Thursday, November 3, 2011

Looking for Proof of Big Ideas in Discussion

This article from John Bennett from Monday updates the strategic review that is supposedly taking place in the Pentagon. Keep in mind, if there really is a strategic review - and I still have doubts this is even possible without OSD arbitrarily making all decisions - we may never actually hear much about it until after we see the FY13 budget.

The Pentagon is considering investing more of its funding in military platforms for the Asia-Pacific region and less on tools for counterinsurgency, defense sources say.

The change in thinking is being spurred by a soup-to-nuts strategy review at the Pentagon that was initiated last spring to help the Defense Department navigate budget cuts.

Several defense insiders said the review has led officials to downgrade the importance of conducting large-scale stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The review’s early findings are the latest signal that the Obama administration is recalibrating its foreign and national security policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.
But here is where it gets interesting. The article goes on to say:
This will have “negative implications” for the Army’s slice of the Pentagon budget pie down the road, one defense source said, while making the Navy and Air Force more relevant.
Then goes on to quote Loren Thompson:
“Programs that are not suitable for the Western Pacific environment, such as heavy armor and the lightly armored Littoral Combat Ship,” said Lexington Institute analyst and industry consultant Loren Thompson, “are getting a close look as possible sacrificial lambs in the push for savings.”
Is the LCS really a sacrificial lamb? I wouldn't get your hopes up. There is a group within the Pentagon that argues, at any cost, in favor of the major programs and say everything else is on the chopping block. All I have learned is that Loren Thompson appears to be one of the folks in that group who is out making that argument. It's like the folks who say an aircraft carrier will be retired early. Sorry, no chance, not unless the budget process results in sequestration, again - that's just the talking point of one side of the debate. We all know what the Navy will cut - the same kind of stuff they always cut (unless it really is different this time, which is unlikely).

Time will tell.

This article discusses the "strategic review" process in the context of a programs competition rather than a process that asks what the military should be capable of doing tomorrow. Where is AirSea Battle? Where is the one document that is supposedly guiding future military doctrine for the Asia-Pacific region if in fact the Asia-Pacific region is really getting so much attention during the "strategic review" process?

On Thursday the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces will hold a hearing that examines A Day Without Seapower and Projection Forces. The House folks are really excited about this hearing... for some reason. Personally, I'm having trouble getting excited. The problem I've been having watching the DoD on Capitol Hill this week is that I have no faith in the system - and it begins with a lack of faith in political leadership to ask relevant questions but there is also an observed absence of relevant comments by top military leaders. Come on - when the worst case scenario for the DoD is that their budget gets reset to 2007 (PDF), it is very hard to take all the doom and gloom seriously unless we are also admitting up front that the current DoD budget is already broken. I didn't hear the CNO say that Tuesday, and what isn't being said by military leaders is often more important these days than what they are saying.

All we are getting is fear, which means all we are getting is political rhetoric that really doesn't hold as much value as people think it does. Knowing that political rhetoric is the way ahead for military leaders is useful though, because it makes it entirely predictable how tomorrow's hearing will go down, or at least easy to predict what the Navy will say.

My money is that Vice Admiral Bruce Clingan is going to do basically do what CHINFO already does - produce a Day in the Life of the Navy similar to what we have seen in the past with Rhumb Lines where the fleet activities across the globe are outlined for a single day. It will be a story of global naval power, and if VADM Clingan is any good at public speaking, it will be a well told story of naval power. I enjoy stories about naval power, so I am hoping for a great story... but is it really going to be relevant to the broader situation the nation finds itself in early in the 21st century?

Vice Admiral Clingan is the N3/N5 - which means he runs the shop of big ideas in the US Navy. Tomorrow's hearing will only be useful as an argument for seapower (in my opinion) if the hearing exposes some big ideas the Navy's top big idea shop has been discussing lately during the hearing, because when you are a nation that is working under the Budget Control Act of 2011 - which basically says the nation is broke - it's time to think and come up with ideas. Show me big ideas are at least out there in OPNAV.

For example, lets start asking the hard questions about seapower in public so we start getting better answers about seapower in public.

