WASHINGTON — An influential congresswoman has said the Navy needs a proper maritime strategy that defines its role in the world, but that a reorganization at the Pentagon must be the first step. More specifically, said Rep. Elaine Luria, if China is America’s top threat, then the Navy needs to identify how it can prevent war against the country or win in a fight if one arises.
The Virginia Democrat, who spent 20 years in the Navy as a nuclear-qualified surface warfare officer and is serving her second term in Congress, is eyeing a reform of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. She said this would take the next four or six years to do right, but believes it’s important for the future success of the Navy.
The problem as she sees it? The Navy’s recent attempts at defining its future force were constrained by budget limitations. The service assumed flat or declining budgets and therefore never fully lay out what it needs and for what purpose.
“They’re already coming in constrained, they assume this is the only top line they’re going to get,” Luria said, arguing that the service should instead tell Congress that “there’s a real problem in the Pacific, we need more resources, we need more focus here, this is why this is important.”
Moreover, recent future force design efforts primarily examined what ships and weapons the Navy needed for an all-out war. Luria said that’s not good enough.
She wants the Navy to explain its role in the world: What does its presence in the Pacific need to look like to dissuade China from growing more aggressive in the region? How can [regular] naval presence, in combination with other kinds of diplomatic and economic soft power, fundamentally change the dynamic in the region? What would a “win” against China look like? What capabilities are needed to execute the day-in and day-out deterrence mission, and what additional capabilities are needed if hostilities rise and more combat power needs to flow in?
The Navy took a step in this direction in late 2020, releasing with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard a tri-service maritime strategy that outlined how the three organizations might operate in competition, crisis and conflict in the maritime environment.
But according to Luria, that document hasn’t led to an earnest discussion about program development and budgets, or how the Navy could more effectively employ its forces to match the strategy. In many cases, it’s the Joint Staff that’s deciding how to deploy and employ ships and aircraft overseas, so the Navy today couldn’t implement a strategy anyway, she explained.
“Under the current law, the Navy really can’t write a strategy … because nothing is done as a service; it’s actually done jointly, and the different strategy roles reside at the Joint Staff — operational plans and theater-specific ones reside at the combatant commanders — so I think that that is really one of the things that I want to focus on long term, legislatively: How do we fix this problem that was caused by Goldwater-Nichols?” she said during an event hosted by the Hudson Institute.
Compared to the 1980s, “with Goldwater-Nichols happening, the naval strategy is dead. And there really is no long-term vision as far as strategy for the Navy. And the real truth of it is, is that I think the strategy has to come before requirements, before the [president’s budget request], before the budget, and we’re doing it all backwards,” she added.\
‘One of the biggest mistakes’
Among the issues with which the Navy is contending is that it has little say over how its fleet is used.
“We can do more with what we have by changing how we deploy, how we focus on where we put those ships and aircraft,” she said, but those decisions don’t reside with the Navy today.
For example, though the Navy for years has talked about reducing the strain on its aircraft carrier fleet, which was overworked to support operations ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years, the service has yet again found itself being called upon to keep a carrier in the Middle East.
“We have really stressed our forces recently, in the last year and a half, in the sense that we got ourselves tied back down in the [Arabian] Gulf” to help oversee the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and to deter Iran.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group was sent to oversee the Afghanistan withdrawal in the spring, but since no other U.S.-based carrier could replace it when it was time for the group to come home, the Japan-based Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group left the Pacific to come into the Middle East.
Luria called this “one of the biggest mistakes we have made in maybe my lifetime, strategically.”
“We have to have presence to create a deterrent, and if we do not show the resolve that we’ll keep a carrier at a minimum in the Pacific, that sends a terrible signal” to China, she said.
Luria also thinks the Navy could get more presence out of today’s forces if it considers innovative new training and operating models, but those wouldn’t match up well with how geographic combatant commanders like to use naval forces today.
For example, she said, the Navy gets the most presence from its Reagan Carrier Strike Group compared to the other carrier strike groups because a forward-deployed group is on a different schedule, which calls for two short deployments and one short maintenance period a year, plus some time for training; that differs from the three-year model for the rest of the carrier strike groups, with a lengthy maintenance period, several months of training, seven months for a deployment and then time for maintaining readiness or — as has been the case in recent years — conducting a second deployment.
Luria said she’d like to see one carrier strike group on the West Coast and one on the East Coast switch to the forward-deployed naval force model to achieve greater operational time. But that would require a deemphasis on missions such as long-term presence in the Arabian Gulf and more emphasis on short, targeted tours through Europe or the Pacific.
Luria also said she doesn’t think today’s process lets the Navy buy the right new ships and systems based on its needs; instead, it incentivizes the Navy to ask for high-end kit for an all-out fight to win dollars within the Defense Department budget process, even if a naval strategy would show that money might be better spent on kit for regular naval presence to keep a war from breaking out in the first place.
She said China and Russia are trying to create new chokepoints in the South China Sea and the Arctic so they can exert influence on who can travel through those waters and when. If that’s what the U.S. is trying to disrupt, then investing in a flotilla of lower-end platforms would allow the Navy to have constant eyes on interactions between merchant vessels and military ships, and note any changes in behaviors and patterns.
She also worries much of the presence in the Pacific comes from strike groups traveling from the West Coast through the Pacific to the Middle East, which doesn’t let crews become experts in the several contested regions in the Indo-Pacific area.
“If the budget is a reflection of your values, they are really trying to win the high-end fight and they’re not putting a lot of resources into the lower-end fight,” Luria said of the Navy, even though investing in capabilities for low-end engagements could more effectively deny China and Russia their primary objectives and force a change in the dynamics of the Pacific or the Arctic.
Luria said she’d like to see about $10 billion more each year in Navy funding — about a 5 percent increase to its budget — to buy the high-end weapons it needs to win a fight but also the low-end capabilities it needs to challenge China and Russia in day-to-day competition. But, she added, it’s hard to argue for this additional money without a proper strategy that can guide where the next dollar would go.
The Senate Armed Services Committee went through its fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act markup process and chose to add about $25 billion in defense funding. While Luria said she supports the higher funding, “they just decided what they wanted for the reasons they wanted; it wasn’t based off a strategy, it wasn’t necessarily based off the highest priority needs of any of the services. It was really just left up to Congress.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.