Thursday, March 13, 2014

Independent Operations

Carrier numbers have declined from dozens to 15 to 9 (currently active).  All indications are that the numbers will continue to decline as budget pressures continue to mount.  The Navy has already announced that only two carriers at a time will be deployed starting in 2015 – that’s two carriers to cover the entire world.  At the same time, the number of aircraft in airwings has decreased significantly.  The Navy has stated that squadron size will be reduced by a further 2-4 aircraft when the F-35 reaches service.  It doesn’t take a fortune teller to see that even that may be an optimistic prediction given the runaway cost of the JSF program.  The net result is that the likelihood of naval aviation being present at any point in the world and at any given time is steadily decreasing and this situation will only get worse for the foreseeable future.

The Air Force is not immune to this trend, either.  Overall aircraft numbers are shrinking and no one believes that the projected buy of F-35s will occur as planned.  The Air Force will be fortunate if they can procure three quarters of that amount.

Further, the number of combat ships in the fleet is steadily declining. 

Compounding all of this is a lack of bases in the various areas of interest, particularly the East/South China Seas, meaning America’s “Pacific Pivot”.

How does all of this tie together?  Simple…  More and more naval operations will be conducted with less and less support.  Small task force operations will be replaced by single ship operations.  Ships will be tasked without sufficient support.  Aircraft will operate without backup.  In other words, independent operations will increase.  By independent, I mean individual ships or small task groups that have no readily available external support.

Even when we had sufficient support we too often operated ships and aircraft without proper support.  Remember the Pueblo incident?  Remember the EP-3 forcedown by the Chinese?  Just recently, we sent an Aegis cruiser to monitor a Chinese fleet and it was unceremoniously spanked and sent packing by the Chinese.  To be fair, I don’t know what support, if any, the cruiser had on call.  The point is that independent operations will occur far more frequently as time goes on.

How is this relevant?  Well, hand-in-hand with independent operations is increased risk.  Did the Aegis cruiser have support on call or is part of the reason why it vacated the area due to a lack of support if things had turned ugly?  As we deploy P-8s for maritime surveillance will they have proper support or will they be on their own?  As we continue to send T-AGOS ships on patrol do they have sufficient support to bail them out of a jam?

Where once an enemy might have hesitated to instigate an incident due to the presence of nearby support, the current circumstances may be just the encouragement an enemy needs to pick off an LCS (they’re welcome to it!) or force down a brand new P-8.  China is clearly spoiling for a confrontation and the lack of support reinforces their aggressiveness.

So, what can we do about this?  Well, we could build more planes and ships but that isn’t going to happen.  We could forward deploy more assets to increase the level of available support but we’re actually doing the opposite.  Carriers and airwings are being idled to save money and some deployments are being skipped.  Honestly, there’s not really anything we can do about this in the near term.

Of course, we can always reduce our posture and pull back.  Sadly, this is being seriously discussed (two-hub Navy, surge Navy, and similar proposals).

Where does all this leave us?  Well, if we want to continue to maintain an effective forward presence we have to recognize and admit that we’re going to be operating with insufficient support on a frequent basis.  Ships and groups are going to find themselves in critical situations with only their own resources to call on.  That being the case, we need to rethink our ship designs. 

We need to begin designing ships that are more capable, more defensible, more survivable, and more combat ready.  In other words, we need ships that are capable of independent operations.

Ponder this need and we’ll follow up with a post that has a more detailed discussion of the specific type of ship needed for independent operations.


  1. First off – I’d like to correct the part about the Cowpens. That’s not what happened.

    Second – my position is based on my experience as a military planner and assumptions. You MUST assume to plan or there is no point in planning since you can’t plan for every single possibility. Here is the military’s definition of assumption, key into the necessary part.

    “Assumption: A supposition on the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, either or both assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof, necessary to enable the commander in the process of planning to complete an estimate of the situation and make a decision on the course of action.”

    Third, to answer this question, I think the name of this blogs makes it difficult to come to an answer!! It should be Joint Forces Matters! Same thing goes for “Air Sea Battle,” “Battle Force”, etc. The answer – as painful as it is – isn’t as simple as simply building kick-ass, independently operating ships and pointing railguns at bad-guys.

    No service ever has what it thinks it needs. Necessity breeds innovation and cooperation. The Army wasn’t going to win the Battle for Fulda by itself. Neither was the Air Force. In overly simplistic terms – they developed Air Land Battle and it worked. Unlike a lot of theoretical strategies, it was tested, at least in a small way, in Desert Storm. Though not in the title, the Navy was part of Air Land Battle. It had one Cold War mission – Keep the Atlantic Open to support the movement of munitions and ground forces from America (REFORGER). Fast forward a few decades and go to another other ocean.

