As they continue to ponder the value of naval forces in the nation’s wars, Navy leaders want to broaden the debate by encouraging participation from all levels of command. The goal is to come up with more innovative and expedient ways to deploy sailors and Marines around the world.
In a departure from tradition, the Navy and the Marine Corps issued a new “naval operations concept” that leaves unanswered specific questions about how forces will be organized for particular missions. Instead, it invites further discussion about how the Navy will “meet the security challenges of the 21st century and reinforce the preeminence of U.S. naval forces to help defend the homeland and win the nation’s wars.”
The document was signed in September by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Mullen and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee. In it, they call for an “intellectual renaissance” in the naval service.
The Navy began in the early 1990s to focus more attention to non-traditional areas such as littoral warfare and operations in support of land forces. But only in recent years — after the invasion of Iraq and the start of the counterinsurgency campaign — did the Navy begin to worry that its forces were too conventional for this fight.
Mullen took steps to engage more sailors in ground combat and created a new command to oversee these missions, which include deploying small river-faring boats in Iraq and other hotspots. Mullen also directed naval commanders around the world to work more closely with third-world navies, in an effort to gather intelligence about nascent terrorist groups and prevent future attacks.
But Mullen’s goals also would require a broad reorganization of the fleet, which is built around massive carrier battle groups. In this new concept of operations, Mullen asks for fresh thinking about how to deploy forces in irregular wars.
“Specifically, this concept calls for more widely distributed forces to provide increased forward presence, security cooperation with an expanding set of international partners, preemption of non-traditional threats, and global response to crises in regions around the world where access might be difficult,” the document says.
Mullen and Hagee characterize the concept as senior “commanders’ intent” that aims to “guide the considerable creativity and judgment of our sailors and Marines … The end-state is decentralized decision-making and execution based on broad, centralized guidance.”
Robert Work, naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says Mullen deserves credit for seeking to engage the service in a much-needed debate about its future.
“Mullen is really trying to challenge the Navy intellectually,” says Work. “He’s trying to challenge the Navy to do better.” Mullen wants Navy leaders, says Work, to articulate answers to these questions: “What do we bring to the nation? Should we do something different other than sending out battle carrier groups? … He is trying to spark a new period of thought on how the Navy contributes to the national defense.”
The concept of operations, he says, “doesn’t break any grand new ground, but points to a potentially different future.”
One clue of what may be coming is the document’s mention of “global fleet stations” as a means to contribute naval assets to a theater of operations.
The global fleet station, the Navy paper says, “is a persistent sea base of operations from which to coordinate and employ adaptive force packages within a regional area of interest.” Its primary responsibility would be “shaping operations, theater security cooperation, global maritime awareness, and tasks associated specifically with the war on terror.”
The idea of global fleet stations indeed does denote a change from the current thinking about “sea bases,” Work says.
For the past several years, the Navy has been advocating the deployment of groups of large cargo ships and combat vessels that would serve collectively as a sea base for launching a major ground offensive. But that idea appears to be fading, Work says.
“Now, it’s about global fleet stations, distributed operations offshore, shaping operations in support of the long war. They don’t say how they are going to do it, but they introduce the concept that sea basing won’t be about launching major combat operations, but about global fleet stations.”
Another source of ongoing discussions is the notion of “persistent sea bases” operating in particular coastal regions of the world, such as Africa, Latin America, the Persian Gulf, East Asia (Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca) and the Western Pacific, says Work. A sea base may include an amphibious mother ship, a small combatant, special operations forces and Marine rifle companies.
The concept of operations does not explain how these goals will be attained. The language in the document suggests that Mullen wants to leave it up to fleet operators to suggest ways to implement the commanders’ guidance.
“We charge all hands to conduct experimentation, war-gaming, seminars and debate in order to more fully understand and implement the guidance presented herein,” write Mullen and Hagee.
In a clear acknowledgment that budgets could shrink in the future, the commanders ask that the operations concept be executed with current equipment. “Eventually, we will have new tools to complement our current force, but in the near term, we must learn to use what we have in new and innovative ways.”
The Navy and the Marine Corps list as their missions: forward naval presence, crisis response, expeditionary power projection, maritime security operations, sea control, deterrence, security cooperation, civil-military operations, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, air and missile defense, and information operations.
Work was surprised that sealift was not on the list. “Sealift is extremely important to joint power projection,” he says. This does not mean, however, that the Navy will no longer be responsible for sealift.
This concept of operations is a launch pad for a broader “maritime strategy” that Navy officials currently are drafting. Notably, the officer in charge of this project, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Adm. John Morgan, is soliciting input from organizations outside the Navy in what Mullen has termed a “conversation with the country” about the value of the service.
The Navy is underappreciated, and these conversations are intended to fix that, says Morgan. “What we may discover is that many Americans will begin to realize how important maritime security is.”
The maritime strategy is scheduled to be completed next summer, Morgan tells reporters. “We’ll have a debate first before we write a report.”
To oversee the outreach efforts, Mullen reached for an outsider. He hired a special consultant, Peter Schwartz, the author of “The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World.” He will host a series of events that will begin in November in Newport, R.I., which is home to the Naval War College.
Work says this is a savvy move by the Navy. “They are being inclusive. They are not a bunch of Navy officers locked in a room saying, ‘This is the way’ … The exercise in itself is useful. It remains to be seen if the strategy has anything new.”
Ultimately, it is important for the Navy to strengthen its position as a provider of “distributed” combat power, says retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle. “The global war on terror is going to be a very long war indeed,” he says. “To have the influence that we need on a global scale that will be required to win this war is going to require the traditional Navy mission to be shaped to reflect today’s circumstances.”
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