Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: SecDef, Reform Thyself!

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Gates lectures the Navy. Next, he should lecture himself.

2) There is no Gulf of Tonkin in Korea.

Gates lectures the Navy. Next, he should lecture himself.

On May 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a stern message to Navy: The branch should not count on a taxpayer bailout to fix its shipbuilding problems. Virtually every recent shipbuilding program has been plagued with mismanagement and alarming cost overruns, resulting in a shrinking fleet and longer and more stressful deployments. Gates's advice to a gathering of naval officers and contractors was that they should break with the traditional and instead entertain some "outside the box" thinking. He assured his audience that there would be no increases in the Navy's procurement budget.

Gates's grim fiscal message for Navy planners comes at what might be an important inflection point in global naval power. There is no question, as Gates noted in his speech, that the U.S. Navy possesses overwhelming superiority. But the trends are not so friendly. While U.S. naval contractors struggle to put new affordable hulls in the water, China's fleet continues to rapidly expand. In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of Pacific Command, made note of China's preparations for "area denial," a strategy that concentrates anti-ship firepower to deny an adversary's access to a specific part of the ocean. According to Willard, China now has the world's largest conventionally powered attack submarine fleet, continues its testing of long-range, anti-ship, cruise and ballistic missiles, and will launch its first aircraft carrier in two years. During a recent visit to China, two Obama administration officials were told by their Chinese hosts that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea.

In his speech, Gates denounced the Navy's response to the adverse trends Willard described. According to the secretary, the Navy's unimaginative answer is to replace its old warships with newer, more complex, and grossly expensive versions from the same family tree. As the costs of the new ships have exploded, the Navy has been unable to afford one-for-one replacements. The result has been a shrinking Navy and greater stress on the remaining ships and sailors.

Gates called for innovations in the Navy's thinking and design that would bypass the area denial strategy. The first of his suggestions was to greatly increase the Navy's striking range. For example, operating long-range unmanned strike aircraft from aircraft carriers would safely pull the valuable flat tops away of the most dangerous contested waters, negating an adversary's area denial plans. Gates also lauded the new "air-sea battle" concept -- an effort by Navy and Air Force planners to integrate their forces to achieve operating synergy. Such an approach could also provide another technique for bypassing an adversary's area denial strategy.

What is ironic is that Gates himself has stood in the way of his own solutions. While he discussed the need for long-range striking capability, it is Gates who has promoted the short-range F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. At more than $247 billion, the troubled F-35 is the costliest weapons program in history, but no one has been a stronger defender of the program than Gates. While he has slashed and canceled other programs, Gates's latest budget request defends the full purchase of more than 2,400 F-35s for all three services. With such a commitment to the pricey fighter, commanders will be stuck inside the area denial trap, exactly opposite to the outcome Gates hoped for in his speech. Meanwhile, an Air Force long-range strike drone is languishing inside yet another Gates-ordered research study, and the Navy's long-range carrier-based drone experiment proceeds at a leisurely pace. Under Gates's current budget, neither of these two solutions to the area denial problem will be available for at least a decade.

Gates is right to call for a shake-up in the Navy's thinking. But if he is wondering what is holding up some of his own good ideas, perhaps he should have a talk with himself.

There is no Gulf of Tonkin in Korea

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is receiving a quick and painful lesson in the politics of crisis management. On March 26, the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan exploded, broke in half, and sank in South Korean waters, killing 46 crewmen. South Korea's defense minister, aided in his investigation by U.S. naval intelligence, concluded that a heavy torpedo was the most likely cause of the disaster. Lee has declared the sinking "was no accident." Although he has vowed to take a "clear and resolute measure" against those who sunk the Cheonan, Lee has hesitated to explicitly blame the North Korean government for the attack.

With it well-known throughout South Korea that thousands of North Korean cannons and rockets loom within striking distance of Seoul, Lee is very unlikely to order even token military retaliation. Most South Korean voters will undoubtedly approve of this conclusion; they along with Lee are happy to gamble that North Korea's Kim Jong Il is not deliberately testing the limits of provocation.

With no follow-up action or talk from the North, why did the attack occur? One reason might be that a rogue North Korean sailor acted on his own, a breakdown in control Kim would not want the world to know about. Another is that Kim ordered the attack in retaliation for previous naval skirmishes between the South and North. The motivation for such a decision would have both external and internal dimensions. Kim might have wanted to remind Lee and his military staff that patrolling near North Korean waters (for, say, intelligence-gathering purposes) can be dangerous. Internally, Kim might have been under pressure from his military staff to permit the attack in order to protect the military's reputation inside the North Korean hierarchy.

If Kim approved of the attack, he probably took account of the South's likely response. If so, he didn't seem too worried. The South's prosperity, and the high level of risk aversion that comes with prosperity, ensure that Kim and his cannons looming over Seoul enjoy "escalation dominance."

Not able to strike the North directly, Lee tried the next best thing. On April 30, Lee met with Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss the incident and, presumably, to enlist China's cooperation in reining in Kim. Three days later, Kim arrived in China for his own consultation with Chinese leaders.

The end result of the appeals to Hu will be a deep freeze in the status quo. China will continue to prop up Kim, avoiding the collapse in North Korea that it fears. China will have to dig a bit deeper into its pocket on Kim's behalf -- the South's previous "Sunshine Policy" is now in full eclipse. Lee will avoid a military escalation, a commitment he and his compatriots are all too happy to dodge. And at the White House, the Obama team is similarly pleased to avoid one more worry. So everyone ends up happy -- except perhaps those looking for justice for 46 dead sailors.


