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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Raw Numbers or ‘Capability’: What Should the U.S. Navy Focus On?

U.S. Navy Strategy
ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 30, 2018) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) fires its Mark 45 five-inch gun during a live-fire exercise. Bainbridge, homeported at Naval Station Norfolk, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)180630-N-FP878-566.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed is not wrong when he urges fellow lawmakers and the U.S. Navy to concentrate their fleet-design efforts on fielding the right “capabilities” to win in combat rather than obsess over “arbitrary” numbers of ships, warplanes, or armaments. Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Institute this week, Senator Reed listed “complete uninterruptible connectivity” among fleet units as such a capability. He also said the navy should rebalance its inventory to encompass more and more autonomous platforms and fewer crewed ships of war.

He contended such a force redesign would amplify deterrence while cutting costs. This marks a departure from recent years, when the Trump administration and Congress fixed the target fleet size at 355 ships. That equates to a mandate to boost the number of hulls by 20 percent beyond today’s 296-ship fleet.

Again, Reed is not wrong. But beware. The likeliest victor at sea is the combatant able to mass the most ordnance at the scene of action when battle occurs.

How do you judge that? For Prussian master Carl von Clausewitz it’s crucial to make the force “very strong,” not just on the whole but “at the decisive point.” Even a weaker force might make itself stronger at a particular place and time relative to hostile forces present at that place and time. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan exhorts fleet designers to center the battle force on vessels endowed with a “due proportion of defensive and offensive powers” that suits them for “taking and giving hard knocks” against the fraction of enemy forces likely to appear on the scene.

Clausewitz and Mahan provide useful standards to appraise the fleet’s adequacy.

But things soon blur amid today’s ultramodern surroundings. Nowadays the delivery system for firepower at sea need not be a fighting ship or shipborne aircraft. In fact, Communist China has founded its maritime strategy on using planes and missiles launched from Fortress China to back up the PLA Navy’s fleet on the high seas. It substitutes land-based for sea-based firepower—making for an intensely joint variety of sea power. Ship counts alone are not an accurate measure of Chinese—or American—sea power.

And yet danger lurks when shifting the focus to capabilities from traditional numerical measures. As lore has it, physicist Albert Einstein once proclaimed that “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Import Einstein’s maxim into naval warfare. Hulls, airframes, and munitions can be counted, their technical specifications tabulated, and judgments of their efficacy reached.

Capability is more abstract and harder to count despite how much it counts. A world of mischief skulks in the ambiguity that pervades efforts to gauge whether a given capability is sufficient. Numbers of ships may be arbitrary, as Reed maintains. So is capability unless senior leaders remain watchful. More so, maybe.

For the Pentagon, a capability isn’t a piece of kit, even though defense specialists have a lamentable habit of using the terms interchangeably. Instead, a capability is “the ability to complete a task or execute a course of action under specified conditions and level of performance.” Determining whether an unmanned surface or subsurface craft should qualify as a ship for counting purposes is a relatively straightforward matter. If it can perform the duties of a manned ship, it’s a ship. QED.

Measuring capability, by contrast, is an ambiguous process vulnerable to fudge factors that warp reality. Determining the “specified conditions and level of performance” a force must attain to achieve a capability is highly subjective—and thus susceptible to human biases and perverse incentives of all kinds. Budgetary figures, competing priorities, and bureaucratic interests number prominently among these incentives. Wargames and maneuvers remain the best methods for assessing capability—but as Clausewitz notes, they’re a poor substitute for honing martial capability in peacetime. It’s hard to replicate battlefield conditions to ensure a realistic test.

In other words, it’s easy to skew the results of a wargame or exercise, deliberately or not, by adjusting the rules of the game—the assumptions and other parameters by which it’s played.

If game overseers or their superiors have a particular outcome in mind, the game has a curious way of producing it. Then they pronounce the capability satisfactory. Only when war pronounces its own verdict—the final and unforgiving verdict—can a service know whether prewar assessment efforts succeeded. Accordingly, it’s up to lawmakers like Senator Reed and civilian and uniformed sea-service chieftains to demand the utmost in rigor from the vetting process.

And lastly, it’s worth noting that numbers are capability in a real sense for the contemporary sea services. The navy’s “distributed maritime operations” concept is premised on breaking the fleet’s combat power down among numerous smaller platforms, on the logic that the smaller the percentage of total fighting strength that’s concentrated in a single hull, the less grave the setback should that hull be lost to enemy action. Marines envision using plentiful “light amphibious warships” to ferry missile-armed small units from island to island to make things tough on enemy fleets that venture within reach. In this setting quantity increasingly has a quality all its own. The more hulls the better.

Since Reed was addressing the Ronald Reagan Institute, maybe it would be fitting for the U.S. Navy’s superintendents to borrow a one-liner from the Gipper—rather than from Clausewitz, Mahan, or Einstein—as their credo for fleet design:

Trust the process—but verify.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Carl Timothy Smith

    May 13, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    Who cares what the Navy Focuses on when Hunter Biden can take a billion dollars out of China from the CCP? We’ve been sold out. The FBI is corrupt and will never do anything about it. Congress is all on the take, so no help there.