    The Navy may have only two deployed carriers at one time, but this is the Pacific. Every island is a carrier. There are a ton of bases and potential bases in the Pacific actually. We have started to take advantage of this. See “Rapid Raptor Package”. Quietly, the Navy, Marines and Seebees are canvassing the Pacific, going to old, unused airstrips and training to refurbish them (Navy and Marine Corps Times run articles on this from time to time). You don’t need a carrier to conduct naval aviation operations, you need a landing strip. For the F-35B (assuming it works), you need a field. See Guadalcanal and how the navy just put planes there.

    DF-21s and other A2/D2 weapons are not cheap. Carriers are big targets and with a little luck, manageable to threaten (See Kitty Hawk vs. Chinese Sub). In a war with China, we will lose ships and plans. But let’s mitigate that risk be spreading out their target sets to every island that has enough space to park a F-35C. Soak up at many SRBMs and MRBMs as you can. Also, the navy won’t be doing everything. It would be Air Sea Land Battle. The Army, which can sit on any islands it wishes with THAAD, Patriot, TPY-2, HEL MD, and perhaps “Aegis in a Box/Aegis Ashore”. It can provide its own air dominance from the ground. All one needs to do to see this is pull up google maps, locate islands with air strips, locate choke-points (i.e. straights). Then find the UNCLASS range of our weapons, go to PowerPoint, maybe lines emanating from the islands and you’ll quickly see that we have the ability to canvas the area without the Navy even showing up! Add independent, mutually supported ships and the Chinese ISR plots are going to look terrible.

    1. Robert, the Cowpens was told leave and it left. You may disagree with my characterization of the incident (I stand by it!) but the facts are clear. If you have additional or contradictory information about the incident, please share it and I'll gladly reconsider my interpretation of the event.

    2. Robert, we've already discussed the concept of every island a carrier in recent posts and comments. Modern aircraft can't operate from austere strips and can't operate from any strip without massive technological support and logistics. The WWII days of operating mechanically simple Wildcats/Hellcats and whatnot are no longer applicable. In addition, a look at a map of the East/South China Sea area of operations shows very few bases usable by the US within range of the area of operation. The RAND study clearly demonstrated the issue of sortie rate versus distance. There's a big difference between being able, on paper, to generate a single sortie over 1000+ nm using co-ordinated tanking, electronic support, and whatnot versus doing so on a regular basis at a high sustained sortie rate.

  2. “More and more naval operations will be conducted with less and less support. Small task force operations will be replaced by single ship operations. Ships will be tasked without sufficient support. Aircraft will operate without backup. In other words, independent operations will increase. By independent, I mean individual ships or small task groups that have no readily available external support.“

    This isn’t necessarily true, though my position assumes that our “network” works. It has to assume that. But again, one must assume some things when doing planning. They will have support. No ship or unit in the American military operates totally “independently.”

    There will be plenty of support and I for one, hold the position that independent, small unit/task force, minimally supported operations are in out benefit. It clouds the adversary’s tactical plot. That’s awesome for us. Let them send forces after a single LCS. It is economy of force. Here is an example. China is more dependent than us for imported oil, via ship from the middle east. Easy target. Park a single LCS picket ship off the Riau Islands. Park a DDG-51 off Christmas Island. Have a single Tico in the Java Sea. Threaten the Chinese life/supply lines with single ships and allow the fleet do to something more worthwhile (like support the Army, LOL!). Even the lowly LCS (which I personally loath) is about equal to a WWII DE. Fodder. Picket Duty. Kamikaze (now Missile) sponge.

    I 100% agree with this: “We need to begin designing ships that are more capable, more defensible, more survivable, and more combat ready. In other words, we need ships that are capable of independent operations.”

    But these ships won’t be fighting without support from subs, planes, allies, satellites, the Marines, the Army, the Air Force, Special Operations… hell, perhaps even coast watchers.

    1. Robert, you state that no ship or unit in the American military operates totally independently. The EP-3 that the Chinese forced down and captured would demonstrate that they did, in fact, have no viable support. The Pueblo that was captured by N Korea had no viable support. The reality is that we constantly operate ships and planes with no effective support and this trend will only increase as we deploy fewer and fewer ships and aircraft.

