As silly, parochial, and partisan as the infighting gets over defense planning and procurement, there is a reason why we have the forces we have, and it maps back to the basic, enduring strategy of the United States. We intend to control the seas that directly affect us and deter hostile control over the world’s other key chokepoints. And to do that, we need surface combatants.
What Obama would know if he paid attention to how our armed forces work
That reality of sea control hasn’t changed since the ancient Romans locked down the Mediterranean, and it’s not clear that it ever will. As an environment for power and confrontation, the sea is sui generis. Modern threats from the air and under the sea have not made the surface combatant obsolete; they have merely driven it to adapt.
And the surface combatant has adapted, transformed from a platform that was largely about bringing guns to a fight into a platform whose effective purpose is to multitask 100% of the time. The U.S. cruiser or destroyer can fire Tomahawk missiles hundreds of miles inland; it can deploy helicopters for a variety of missions; it can use guns large and small, and anti-ship missiles, against other surface ships; it can hunt submarines (if not as effectively as U.S. Naval forces did during the Cold War), and attack them if it identifies them; and it can manage maritime air space for any combat purpose and shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles.
The surface combatant creates an envelope of multi-use combat power that moves around with it and acts variously as reassurance or a deterrent. There is a sense in which the aircraft carrier does that too, but from the maritime power perspective, the carrier doesn’t do all the things the surface combatant does – and that means it requires a protection provided by the surface combatant. If you want survivable, effective carriers, you need escorts.
Today’s carrier doesn’t have any antisubmarine warfare capability, nor can it reliably defend itself against a barrage of enemy missiles. Its close-in defenses are not the equal of the Aegis combatant’s anti-air or anti-missile capabilities. Nor can the carrier launch an anti-ship or Tomahawk cruise missile. The carrier is there to launch and recover aircraft. Its power envelope is singular; the surface combatant’s is multifaceted. The carrier’s air wing has a key role in maritime combat, but that role – like the Air Force’s – is complementary; it can’t replace the surface combatant, which remains the basic unit of naval power.
The submarine is a tremendously capable platform – in a face-off between a U.S. submarine and a surface combatant I’d back the submarine every day of the week – but the sub’s role is also limited. In a geopolitical world in which “gray hulls” often exert their most proximate influence through sheer, obvious presence, the submarine’s purpose is to be invisible. The fear of a sub you can’t find is a more powerful motivator than the sight of a sub you can see, which is the opposite of the surface combatant’s effect. The attack submarine can collect intelligence, launch Tomahawk missiles, and hunt other submarines – and is by far the most effective anti-ship platform known to man. What it doesn’t do is integrate influence in all the dimensions of naval warfare – subsurface, surface, air, space, the littoral interface, geopolitics, and suasion – as the surface combatant does.
If you want to control the seas, you still need surface combatants. And since the seas are the pathway to most of what we do outside our borders, there is no such situation as one in which we will only need to do what aircraft carriers do, or only what submarines do, or only what minesweepers or oilers or merchant ships do. If we do not control the seas, we do not control our security conditions or our strategic options.
Numbers and priorities
How many surface combatants do we need? Romney proposes a number – a total of 328 ships (the current total is 284), of which surface combatants would represent about 130 – and backs it up with reasoning about a strategic purpose.
Obama’s approach has been budgetary. Under the constraints of the defense budget reductions proposed by Obama – $487 billion through 2022– the Navy proposed decommissioning 11 ships in 2013, including four Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers whose service life has another 10-15 years left. Three additional cruisers with more than a decade of service life remaining are to be decommissioned in 2014. As noted at the Navy-oriented Information Dissemination blog, when the proposed cuts were first outlined in late 2011, the decommissioning plan will take out of service cruisers that can be upgraded with the ballistic missile defense (BMD) package – now a core capability for the Navy – while keeping five cruisers that cannot receive the BMD upgrade.