Friday, December 4, 2009

Scrap the Maritime Strategy?

I believe it may be time for the Navy to scrap "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower", or at least begin a thorough, publicly announced review of the assumptions and conclusions it reaches. This may sound odd coming from the worker-bee most closely associated with that strategy's development and defense (and from the guy with the most to lose if the strategy is cast aside--I mean--there are guys in DC associated with the 1980's strategy who've been dining out on that one for DECADES!), but intellectual honesty compels me to make this case.

I've been reading House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street recently. In the book, the unraveling of Wall Street firm Bear Stearns over the course of about ten days in March of 2008 is dissected. It's a fascinating read, and instructive of just how fast things happened and how completely caught unaware much of the leadership of the firm was.

I think about this now because CS 21 was released to an international audience of CEO's about a month after the S&P 500 reached its all time high (when those folks at Bear Sterns were thought to be geniuses by some). All the big thinkers were predicting that China would someday pass the US in economic might, but those forecasts were far in the distance. And while most of the people associated with the strategy felt that the Bush defense buildup was over and we'd likely be in an era of flat defense budgets, bets that the defense budget would fall--and fall precipitously--were not being made. Don't get me wrong--we did think about these things through a fascinating process of alternative futures development and strategic "stress testing" against these envisioned futures--but in the end, the strategy placed its bets squarely on a world in which the Navy would 1) concentrate combat power where it currently does and 2) distribute mission tailored forces in non-traditional operating areas in non-traditional roles. These employment schemes most effectively supported the strategic ends of the document, and at a high level of abstraction, we were confident that the country could support them financially even within flat-lined budgets.

Our current Undersecretary of the Navy (Bob Work) and I used to have friendly but pointed discussions about CS21--our last one two days before his nomination was announced. He called it a "strategic vision" rather than a strategy--largely because it didn't have a force structure/resource component. A line that he used that I think I remember correctly was "strategy without resources is dreaming out loud" or something to like that. He believed (rightly) that the Navy necessary to carry out the strategy we articulated would be bigger than the one we had--and that we couldn't afford the one we were already planning. I counter-argued that we can't afford it because we hadn't made a case for change---that the strategy makes that case and that it was now the job of leadership to challenge the prevailing allocation of resources to the Services in the annual budget process. We agreed to disagree--he went on to be Undersecretary of the Navy and I blog in my bunny-slippers. But I digress.

But here we are---a year plus after my conversation with Bob Work and two years after the release of the Maritime Strategy. World financial markets were crippled and trillions of dollars in wealth evaporated. The United States position in the world is somewhat different than it was in October of 2007, and its capacity to support the Navy articulated in that strategy--a long-shot even then (given the unseemliness of actually advocating in public for a larger budget share) has now been replaced by the sinking feeling that it can't support even the Navy that existed before CS 21. Flat-line defense budgets are clearly "dreaming out loud", given the dramatic recent increase in Federal deficits and debt, and the new Administration's determination to fund a number of domestic priorities in a time of economic contraction.

Which leaves me where I am. I'm not sure that CS21 is a valid strategy for a Navy that I believe is likely to suffer funding hits in the neighborhood of 25-30% in the coming years. This isn't a sense that the Navy is going to be picked on--quite the opposite. I think the Navy will be favored within this Administration, as the Obama team moves inexorably from primacy, to cooperative security to offshore balancing as its grand strategy vector of choice. We won't be able to afford the vision articulated in CS21 and we won't be able to afford a Navy that looks much like the Navy we have now.

The Navy (especially the CNO) is doing a great job articulating CS21 and our allies are genuinely energized by it and what it portends. But they will quickly grow disenchanted with us as the operational realities of declining budgets drive us away from cooperative security arrangements and toward selective engagement and offshore balancing. Much of the goodness in CS21 is bound up in missions/capabilities that we (in the good budget days) did episodically and spasmodically becoming regularized and budgeted for.

One of the greatest disappointments I had in my work on CS21 was coming to the realization that the Navy did not regularly and routinely engage in the intellectual effort that we were expending. VADM John Morgan--my boss at the time--went as far as to say that the Maritime Strategy should be reviewed and revised every two years. I think he got that right. And I think events in the world around us reinforce his wisdom.

Bryan McGrath

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