I apologize in advance to everyone receiving this in their inboxes who are used to more light-hearted political and social commentary. My day job is in the national security field, and an article has appeared that elicits a timely response. Having this platform at my disposal, I have chosen to put it here. If you are uninterested in naval strategy and concepts, please carry on with your busy life.
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Under Secretary of the Navy, and retired Marine Colonel Robert O. Work has authored an essay for the U.S. Naval Institute that encapsulates much of the thinking that has animated his approach to Seapower and naval force structure over the past 15 years. I cite that figure, as it was in 2006 that I first become familiar with Work in a capacity described later in this piece (when I was leading a Navy strategy project).
Work is an immensely capable man, an incredibly effective bureaucrat (and I use that term in a positive, Wilsonian manner), and a lively thinker and speaker. I have enjoyed every interaction with him, and I have learned a great deal from him. That said, he is often misguided when it comes to naval strategy, strategic concepts, and force structure, and the sins of his thinking are on full display in this piece.
As has been my custom (in the old Conservative Wahoo Blog), I will analyze the contents of this piece in order by pulling quotes and commenting on them. I apologize in advance for “taking quotes out of context”, but that is the approach. Readers will be able—as my piece proceeds—to see where I am going, but I will summarize and elaborate on my criticisms at the end. Let’s get right to it. This is going to be a long piece, so grab some coffee.
Work gets things started with a bit of history.
Fast forward eight decades. In the 1980s, no one doubted that the nearly 600-ship U.S. Navy was bred and ready for war. Its mission was not easy, but it was simple . Everyone, from senior admirals to junior sailors, knew, if push came to shove, their job was to put steel on target and the Soviet Navy on the bottom. The service locked its sights on the adversary. It adopted a pugnacious wartime strategy designed to take the fight to the Soviet Navy in its home waters. It would attack the Soviet Union’s flanks in support of the main effort in central Europe.2 The Navy exercised this strategy relentlessly, demonstrating its intention and will to sail into the teeth of Soviet defenses and hound, harry, and destroy every ship, submarine, and aircraft it could find—in addition to projecting power on Soviet shores.
There are several stolen bases here. The steely-eyed killer Navy that Work describes also had a considerable number of platforms that were decidedly unsuited for the existential battle with the Soviets, one of which (the FF 1052 class) I served on (1987-90) and which after a time, was rarely used in the Persian Gulf because of the threat to it that Iranian missiles posed (hardly the Soviets). Additionally, while the Navy glowingly described above was preparing for the big battle with Ivan, all sorts of other things were going on around the world, including regular large scale exercises with South American navies known as UNITAS. There was a tangential relationship to the larger strategy aimed at the Soviets, but in practice, these deployments were about assurance, presence, diplomacy, and support. Moving on:
More consequentially, the Navy took his admonition for a “systematic, detailed elaboration and presentation of the theory” to its institutional heart—albeit in a way even Huntington would likely find unhealthy. Since 1954, the Navy has been in a constant state of worry that if the American people lose sight of or disagree with its strategic concept, the dollars will stop flowing, ships will not be built, the fleet will shrink, and the service will be rendered irrelevant.
Work’s view of Samuel Huntington’s impact on the Navy is puzzling, especially from someone whose professional resume included shipbuilding, force structure, and force generation. The building of a navy, especially a modern navy, is a capital intensive undertaking that must be planned years or decades in advance, and which must be flexible enough to encompass changing strategic environments. The Navy’s “constant worry” is portrayed here as unreasonable, yet I assert that this institutional paranoia is anything but unreasonable. In a republic such as ours, this relationship with the American people is essential, and the failure to explain and convince the people can and does have negative impact on the Navy being able to do what is asked of it. I believe we are in just such a period now, where the Navy has not done effective job over many years, even as demands on it have remained constant.
These tasks were consistent with the four “mission areas” of the U.S. Navy outlined in 1974 by Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, then president of the Naval War College: sea control, strategic deterrence, power projection, and forward presence. Just two decades after Huntington’s article, with the Soviet Navy rapidly gaining in size and capability, sea control had returned as the Navy’s primary mission and defining strategic concept, and it was the beating heart of the 1986 Maritime Strategy and the 600-ship Navy. Sea control was “intended to connote more realistic control in limited areas and for limited periods of time” than “command of the sea.”
Work seems here to be lauding the view of VADM Turner from 1974, when Turner specified these four “missions”. Seemingly the intellectual basis for the 1986 Maritime Strategy that guided a Navy that Work seems to think was more focused on the right things, there it is, in black and white. “Forward Presence”. Oddly, Work then spends most of his time in this piece denigrating forward presence. To some extent, Work’s discomfort with forward presence as a mission is understandable. Were I able to transport myself back to the 1970’s and whisper in Turner’s ear, I would have said “Forward Presence…what for? To do what? We aren’t present for presence sake. We’re present to deter and assure. Use those words.” Much of my beef with Work here and elsewhere stems from this foundational error—that when the Navy says “forward presence”, it is to accomplish OTHER missions or objectives. The objective is not and has never been simply to “be there”.
