Monday, March 12, 2012

Canary in the Coal Mine

This post at AOL Defense by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. is worth reading in full, but I want to quote this specific section. To me, this is very well written, and right on point.

"We intercept about 33 percent of what we know is out there, and that's just a limitation on the number of assets," said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, at a breakfast with reporters this morning. And, Fraser admitted, that percentage is "going down... More is getting through."

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and, after 2014, Afghanistan may free up some aircraft and boats for drug interdiction, Fraser said. But the limitations on what some partner nations can do are more intractable – and any improvement in American capabilities is at the mercy of increasingly tight budgets and a possible sequester.

At sea, Fraser explained, the U.S. Navy is retiring the smaller ships that have traditionally been the mainstay of drug interdiction patrols, the aging and increasingly expensive to operate Perry-class frigates, while their much-delayed replacement, the Littoral Combat Ships, is just beginning to enter service. "We 'll see a gap in the numbers of those types of ships," Fraser said. "So we're working with the Navy to see what other types of vessels and capability that's coming back from Iraq might be available," particularly small craft that have been used for river patrol and offshore patrol in the Gulf. Such boats could boost the U.S. fleet's own interception capability but also, and perhaps more importantly, some could be transferred to friendly countries that are currently short on assets to intercept drug boats moving through their own territorial waters. (Fraser focused on Navy vessels and did not specifically address the Coast Guard, which does contribute some ships to Southern Command operations).
The shipbuilding budget has seen a lot of discussion, some here, but mostly elsewhere since the beginning of the year. I think so far Congress is handling this right - focus on sequestion, the rest is what it is. I think the FY13 budget is simply a reflection of the Obama administration - it avoids every difficult decision the DoD supposedly faced - including sequestion - and the budget fails to lay out any guidance for future difficult choices. That is a purely political move by the SECDEF and President, which is absolutely fine and valid, but let no one pretend the DoD FY13 budget is anything but a politically focused budget specific for an election year.

If someone wants to jump on the issue of the Navy needing more ships, I'm all for it, but I think it is important to highlight that no one in the Navy is making that case... so in many ways I'm not too swayed by others who try to make the case for more Navy ships. For example, Ray Mabus got blasted in Congress by Representative Forbes on Green Energy (YouTube). Legitimate? Politically - Yes, but the sin Secretary Ray Mabus has committed in the eyes of folks like Randy Forbes is one of omission not commission - the SECNAV has failed to focus on Navy specific issues and has instead focused on what every one rightfully sees as 'other crap.'

But the ugly truth is, 4 star Navy Admirals are not beating the table for more ships, so why are folks so upset that the SECNAV doesn't pound sand for that cause as well? The Navy uniformed leadership has publicly consented to the DoD on virtually all the big issues so that the DoD can take a haircut (or trim across the top everywhere) in an election year instead of get a new hair style (legitimate maritime focus for Pacific shift). Does that mean big changes are coming next year? Maybe, probably not, but it doesn't really matter... because without someone in political leadership setting legitimate national defense policy, the annual Navy budget has become a rock drill in contingency planning - not an exercise in short or long term planning - meaning for this CNO the budget planning process will be primarily be about hitting targets within existing margins instead drawing new lines as new margins.

With all due respect to the Obama Administration, you have not given anyone a legitimate national defense policy. This is handful of used toilet paper (PDF) that is embarrassing to label strategic in any context. How does anyone make a strategic choice from that? Where would one even begin making strategic choices with something like that? That is a very sad document, and pretty much sums up the last decade of strategic thinking from the DoD as a nice little bow tied turd.

It is the random disparity of priorities from services and COCOMs that makes comments by Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser very interesting to me. Am I wrong in suggesting that Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser has made a stronger argument than Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert for more Navy ships so far in 2012? I think the question is legitimate, even if General Fraser's argument isn't really that good.

In truth, the reporter is more accurate - Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser is basically saying he needs more Coast Guard Cutters with his argument regarding this specific problem and solution. Janet Napolitano disagrees, but there is little evidence she takes serious the drug problems taking place south of the United States, so her credibility due to simple trend lines, statistics, and facts on the issue of narcotics and drug related violence is already strained.

But again, I have watched the Coast Guard's leadership so far in FY13 and I have not seen Admiral Papp making a serious case for more Coast Guard Cutters, except perhaps the need for more ice breakers in the future. Unfortunately the Coast Guard is simply struggling to keep what they have in existing plans, instead of trying to build political momentum towards a future.

In conclusion, here is what I see. Combatant Commanders not named PACOM have needs in the maritime domain that a smaller sized Navy cannot meet, but the assets those Combatant Commanders tend to need are not aircraft carriers, ballistic missile destroyers, fighter squadrons, or attack submarines so their priorities don't matter as much to the Navy. Basically the Navy is going to have enough of the 'right kind of ships' despite hell or high water, and everything else will suffer - including priorities that are low on the Navy's internal totem poll like narcotics. As long as the Navy is going to have enough of the 'right kind of ships' then the Navy sees itself as OK, and not necessarily in need or more ships. That is what it is, maritime strategy can be tailored later to meet this objective.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use
on American Society
(PDF) is now around $193 billion annually. The Coast Guard doesn't even spend 1% of that total annually building Coast Guard Cutters to address the problem, and the entire annual procurement budget for the entire Coast Guard for everything ships and aircraft is about 5.5% of that figure. I believe there are several ways to read Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser's comments, but the way I read them is simply - the United States Coast Guard is neither sized nor capable of meeting the national security and homeland defense responsibilities with which it is tasked, and on the narcotics issue the US Coast Guard today is only capable of meeting 1/3 of the requirement. While not a scientifically drawn number, it is statistically sound - which is more than most political arguments for money on Capitol Hill.

So here is my concern. If the Coast Guard is so underfunded it is only able to meet about 1/3 of it's mission requirements, and we know the future Navy is going to be too small to fill in gaps for the Coast Guard, which organization is actually capable of being a reserve for the other? It makes a lot of sense to cut the Navy at the low end if the Coast Guard is being sized/shaped to potentially fill in those gaps, or it might actually make sense to cut the Coast Guard if the Navy is going to be filling in gaps in their capabilities. How does the United States reconcile a true national defense strategy when the gaps created by cuts in both the Coast Guard and the Navy directly impact specific, credible, legitimately cited and fiscally accounted threats to the homeland in any context from social to economic to security?

Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser sounds a lot to me like a canary in the coal mine. When people who should know better hear the canary as just a narcotics problem, rather than what it represents as also a smuggling and violence problem, the sound of the canary gets ignored.

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