Pentagon and naval officials must decide whether to keep buying multibillion-dollar warships, since the Navy's shipbuilding budget is unlikely to grow amid economic uncertainty and two wars, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said May 3.
Gates raised eyebrows at a Navy League-sponsored conference in National Harbor, Md., by questioning, among other things, whether the United States will need 11 carrier strike groups when no other nation has more than one.
"At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers." the secretary said. "Mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats and budget realities.
"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," he said to a silent luncheon crowd.
Gates sent a shot across the bow of the Marine Corps' troubled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program, saying it is time to "take a hard look" at the kind of platform needed for ship-to-shore maneuvers, "and how many."
He also said Pentagon officials must question where the U.S. military might be ordered to carry out an amphibious insertion under enemy fire.
Gates noted that the U.S. Navy is the world's best-equipped and most lethal, and can position more fighter jets at sea than the "rest of the world combined." But he also said that no other nation is interested in matching the Navy in a ship-for-ship arms race. Instead, foes - big and small alike - will attempt to blunt America's at-sea advantage "at the low end," using things like long-range ballistic cruise missiles.
"The U.S. will also face increasingly sophisticated underwater combat systems - including numbers of stealthy subs - all of which could end the operational sanctuary our Navy has enjoyed in the Western Pacific for the better part of six decades," Gates said.
These new tactics and systems possessed by potential foes mean U.S. naval forces must "have the widest flexibility" to deal with a wide variety of enemy tactics and potential kinds of conflicts, Gates said.
This "altered landscape" also will require "more innovative strategies" and "joint approaches." On the latter, he plugged the Air Force-Navy "air-sea battle" concept.
The secretary also used a large chunk of his speech to call for additional resources for capabilities that can "see and strike deep" into hostile areas.
He said the Pentagon plans to increase funding for long-range unmanned aircraft and ISR platforms. He said additional resources are needed to carry out a planned increase of ships for missile defense missions.
Submarines' expanded roles
Gates signaled submarines will be asked to do more in coming years.
Pentagon brass see a "submarine force with expanded roles that is prepared to conduct more missions deep inside an enemy's battle network.
"We will also have to increase submarine strike capability and look at smaller and unmanned underwater platforms," Gates said.
He also called for more ships that can operate in shallow waters.
"The Navy will need numbers, speed and the ability to operate in shallow water, especially as the nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war," the secretary said. "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 [rocket-propelled grenades].
"The Navy has responded with investments in more special warfare capabilities, small patrol coastal vessels, a riverine squadron, and joint high-speed vessels," he said.
Gates also gave a thumbs-up to the embattled Littoral Combat Ship program. He acknowledged "its development problems," but called it "a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy's big, blue-water surface combatants."
Meantime, the secretary defended his years-long effort to shift more Pentagon funds and resources from hardware for conventional warfare to irregular conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said for this fiscal year, "the department requested nearly $190 billion for total procurement, research and development - an almost 90 percent increase over the last decade.
"At most, 10 percent of that $190 billion is dedicated exclusively to equipment optimized for counterinsurgency, security assistance, humanitarian operations or other so-called low-end capabilities," he said. Gates called that shift "needed and noticeable ... but hardly a dramatic one."
As funding becomes scarce or is shifted to more-pressing programs, Gates noted the services often begin talking of "gaps." But he said talk about addressing these perceived gaps typically include the wrong solutions.
"More often than not, the solution offered is either more of what we already have or modernized versions of pre-existing capabilities," he told the audience. "This approach ignores the fact that we face diverse adversaries with finite resources that consequently force them to come at the U.S. in unconventional and innovative ways. The more relevant gap we risk creating is one between the capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow."
He then cited two examples: the aforementioned EFV program and aircraft carrier strike groups.
Finally, Gates repeated his fierce opposition toward funding an alternative F-35 engine and additional C-17 cargo planes. The Pentagon has for several years attempted to stop funding the power plant and end the Globemaster buy; Congress has continued each program each time.
"The fight is on," he said, to convince Congress to resist putting money into the 2012 Pentagon budget for either. He did not, however, repeat his threat to recommend a presidential veto of the Pentagon spending bill if it contains monies for either effort, both of which Gates has concluded are not needed.
Gates said he will address the broader defense budget picture during a May 8 speech at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas.