Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Questionable Assumptions

SAN DIEGO (May 2, 2012) The first of class littoral combat ships USS Freedom (LCS 1), rear, and USS Independence (LCS 2) maneuver together during an exercise off the coast of Southern California. The littoral combat ship is a fast, agile, networked surface combatant designed to operate in the near-shore environment, while capable of open-ocean tasking, and win against 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Jan Shultis/Released)
Robert Haddick's contribution back on March 30, 2012 in the Foreign Policy/Small Wars Journal This Week at War series is an interesting and yet very familiar take on naval developments unfolding in the Pacific theater. Even as time has passed since Bob Work spoke at Surface Navy Association conference, a theme has emerged with staying power that continues to find itself as a part of nearly every Pacific discussion lately.

Robert Haddick eloquently discusses the issues like this.
Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a January 2012 speech to the Surface Navy Association, dismissed concerns about the Navy's shrinking ship count. Work asserted that the Navy's robust plans for long-range air reconnaissance, conducted by new aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and a Navy version of the Global Hawk drone, will do much of the routine maritime patrolling previously done by ships. Bases in Australia, the Cocos Islands, and elsewhere in the southwest Pacific would support surveillance of the South China Sea. If ships were required to respond to problems, admirals could send them in as always. But under Work's assumption, fewer ships will be needed for routine patrolling. And with less routine steaming, the Navy will save money and keep its ships better maintained.

The question is whether more aerial maritime reconnaissance and fewer ships making fewer port visits around the South China Sea and elsewhere will provide the reassuring and stabilizing presence that the visible presence of Navy ships has heretofore provided. Work's air reconnaissance doctrine and the Navy's slumping fleet size combine to form a new theory for providing a stabilizing presence in global commons such as the South China Sea. We will know that this theory is not working if the leaders of U.S. allies increase their diplomatic hedging behavior. Regional arms races, another response to a perceived decline in U.S. military power, would be another indication of failure. China's ongoing annual double-digit increases in defense spending and a looming submarine arms race in the region are not good signs.
These two paragraphs by Robert Haddick sum up nicely the two biggest issues surrounding the US Navy today, and do so in the context of the South China Sea. The first issue is what Robert Haddick is calling Work's air reconnaissance doctrine, but the second issue is at least as important - the role the Littoral Combat Ship is expected to perform for the nation in the future.

Bob Work's air reconnaissance doctrine is probably one of the most interesting evolutions of sea power theory since WWI, and easily one of the least discussed major changes taking place in the Navy right now. At Surface Navy Association - ironically - Bob Work made clear the Navy will replace the presence of ships with ISR aircraft, and he stated that ship numbers do carry the same importance as in previous eras primarily because advanced ISR will give fewer ships more information than they have ever had, thus allow fewer ships to perform the same mission just as effectively as more ships without the ISR could. The argument that technology enables a smaller fleet to be as effective as larger fleets in previous eras is not new, indeed it is an argument Bob Work has made in several ways in the past - including at SNA when he stated the 300 ship Navy will be far more capable than the 600 ship Navy of the 1980s.

The key questions to ask as this theory is executed include whether aircraft can legitimately replace the presence of a ship, what is lost in the context of political influence as ships are substituted with aircraft, and whether replacing ships with aircraft is a legitimate approach towards maritime battlespaces in peacetime when that same effort has been largely ineffective dealing with other low intensity maritime problems like narcotics and piracy.

An aircraft, submarine, and unmanned system all suffer from a very specific problem in the maritime domain - they cannot influence any ship at sea unless they do so through fear or threat, and ultimately aircraft, submarines, and unmanned systems can either observe a target or destroy a target - with virtually no middle ground along the scales of escalation. One of the primary political values of surface warfare is the range of scalable options that naval forces have in dealing with ships of other nations; whether observe, search, seize, deny, destroy, etc.. - and the execution of these roles can be sustained with public visibility, meaning executed as an enduring political communication. An aircraft returns to base for fuel, while a ship can have fuel brought to where the ship is. I liken the presence of aircraft relative to ships the difference between virtual presence and physical presence, and while virtual presence is better than no presence, it cannot trump physical presence.