The next part of Work’s piece that I will cover deals with a time in which I have some “inside” knowledge, and this was the release of the 2007 maritime strategy known as “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower”. I was the team leader and primary author of this document. My team worked closely with dedicated professionals at the Naval War College and elsewhere to produce a strategy that was consistent with the political and strategic realities that we faced, which Work describes thusly:
During the 1990s—a period with a national policy of “engagement and enlargement,” steady unconstrained CoCom demands for naval forces, and no serious naval competitor—the notion that forward presence could prevent conflicts began to take hold in the Navy. If it could help arrest the post–Cold War fleet drawdown, so much the better . Deterring bad behavior by regional actors through demonstrations and shows of force had always been understood as part of forward presence. But the idea that forward presence, in and of itself, could prevent conflicts more broadly was something new.
So much here to unpack. We were working in a world in which the United States had been referred to by a treat ally as a “hyperpower”. The Soviet Union was moldering on its dustbin, and we had spent over a decade reaping the perceived benefits of the “peace dividend”. Like the Navy of Huntington’s time, we (the Navy) needed to remind policy-makers and the American people of the value of investing in a capital intensive undertaking EVEN IN THE ABSENCE of a perceived threat of war, as the true benefits of seapower to a nation who wields it transcend simple conflict. Additionally, the consequences of collapsing down to the threat would be disastrous if one arose (as it did even as the 2007 strategy was released). Finally, neither that strategy nor anyone associated with it believed that forward presence “in and of itself” could prevent conflict. Forward presence—lethal, distributed, networked, and sustained—is the “way(s)” to achieve the strategic “end” of conventional deterrence. Work gives away the game by saying “Deterring bad behavior by regional actors through demonstrations and shows of force had always been understood as part of forward presence.” What does this sentence mean, if not preventing conflict? Moving on:
But as the fleet shrank, what was needed was a more rigorous process to balance demand with supply. That never materialized. So, despite the Navy not being sized to satisfy presence demands, the Pentagon generally acceded to them.
The Navy tried to make do. Aggregate demand from the CoComs amounted to about 130 ships continuously deployed any given year. Throughout the 1990s, the Navy kept about 100 ships continuously deployed—similar to the number forward deployed with the 600-ship Cold War fleet—despite the year-to-year decline in the total number.
These two paragraphs point directly to my main intellectual argument with Work (here and elsewhere) and that is, the degree to which he has always simply accepted as a fact of life fleet shrinkage and advocated therefore for reduced posture and commitment. Clearly, if the demand on the Navy remained constant throughout the 50% drawdown in size from the Cold War, SIGNIFICANT value was placed on the things the Navy did by planners and politicians. Work wishes to solve problems on the demand side, and he has characteristically ignored supply. Nowhere in this piece does he advocate for a larger Navy, and one should not expect this of him historically. He takes a relatively common-sense approach that the Navy we have is too small for what we ask of it, and I agree with that view. But he would have us ask less of it, and I would have us build more of it. Until such time as we retreat from world leadership into something other than where we see ourselves today, we will continue to need a larger Navy doing much of what it is asked to do, but more of it. Ever onward:
In addition to concerns about surge readiness, the FRP was a tacit recognition that the idea that forward presence alone could justify a larger battle force had proven to be a forlorn hope. These circumstances convinced the Navy it needed to revert to a readiness-centric culture that valued and emphasized surge forces as much as forward presence. Indeed, a key idea in the response plan was “presence with a purpose,” a not-so-subtle rejection of the idea of forward presence for its own sake.
Having been involved (at a much lower level than Work, admittedly) in some of these discussions, the idea that anyone—Navy or otherwise—believed that forward presence ALONE could justify a larger battle force is unsupported. The Navy did not do itself any favors when the then CNO began using the phrase “presence with a purpose”, as all it did was feed those (Work) who believed there had been purposeless presence previously. Forward presence then and previously had been doing what it had been doing since WWII, and that was deterring and assuring.
And, given the logic of earlier versions of the post-Cold War concept, having ships forward was seen as the best way to prevent wars. Whether intended or not, the implication was that devoting combat-ready fleet assets to presence missions was as important as having surge forces ready to go to war.
