ALEXANDRIA – Good Afternoon, Drifters
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. At the end of Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s tenure as Chief of Naval Operations, I have to admit I was relieved. Not because I thought he was a bad CNO or anything, but because as a journalist who was assigned to cover CNO, I got tired of hearing the same talking points repeatedly. And to be fair, I bet he was pretty tired of them as well. I’ve never seen a man as happy as Jon Greenert when he turned over the reins to Adm. John Richardson at the Naval Academy.
But I still remember Greenert’s greatest hits: “Operate Forward to be where it matters, when it matters”; “Payloads over platforms”; “Stealth is overrated.” (Ok that last one was a joke – but also my personal favorite Greenertism, which I defined a belief he clearly held but could only hint at in public comments. He only ever said it “may be overrated.”) But Adm.-Select Michael Gilday dropped a line in his testimony that reminded me of strongly of an aspect of the Greenert era that I hadn’t realized I’d grown attached to until it was gone.
The Quote: I think that presence makes a difference, that you have to be there to make a difference and you have to be there every day. And so our presence in the South China Sea and the East China Sea in critical straits like the Strait of Malacca sends a message about the free Indo-Indo-Pacific region that that we aspire to have and sends a strong message to China in commitment with the partners in the region that we are going to maintain that freedom of the seas in the global commons.
In other words, you have to be “where it matters, when it matters.” This is what I want to talk about tonight.
Matters of Presence
A quick key word search of the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority returns no results in Design 1.0, and 1 result in Design 2.0. And if tracking with the principles laid out in the Design is how Adm. Richardson measures progress (remember you measure what you care about), then being “where it matters, when it matters” isn’t very high up on his priorities list.
Now, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. The documents do talk about deterrence and maintaining U.S. influence in key regions of the world. But it’s no secret that, for example, the U.S. has, beginning on Adm. Greenert’s watch and continuing under Richardson, accepted reduced carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf. A story from our friends at USNI last year, through detailed research, demonstrated that carrier deployments are at a 25-year low.
Let’s also remember what Richardson inherited: A Navy that was reeling from sequestration, worker shortages at public shipyards and, above all, ceaseless demand for Navy presence overseas that had driven deployments to as long as 10 months or more. Can you really blame him for deemphasizing presence in the Navy’s marching orders? Instead Richardson emphasized being ready to adopt technology more quickly, building tougher sailors, and exploring new fleet designs and capabilities that could lead the Navy in new, more sustainable directions in the future.
And, so, its small wonder that the Richardson-era Navy embraced “Dynamic Force Employment”, a concept you can read about here:
Is Secretary of Defense Mattis planning radical changes to how the Navy deploys?
Richardson’s Navy embraced the concept of rebuilding its readiness severely depleted by COCOM demand (including from Mattis at CENTCOM) and husbanding forces to be able to respond to a major contingency. With “DFE,” the deterrent is less about the forces we have forward and more about the hammer blow that falls as punishment for crossing the United States or its interests.
But nothing works out precisely the way you plan it. There is evidence that readiness is up, that the Navy is controlling appetite for its forces in high-demand ares such as the Japan-based 7th Fleet, and ships are getting into through their availabilities. Getting ships out on time is still a major issue, however. See:
Navy maintenance is a dumpster fire: The Drift, Vol. XXIV
There remains evidence, however, that demand for old-fashioned presence isn’t going away in “this era of renewed great power competition.” (That’s a Richardson greatest hit that I’ll remember long after his departure.) The Truman Carrier Strike Group is getting double-pumped – deploying twice in the same Optimized Fleet Response Plan cycle. And while the Navy says it’s doing so to test the limits of OFRP, I’ve argued that if they want data on what the effects of overstretching the fleet are, there is plenty of data available from the last decade or two.
Why the Navy will deploy the Truman Carrier Strike Group (again)
Furthermore, the Navy is curtailing flight hours because of overuse of maritime patrol assets in Asia, which have created bills the Navy needs to pay.
So, demand hasn’t gone away for presence. And presence, it should be remembered, is in fact about more than just showing up. It’s about deterring conflict. Is there a connection between Iran’s recent misbehavior and the significant drop-off in U.S. carrier strike group presence in the Gulf in recent years? Well, that’s impossible to say but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
Now we have a new incoming CNO who seems to be emphasizing presence. “You have to be there to make a difference, and you have to be there every day,” Gilday said. That’s not dynamic, but it is what most Navy officers believe, and what our policy has been for decades.
