USA — Gates: Sea Services Must Question Embedded Thinking

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., May 3, 2010 — The Navy and Marine Corps are going to have to ques­tion some embed­ded think­ing, such as whether the Navy needs 11 car­ri­er bat­tle groups or whether the Marines ever will launch anoth­er amphibi­ous land­ing, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates spoke at the Navy League’s annu­al Sea-Air-Space Con­ven­tion at the Gay­lord Nation­al Con­ven­tion Center. 

The world is chang­ing, and the sea ser­vices must be on the lead­ing edges of those changes, Gates said to an audi­to­ri­um full of Navy and Marine Corps offi­cers and defense con­trac­tors that was just a bit small­er than an air­craft carrier’s hangar deck. 

Gates made a case for exam­in­ing the bedrocks of naval strat­e­gy, not­ing that car­ri­er bat­tle groups have been the Navy’s main fleet for­ma­tion since 1942. “Our cur­rent plan is to have eleven car­ri­er strike groups through 2040,” Gates said. But a look at the facts is war­rant­ed, he added. The Unit­ed States now has 11 large, nuclear-pow­ered car­ri­ers, and there is noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble any­where else in the world. 

“The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibi­ous ships that can oper­ate as sea bases for heli­copters and ver­ti­cal-take­off jets,” he said. “No oth­er navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to allies or friends.” 

The U.S. Navy can car­ry twice as many air­craft at sea as the rest of the world com­bined, Gates said. Under the sea, he told the group, the Unit­ed States has 57 nuclear-pow­ered attack and cruise-mis­sile sub­marines – more than the rest of the world com­bined, and 79 Aegis-equipped sur­face ships that car­ry about 8,000 ver­ti­cal-launch mis­sile cells. “In terms of total-mis­sile fire­pow­er, the U.S. arguably out­match­es the next 20 largest navies,” Gates said. “All told, the dis­place­ment of the U.S. bat­tle fleet – a proxy for over­all fleet capa­bil­i­ties – exceeds, by one recent esti­mate, at least the next 13 navies com­bined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.” 

The Unit­ed States must be able to project pow­er over­seas, Gates said. “But, con­sid­er the mas­sive over­match the U.S. already enjoys,” he added. “Con­sid­er, too, the grow­ing anti-ship capa­bil­i­ties of adver­saries. Do we real­ly need 11 car­ri­er strike groups for anoth­er 30 years when no oth­er coun­try has more than one?” 

The Marine Corps is now 202,000 strong. It is the largest force of its type in the world, and exceeds in size most nations’ armies. Between the world wars, the Marine Corps devel­oped amphibi­ous war­fare doc­trine and used it to great effect against the Japan­ese dur­ing World War II. Whether that capa­bil­i­ty still is need­ed, how­ev­er, is wor­thy of thought, the sec­re­tary said. 

“We have to take a hard look at where it would be nec­es­sary or sen­si­ble to launch anoth­er major amphibi­ous land­ing again – espe­cial­ly as advances in anti-ship sys­tems keep push­ing the poten­tial launch point fur­ther from shore,” Gates said. “On a more basic lev­el, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, what kind of amphibi­ous capa­bil­i­ty do we real­ly need to deal with the most like­ly sce­nar­ios, and then how much?” 

The sea ser­vices must be designed to meet new chal­lenges, new tech­nolo­gies and new mis­sions, Gates said. Nations and ter­ror groups are not going to chal­lenge the con­ven­tion­al might of the Unit­ed States, he not­ed. Rather, they are work­ing on asym­met­ric ways to thwart the reach and strik­ing pow­er of the U.S. bat­tle fleet. 

“At the low end, Hezbol­lah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship mis­siles against the Israeli navy in 2006,” Gates said. “And Iran is com­bin­ing bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­siles, anti-ship mis­siles, mines, and swarm­ing speed­boats in order to chal­lenge our naval pow­er in that region.” 

A bit far­ther up the scale, the vir­tu­al monop­oly the Unit­ed States has had with pre­ci­sion-guid­ed weapons is erod­ing, the sec­re­tary said, espe­cial­ly with long-range, accu­rate anti-ship cruise and bal­lis­tic mis­siles that can poten­tial­ly strike from over the horizon. 

