Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, speaking at the annual Navy League Exposition on May 3, gave well-deserved recognition to the dedicated men and women of the sea services who are brilliantly meeting their global responsibilities, whether at sea or land in Iraq and Afghanistan. The secretary then proceeded to lay the groundwork for major changes for the Navy’s - and the country’s - future.
He went on to point out the overwhelming superiority of the Navy-Marine Corps team against a litany of state forces. He acknowledged that the United States has global commitments and responsibilities. Yet, he went on to question the need for this superiority in light of the asymmetrical threats we face now and in the future.
The secretary acknowledged the critical role the Navy has played in preventing major wars, projecting power and protecting critical sea lines of communication. In any contingency situation, the first question asked by every president is, “Where are the carriers?” He went on to state that we cannot let these core capabilities and skill sets atrophy through distraction and neglect.
The secretary stated that the future of our maritime services will ultimately depend less on the quality of our hardware than on the quality of their leaders. Nice words, but this approach lays the groundwork for future budget cuts. There is no question our forces must have the farsighted leadership we had in the past but those leaders were successful, in part, because we provided them with the best equipment and technology available.
The fact that the secretary points out that we have 11 nuclear-powered carrier battle groups compared to the fact that no other country has even one is irrelevant. We have these forces to meet our global responsibility. We do not build carriers to fight carriers. The Battle of Midway is over.
Not mentioned by the secretary is the fact that China is aggressively building a conventional power projection navy that by the 2020s will have multiple aircraft carriers, perhaps with advanced fifth-generation fighters and a significant amphibious force. It has also built nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Russia is modernizing its forces. It appears the Obama administration simply wishes to ignore these looming threats.
I agree with the secretary that the U.S. Navy, even with declining force levels, remains the dominant naval power today, but we have to prepare for the future. This is where the Navy is at a critical junction with its proposed ship-building plan. The secretary argues that long-range, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles could put $15-billion carriers at risk. (Note that we have in hand today the capability to pre-empt this threat with the anti-ballistic-missile-equipped Zumwalt-class destroyer). He goes on to state that we will also face a sophisticated submarine threat - all of which could end the sanctuary we have enjoyed in the Western Pacific for six decades.
The Department of Defense must be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars; however, this has not always been the case. As an example, the secretary cites the Zumwalt DDG-1000 destroyers. He states that the price of this ship had more than doubled from original estimates. This is not unusual for a “first of kind” ship that is being built from the keel up to be stealthy, accommodate the latest dual-band radars and has significant growth potential for the future. This ship is currently on cost and on schedule and if equipped with an ABM capability, could pre-empt China’s anti-ship ballistic missile.
On the other hand, the secretary failed to mention the skyrocketing cost of the 30-year-old-design Arleigh Burke DDG-51 restart program, which has been endorsed as the way to meet current and future threats. I understand the cost for the first restart DDG-51 is now around $3 billion and will have only a minimal ABM capability. Most importantly, this ship will only have a “half-ship life,” because it has no growth potential to meet future threats and will have to be replaced in 15 years, which the Navy cannot afford to do. The true cost of the restart DDG-51 is an unknown.
The secretary touts the advantages of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a versatile ship that go places too shallow for the Navy’s blue-water ships. However, he fails to mention that the ship was suppose to be stealthy (which it isn’t) and cost only $220 million - but that cost has more than tripled to about $750 million. At the end of the day, you have a ship that can’t defend itself, even against a Hezbollah-fired scud missile. As I have said previously, this program should be terminated as a failed experiment and the Navy should join with the Coast Guard in a common hull.
Mr. Gates mentioned we need to embrace new strategies and options on how we operate in the future. With declining force levels in the past, we used overseas home exporting as a force multiplier. With China expanding, its scope of operations to include the Indian Ocean, we should consider homeporting a carrier battle group in Western Australia at Fremantle. We looked at this possibility in 1986-87 and found it to be very feasible.
The secretary has laid the ground work for major changes in how the Navy will operate in the future. However, there is still time to make sensible course corrections. I am sure for his legacy, the secretary does not want to be remembered as the secretary who scuttled the U.S. Navy.
Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.