The U.S. Navy is facing tough challenges on an anemic budget: China and Russia’s growing Naval prowess; threats proliferating from increasingly advanced weapons systems; a force stretched too thin by an ever-expanding mission; and an inability to say “no” when asked to do more.
The capabilities of the U.S. Navy remain second to none. No navy on the planet can currently do what it can do above, on, and under the sea. Nobody has fixed-wing aircraft carriers with the capacity and endurance of a Nimitz class carrier. I would put a Virginia or Seawolf class submarine up against any other navy’s undersea force. Our surface force is good and getting better all the time, with more capable sensors, such as the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), and advanced weapons including the SM-6 missile.
Regarding capacity, our Navy currently operates at a global scale no other navy can match. And I would put our people up against those in any sea service.
But other navies are closing the gap. China and Russia are both stepping up their game in thoughtful ways. Even though they will have a hard time competing at global scale – at least for now – they are building sensible capabilities intended to offset the U.S. Navy in their regions of interest.
Russia is principally focused on submarine capability, and they’re building some really good ones, like the multi-purpose Severodvinsk class, though their production capacity is somewhat limited.
China is focused across the board, including commissioning the aircraft carrier Liaoning and assembling an out-of-area deployment capability to better protect their One-Belt-One-Road trade and development initiative in the Indian Ocean. China’s asymmetric anti-access area-denial approach is specifically designed to inhibit our ability to support our allies and partners in the region.
Operating at sea is becoming more and more hazardous. Advanced anti-satellite, anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles are particularly concerning. We have not been attacked in recent years by a state-of-the-art cruise missile, but it is a very difficult threat to counter.
If this weren’t enough, the U.S. Navy is being stretched too thin.
Keep in mind that power is never constant—it ebbs and flows at the mercy of a host of determining factors. As any major power reaches a peak in its influence, constrained resources, political infighting, over-extension, and the fact that adversaries have a vote all conspire to erode that power. It is an unfortunate, but natural tendency. The risk comes when a dominant nation’s relative power inevitably begins to ebb, however slightly, yet it attempts to operate at the same scale as before.
This is what we are seeing today from our military writ large, which has been inclined to say “yes” too often to combatant commander demands for forces. Who wants to say no to the potential warfighter? For the U.S. Navy, maintaining forward presence – patrolling wherever needed – won out over “surge capability,” the building of a force that balances training with time in port to be ready to surge for a crisis.
Sometimes it’s hard to see history when you’re living through it. At such a key moment, it is easy to fall prey to the human tendency for selection bias. It is tempting to wish away potential disruptions and simply do more of the same because it has always worked and the organization is aligned to keep doing it.
We caught a glimpse of this trend with the Navy’s recent unfortunate accidents in the Western Pacific. While there were surely a number of specific issues in play, these events can all be traced to complacency in operational excellence. We need to take care that this complacency does not extend into operational plans, operational tempo, and force design.
Although the U.S. Navy still retains many advantages, simply doing more of the same is not the answer. We will have to use our most important competitive advantage, namely our creativity, to produce new dilemmas for China and Russia, including their naval forces, should they be tempted to threaten our longstanding interests.
There are two keys to doing this.
First, we need to spend more time at the third horizon of innovation. The first horizon involves simply making incremental improvements to our existing capabilities and within our current operational concept – we are really good at this. The second is making out-of-the-box improvements to those same capabilities, again under current operational concepts – we are pretty good at this. The third horizon involves completely re-thinking the problem, melding new technologies with new concepts. This is exceedingly difficult for an established organization to do, including a military service.
The second key to creativity in challenging our biggest potential adversaries is to empower our young people – in both the services and in industry – to breathe life into all three horizons. They are the ones with the creative minds who will bring new ideas forward, but only if they feel safe doing so.
New ideas that spring forth will likely involve some kind of human-machine interface, artificial intelligence, new materials and other emerging technologies. Others will simply require opening the aperture on our willingness to do things differently, such as building new types of offensive sea mines that capture the enormous advances in technology that have occurred over the past decade.
Finally, we need to recognize that we are not an unconstrained force. Sometimes the Navy will have to say “no” to a combatant commander’s stated request. We made a big mistake in labeling them requirements in the past.
This is about balancing ends, ways, means and an ever-changing security environment. All the variables are in play. Will we strike the right balance by courageously empowering our most nimble, imaginative minds to challenge all the assumptions and break old paradigms? History awaits.