirements did not disappear. To give one example, Iranian naval strategy in the Persian Gulf is predicated on exactly the kind of tactics the Littoral Combat Ship is designed to defeat. Without an effective LCS, the Navy is forced to use other ships, less well-suited, to carry missions out in that body of water. Thus the Navy has rethought its mission, to a certain extent, but has found it difficult to put into practice. In the constrained funding atmosphere of the post-financial-meltdown United States, a Navy that cannot effectively build ships—surely a foundational competency for the service—means increased Congressional scrutiny and skepticism. Congressional willingness to budget for a service that faces no Cold-War-level threats when the Army and the Marines are fighting not one but two counterinsurgency wars could easily wither. The Navy may end up finding itself with an idea of what kind of ships it wants, but without the ability or funds to build them.