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Opinion: What the Navy Can Learn from Golf

A sailors hits golf balls in an inflatable driving range during a Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) event in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in 2012. US Navy Photo

A sailors hits golf balls in an inflatable driving range during a Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) event in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in 2012. US Navy Photo

Golfers may not realize it, but they have a keen understanding of combined arms.

I’m not a particularly good golfer myself. Some may suggest what I do is not actually “playing golf,” but I know well enough not to use a putter in the sand trap or use my sand wedge from the tee and certainly not buy any club that claims to cover all those situations.

With so many naval officers playing the sport, you’d think the idea would never come into question; hopefully it is being relearned by defense planners after our increasing number of capability issues with the Littoral Combat Ship and F-35 putter-driver-sand wedge combos.

In more military terms, “combined arms” is the symphony of weaponry used to complementary effect on the battlefield. From a sniper supporting a rifleman to artillery supporting a tank to all four supporting one another, this mix of specialties to common cause is that concept of combined arms. To an economist or business type, this might sound a lot like specialization in trade … but with explosions.

Now, long ago when my father resolved to teach me the sport of standing-outside-for-a-long-time-looking-around-in-the-weeds-until-sneakily-dropping-a-fresh-ball, he told me that to play a game of golf, all you needed was a 7-iron and a putter. Two clubs are a sight cheaper than a full set, and best-value may have been the argument used by those who crave do-all platforms … or was until they turned out to be more expensive.

Unfortunately for them, the second half of that advice is to never to actually play with only two clubs against anyone. You lose against all but the worst opponents. True, LCS might be able to conduct assigned missions given sufficient time in a battle, and the F-35 may well be able to be stealthy, vertical takeoff, and in circumstances execute both, but both will do so in a way similar to my golf game: the motions without success.

Baseline function does not equate with sufficiency, just like every car that can start its engine can’t win at NASCAR. As the world’s only superpower, we can’t take a minivan onto the racetrack.

The United States Navy used to have a bag stuffed with different clubs. The past 70 years have seen an incredible number of specialized ships: carriers, amphibs, radar picket ships, torpedo boats, submarine chasers, riverine patrol boats, river basing ships, minelayers, minesweepers, etc.

In the air, it looked much the same. San Diego residents of varying seasoning may remember the A-6 fighter-bombers and their electronic warfare brothers, the EA-6B prowlers, as well as the F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders. The Harrier is still freaking kids out with its ability to take off like a helicopter. We see great success today with an incredibly specialized fleet of drones, whose sole duty at sea is surveillance.

To be fair, having more ship and aircraft types than a peacock has feathers is not an economically sound acquisition strategy. However, platform diversity and specialization is necessary to ensure excellence, not mere functionality.

But here we are. Just like golf, we have to “play it as it lies.” There’s no way for us to smash a path to the hole with our putter to make the game easier, like a certain awful kid that might well have been me. We have already spent billions on the F-35 and LCS, and they are here to stay. Fortunately, they don’t have to go to waste if we apply the concepts of combined arms.

As chief of naval operations, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt introduced the concept of “High-Low,” mixing cheap and expensive platforms to retain both presence and capability at more sensible pricing. Abandoning the modularity program, a mine-specialized LCS mixed with newer (and very cheap) corvettes similar to our Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships would make for a potent combined arms team.

Two corvettes can do boardings and patrols, supported by the surveillance capabilities of LCS and perhaps a helicopter-deployed boarding team for especially interesting contacts of interest. This is a low-impact, high-return option for presence operations.

Why commit a single destroyer hosting the most advanced shipboard defensive system in the world, capable of shooting down ICBMs and hitting targets far inland to board ships? If countermine operations were to become necessary, those two supported patrol ships become the supporters, defending the now-minesweeper LCS from attacks.

As for the F-35B/C… well, my brother is in Corpus Christi learning to be a pilot. I’ll let him figure his way out of that one.

In the end, the Navy is often quite good at combined arms, great examples being the carrier strike group or any size of Marine Expeditionary Force. We’re great from the links to the fairway and once we’re on the green, but the enemy isn’t going make it easy. When it comes to the water hazards, tight corners, rough, and sand traps, we are going to require more clubs. If we’re not going to invest in the right clubs, it is the same as not investing at all.