President's Commentary: Don't Give Up the Ships

February 1, 2017
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

All the U.S. military services have had to do more with less, but the Navy is facing a challenge that strikes at the heart of its raison d’être. Simply put, the Navy is underequipped. It does not have the number or types of ships it needs to adequately address its global role. Maintenance is backlogged, and because the supply of ready forces does not meet demand, deployments are longer. This downward curve in operating capability is reciprocal to the growth in its missions. The cost to re-establish the dominance of the Navy is significant, but it must be met—and in several areas. Further delay only adds to the expense and the risk to national security.

The need for an effective Navy cannot be overstated. Most of the world’s population lives in or near littoral areas, and 90 percent of global commerce is transported by sea. Global maritime threats have become more complex, and many of what once were strategic interests now are operational interests. The 70 percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered by water lacks the infrastructure present on land, which makes the Navy’s mission ever-challenging. 

U.S. maritime forces have provided a global presence for more than two centuries, but recently, the threats confronting the fleet have become increasingly diverse and capable. Today’s Navy must deal with a multitude of real and potential adversaries that have varying capabilities and employ different tactics in multiple theaters, often concurrently. The Navy frequently finds itself conducting varied operations in several theaters simultaneously.

Among major powers, China is expanding its naval strength as it extends its territorial claims farther away from its borders. Russia is honing traditional capabilities and developing new ones, especially for its submarine force. Space is re-emerging as a contested domain, and cyber has become an area where nefarious activities likely will affect maritime operations. Recent developments in Ukraine and Eastern Europe once again have brought electronic warfare (EW) to the fore. As a result, a potential adversary more easily can deny U.S. naval forces access to areas that until now were freely navigated.

The U.S. Navy has come to accept that it may be forced to operate in a denied or challenged environment. Consequently, training in space operations, EW and cyber must realistically reflect that contested world. As with any major challenge, no easy solution is on the horizon. Alternative, diverse and often manual methods of command and control must be at the ready to prevail in these conditions.

Further, varying levels of interoperability often limit or handicap U.S. maritime forces when working with partner nations. The operational technology gap between the “haves and have-nots” continually is increasing. As this interoperability gap expands, workarounds are developed, and they typically affect action and reaction times. This can be perilous in a world where speed and agility are crucial. Exercises such as Rim of the Pacific highlight where the challenges lie and provide an opportunity for incremental improvement in interoperability, yet solutions often fall well short of need.

Eventually, the answer to having a strong global naval capability comes down to shipbuilding. A concerted effort and billions of dollars will be required to rebuild the fleet to address expanding mission challenges. The shipbuilding industry must be rebuilt with an expert work force that possesses the evolving skills needed to produce a capable high-technology fleet. Much of that expertise has retired or left for other opportunities, and those skills must be rekindled.

Additionally, other efforts are necessary if the Navy is to maintain its dominance over the long term. The service must increase research and development to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies and counter capabilities. This requires a better understanding of needed capabilities, integration of ideas and more cooperation among industry, government and academia. To that end, the unnecessary and artificial roadblocks that have been erected by limiting interpretation of policies and regulations must be removed. 

Many of those barriers have punished institutional behavior, when instead they should focus on individual behavior and accountability. The typical knee-jerk reaction to a violation of reasonable ethical regulations often penalizes an entire institution instead of an individual wrongdoer. Punish the individual wrongdoer, not the entire relationship between government and industry. Ethics values cannot and should not be compromised, but how they are applied must be re-evaluated. 

Just as the Navy’s roles and missions are broad and diverse, so are the actions needed to better equip the service to meet future challenges. The longer it takes to implement fixes, the more difficult and costly those fixes could be. Failing to act assumes the luxury of time—an assumption that could prove fatally wrong in this dynamic era.

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