The future Carrier Strike Group will consist of a Ford class carrier ($15B to build, $??? to operate and maintain annually over 50 years, + $??? to build and operate the air wing over 50 years), and the CSG also requires a certain number of large surface and submarine escorts ($2+B to build, $??? to operate and maintain annually over 50 years). What is that total budget number over 50 years for a single CSG? Whatever that number is, multiply it by 10, because in order to sustain the industrial capacity to build Ford class CVNs, we need to build 1 CVN every 5 years for an average of 10 CVNs over 50 years - which means 10 Carrier Strike Groups.

Remember - 1 ship, the big deck nuclear aircraft carrier - also drives requirements for the air wing and the escorts just so the nation can get the realistic capability out of that 1 ship. How much does one CSG cost over the next 50 years? How much does ten CSGs cost each year?

I'd like to see someone in the Navy asked whether today, facing the emerging A2AD networks that all planning is currently centered around, whether or not that 10 CSG force structure model is the most cost effective use of funding for naval power in the 21st century, or if an alternative force structure at the same cost would be more effective. What other force structures have been looked at but dismissed as not providing the same combat power as our 10 CSG force? We are planning for a future of sophisticated peer competitors where precision weapons strike targets from thousands of miles away - and as a nation we are making enormous investments that drives all high end requirements across the board just to protect 10x4 acres of CVN property. Why is that the best option for the future in the 21st century?

I'm not saying all existing force structure plans aren't the best plans for the future, rather I'm just asking why we think big deck CVNs are the best choice when it also means that almost the entire Department of the Navy budget gets focused in supporting and making survivable 10 versions of that CVN capability.

If Vice Admiral Clingan, as N3/N5, cannot responsibly discuss that topic in an open Congressional hearing - which for the record absolutely is A Day Without the US Navy's Version of Seapower and Projection Forces, then there is no such thing as a strategic review taking place.

I tend to think that the "strategic review" from a Navy point of view is going to be little different than AirSea Battle development - an argument that begins and ends with the invulnerability of aircraft carriers, the eternal wisdom of investing all surface forces investment into AEGIS defensive screens, and an argument that articulates the superiority of Virginia class submarines - and how that trilogy represents the zenith of naval power in the 21st century.

If the US Navy's force structure is indeed optimally planned, then surely the Navy would have done analysis to be able to prove it. That analysis would, in theory, reveal the red line in cost where the CSG is no longer the most superior option.

And that is the question that any "strategic review" during a time of budget austerity surely needs to determine... What is the red line where an alternative force structure that is not centered around 10 big deck nuclear powered aircraft carriers becomes the better option? Why does the Navy believe that 50 years from now a big deck aircraft carrier would somehow be survivable in a war against a peer adversary? After all, the US Navy looks at other naval warships - including aircraft carriers - as dead on arrival in a shooting war. Why not ours? Are CVNs too expensive to imagine ever losing in a shooting war? If not, then why is 10 the right number when that number is determined solely by the minimum industrial capacity? Should we not have 12 aircraft carriers instead of 10? What about only 6 CVNs but 20 CVEs? What ever happened to single mission surface combatants? Why are we building 4 LCS at the cost of 1 LPD-17 in the spirit of quantity for ships where volume matters most, but building $2B - $3B on surface combatant quality when in theory - larger numbers of smaller surface combatant shooters would be more survivable? What ever happened to tough questions in a HASC hearing?

So what am I looking for in Thursday's hearing? A sign that big ideas exist, and are part of the discussion. That doesn't mean they are the best idea, just that ideas exist in the form of options being legitimately evaluated. Maybe the ideas are lighter than air lift, or how naval power is looking to support USMC Company Landing Teams in the context of irregular warfare, or whether or not the emerging 21st century environment is forcing the Navy to look at what kind of surface/underwater/aviation force is necessary to compete in the 21st century. I'm looking for signs of thought, imagination, and competition.

Why? Because those are characteristics of a healthy organization - and if the nation is truly taking a strategic turn towards seapower - visible, public signs that the seapower service is engaged in a healthy internal debate would be a good thing.

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