Information certainly beings a lot of power to the fleet, and aircraft are certainly viable alternatives for exercising control of the sea during wartime, but it gets highly questionable when information becomes a substitute for physical presence during peacetime.

However, it is the combination of aircraft ISR and the emerging LCS non-combat doctrine that really describes what is taking place in the minds of planners. The CNO has basically outlined the conceptual purpose of the Littoral Combat Ship, as discussed in this AOL Defense article.
the Chief of Naval Operations acknowledged that the Navy's prized new Littoral Combat Ship might not survive a shooting war against a well-armed adversary like China. But, Adm. Jonathan Greenert said this morning at a National Press Club breakfast organized by Government Executive magazine, the small, versatile vessel could free up larger warships from the day-to-day policing, presence, and partnership-building missions that are the best way to prevent a crisis from erupting in the first place.

"These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that's not what they're made for," Greenert said of the LCS class. Even the LCS contingent soon to start operating out of Singapore will focus on exercises, port visits, humanitarian assistance, and counter-piracy operations with Southeast Asian partners -- taking that burden off the more war-worthy carrier, cruisers, and destroyers based in Japan.

Worldwide, said Greenert, "Littoral Combat Ships will tend to displace amphibious ships and destroyers in Africa and South America. That will free up surface combatants, more high-end ships," for East Asia.
The role of the Littoral Combat Ship for the fleet of the future is probably one of the most controversial discussions in sea power theory the US Navy has had since the Navy began fielding the aircraft carrier, and easily one of the most discussed changes taking place in the Navy right now. In my opinion, both the criticisms and defenses of the Littoral Combat Ship have largely become too absurd for just about anyone to be taken seriously anymore, and even several reporters find themselves incapable of looking to the future as they focus entirely on the past. The article about LCS in AOL Defense today that includes an interview with RADM Rowden is both really good and really rare, because it lacks the usual bullshit that accompanies a discussion of LCS. It's also worth noting the discussion over at the CIMSEC NextWar blog on LCS, including this article by LT Albaugh, this article by LTJG Matt Hipple, and this article by LT Scott Cheney-Peters. All in all, this might be the first time in my five years of blogging that 4 different uniformed members of the US Navy who are not PAOs discussed publicly the Littoral Combat Ship in a 48 hour period. It's refreshing, the goggles have been backward facing on LCS for too long, and with it coming - it's time to flip the goggles around and look forward.

It is important to note the Navy has decided the Littoral Combat Ship will be forward deployed to at least two places initially - Bahrain in the Persian Gulf and Singapore in the South China Sea. That's a big damn deal, because that is exactly where the anti-access / area denial threats are being developed with the most rigor - by Iran and China respectively. The places the LCS will be forward deployed flies in the face of what even the CNO is saying about the environment the LCS will supposedly not operate in. All indications are we are leading up to an inflection point with LCS, a pivot that will in some way reflect lessons learned from actually using the ship. With still many, many months before USS Freedom (LCS 1) will deploy to Singapore, I suspect the pivot for LCS will take place long before the first LCS calls a port in Asia home. We probably won't hear about it until the FY15 budget in late 2014 though, because to be blunt, the Navy really can't afford anything new with LCS until the FY15 budget and beyond.

The use of ISR aircraft as a substitute for ships in the South China Sea as per Bob Work's own presentation at SNA combined with the Navy's intent to base Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore for regional port visits are both new operational concepts intended to perform the same function - free up larger surface combatants for other purposes. That raises the question, once larger surface combatants are not being used for sustained presence, what will they be doing? If we follow logic driven by traditional Mahanian naval warfare doctrine, the big blue fleet will then be consolidated and concentrated in task forces towards the traditional role of maritime power projection - to the 5th and 7th fleet according to maritime strategy.

