Analysis: The U.S. Navy’s High-Low Mix

June 10, 2013 4:35 AM - Updated: June 10, 2013 1:06 PM
USS Nicholas (FFG 47) departs Souda Bay, Greece harbor following a port visit on Feb. 11, 2013. US Navy Photo.
USS Nicholas (FFG-47) departs Souda Bay, Greece harbor following a port visit on Feb. 11, 2013. US Navy Photo.

Interaction with partner navies around the world is a centerpiece of “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power,” the document that guides U.S. Navy maritime operations. One of the strategic imperatives in that directive demands that the Navy “[f]oster and sustain cooperative relationships with more international partners.” That task is extraordinarily difficult because of the disparity between U.S. ships and partner vessels in size and capabilities.

The recent decision to retire seven aging Aegis cruisers eases the disparity to some extent, but also highlights an ongoing debate about the future of the naval force structure. Those seven cruisers are in addition to the five Ticonderoga-class ships scheduled for decommissioning in 2013 and the six Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates also designated to leave the fleet this year. The retirement of the frigates raises old issues. The current naval construction program will replace the “low-end” warships with littoral combat ships (LCSs). The Navy needs the high-low mix across the spectrum of tactical mission areas, but how can this best be achieved?

A new book by former deputy undersecretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey stirs this boiling pot.

Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy begins with a provocative title and a provocative premise. “Wide-ranging seapower is not so much an instrument of force—although that it is—as a condition of stable commerce, effective diplomacy.” To that observation Cropsey adds a critique of the declining size of the Fleet and an argument that only the United States can fulfill the role of guarantor of the maritime commons.

Together those issues form the core of a stinging rebuke of current naval policies. The book is a polemic in the grand tradition of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History, and while there has been critical discussion of Cropsey’s thesis and his presentation of historical background—by, among others, eminent scholars as James Holmes of the Naval War College and retired Rear Admiral Robert Dunn—the book raises some interesting questions.

In the concluding two chapters, Cropsey calls for a return to the high-low mix once represented by the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Perry-class frigates. The book suggests that it is time for a similar pairing of larger and smaller aircraft carriers, tasked with differing missions. The advisability of smaller carriers is predicated on minimizing the detrimental impact of losing a big-deck carrier to sophisticated weapons such as a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile.

Lost in the consideration of the size and type of aircraft carriers for the U.S. Fleet and the discussions of the enormous costs of the LCS, future aircraft carrier, and the new generation of amphibious-warfare ship, is a more basic premise: High-end weapon systems are ill-suited to many missions. The retirement of the Perry-class ships leaves few assets on the low end to meet those requirements.

During 2006 and early 2007, the most effective vessels in building partner capacity were the Cyclone-class patrol craft, the Coast Guard’s 110-foot patrol boats, and small amphibious warfare vessels. Those craft matched the missions, size, and capabilities of regional naval assets. Exercises that benefitted our partners did little to exercise the advanced systems of Ticonderoga- or Burke-class ships. Similarly, while an exercise that demonstrated the high-end capabilities might reassure local governments regarding available support, it did little to develop “the requisite level of integration and interoperability” demanded by the cooperative strategy.

Another focus of the maritime strategy is creating and maintaining security at sea and enhancing awareness. In written comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army General David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Africa Command, called for the dedication of more surveillance and reconnaissance assets to the region. That argument was made against the background of planning potential anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Guinea. While increased ISR assets will help fix the location of threats, operational assets must be available to prosecute such threats. Engaging a wooden dhow armed with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms does not require the Aegis weapons system. It does require either an increase in the number U.S. Navy and NATO forces, more regional partner assets, or both. Any of those options would benefit from reconsideration of a high-low mix. Such a threat is better answered with a less capable asset.

The current plan for procuring 52 LCS hulls would seem to neatly match the 51 Perry-class frigates that originally filled the “low-end” requirement. Even current criticisms of the development issues associated with the new platform seem to mimic the critiques of the frigates, which were examined in a 1977 Congressional Budget Office background paper titled “The U.S. Sea Control Mission: Forces, Capabilities, and Requirements.” We need to ask if we can still meet the mission requirements at the bottom end of the high-low mix.

The Perry-class frigates were criticized as being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But in fact they were jacks-of-all-trades. The ubiquitous FFG-7 could flex from effective cross-deck training with partner nations, to convoy escorts, to serving as an air-warfare or anti-submarine screening unit with a battle group. The ships could make that transition as quickly as they could maneuver from one station to another. With tailored mission modules, the LCS also can serve all those roles—but only after changing out those mission modules. The modular design also renders the financial comparisons moot. Those contrasts are apples and oranges. The mission modules are experiencing the same cost overruns that the underlying LCS hulls experienced. Unless a generic, multirole module is available, the LCS cannot demonstrate the flexible response required. That same flexible response is also beneficial to engaging with regional partners.

The challenges associated with shaping current naval policy are not new. The arguments concerning roles, missions, and the appropriate platforms that must be procured are as old as the Republic. U.S. Naval Academy Professor Craig Symonds, in his 1980 book Navalists and Anti-navalists has ably detailed the debates following the War of 1812. With the Navy at a peak of popularity and basking in the reflected glory of the dramatic victories of frigates USS Constitution and USS United States, Congress authorized the construction of heavy vessels including ships of the line—the capital ships of the day.

The principal postwar threats to U.S. interests, however, came from piracy. The high-end vessels of the day were ill-suited to filling necessary roles and missions. The vigorous debate in Congress and in various public forums—as well as the subsequent accommodations between navalists and anti-navalists—produced innovation and a stronger Navy. Ultimately, any resolution coming from a similar examination will not likely suit modern navalists such as author Cropsey or those who seek deeper cuts in military spending. But his book Mayday raises serious issues that must be addressed if the Navy of today is to leverage technology, emerge stronger, and fulfill the full suite of roles and missions required to ensure national security.

Kevin Delamer

Kevin Delamer is a retired naval officer. He served as director of political-military affairs on the NAVCENT/5th Fleet staff before concluding his career at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he taught strategy.

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