With apologies to Nassim Nicholas Taleb: never underestimate the impact—and value—of the highly mundane.
Seafaring folk, including yours truly, have a habit of falling in love with glitzy armaments and platforms such as aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, and destroyers festooned with sensors and missiles. The reasoning goes something like this: frontline vessels and aircraft do battle for command of sea and sky. Without them, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps may never win command. And if they cannot win command they cannot leverage command for operational and strategic effect. The sea becomes a bulwark against U.S. and allied strategy rather than an avenue into embattled zones. Maritime strategy falters.
This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
By that logic, it follows that top-end hardware should hold pride of place in budgetary deliberations and fleet design. The services should procure lesser implements on a not-to-interfere basis with capital ships. They should forego acquisitions of, say, unglamorous diesel attack submarines for fear of siphoning finite shipbuilding resources from nuclear-powered attack boats.
But there’s more to it than objective reckoning of priorities. A majesty and allure enshrouds major platforms beyond their strictly military value. They conjure up affection, and affection colors debates over force structure and strategy. Heck, sailors live onboard our ships. Ships become home—and home is where the heart is. Or as strategist Edward Luttwak maintains, aircraft carriers, destroyers, and nuclear submarines exude “sex appeal.” Hence the throngs of visitors that descend on New York, San Francisco, and other seaports during Fleet Week. Mariners must disentangle the passions they feel toward their platforms from cool calculation if they hope to design fleets fit to execute strategy.
A prime way to do that is to distinguish between “platforms” and “capabilities,” undertaking the basic linguistic hygiene beloved of thinkers from Confucius to George Orwell. Naming things with precision cleanses the language used in debates over fleet design and in turn makes for dispassionate analysis. I seldom have much use for joint publications, but in this case, the definition of capability put forth in the Defense Department Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms illuminates. A capability, says the dictionary, is not a whizbang. It is “the ability to complete a task or execute a course of action under specified conditions and level of performance.” It’s the ability to do a job—not the tool used to do it.
Viewed in that light, choosing which particular tool to add to the toolkit becomes a secondary matter. In fact, the wise handyman selects the cheapest, simplest, least sexy implement adequate to his task. Doing so saves money while getting the job done. The artisanal approach—or as the amphibian pundit CDR Salamander puts it, mariners’ ingrained preference for “Tiffany” ships, planes, and armaments—wastes resources while self-imposing heavy opportunity costs. Heaping excess capacity on a platform costs money, manpower, and other resources that might go to likewise vital purposes, or to buying more widgets and thus adding mass to the fleet. Quantity, after all, boasts a quality all its own.
Describing implements as capabilities, then, obscures the distinction between hardware and the purposes hardware exists to serve. For instance, it’s fair to say that “the ability to render humanitarian and disaster assistance” comes second to capabilities aimed at defeating foes. It’s an important capability. But in a zero-sum competition for resources, it must yield to capabilities that help the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps win maritime command and project power onto land afterward. These are the sea services’ topmost functions and must take precedence over desirable but less pressing priorities. Platforms specially designed for HA/DR must rank behind capital ships or ships that police the sea in the pecking order.
But by the same token certain mundane capabilities should rank high in the pecking order—and so must the humdrum platforms deployed to carry out missions deriving from those capabilities. Some everyday capabilities act as enablers, helping glamour platforms fulfill their potential. Others advance strategic purposes in their own right.
In the former category consider a capability we might describe as “the ability to sustain fleet operations in distant theaters for X weeks or months in the face of opposition from a peer competitor.” Underway replenishment has been a core U.S. Navy competency at least since World War II. Prominent historical figures have attested that it was decisive to American success in the Pacific. Without that capability—without the bullets, beans, and black oil delivered by unassuming supply ships—the battle fleet quickly wilts under combat conditions. It may as well go away once it runs low on fuel or food or expends its ordnance. Without logistics the fleet is little more than a collection of glorified yachts or merchantmen puttering around off enemy coasts for no apparent reason.
The combat logistics fleet—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated stores ships, and the like—thus plays a prominent part in strategy despite its frumpy image. CLF vessels help the fleet transmute potential into usable combat power. They enable the glamour platforms to stay on station on the strategic frontier and execute their missions for those X weeks or months. Workmanlike vessels, then, cannot be an afterthought in fleet design. Nor is the capacity to perform forward repairs and maintenance—not to mention overhauls in depots back home—any less critical. The navy once maintained a fleet of destroyer and submarine tenders for just that purpose. Yet it has decommissioned and scrapped some of its destroyer tenders. Other hulks lie moldering at anchor in the ghost fleet awaiting the same fate. And the sub tender fleet has withered to two forty-year-old hulls.
The naval leadership and its political overseers must undertake some soul-searching about the fleet’s ability to sustain operations in remote waters. Otherwise great-power competitors may realize they merely need to stall an American maritime offensive for a short time to achieve their goals. So in a real sense deterrence rests on drydocks, workshops, and lumbering supply vessels. If deterrence is a product of capability, the resolve to use it, and staying power at decisive places on the nautical chart, it’s apt to fail if rival powers come to doubt the U.S. Navy and Marines can stage serious combat power at scenes of action for long enough to prevail.
Rivals’ script will read something like this: ride out the initial shock, stall for time, and watch U.S. forces go away for lack of replenishment and upkeep.
At which time adversary forces inherit the battleground by default. Disabusing prospective foes of the conceit that U.S. forces lack resiliency and staying power is crucial. As far as capabilities that help accomplish strategic goals in their own right, think about a capability we might call “the ability to close narrow seas and skies to hostile vessels and aircraft.” Such a capability would prove central should the United States and its allies embrace an archipelagic defense strategy in the Far East. Archipelagic defense would bar access to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean to Chinese units at a time when Beijing increasingly relies on such access. Doing so would discourage Chinese mischief-making in the region while penning the People’s Liberation Army within the near seas should armed conflict erupt.
Sure, high-end combatant ships and warbirds could take the brunt of sentry duty along the first island chain, but such static functions waste Tiffany platforms’ battle capacity. Combat aircraft, missile-armed ground troops, minefields, swarms of small missile craft roaming up and down the island chain, and, yes, diesel submarines constitute the right instruments—however short on star power—to execute such a strategy. They’re cheap, serviceable, and suited to perimeter defense. The battle fleet should furnish a backstop for island-chain defenders but concentrate mainly on mobile offensive operations up and down the Asian seaboard. That—not picket duty—is the fleet’s comparative advantage.
Distilling capabilities from strategy and putting capability, properly understood, in charge of fleet design and operations would open new vistas before American and allied commanders. Strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz counsels generals to estimate whether their opponents are “bologna flasks” prone to shatter at the first rap. It’s worth asking the same question about ourselves before getting in a tussle with China or some other peer competitor: have the sea services made themselves into a bologna flask through their romance with top-end platforms and armaments, and through their consequent neglect of unobtrusive platforms and capabilities essential to strategic success?
If so they have rendered allied defenses “fragile” in Nassim Taleb’s sense. Shoring up logistical shortfalls, widening the leadership’s strategic gaze to encompass highly mundane capabilities and hardware, and otherwise engaging in self-scrutiny will help the sea services make themselves resilient. Taleb prefers systems that are “antifragile”—that not only withstand but actually benefit from taking a hammer blow. Such systems take a licking, keep on ticking, and come back stronger than before. We should strive toward an antifragile force—but resiliency represents a good first step.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific.