Over at the Atlantic Council, former director of U.S. Navy strategy and operational concepts Bruce Stubbs probes “Ten Challenges to Implementing Force Design 2030.” Force Design 2030, of course, was the brainchild of General David Berger, the recently retired Marine Corps commandant. The basic idea, to oversimplify, is to dispatch roving, elusive units of sensor- and missile-equipped Marines to Asia’s first island chain to help the Navy deny China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) command of the sea. And without command the PLA cannot conquer Taiwan, make the South China Sea a Chinese lake, or accomplish its other goals in maritime Asia.
The logic underlying Force Design 2030 is rock solid. I’ve been pushing something similar for a long time and helped fight off the revolt of the retired marine generals who went to Congress to scotch it the past couple of years. But there’s no gainsaying this basic point: the soundest concept is a wish if it can’t be executed under prevailing circumstances at acceptable cost, opportunity cost, and risk. The devil’s in the details. And practical details can only be sorted out through analysis, wargaming, and exercises, chiefly in the classified realm.
Which is why Stubbs’s report is a welcome entry to the debate. It will help decisionmakers make sound judgments about practical matters. Much like reportage from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the author raises questions for senior folk without venturing answers. And they’re good questions, ranging from alliance diplomacy all the way down to ship design and procurement.
I might have reordered the questions had I been compiling the report, as I feel the report veers back and forth between high policy and strategy, and the nitty-gritty of fleet and force design, operations, and maintenance. For instance, Stubbs buries “strategic assumption for unimpeded access,” something truly fundamental, down at question #6 of 10. Access to allied territory is an absolute requirement for the family of U.S. Marine Corps and Navy operational concepts to succeed, and access is far from a foregone conclusion. No mutual-defense pact—not even the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which comprises the gold standard for mutual defense—guarantees automatic access to national soil or obliges one ally to comply with another’s wishes with respect to strategy and operations. Such pacts require allies to regard an attack on one as an attack on all.
But no Asian capital relishes a clash with China. Asians know that China will be there forever, that memories run long, and that they will have to cope with a wrathful China if they take sides against it—win or lose.
Stubbs is right. No one in Washington DC or elsewhere in the politico-military establishment should assume allies will grant access to their territory in times of strife against China. They could balk out of self-interest. So, America has to work for access. Alliance diplomacy should be the North Star for U.S. policy and strategy in the Indo-Pacific, pursued with vigor on a 24/7/365 basis. After all, the best-designed, most lavishly funded, most skillfully choreographed joint force in the world stands little chance of victory if not allowed on the battlefield.
Another macro-theme sounded by the author, although he doesn’t put it this starkly, is whether the United States is spending enough on the sea services in particular and on defense in general. Stubbs cites a widespread view within the Navy that current budgets are only adequate pay to maintain a fleet of 265 ships, while the inventory numbers are closer to 300. Congress and presidential administrations may be starving the services of what they need to meet the demands set forth in U.S. maritime strategy.
Along those lines, Stubbs seems to pour cold water on the idea that the Navy will fund a fleet of 35 or so medium landing ships to ferry U.S. Marines from island to island. The Marine Corps does not pay for its own shipping; the Navy does. A contingent of newfangled amphibious craft could run in excess of $4 billion and would slam into such competing Navy priorities as the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine—the service’s paramount priority by far—or a next-generation guided-missile destroyer, or possibly a next-generation attack submarine. This is true beyond question—but only if the budgetary pie is fixed. Which it is not, or shouldn’t be, at current levels.
Throughout the Cold War the United States spent roughly double what it does now on defense relative to its GDP. The nation can afford more if it wants to. Sea-service funding may simply need to be more generous to supply the services with the wherewithal to carry out their missions.
A final macro-theme worth highlighting is the joint dimension. Stubbs points out that the U.S. Army rightly regards itself as a major player in the maritime battlespace of East Asia. Some of its initiatives run on parallel tracks with what the Marine Corps and Navy are doing. For example, the Army is fielding missiles of its own, including for anti-ship missions. It is forging itself into an implement of sea denial, much as Force Design 2030 envisions for the Marine Corps. The Army is also constructing a flotilla of light transports designated the Maneuver Support Vessel–Light, along with a contingent of bulkier transports dubbed the Maneuver Support Vessel–Heavy (MSV-H). Stubbs points out that the MSV-H has roughly the same characteristics as those set forth for the Marines’ medium landing ship. He strongly hints that the Navy and Marines should just order their own compliment of the Army seacraft.
Endorsed. Why reinvent the wheel, and probably pay more for it, just because the wheelwright happens to be a ground force?
Force Design 2030 is a sound idea, but ideas exist to be falsified—in other words, debunked or amended. That’s how the scientific method works. No theory is ever proved—only disproved. Ideas about strategy, operations, and tactics are no exception. The retired marines were unconvincing when they appealed to Congress to overturn General Berger’s concept. They offered little more than sloganeering. But that doesn’t mean the concept is invincible. Bruce Stubbs raises problems that, while not insoluble, are eminently worth taking into account. In fact, we must.
And addressing them will make us smarter.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.