Rear Admiral Holland is a submarine officer who spent most of his active service in submarines. He has been a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW since its founding.
The Navy’s present effort to write a New Maritime Strategy is described by Captain James Foggo in January’s THE SUB-MARINE REVIEW. Key to his description and the effort itself is the idea that the answer is not yet known.2 The difficulty with such an approach is that the temptation to satisfy the many casual observers obscures the historical experience and technical knowledge of the few experts. When that experience and knowledge resides in a relatively small group, the result of the wide ranging effort can be a broad but shallow policy which over values the immediate and undervalues the future.
immediate and undervalues the future. The Maritime Strategy of 1980-1990 was a masterful document that, resonating with the operators, focused the Navy on its missions against the Soviet Union while providing an understandable rationale for the Navy force structure as well as guidance and justification for program acquisitions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a seemingly unending stream of documents has attempted to duplicate these admirable characteristics for the entire Defense Department.3 Follow-on policy documents issued by the Navy worked on translating these national directives into rational roles for the Navy in the post-Cold War world. An authoritative diagnosis of these policy statements characterized them as, “. . . framed in terms too general and abstract to serve as useful and meaningful guidance” in war, organization or acquisition.~ With little strategic guidance and that so broad as to be of little practical worth, the creation of some long lasting, long range statement of mission becomes crucial to focusing intellectual energy and operational development. For the Navy, only the Navy can create such a plan and in that creation the relatively unique role played by submarines is likely to be missed if submariners do not fully participate in the plan’s construction.
The original Maritime Strategy grew out of real war plans that focused on a coherent naval response to a single opponent. Without such an obvious opponent, writing a similar statement of purpose and utility becomes a challenging task. But such an effort is important because there is no organization or group other than the Navy that can enunciate the importance and meaning of sea power. Failure to undertake this intellectual task leaves the organization stuck in the past, spending resources, money and study on maintaining what it has and not on investments for the future. Just as the Navy possesses the real source for such policy, so do submariners hold that unique understanding of undersea warfare that will dominate any future conflict at sea.
Submarines were the point of the spear in the strategy of 1980, aided by reconnaissance and intelligence operations aimed at a single major opponent5, instrumental in establishing the perception that the Soviet Union could not seriously threaten the Western domination of the ocean routes, submarines of the NA TO powers were also able to threaten the missile submarines that formed the second strike component of the Soviet strategic nuclear forces. With the demise of the Soviet Union, many, inside as well as outside the Navy, questioned the usefulness of these submarines. Especially vociferous were many of the public media such as the New York Times and critical budget analysts such as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. These critics of defense expenditures in general were eager to label these ships as expensive relics of the Cold War.
That attitude is not ameliorated by the present embroilment in the Middle East. In these conflicts, the afloat Navy’s role is peripheral and supporting. The Construction Battalions and the medical personnel have direct and immediate roles and missions in support of the Marines. Additionally, there are dozens of individual augmenters performing auxiliary but important tasks not because they are Navy missions but in order to relieve the Army and Marines or to utilize unique personal abilities. But in general the Fleet is not central to the combat in Iraq. In particular, submarines have had no vital role other than as arsenal ships able to launch land attack missiles. At best submarines are on the periphery of the War on Terror. No amount of propaganda will alter the relative unimportance of submarine related operations in this war and the danger is that this relatively low weight in the immediate action will obscure the long term importance of the submarine in future endeavors and operations.
This New Maritime Strategy is intended to be “the ways and means to achieve the ends of the vision contained in a previous document, Sea Power 21.”6 Though submerged in thousands of words Sea Power 21 repeats the precepts of earlier propositions that the Navy’s missions are: Deterrence, Maritime Dominance, Power Projection, and Presence. Even within these guidelines, there is a debate between the proponents of ocean dominance and the coastal and riverine supporters in the War Against Terror. These two groups meet on several contending planes: big ships versus small, threats from potential peer competitors versus those from terrorists, today’s wars versus future concerns, current force structure versus future developments, battle-worthy warships versus support of the Marine Corps. Submarines are clearly on one side of this contention. Without a clear threat to national existence, neither of these schools of thought can dominate near term considerations thus further complicating the development of a strategy or policy to execute it.
While dominant in today’s political center and probably for the near future, the Global War on Terror is only a piece of American strategic positions. To avoid the cliche admonition that militaries always prepare for the last war, the Navy has to avoid designing forces overly optimized for this single aim. Those who understand the role of geography and its relation to the Navy mission must be especially diligent to ensure the concentration on the “wolf closest to the sled” does not obscure the larger tasks or the “bear lurking in the woods”.
the woods”. “What do we need a Navy for?” was not an uncommon question in the interval between the surrender of Japan and the Korean War. Now that there is no evident enemy the argument will arise again. In each age of change, the Navy has to adopt without losing sight of what it and it alone, knows. Command of the sea, taken as a given in every war plan or strategy document since 1945 cannot be guaranteed under all circumstances and must be continually achieved by investment and presence. To overcome the attitudes of “Why Navy?” the Navy has to try to elaborate a systematic operational theory that will convince itself first and then serve as the basis for explaining to others its purpose and utility. “The traditional blue water mission is less acute” but no less important. 7 This same consideration applies to submarine advocates. Undersea warfare is a demanding intellectual and technical task that few outside the community appreciate and understand the utility and promise.
Because the likelihood of increased resources in the wake of the tremendous costs of the Iraq War is very small, some care must be taken to limit expectations of what the Navy can and cannot do. The New Maritime Strategy ought to avoid overstating both the threat and promise in order that political leaders have some grasp of the limits of the country’s reach. At the same time, the Navy will have to try to write a strategy that, while realistic in terms of forces, is not constrained or overly limited to fit some preordained conceptions of resources that will be available. The New Maritime Strategy ought to be a driving function not a following one. Well written, the Maritime Strategy will lead the national strategy to correct conclusions. Admiral Art Cebrowski drove Network Centric Warfare without considering how much money would be available for the end systems. After all, War Plan Orange that described how the campaigns against Japan would be waged was written during the Depression.
In this maelstrom of intellectual fervor to develop the New Maritime Strategy, submarines ought to remain a topic of high interest. A submarine’s capital cost cannot be concealed and so will remain a target not only for those outside the service who would like to avoid expenditures but also those within the service who see new submarine construction as source of cash to be raided. On the other hand, the rise of China and her interests at sea have resulted in an almost universal view of submarines as the most appropriate maritime tool in the event of a rise of a peer competitor. Such a competitor need not be a world-wide threat but merely a threat to US dominance in a maritime theater of important US interests. This translates to the Straits of Taiwan and the waters of the Western Pacifie. “Thank God we didn’t cancel submarines in the 1980′ s. Asia is a naval sphere … ” said Richard Armitage in a review of US global policy.8 Just as submarines were the tip of the arrow in the old Maritime Strategy, the weapons system to establish dominance in waters not under our control, they will remain as the primary mechanism for penetrating contested littorals and for operating against the weapon systems of likely opponents at sea -other submarines.
A favorite scenario for planners involves a fleet action in the Taiwan Straits. Whatever the political motivator for a crisis in this region, the obvious American response will be naval. And rather than a littoral we will be faced with relatively confined waters in which combat units on the surface may be under a severe threat from space and shore based surveillance, coupled with tactical missiles and submarines. The heavy damage to the Israeli frigate off Lebanon by a shore based short range missile presages the difficulties that surface ships will face in the future when in confined waters. In such scenarios, only submarines will be able to penetrate heavily defended areas, close the shore lines and remain there for prolonged periods of time.
The Taiwan Straits is not the only area that may be the scene of conflict. Not every navy can be counted on as being and remaining friendly. The major nations around the Indian Ocean have viable Navies and Submarine Forces and can represent other potential problems. Interestingly the rise of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean threats to American maritime dominance has not gone unremarked by former proponents of canceling submarine construction. The unique value of submarines has become apparent even to the severest budget skeptics. Andrew Krepinevich, long noted for his stance against submarines, now considers submarines an important investment; saying,” .. .increasing our submarine production to send a clear signal to China as well as our allies that Beijing cannot expect to threaten US freedom of action in an area of vital national interest or coerce America’s friends and allies in East Asia.”
Most of the views expressed in these discussions of the maritime strategy so far have been unencumbered by reference to tactics or technology. The education and training of policy writers tend to remain clear of electrons, steel fabrication, antenna sizes and other such factual nuances outside the political and economic sphere. But as Mahan said clearly, technology determines what is possible tactically and tactics determine what is possible strategically. Ignoring technical dimensions limits both the reality and the promise of any strategic policy. In this area, the participation of submarine advocates is important because few naval officers outside the submarine community appreciate the degree that a nuclear powered submarine can dominate its immediate battle space on the ocean while at the same time able to bring this dominance into areas otherwise totally controlled by an enemy.
In the coming scramble for resources between and among the services, the New Maritime Strategy must try to provide a logical and well founded ground work for naval missions and organizations more than for acquisitions. If the missions are clearly propounded and made public, they will influence force structure and budget. The most knowledgeable proponents of sea power within the government will be muzzled by the requirement to adhere to the Secretary’s budget. But those analysts and propagandists who dominate the public press and thereby influence civilian leadership can be persuaded by logic and historical experience when and where that is presented in a useful, forceful and direct manner.
Mahan and the Maritime Strategy were accepted because the time was right -both were synchronized with public mood at the time. The rationale of the original Maritime Strategy appealed to the Reagan administration, a political leadership that was ready to receive its guidance and eager to use it as part of their defense buildup. Gaining a similar foothold on political and national mood now will be very difficult -all the more reason for attempting to craft a serious and dynamic statement of purpose that can endure the test of changing administrations, shifting international relationships and public moods.
Samuel Huntington finished his seminal essay on this subject in 1954, during a previous period in which the Navy was accused of costing too much without commensurate utility, Huntington concluded with the admonishment that “the attitude of ‘why do we need a Navy’ can only be overcome by a systematic, detailed elaboration and presentation of the theory of a transoceanic navy against the broad background of naval history and naval technology.” In this period of concentration on homeland security and terrorist wars, his admonition applies particularly to the rationale for undersea warfare. Shaping the thinking inside the Navy and among its supporting analytical personnel to influence post 2009 national policy is a major goal for the New Maritime Strategy. In this effort, the unique contributions submarines make to what the Navy should be able to do ought not to be lost in vague generalizations.