  3. The real problem for the USA is national strategy.

    I wholeheartedly support spending roughly 5% of our GDP on the military, but I am aghast by our hubris, specifically:

    1. Our inability to realign our national interest with reality (hint, think North-South and East, not Europe).
    2. The militarization of our foreign policy.
    3. The continuing expectation that American taxpayers subsidize the security, and to defend the interests, of other nations that are more than capable of defending themselves – often nations lack the will to stand up for themselves.
    4. Our primary (and unsustainable) military policy of counter-proliferation, which has been used to justify massive intervention around the globe.
    5. Our wasteful military procurement process.

    Why are there still 30,000 US troops in Europe, when the Europeans continue to cut military spending? Why are we deploying marines to Australia when the Australians are reducing the size of their army? What bright democratic interest do we have in defending Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? What exactly was our national interest in Afghanistan in 2014?

    The answer is hubris.

    The founding fathers warned us about foreign entanglements and our fathers and grandfathers generally kept our forces home or in U.S. territories.

    We are in debt to our largest competitors, and our potential advisary, yet we fret on “projecting power” and insist on wasting national treasure to “show the flag” – all without thinking about how this really benefits the average American.

    Our strategic position depends upon the bottom line. Spending money to “defend” people who don’t appreciate our efforts (e.g. South Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq…) supports the egos of politicians and generals, but does not do much for our future welfare of the USA.


    1. I think perhaps the reason we spend so much to defend other countries is best summed up in one word: CONTROL

      If you don't force other countries to build militaries and you have one, you can control them.

      Hubris comes into this also, becuase seince WWII the US have foolishly thoguth that we can control the world, or at least have to be a major player in the control mechanisms. Contrl freaks are never really in control nor are they happy, secure people with stable healthy relationships. And intergenerational controlling families do not look too healthy either.

      Althought individual psychology does not always scale up to countries, it can be used to give insight to cultures. WWII was so horrible that everyone wanted to control the world to prevent it from ever happening again. But today US leaders might be a slave to this misguided aftermath of WWII, ie. we have always been in contorl so we MUST continue.

      Letting go is a very healthy thing in non controllable envrionments.

      Please note contorlling and influencing have completely different goals and expectations. Influencing the world, with out expectations of control, is a healthy long term goal. CONTROLLING the world is not.

    2. Anon, I'm intrigued by your premise but not sure I completely understand where you're going with it. You seem to be saying you want the US to adopt and influential rather than controlling approach? I may be misunderstanding you so correct me if I'm wrong. If I have your intent correct, give me an example or two of how you see influence being used rather than control.

    3. Influence is best done by example and assisting others to follow your example. An example of spending more than the next 10 countries combined and then using that forced in unilateral manners is not influencing. It appears to be a bully that keeps in shape and will do what he wants.

      I fear that we are on the road to empire with all of the rationalization to deny/justify it each little step along the way. Why not us? If not us who? We have the highest standard of living so it should be us, etc.

      I don't propose isolation or getting rid of the military. I propose leading by example of we will have a small more capable military that is used in limited strikes/operations to influence, with force, those actors that do not respond to other means. We all know they are out there, and we have to have the ability to respond to them, but we should not try to remove or control them.

      Our history is full of examples where we tried to control other regimes; Iran in 1950-1979, Cuba, Nicaragua, IRAQ, and lately Afghanistan. It DOES NOT WORK, it makes things worse in the long term.

    4. Anon, I confess I don't quite know what to make of you. That's not a criticism, that's true puzzlement. Your influence premise sounds suspiciously close to appeasement which has been historically demonstrated to never work. You use the phrase, "influence, with force" which sounds like the very definition of control.

      How could the world have influenced Hitler in a peaceful, productive, non-controlling manner? How can we influence China to stop its illegal and, seemingly, boundless land grabs? How can we influence Russia to stop annexing lands? How can we influence Syria to stop its support of terrorism and slaughter of its own people? How can we influence Iran and NKorea to embark on more productive paths?

      I'm truly curious. Do you have ideas that can support your premise?

  4. I tend to eschew emotional adverbs when it comes to geo-political analysis. While hubris and control are two great examples and very relevant, there is another: Stability.

    We underpin the entire world’s economic and social orders. Billions of dollars are traded in the forms of electronic payments and tangible economies and are able to do so, based on the stability the power – often the military power – of the United States offers. There is even a word for it: stability index, which thanks to Ukraine and Russia is dropping, which causes 4th, 5th and 6th order affects that we all indirectly feel. For anyone who has a mutual fund, IRA of 401s they rely on this stability. This stability underpins their very being. It affects the unemployment rate, how much you pay for gas, everything.

