The commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command called on Navy and defense leadership to move past the Third Offset Strategy’s focus on developing new capabilities and instead balance those technologies with improved readiness and a larger fleet.
Adm. Phil Davidson said Thursday night that capability, capacity and readiness were not separate funding silos that could be rebalanced as needed, but rather were overlapping pools that spill into one another. Taking money out of readiness to add an Aegis Combat System upgrade for an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, for example, may mean canceling two other ship’s maintenance availabilities, which ultimately decreases readiness and capacity for the sake of one more-capable ship.
“When you ask me which do I want to buy – capability, or capacity, or readiness? The only answer is yes,” he said during the final speech of this year’s Surface Navy Association annual conference.
His comments come at the end of what has been a combative relationship between Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Defense Secretary Ash Carter – with Mabus pursuing a legacy of growing the fleet, and Carter seeking a legacy of carrying out the Third Offset Strategy that focuses on unmanned technologies, big data processing, advanced sensors and weapons, and prototyping and experimentation.
In December 2015 Carter directed Mabus to cut 12 Littoral Combat Ships from the shipbuilding plans and instead invest that money in high-tech upgrades such as developing an anti-ship mode for the Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, and quickening development of future Flight III destroyer and Block V attack submarine technologies. While some these new capabilities such as the anti-surface missiles – which have been rapidly developed and are in various stages of testing and fielding – have supported the Navy’s distributed lethality concept, Davidson called for the end of this sole focus on capability advances via the Third Offset Strategy and a shift in focus to fleet size and readiness.
Referencing the original Offset Strategy in the 1950s that created nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships and submarines, and the Second Offset Strategy in the 1970s that brought positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) for precision weapons and communication, Davidson said, “to look back at offset number one and two and evaluate whether they’re successful or not is kind of a false view. You cannot view them in isolation. Why? It was the follow-on investments in capacity and in readiness that allowed them to procure the systems, the capabilities that [research and development] developed, pull them out of low-rate production and build the triad in the 50s and build the conventional force in the 70s that was so good. It is the capacity and readiness strategies that followed those offset strategies that made them successful.
“So, my thoughts on strategy: one, it’s important to have one, and there is one out there. But two, you have to know when to change it, that’s critically important,” Davidson concluded.
“And I’m here to tell you today, I think that time is now. It is time for a bigger, more capable and more ready Navy.”
Mabus gave a farewell address earlier in the conference, highlighting the 86 ships he put under contract in his time as Navy secretary – compared to the 41 in the same time period under President George W. Bush. While he didn’t name Carter specifically, Mabus defended his shipbuilding spree as necessary and an efficient way to manage the industrial base.
“Another argument I’ve heard is, the Navy has prioritized shipbuilding to the detriment of new technologies, weapon systems, things like that,” Mabus said.
“I got two answers to that: number one, we’re the Navy! What else are we going to build? We need ships, and we need enough of those ships. But second is, how are we going to deliver those new weapons? How are you going to get them there if you don’t have the platforms? How are you going to be present around the globe, around the clock, if you don’t have those platforms?”
Davidson made clear that the path forward wouldn’t be easy, going from a 274-ship fleet today that the Navy has struggled to keep ready due to budget constraints to a 355-ship fleet as called for by the new Force Structure Assessment and apparently supported by the incoming Trump administration.
“Well which is it, what do you want? Do you want 274 ready, or do you want 355? That’s a false choice,” he warned.
Davidson also noted that these discussions about how to balance capacity, capability and readiness come amid a complex threat environment around the world.
“It’s a pretty sporty environment out there, and when [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson] came in and took office and he talked about a gray hybridized environment that was going to be moving at a slow boil, that would require our people to sort peacetime from wartime and respond appropriately and accurately, this last seven months really spells that out,” he said, referring to the Middle East deployments of the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group and the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. Within those groups, USS Wasp (LHD-1), USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), USS San Antonio (LPD-17), USS Mason (DDG-87), USS Nitze (DDG-94) and USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) all saw combat actions between June 1 and the end of 2016, he said, and USS Carney (DDG-64) also fired illumination rounds into Libya in support of Wasp’s strikes.
“Ike and Wasp, San Antonio as well, flying strikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya because we have the sea control. Mason, Nitze, Ponce, and San Antonio again, they were fighting for (sea control), to establish it there in the Red Sea – not only for their own safety but for the safety and the security of commerce that’s traveling through there.”