On paper (or better yet in theory) this light footprint forward approach might work, but are the planning assumptions correct? If the Littoral Combat Ship "might not survive a shooting war against a well-armed adversary like China" then why is the first place the Navy sending the Littoral Combat Ship Singapore, in the South China Sea region, where any shooting war involving China is most likely to take place? Since we are talking about the South China Sea, one could presume the challenger is China - "a well-armed adversary," so that raises the question where major combatant forces will be consolidated and concentrated in times of tension, crisis, or at the outbreak of hostilities? With the emphasis on Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines, and based on what is known about AirSea Battle in the open source - it appears that any initial consolidation of surface forces including aircraft carriers will be outside the South China Sea, indeed outside the range of China's anti-access/area denial capabilities.

Again, that leads us back to whether the US Navy has their planning assumptions correct. How does the United States assure allies with naval presence if the primary purpose in execution of both doctrines Robert Haddick hints to in his article is specific to insuring major naval combat capabilities are NOT in the area to support allies, rather out of harms way to insure the US Navy's fleet survives during opening phases of the war. Has the US Navy designed an operational model that insures the US Navy will not be present on the front lines to defend the national interests the fleet exists to defend in the first place? Such an operational theory towards protecting the major battle force elements of the fleet during the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific is not new to the US Navy, the same theory insured the battleships were consolidated and protected at Pearl Harbor on December 1941. With that said, the Royal Navy was on the front lines of the Pacific in December 1941, and one of the most capable battleships in the world at that time - the Prince of Whales - was sunk 3 days after Pearl Harbor.

Work's air reconnaissance doctrine and the expected role for the LCS still require much more intellectual rigor towards explanation that what has been provided to date. Aircraft provide the nation very limited capacity to execute a political responsibility that is inherent to the value of naval vessels in influencing escalation of threat or tension, and the planning assumption that the LCS won't fight in A2AD environments while being forward based in Bahrain and Singapore is intellectually dishonest at best. The Navy has produced both doctrines as ad-hoc fixes to fill the gaps for a fleet that last year had a floor of 313 ships and this year has a ceiling of 300 ships - just so that the Navy can defend present force structure.

I want the LCS to work, but the LCS looks to me like a platform that needs changes right now that reflect the nations recent pivot towards Asia, and I do suspect those changes are coming - eventually. A modular ship with no modules to swap wastes a lot of money on modularity, and that speed requirement is basically a $100 million mistake designed into each hull. The LCS lacks legitimate firepower and still has no payloads to speak of. Regardless, I still believe the concept of motherships is sound and the Littoral Combat Ship makes a lot of sense as an entry level mothership platform. The network side of unmanned systems is going to be a monumental task for the Navy to execute, and assuming the modules ever arrive - that is one issue the LCS can help the US Navy solve in an operational capacity.

But I am having trouble buying into any theory that suggests ISR aircraft can somehow replace a Navy ship, because the planning assumptions of that theory undermines the political value of seapower as part of national power. Manned naval ships have the capacity to influence national interests forward in all kinds of political activities short of major war in ways standing Army's and Air Forces cannot, but the US Navy does not appear to be interested in those aspects of manned surface naval power.

With $1.2 trillion worth of US trade in transit in the South China Sea annually, and over a million people from around the world conducting commerce on the South China Seas nearly every day - the South China Seas represents the center of gravity of the global economy, so every detail in how the US Navy operates and conducts business in the South China Sea matters a great deal, and has global ramifications. Smart people like Bob Work say the size of the fleet doesn't matter as much as it used to, but how can it not matter when the lack of ships leads to promoting theories like aircraft replacing the presence role of warships, LCS replacing the presence roles of high end warships, and maritime power projection in support of allies becomes a task for the small Navy while big blue fleet concentrates out of range of the bad guys.

The US Navy today is trying to rewrite the book on US seapower to reflect our overall decline of maritime power and our numerical decline in naval power by theorizing about advantages we have from our technical and military superiority. It is an absolutely valid exercise, but I have serious questions about the validity of the planning assumptions and believe poor assumptions up front distorts the validity of the conclusions.

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