In the absence of a peer competitor worthy of the capacity that Work would devote to surge, the devotion of combat-ready fleet assets to conventional deterrence and assurance missions (ones that Work has already conceded were of value) WAS as important as having forces ready to go to war. It WAS intended, and it was at the time, strategically valid. No one understands the Pentagon better than Bob Work. However, the suggestion that adopting a strategic concept in the early 21st century privileging surge warfighting capacity over conventional deterrence and maritime security would lead to anything other than an even more dramatic decline in the size of the Navy, is odd. That “surge” capacity would have been cannibalized in short order to meet other military and domestic needs, and we would today be facing China with an anemic and less capable fleet.
As its title suggests, a key aim of the 2007 strategy was to elicit international cooperation. Maintaining the status quo of the global system was central to this aim. But this formulation, however well intended, had a different impact on the Navy itself. Since the end of the Cold War, the advertised benefits of forward presence had progressively risen from a mission, to a force-sizing construct, to preventing wars and controlling crises, to protecting the global system. In essence, this thinking gradually elevated forward presence from one of the Navy’s enduring missions to its reason for being.
Although eliciting international cooperation was a key aim of the 2007 strategy, its primary aim was to make an argument for a powerful and global Navy that was consistent with our national self-image, and with the historic and strategic basis of American Seapower that has been at the heart of American grand strategy since its founding. Seapower has always been about more than warfighting, but has as always been at least about warfighting. Promotion of American security and prosperity has been there from the start, and applying land-centric strategic thinking to seapower has always been a fools errand.
Presence is what we do. It is who we are.
Work cites here the words of the then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. Not only was Mabus wrong, but Work taking Mabus’ words as a truth is also wrong. Presence is not what we (the Navy) do. Presence is a way of doing it.
Few would argue forward presence is an unimportant mission. As Vice Admiral Turner described, presence: is the use of naval forces, short of war, to achieve political objectives. The use of presence forces is for two broad objectives: to deter actions inimical to the interests of the United States or its allies; and to encourage actions that are in the interests of the United States and its allies.
I find it interesting that Work cites these words from VADM Turner. First, I would argue that not only is forward presence not an important mission, but that it is not a mission at all. It is a natural approach to posturing naval forces by a world-power protected by large oceans with interests remote from its geography. Second, Turner says as much in his quote, reinforcing the notion that forward presence is a way, and the end(s) are deterrence and assurance.
Thinking about forward presence in this way should introduce a measure of rigor in deciding whether to undertake a presence mission requested by a regional commander. What is the precise objective of the mission? Are the naval assets assigned capable of accomplishing the objective? How will we know when the objective is accomplished? How long are we prepared to pursue the mission? Such rigor is notably absent when conducting presence operations to protect the existing global system of trade and security. Nearly any deployment, to whatever region, for however long, could reasonably be justified by such an expansive objective. And that helps explain why the incessant demands for naval forces from regional CoComs are seldom challenged, much less denied.
In these words, Work gets to the essence of our now fifteen-year disagreement. Rigorous analysis of force-on-force dynamics using wargames and computers is a very satisfying undertaking, in that doing so gives straightforward, mathematical answers. My forces with these capabilities against your forces with those capabilities, and when the shooting is over, you are left with this and I am left with that. I laid out the lure of this approach to strategy and force planning a few years ago in a piece called “History Majors vs. Math Majors: The Problem of a Coherent Fleet Architecture”, the essence of which is that determining the effectiveness of one’s approach to deterrence and assurance is hard, and cannot be easily modeled—and therefore, costed. Because modeling what happens after the shooting starts is (relatively) more easy, this approach is defaulted to. The questions Work poses are good and valuable questions. They simply are not neatly answerable, and so political judgment intervenes.
More fundamentally, the idea that maintaining presence to protect the global system and prevent wars is equally important to winning wars is in direct conflict with the Navy’s own century-old standard for conventional deterrence: maintaining a fleet organized, trained, equipped, and ready for any military challenge to the United States. As Admiral William S. Sims—twice president of the Naval War College—wrote in 1915, “The mission of the fleet in time of peace is preparation for war.”
This recourse to a statement by Admiral Sims in 1915 is troubling, in that a considerable amount of history has passed since this time, not the least of which was WWI and WWII, the formation of NATO, and the rise of the United States as a global power. Not that Sims was comprehensively correct then, but applying his dictum to the present day strains credulity. The U.S. Navy has been effectively used to advance U.S. national interests since its founding in realms other than the preparation for war.
Over time, unless the fleet was careful, an overemphasis on forward presence could lead to a decline in warfighting readiness, with potentially dire results.
Another foundational difference between work and me is that I have never believed we had an overemphasis on forward presence, but that we had an underemphasis on force structure.