    But it’s a double edged sword. Since we patrol the Persian Gulf, the Pacific, the Atlantic, etc,, we carry the burden that lets other countries play catch-up, i.e. China. We provide the stabilization of the world economy that allows China to export, knowing their goods will arrive, then use that revenue to a tailored military buildup. They don’t need to worry about the security of their ever increasing shipments of oil from the Persian Gulf, we do that for them. So they can work on A2-D2.

    The world is more complicated and complex than ever before and there is no longer and single thing that isn’t interdependent with something else.

    I don’t think its control or hubris… we really have no choice. It has nothing to do with politics or what party is in office – it’s a burden we’ve carried since the defeat of the Axis in 1945 and one we will continue to carry. If we drop it, the world economy drops with it.

    To do otherwise – even while acknowledging our other allies aren’t pulling their weight – would invite global economic disaster.

    1. Robert, that is an excellent comment! Are you then suggesting that we willingly accept the burden of disproportionate responsibility for world order? Should we seek a "tax" from countries that don't want to pull their weight? Should be impose sanctions on countries that don't want to pull their weight? If we're going to accept an undue proportion of responsibility, it seems reasonable that we should reap an a disproportionate benefit, too, doesn't it?

      Great comment. Well written!

    2. I believe Rome had a similar defining moment when the phrase "Carthago delenda est" was uttered. It sparked an unnecessary war and led Rome to Empire and destruction of the republic.

    3. RC,

      Exactly how much control do you really think the USA has in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world?

      You are regurgitating staid, internally consistent logic from the politicians, media, and defense industry that does not square with US economic or political interests in the 21st century.

      This flawed logic is born out of the period immediately following WWII, when Europe was devastated; the USA was producing over 50% of the manufactured goods in the world, was a net oil exporter, and had tremendous capitol reserves.

      That world does not exist today. The USA has been long eclipsed in manufacturing, no longer has a merchant marine fleet, and is now in debt to the tune of 17.5Trillion dollars (with personal debt levels through the roof as well).

      Again, I am not calling for a cut in defense spending, but you have not defined any reason why we need 30,000 troops in Europe, when that region collectively has a larger economy, more people, and more land than the USA.

      We must re-evaluate our interests, our treaty commitments, and align them with a coherent strategy melding economic, political, and military, concerns going forward.


  5. China is not actively seeking ship to ship or aircraft to aircraft confrontations, so long as USN vessels keep their distance, the situation should remain calm.

    The PLAN actually operates quite a lot in the ECS and SCS region, and we can be sure the USN is monitoring them, yet we hear nothing most of the time, because most of the time USN ships are not aggressive enough to get too close. It's only once you send a 10,000 ton 128 VLS cruiser close to the PLAN's lone fledging aircraft carrier or send a ship towing a mile long hydrophone a few miles off a boomer base that things start to get frisky.

    The USN could postpone its deteriorating fleet numbers by accepting a drawback of expensive projects (like cut off a carrier and an LHA, where fiscally appropriate), and use that money to build larger numbers of a cost effective frigate to do lower intensity missions and letting current DDGs and CGs be where they need to be, westpac, wherever. The USN technically doesn't have a shortage of large surface combatants (they have more aegis style ships than the rest of the world put together!), they're just sending them after pirates on dhows or searching for downed malaysian airliners -- jobs a cheap, 4,000 ton frigate with a single chopper hangar, 127mm gun, and an 8 cell VLS can do.

    But in the long term, unless the US reinvigorates itself, or if China experiences a major slowdown (or if there is a Sino-US conflict), the balance of power looks like it will inevitably shift inch by inch. As a country, the USA will have to seriously start looking at where its national interests truly lie, and whether or not it can live in a more multipolar world.

    1. Rick Joe, China is clearly seeking confrontations with Japan, Philippines, and the US among others. A brief perusal of recent news headlines demonstrate that.

      Are you suggesting that the US not exercise it's freedom of navigation rights? China has established aerial exclusion zones that do not comply with international law, they've threatened US ships entering international waters that they deem "theirs". Are you suggesting that the US acquiesce to China and cede illegal regional dominance?

      The argument that the US has all the ships it needs because it has more ships than "x" number of other countries is specious. The question is not whether the US outnumbers other countries but whether the US has the number of ships needed for the missions and responsibilities it has taken on. You may legitimately argue whether the missions and responsibilities are legit but the number of ships is relevant only to the mission requirements.

      Your last paragraph, and your last sentence, in particular, is spot on. This is the geopolitical strategy that I've harped on. Right now, we're floundering and, largely, directionless.


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