Gates Stuns Navy Establishment

The defense secretary urges the navy the wonder whether it really needs all its aircraft carriers.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t one to shrink from challenging conventional wisdom. He previously took on both Congress and the Air Force in bringing the purchase of F-22 fighter planes to a halt and now questions the wisdom of maintaining more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world’s armed forces combined. “Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another thirty years when no other country has more than one?”

Gates spoke on Monday at the Navy League in Washington DC where he outlined his plans for the remodeling of the US Navy. He stressed that although the Navy’s size has shrunk since the end of the Cold War from a staggering 592 ships in 1989 to just 284 today, “the rest of the world’s navies have shrunk even more.” In relative terms then, the United States is strong as ever.

But size doesn’t matter so much anymore. “Potential adversaries are well aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage,” said Gates, “which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the US to a shipbuilding competition.” The Navy will have to prepare for a future of irregular warfare instead which requires “more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war.”

As Greg Grant at Defense Tech put it, “the fleet will face enemies in the shallow littorals at the low end and sophisticated land based battle networks at the high end.”

So, according to Gates, on two major issues, it is imperative that the Navy change direction. “First, what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire — in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.” Although a valuable asset during the First Gulf War, the Navy has to determine whether another major amphibious landing platform is really necessary today — “especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore.”

“Second — aircraft carriers.” Current military planning is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040. Gates wondered out loud whether the United States really needs such overkill in power projection. “Any future plans must address these realities,” he said.

In spite of the subsequent hubris with some analysts, the secretary did not necessarily argue in favor of further reducing the size of the fleet. What matters, he said, is building a better fleet.

We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms — thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.

Mike Burleson at New Wars explains it as follows: because the United States is already overwhelmingly powerful in terms of conventional naval capability, it should “start considering other areas where [it is] weak and in which the enemy might take advantage of for their own gains.” Or, to quote from Gatess speech once more,

As we learned last year, you don’t necessarily need a billion dollar guided-missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and RPGs.

It’s not just the Navy that is bracing for change. In July of last year, Gates made similar arguments with regards to the Air Force.

At the time, Gates pointed out that by 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds. “Of those,” he noted, “nearly 1,100 will be the most advanced fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s.” China, by contrast, will likely develop no such aircraft during the next ten years while from 2025 onward, “the gap only widens.” The US will then have about 1,700 of the most advanced fighter planes versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese.

That didn’t stop critics of the administration from complaining that Gates would leave the Air Force in “crisis” though. He retorted that,

If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.

Robert Gates is quite probably one of the most committed, forward looking men to have led the Pentagon in recent decades. He knows — as he reiterated in February while speaking at the Nixon Center — that the most lethal threats to America in the near future “will likely emanate from fractured or failing states, rather than aggressor states.” The US armed forces must prepare for that situation, however uncomfortable it may be for them to break with tradition.