Of course, therein lies the trap (echoes of Michael Shaara intended): There is a natural, inescapable tension between the classic Navy belief that “presence matters” and “dynamic force employment.” If you are husbanding forces, you may not be there in force to deter a conflict. But if you are expending readiness to maintain presence, you may not be able to surge forces for a major contingency.
A single carrier strike group in the Norwegian Sea packing some F-35s and a few hundred VLS cells may not be enough to stop a determined Russia from seizing the Suwalki Gap, for example, but it may introduce enough doubt in Putin’s mind to dissuade him for taking such a drastic step.
Here’s what it comes down to:
Does Russia really believe that the United States would use all its reserved readiness – a few carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups – to launch World War III in response to a wee sovereignty violation in the Baltic? Can you see Trump ordering that?
What if it was just a matter of responding to a U.S. strike on a few armored columns crossing into Lithuania. Then the onus is on Russia to answer the question for itself as to whether it wants to launch World War III over the loss of an armored column that was busy violating Lithuanian sovereignty.
Is it better to deter conflict from starting in the first place by introducing doubt in the minds of an adversary or, at the very least, creating a tripwire for a larger conflict, or would you rather have to start World War III to dislodge Russia from a 40-mile strip of land in Eastern Europe?
Presence matters: You have to be there, and in force, to respond to contingencies as they arise or you risk being unable to achieve your goals short of a large-scale, destructive conflict.
I emailed people smarter than me to see if they caught the same thing from Gilday’s testimony and to have them weigh in on this dynamic force employment vs. presence tension. I thank them for their time. This will be a full article at some point but here’s a sneak preview:
Adm. James Stavridis, SWO, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and newly with The Carlyle Group.
The Quote:“The ‘unpredictable’ deployment theory of Secretary Mattis has merit operationally, but it is very hard on Sailors and their families and often perplexes allies. CNO Gilday will have to square the circle and find ways to be dynamic but still create a level of certainty both for the US Sailors and for our allies, partners, and friends that we are reliable. This appears to be a shift back toward more reliable and recognizable deployment patterns."
Adm. Gary Roughead, SWO, former Chief of Naval Operations.
The Quote: “You have the presence vs readiness dilemma right. … As you know, the NDS Commission that I co-chaired highlighted concerns with DFE (pg 21). Those concerns, for me, remain valid today and given the demands on the Navy in the Middle East and in Asia will likely be exacerbated.”
For the record, here are the concerns the NDS Commission raised, worth quoting at length:
The Quote: “The Department’s resolve to rely on a ‘Dynamic Force Employment’ (DFE) model may be ill considered. DFE appears to refer to creating efficiencies within the force and decreasing the need to expand force structure by having a single asset perform multiple missions in different theaters on a near-simultaneous basis. Yet the United States must confront threats in both the Western Pacific and Europe, two very different theaters that require a significantly different type and mix of forces to best deter aggression and defeat the enemy if deterrence fails. (The likely force requirements for these theaters are discussed subsequently.) Moreover, successfully competing in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, while also managing escalation dynamics, requires positioning substantial capability forward (in what the NDS calls the “blunt” layer) to deter and prevent a fait accompli by an agile, opportunistic adversary. Given the vast distances involved in reaching both theaters and beyond, DFE may simply place additional strain on already stretched logistics andtransportation networks.”
“Managing escalation dynamics” is key here, and refers back to the question we raised earlier: Would you rather take a few shots at Russian armored columns in the act of violating Lithuanian sovereignty, placing the ball in Russia’s court to respond, or do we want to launch WWIII to dislodge them a few weeks or months later?
Michael O’Hanlon, not-SWO, The Brookings Institution.
The Quote: “I think there is a solution: maintain constant presence with modest numbers of small ships and use bigger platforms more unpredictably. I think Mattis is mostly right, but the institutional Navy may not agree.”
O’Hanlon raises a good point, perhaps there is a balance to be struck here. Because without balance, you get into the same old mess that Richardson inherited when he took over.
Food for thought.
OK, let’s blow this popsicle stand and head over to The Hotwash.