Navy Chief Calls for Larger Debate on the Future of U.S. Military Power
But with the nation mired in a fiscal crisis, the Navy might no longer be in a position to control its own destiny. If military budgets in fact are headed for a precipice, at some point there has to be a national debate about “what type of navy we want to have,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, who will be retiring this fall.
Time to prepare for the future is running out, he said. Like the other branches of the U.S. military, the Navy is still living off the Reagan buildup, saddled with aging weapon systems and soaring payrolls. The Navy’s current inventory of 285 ships is the smallest since 1916.
The Navy’s raison d’etre — to be a global force that deters enemies, patrols the oceans and responds to crises anywhere in the world — could be undermined if the nation fails to make major investments, Roughead said June 16 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
As a result of a growing demand for “forward presence” and more frequent calls to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters, about 40 percent of the Navy’s ships are deployed on any given day. That level of commitment may not be possible if the Navy continues to shrink.
“We have to look at what type of navy we want to have, where do we want to be, what areas of the world are of most interest to us, what type of fleet we have,” he said. Such analysis has to take into account that many of the workhorse ships that were built in the 1980s will be phased out in the 2020s. “We have to come to grips” with how to go about replacing those ships, and decide what technologies to invest in, Roughead said.
A perfect storm of ships slated for retirement and staggering price tags for new vessels means the Navy could be headed to thedecade of the 2020s in precarious conditions. “We have to deal with that,” said Roughead. The Navy may be spending up to $100 billion to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine fleet over the next two decades, which could crowd out other programs. The 2020s also will mark the first time the Navy will be decommissioning nuclear aircraft carriers. Nimitz-class flat tops will be reaching the end of their 50-year service lives. Taking those huge ships out of service will add to the financial burden.
Roughead also is worried about a dearth of technological innovation, which could make it tougher for Navy strategists to seek lower-cost alternatives to traditional big-ticket ships. A case in point is unmanned mini-submarines. The Navy has been pursuing research programs aimed at building long-endurance unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, that could be deployed for routine surveillance missions. These vehicles in theory could help relieve the attack submarine fleet that already is headed for cutbacks. But the UUVs have failed to perform, lamented Roughead. They don’t provide enough endurance or survivability to even be considered as future substitutes for conventional submarines, he said. “I thought we could just tap into the scientific community or the oil exploration industry,” but so far it has not worked out.
No breakthroughs have emerged in the surface warfare world either. The Navy continues to rely on billion-dollar guided missile destroyers as its workhorse. The same ships that would launch ballistic missiles to defend the United States and allies from an enemy attack also are being used to evacuate hostages, for example. “In the next year or two, we’ll have to really dig in and start thinking about this,” Roughead said.
Technological disappointment is not unique to the Navy, he noted, and reflects a lack of fresh thinking across the entire military procurement apparatus.
If President Kennedy had relied on the Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy to land a man on the moon, it never would have happened, Roughead quipped. “We are losing the sense of ambition, adventure and reach that really characterized a lot of the great things that we did in this country,” he said. “I see that in some of these newer technologies that would really make a difference.”
Roughead said the U.S. military has to be “more bold in our thinking about the application of technology.” Even when projects fail, Americans have proved throughout history that they can learn from mistakes and move on, he said. “That is a characteristic that we’ve had for a long time and that, quite frankly, I see slipping away.”
The Pentagon’s weapon acquisition system creates huge barriers to innovation, he said. “There is great aversion to going forth boldly with some of these new systems,” said Roughead. “We are encumbered by an extraordinarily bureaucratic process that is intolerable of failure. As a result, we do things to prolong the process, we increase the cost accordingly and, I think, we are losing some opportunities,” he added. “It’s a sad statement that it is best to not have something become a ‘program of record’ if you want it to move quickly.”
One of the Navy’s bright technology spots today is itsaviation fleet, and when Roughead suggested that the service wanted to deploy a new squadron of unmanned combat jets by 2018, he was criticized for setting too ambitious a deadline. That reaction was both a surprise and a letdown, he said.
Roughead’s larger concerns about the future of the Navy echo similar worries about the Pentagon’s failure to set priorities in anticipation of a budget crunch, rather than wait for funding cuts to force action.
“We do not have a good answer to the questions of what kind of military will we need and what will we need it to be able to do,” said David Berteau, director of defense industry initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This makes it hard to prioritize defense spending,” he wrote in a recent study, “CSIS Global Forecast 2011: International Security in a Time of Uncertainty.”
Poor management of resources so far has crippled the Pentagon’s strategic planning efforts, he said. “We do not know today what we get for the defense money that we spend. … DoD in the aggregate cannot say what the overall bene?ts are or what would be the impact of reductions.”
Military strategists’ poor track record in anticipating conflicts also hampers investment decisions, said Berteau. “DoD promotes the idea that defense funding provides capabilities rather than specific threat responses, but no one has figured out how to validate the requirement for a specific capability.”
In aspeech earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn called for the Pentagon to develop technologies that can do it all: High-end conventional warfare, low-intensity conflicts, counterinsurgency, or whatever new form of war might pop up in the coming decades. The U.S. military, he said, “must have a portfolio of capabilities with versatility. ... We cannot prepare exclusively for high end or low end conflicts.”
In an era of declining budgets, it is hard to see how the Pentagon canavoid making tough choices, analysts have said.
As civilian control of the military has weakened over time, Berteau argued, the armed services “define requirements, with little civilian ability to make adjustments, and the military defines acceptable risk, when this is clearly a question for civilian leadership.”
How then do we characterize the future and fund it? Berteau asked. Because of the looming federal debt crisis, Defense leaders have a two-year window to get “requirements and funding right,” he said. Incoming Secretary Leon Panetta has to resolve the near-term budgets, but he also has to put together the 2014–2019 “future years defense plan.” This is where he can make a huge difference, Berteau said. “The right approach calls for redefining future defense needs and directing future funding toward those needs.”