Future of Naval Warfare: More Mundane, Less Thrilling
The U.S. Navy is building next-generation submarines, aircraft carriers and guided-missile destroyers in preparation for possible future wars against rival maritime powers.
Most sailors and naval aviators, however, will most likely spend their careers doing the less glamorous duties that most U.S. naval forces have been doing for the past decade: Combating insurgencies, helping tsunami- or earthquake-ravaged nations, chasing pirates, training allied nations’ maritime security forces and searching for shady terrorist networks, a Navy official says.
It all falls under the rubric of “irregular warfare,” a phrase that most often than not fails to create excitement because it conjures up images of dull, boring work. Whether the Navy likes it or not, irregular warfare is what it does, and what most likely it will be doing for the foreseeable future, says Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, director of the Navy’s irregular warfare office.
When Navy fighter pilots take off from aircraft carriers and fly srike missions over Afghanistan, they are fighting irregular warfare. In fact every naval deployment today somehow fits the category. It’s work that “has to be done,” Harris says in a recent interview.
“A lot of the work in irregular warfare is mundane and boring, and that’s why nobody pays attention to it,” he says. “But that’s where all the problems are in this world.” There are too many areas of instability, too many natural disasters and too much piracy that continues to fuel the demand for naval forces around the world, Harris says.
The U.S. government currently is debating how much military spending the United States can afford, with budget cuts projected over the coming decade. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has suggested that some of the most expensive weapons systems may have to be terminated if budgets contract.
Big-ticket ships and aircraft would be needed if the U.S. military, for example, had to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack or if a major conflict errupted in the Persian Gulf, but the probability is higher that the Navy’s advanced weaponry will be used in unconventional warfare or humanitarian relief, Harris says.
"[What we do] is not a bunch of science fiction or multibillion-dollar high-profile work,” he says. “It’s not sexy.”
Most naval missions these days are not as dependent on sophisticated weapons as they are on skilled sailors, says Harris. The Navy has to invest in high-priced weapon systems in case it does have to fight a peer competitor, but the reality is that most missions today do not require such advanced technology, he says.
The Navy’s irregular warfare office has pushed for the procurement of small boats, aerial drones and shallow-water robots. “I’d like people to realize that for a small investment you can have capabilities that are real,” Harris says.
One of the most successful new pieces of gear has been an unmanned “surfboard” powered by solar and ocean-wave energy, he says. It has been used for surveillance missions, and for collecting data on water temperature or radiation content in the waters off the coast of Japan after the March tsunami. Harris also sought funding to equip small watercraft with Link 16 military radios so the boats could communicate with larger Navy ships and aircraft.
Both the Navy and Air Force, the secretary of defense has said, “ have to be prepared for the high end” of conflict, says Harris. “While all this is important. the Navy is still going to be called upon to do these [irregular] missions,” he adds. “My goal is to show them that we have to continue building multi-mission capability. We have to have ships, aircraft, sailors that can operate across the spectrum of warfare. … We don’t need specialized ships for irregular warfare,” he says. “That would be a waste of our money and time. … [But] we need trained expertise.” Harris says it is important for the Navy to continue to invest in sailor training and education, so they are better prepared for the jobs they will be asked to do. Learning foreign languages is key, he says. The Navy Language Regional Expertise and Culture program is one example. It prepares sailors to be able to better communicate with foreign allies, he says.
One reason why Harris is so certain that naval forces will be in high demand in the future: Many countries want to work with the U.S. military, but they worry that ground troops will draw unwanted attention. “Navies are expensive. but we’re offshore so we’re not often recognized.” Nobody has a “desire for more U.S. presence on their soil,” he says. “So the fact is that we can provide offshore options.”
But Harris does expect irregular warfare programs to become more closely scrutinized as pressure increases to cut defense spending. “Everything is under pressure now,” he says.
Ron O’Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service, noted in an August report that the Navy’s irregular warfare and counterterrorism activities “pose a number of potential oversight issues for Congress, including the definition of Navy irregular warfare activities, specific Navy IW budget priorities, and how much emphasis to place on IW and CT activities in future Navy budgets.”