    I don’t know why anyone would volunteer to fight for this corrupt Government?

    • Mario DeLosa

      May 19, 2021 at 7:10 am

      As opposed to the tRump administration that will go down as the most corrupt in history?

  2. frazier stall

    May 13, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    According to unspecified sources, Hunter got away with $1.5 billion from China but his lawyers say he obtained nothing and all investments were strictly in RMB only.
    HUNTER’s scandal pales when compared to the Clinton’s who were involved in the Arkansas prison blood case, the Whitewater case, the Lewinsky case and the home email server case.

    • Mario DeLosa

      May 19, 2021 at 7:12 am

      Unspecified sources….from the Kremlin for example. Conspiracy theories are only two degrees removed from fairy tales.

  3. Mario DeLosa

    May 19, 2021 at 7:21 am

    All the most sophisticated ships, planes and weapons in the world will not help anyone if we lack the personnel that are suitably trained, led, and disciplined enough to operate those systems effectively. The fact is that the Navy no longer trains its people to the level that it should. The McCain and Fitzgerald collisions occurred precisely due to lack of training and poor discipline. For anyone that does not believe me I would encourage you to read the investigations into the collisions. Too often Navy personnel are promoted not because they professionally proficient, but because they can brown nose. I hate to burst a balloon but a five year CPO is worthless. Moreover, discipline in the modern Navy is deplorable; when active duty Sailors fail to stop running during morning colors something is wrong. I could go but I believe that I have made my point.

  4. Duane

    May 29, 2021 at 9:10 am

    This is a rather typical argument over capability vs. quantity, as if this is a binary choice, one or the other. It is not. We must have both, and not just “capabilities” but the right capabilities.

    Capability is extremely important. But “capability” is not what a lot of people think it is, such as in numbers of ships, tons of displacement, or number of VLS cells and missiles that can be deployed.

    As the author points out, controlling the seas is not just about ships. Indeed, in the world’s last great naval war, the ships lost out to the aircraft, and submarines. It was aircraft – both those carried on aircraft carrying ships, but actually mostly those that were based on land, that together with US submarines won the World War Two naval wars in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Our naval surface combatants (battleships, cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, sub chasers, and PT boats) combined in WW Two only sank 10% of the total bag of Japanese ships – about the same number as were sunk by sea mines. Subs sank 55%, and aircraft sank 25%.

    Destroyer guys, battleship guys, and aircraft carrier guys don’t like to hear that, but it’s true.

    In the Battle of the Atlantic, contrary to popular perception, it was not allied destroyers that defeated the German U-boats. It was the land based heavy bombers equipped with radars that finally closed the “mid-Atlantic air gap” in mid 1943 that utterly defeated the U-boats, such that Adm. Doenitz was literally forced to withdraw his entire U-boat fleet from challenging the north Atlantic convoys to and from Europe. Until that point the U-boats were clearly winning the battle.

    It was aircraft, both carrier based AND land based aircraft, that won fought to a draw in the Battle of Coral Sea, then won the Battle of Midway, and defeated Japanese forces throughout the western Pacific campaign. And it was heavy land based aircraft, with very long legs, who bombed Japan to cinders in 1945, ending with the nuclear bombs in August that caused the final surrender.

    Submarines, of course, won the battle of supply and communication in the Pacific, sinking more Japanese ships than all the rest of the Navy, Army, and aircraft combined between 1942 and early 1945, such that by mid-1945 there were no more Japanese transports left but a minor fleet of coastal steamers in the Japanese home islands. Yet subs only comprised 2% of the US Navy fleet.

    So what is the proper mix of capabilities and numbers today?

    Well, for one thing, we need lots MORE aircraft, not just carrier based which are always going to be limited on range and weapons loads compared to land based attack aircraft. We also need lots more land based attack aircraft. We need lots more sophisticated cruise missiles like NSM, JASSM-ER, LRASM, and the newly refurbished Tomahawks that can be fired from both ships and land. We need a lot MORE nuclear attack submarines.

    We also have essentially NO long range “blue water” small escort ships to protect our own transport fleets from air and submarine attack across the Pacific. None. We have a great littoral warship, the LCS, but that’s it. Our new frigates, of which we’ll have only 20 when all are fully built out in a decade or so, will be fully spoken for protecting our naval amphibs and naval transport ships … so who and what will protect the merchant transports?

    In WW Two we and our allies built up a fleet of thousands of sub chasers, destroyer escorts, and destroyers to protect our merchant transports, along with aircraft as stated above. Today we have none of those. All of our “destroyers” which are actually far larger than our cruisers of WW Two, are fully spoken for protecting our CVNs. Ditto with our “cruisers” which are about to all get retired.

    Can we use unmanned vessels to make up this shortfall? We hope the answer is yes, but I believe it is more likely that we also need a large fleet of small blue water escorts, all equipped with aviation (helicopters and UAS) which is the most effective means of ASW and AAW protection for transports. And sophisticated AAW and ASW systems, but keep them small – we pay for warships by the ton, not by the “capability”.

    And we need advanced defensive and offensive weapons systems; electronic warfare systems; and AI capabilities. None of these latter systems are afterthoughts, but must be baked into the cake of our naval warfare suite of systems.

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