“This is a par­tic­u­lar con­cern with air­craft car­ri­ers and oth­er large, mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar blue-water sur­face com­bat­ants, where, for exam­ple, a Ford-class car­ri­er plus its full com­ple­ment of the lat­est air­craft would rep­re­sent poten­tial­ly $15 bil­lion to $20 bil­lion worth of hard­ware at risk,” Gates said. “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.” 

The sea ser­vices already are address­ing many of the chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tu­ry, the sec­re­tary said. The Navy, for exam­ple, is build­ing part­ner­ship capac­i­ty through the Africa Part­ner­ship Sta­tion in the Gulf of Guinea. Sailors are train­ing with friends and allies to secure vital ship­ping lanes in South­east Asia. Seabees and oth­er sailors are dig­ging wells and build­ing schools in Dji­bouti. Naval offi­cers lead the multi­na­tion­al efforts to counter the pira­cy around the Horn of Africa. Naval doc­tors, nurs­es and corps­men that treat­ed those injured in the Hait­ian earth­quake and sailors also are help­ing with crises like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mex­i­co, Gates said. “Then, there are the wars,” he said. “With rough­ly 25 ships – and more than 20,000 sailors – in the [U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand] area of oper­a­tions, there is no doubt that this is a Navy at war.” 

Tens of thou­sands of sailors also have served on the ground along­side sol­diers and Marines. The sailors serve on provin­cial recon­struc­tion teams, as finance clerks, on river­ine crews, as Seabees, as SEALs and as med­ical corps­men. “These men and women are vital to the mis­sion and help­ing to ease the strain on our ground forces – and doing so with­out fail and with­out com­plaint,” Gates said. 

The sec­re­tary said the Marines have been “game-chang­ers” in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan. “In March, I had a chance to meet with Marines at the tip of the spear in a town called Now Zad – a place that had been, for near­ly four years, a ghost town under the jack­boot of the Tal­iban,” Gates said. “Then came a bat­tal­ion of Marines, who, after months of hard work and sac­ri­fice, have slow­ly brought the town back to life – cre­at­ing a mod­el for oper­a­tions elsewhere.” 

The mil­i­tary needs more inno­v­a­tive strate­gies and joint approach­es, the sec­re­tary said. He called the agree­ment by the Navy and Air Force to devel­op an Air-Sea Bat­tle Con­cept encour­ag­ing. It has “the poten­tial to do for America’s mil­i­tary deter­rent pow­er at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tu­ry what Air-Land Bat­tle did near the end of the 20th,” he said. But the mil­i­tary also must shift invest­ments toward sys­tems that pro­vide the abil­i­ty to see and strike deep along the full spec­trum of con­flict, Gates said. “This means, among oth­er things, extend­ing the range at which U.S. naval forces can fight, refu­el, and strike, with more resources devot­ed to long-range unmanned air­craft and intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and recon­nais­sance capa­bil­i­ties,” he explained. 

It also means new sea-based mis­sile defens­es and 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. 

The sec­re­tary acknowl­edged talk that his push to rebal­ance the force to pro­vide more resources to fight today’s wars has gone too far. “In real­i­ty,” he said, “in this fis­cal year, the Depart­ment of Defense 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. 

“In these last two bud­get cycles,” Gates con­tin­ued, “I have direct­ed a need­ed and notice­able shift – but hard­ly a dra­mat­ic one, espe­cial­ly in light of the sig­nif­i­cant naval overmatch.” 

Resource dis­cus­sions always fos­ter debates about gaps in mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties, Gates said, and the solu­tion usu­al­ly offered is “either more of what we already have or mod­ern­ized ver­sions of pre-exist­ing capabilities.” 

“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,” he con­tin­ued. “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.” Gates said the sea ser­vices must remem­ber that as the wars draw down, mon­ey will be required to reset the Army and Marine Corps – the ser­vices that have borne the brunt of the con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“And there will con­tin­ue to be long-term – and invi­o­lable – costs asso­ci­at­ed with tak­ing care of our troops and their fam­i­lies,” he said. “In oth­er words, I do not fore­see any sig­nif­i­cant top-line increas­es in the ship­build­ing bud­get beyond cur­rent assump­tions. 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.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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