GI Zhou

Mon, 05/10/2010 - 11:37am

Speaking to ASEAN security specialists they regard the southern half of the South China Sea as 'their area'. They believe China's claim to the area as provocative (this is not new), and whilst they appreciate the US naval presence in the area. Regional militaries have been building up their forces to challenge China should it try and establish its claim by force.

As 2012 is but two years away the alleged carrier would need to be fitting out now. I have seen no material showing the Chinese having the ability to project any form of fixed wing aircraft from a seaborne platform. The ex-Russian carrier has been moved but as yet has not been equipped with any engines or internal fittings as when it left the dock it rode higher in the water than when it entered.

No one is providing fixed wing aircraft to the Chinese so unless they are deciding to produce their own, and the arresing equipment to enable them to be landed safely, 2012 doesn't look promising.

I do appreciate that militaries (not just the Pentagon) look a minumum ten to twenty years ahead for planning purposes, alhough sometimes you wonder.

Anyway that is my final say on the matter as it gets away from the purpose of this site.

Robert Haddick (not verified)

Mon, 05/10/2010 - 8:29am

GI Zhou:

1. The South China Sea is international waters, not "ASEAN waters," and some of the world's most important sea lines of communication run through it. The protection of those sea lines of communication is one of the U.S. Navy's most important missions. The diplomatic consequences among the ASEAN countries to China's naval buildup will depend on the U.S. response to that buildup.

2. Please click on the link to Adm. Willard's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (delivered in late March). On page 13, he predicted 2012 as the IOC for the first Chinese aircraft carrier.

3. Finally, what matters for Pentagon planning purposes is Chinese naval power in 2020-2030, not Chinese naval power today.


Robert Haddick

GI Zhou

Sun, 05/09/2010 - 10:08pm

The South China Sea isn't an issue per se because it is ASEAN waters and as I have said before that China has only 10 major surface combatants that can defend themselves against anti-shipping missiles, although it has more frigates and destroyers with antiship missiles they have no protection against missiles.

Secondly Admiral Willard said that the Chinese would have an aircraft carrier within a few years, not two. Thirdly, Russia will not allow the Su-33 carrier-capable aircraft to be exported after the Su-27 was reversed engineered by China and is being touted by China on the world market.

My biggest fear is China starts to believe the propaganda about its naval capabilities and decides to become more agressive in the South China Sea. Many ASEAN nations would not take kindly to this.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 05/08/2010 - 3:50pm

As one who has lived through all the Secretaries of Defense and served or worked under all but James Forrestal and the last three, I'm reasonably familiar with their performance and that of the Department they led over the last 61 years. From that standpoint, I suggest this article widely misses the mark. I question whether it hits any mark at all...

Those 22 gentlemen varied from Louis Johnson, baldly incompetent, up through the absolutely dangerous Robert Strange McNamara and mediocre Donald Rumsfeld (both iterations) through James Schlesinger to Melvin Laird, the best by far before Gates. Whether Gates will be better than Laird is to be determined, too early to tell -- but he has definitely done one thing right.

He has challenged the Department and the military services to take a look at the way they do business and what they buy for that business.

If he has done or does nothing else, that is an order of magnitude improvement over virtually all his predecessors. Melvin Laird did a great job. He did it by working within the system. Gates challenges that system -- rightly so, IMO. We are excessively expensive for the product derived.

With the encouragement of Congress, we spend too much money -- way too much money -- on a lot of esoteric BS. We do not want to be challenged on this because being forced to produce better trained and prepared forces with less money would be absolutely gut wrenching and entail the destruction of more rice bowls than did Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It can be done, should be done but such an effort will be strongly resisted. Shame, as it should encouraged. The issue should be the good of the nation, not the perpetuation of an ever growing bureaucracy, politically correct personnel policies or staying in a comfort zone.

This article is indicative of the resistance to change that is endemic in the 'Defense system' and it, as do many others, neglects the pernicious influence of Congress in the whole process -- particularly in the pace and funding of major items and of R&D efforts as well as their very adverse impacts on the military personnel accession and training systems. Both the latter two are far more important than equipment flow.

The article also elides the fact that the F-35 'problem' is two fold. It was too great a leap forward and its development was politically (Service internal / parochial and Congressional) delayed, those factors elevated the costs and lengthened development time. More importantly, it is politically imperative because the US convinced (or arm twisted) a number of other Nations to buy it.

Also missing is the context of 'area denial' which is not a new or significant strategic, operational or tactical ploy. Neither it nor the alleged Chinese 'intolerance' of 'interference' in the south China Sea are new or particularly worrisome...

Thus the article amounts to a critique of the SecDef by damning with faint praise while ostensibly saying the call for improved thinking is desirable. Sort of. That is tantamount to saying 'The Navy should do better but the SecDef is the problem.' That may not be the intent but if it is not, the actual purpose is not clear.

The equipment flow, however, as alluded in the article, can never satisfy everyone. There will never be agreement on which programs should be accorded priority because there is no pressing need to establish such priorities short of an existential war and various communities will insist on their share of goodies and get their patrons in Congress to assist them. Thus not the most necessary items are properly funded, rather those that are favored by Congress or the loudest squeaking wheel within DoD are given an excessive amount of money to the detriment of rational procurement.

The simple and indisputable fact is that a profligate Congress spends more money than they have, sticks their nose into things they should not and this results in a Defense establishment that is not nearly as functional and competent as many would like to or seem to believe. We are not, in the words of a former Commander of mine, "Totally screwed up but we do great dog and pony shows." However, we are approaching that point. Defending the status quo and attacking the one guy who seems willing to challenge that is missing the broader issue:

National spending must be reformed and that means DoD cannot do business as in the past. Gates has started the conversation -- how the Department and the Services respond will be the determinant in whether or not there really is a shake up in thinking...

That shake up is far more important than a couple of slowly developing programs or grumbling from China.