Moreover, this culture contributed to a creeping sense that the Navy had lost or was losing its warfighting focus. In the estimation of former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, “There is an emerging realization around the world that the U.S. no longer possesses naval superiority and could lose a war at sea
Nonsense. Despite its serious problems, the U.S. Navy still is the strongest navy in the world, by a significant margin. With 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their multirole airwings, 50-plus nuclear-powered attack and guided-missile submarines, 100-plus P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, and the world’s largest unmanned aircraft ocean surveillance fleet, it likely possesses what Alfred Thayer Mahan referred to as “overbearing” naval power.
I tend to side with my friend John Lehman on this one, especially given the modesty of his claim (“could lose”). That it is considered by Work to be “Nonsense” is inconsistent with what I know about the capability and capacity of China’s armed forces. I believe war with China would ultimately be won but at ruinous cost to the world.
The Navy cannot claim it can prevent any war, any more than it can guarantee it will win all future wars. The only thing within its power is to be as ready as possible should war break out, and to be manned, trained, and equipped to fight any adversary on, over, under, and from the seas—relentlessly, ruthlessly, and without remorse—until the adversary is swept from its environs.
Man, talk about a grandiose strategic concept! My brain is EXPLODING thinking about what a force structure looks like that is “ready as possible” to execute relentless, ruthless, and remorseless warfare from the coast of California and Virginia.
The hopeful idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure helped get the Navy into its current readiness mess. To get out of it, it must change course and heed the 2018 National Defense Strategy: “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.”
Little bit of a stolen base here, in that that same strategy, derived of the National Security Strategy, placed a premium on conventional deterrence BY DENIAL. Which places a premium on forward, ready, powerful, networked naval forces (as opposed to conventional deterrence by punishment, which prioritizes surge force).
If anything good comes out of the 2017 Navy ship accidents, it would be a renewed and sustained commitment to warfighting training and readiness and a deliberate moderation of forward-presence missions.
The perception that warfighting training and readiness has declined (hence, ships collide) leads just as logically to a call for an increase in the number of ships, in that there would then be a larger number of ships available to carry out the required missions. This would leave time for more training and readiness. Would that Bob Work were making this case. After putting forward his idea for a strategic concept, Work states:
The strategy’s description of forward presence as a means of diplomacy, influence, and advancing a rules-based order is less lofty than preventing wars and defending the global system.
What does he think diplomacy, influence, and advancing the rules based order—are for? These are all about preventing war. Not just great power war, but regional war, and proxy war.
These steps need to be backed up by deliberate efforts to convince the Secretary of Defense and regional CoComs that Navy warfighting and material readiness should no longer be sacrificed on the altar of forward presence, and that the Navy will no longer confuse the ultimate end of winning a fight with merely being forward for the sake of being present.
By now, you have come to realize the depth of my animus for the straw-man Work puts forward here.
For example, the Secretary of Defense could ask all CoComs to submit yearly requests for naval presence. Requests would be examined by the Joint Staff and Navy, which would recommend to the Secretary of Defense which missions should be approved or disapproved. Once the Secretary approves the missions, the maintenance and operations costs to support them would need to be fully funded. The process also would need to account for emergent presence missions not considered during the annual program, with funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Such a process would help ensure Navy presence “requirements” would be programmed and budgeted for in the Pentagon’s yearly defense program and prevent the degradation of fleet readiness caused by lax or reflexive approvals for presence.
I simply cannot get my mind around this one. To the uninitiated, Work’s suggestion probably sounds reasonable. To someone who has thought about these things for thirty years, the suggestion is pandemonium. While this process might have some impact on how the fleet is allocated to meet these annual demand shifts, I cannot even begin to consider how one would apply this process—if at all—to the question of force structure. We must never forget the time and capital-intensive nature of building and maintaining navies.
Bob Work is a great American and was a superb force for good within DoD when he wielded power. He and I have had fundamental disagreements on basic issues for a long time, but his service to this country has been positive and enormous.
Bob thinks the Navy is too small for what is being asked of it. I agree. Bob thinks what is being asked of it is to some degree, a function of the Navy’s view of itself and the strategic concept it puts forward. I disagree. Bob thinks that what the Navy is being asked to do should change to fit the force structure of the Navy. I disagree.
What the Navy does around the world is the summation of who we are as a people, what our interests are, where they are, and how we see ourselves internationally. There was once something of a consensus on these questions, but that consensus has clearly frayed over the years as we have taken (intended and unintended) a reduced role in the world as others have increased theirs. I am fully prepared to support a reduction in commitments allocated to the Navy in order to more closely match our reach and our grasp. But I will ONLY support that after I am convinced that we have a new consensus, one in which we are content with our fading influence, one in which we no longer claim a leadership position among free nations, and one in which we are content to surrender our position to China. If we get to that place, then applying more modesty to our requirements for the Navy is appropriate. Until that time, I will continue to believe that what we need is a bigger and more powerful Navy, and that failure to do so will settle the aforementioned question whether we like it or not.