Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Use, the Navy?

The Navy exists for one reason and one reason only:  to fight and win wars.  The Navy (and the military, in general) is the gorilla that is let out of its cage to destroy the enemy when diplomatic efforts have failed and conflict is the only means of resolution left.  As such, the Navy must be bigger, meaner, and more powerful than any possible enemy.  The Navy must be capable of delivering vast amounts of destruction on demand.  CNO Greenert recognized this imperative with his “Warfighting First” slogan, although he has spectacularly failed to implement it.

The far, far, far, far secondary task is to patrol the world’s seas during peacetime and, insofar as possible, keep and promote that peace by providing presence, deterrence, security for global shipping, and the hundreds of other necessary peacetime tasks. 

The irony is that the secondary task makes up 99% of the Navy’s activities.  Nonetheless, the Navy’s leaders must firmly grasp the reality of the Navy’s priority and that is warfighting.  Every ship design, every piece of equipment purchased, every manning decision, every research project, and every weapon system must be focused with laser precision on the Navy’s core purpose of warfighting.

Unfortunately, the outlook of the military, in general, and Navy leadership, in particular, suggests that we have been too long without a reminder of the Navy’s true purpose and that not only has a peacetime mentality taken hold but, even more disturbing, the lessons of history are being misinterpreted.  Consider this passage from a recent Proceedings article (1).

“Senior U.S. military officers now say, ‘We are not posturing to plant the flag in the capital.’  At the high end, warfighting today is IAMD-centric [Integrated Air and Missile Defense] and not about regime change.  Deterrence and conflict prevention are all about competitive strategies, as we know from winning the endgame in the Cold War.  U.S. combatant commanders today are tasked with shaping the regional security environments in the areas of responsibility.”

That seemingly simple and innocuous statement encapsulates a great deal of folly, ignorance, and naiveté.

Let’s break it down.  “We are not posturing to plant the flag in the capital.”  Nothing should be further from the truth.  Consider the multitude of historical examples involving the planting of the flag versus not.  WWII was a prime example of planting the flag, firmly and unequivocally, in the capitals of Germany and Japan.  The result?  Both are now pillars of the global community.  On the other hand, consider the examples of N. Korea and Iraq (Desert Storm).  In each case, we fought a partial war to an indefinite conclusion, chose not to plant the flag, and have had to live with years of costly and difficult consequences.  For decades we’ve had to pay an enormous price to contain a now nuclear armed, belligerent, and insane N. Korea.  Our failure to plant the flag at the conclusion of Desert Storm led directly to having to fight Iraq a second time.  The cost to plant the flag in Germany and Japan was a bargain of untold magnitude compared to the ongoing problems resulting from our failure to do so in N. Korea and Iraq.  We see then, that the statement, “We are not posturing to plant the flag in the capital.”, derives from a failure to learn the lessons of history and demonstrates a folly and ignorance of the action-consequence link that is staggering in its magnitude. 

Consider the next sentence, “At the high end, warfighting today is IAMD-centric [Integrated Air and Missile Defense] and not about regime change.”  At the high end, war is all about regime change or at least it should be, as we just pointed out.  If we don’t end a war decisively and overwhelmingly we’ll continue to pay for it for years to come and may well wind up refighting it.  This statement is a complete failure to recognize what war is and what the Navy’s purpose is.  This is ignorance on a grand scale.

“Deterrence and conflict prevention are all about competitive strategies, as we know from winning the endgame in the Cold War.”

The Cold War was not won because of our deterrence or conflict prevention strategies.  The Cold War was won because we committed to preparing for the ultimate war and demonstrated that we were committed to winning it totally and decisively.  Our preparation for total war led the Soviet Union to engage in an arm’s race that their economy could not sustain.  Yes, there were many other factors at play and I’m simplifying but the point is that timid, half-measures of conflict prevention were not what won the Cold War.  Americans seem to have a chronically hard time recognizing that the rest of the world respects strength.  But, I digress … 

Our current crop of military professionals appear to be misinterpreting the lessons of history.  We seem to want to re-interpret history through a lens of wishful thinking and a haze of peaceful intentions.  Well, it didn’t happen that way and it won’t happen that way in the future.  China, for example, has no more respect for our peaceful gestures than the Soviet Union did.  We can remember our lessons or we can pay in blood to have them re-taught to us by countries that have learned the proper lessons.

(1) US Naval Institute, “Modernize Aegis for Naval Dominance”, John Morton, May 2014, p.60.


  1. With respect to your experience, I must disagree with the conclusion reached in this post. First, stopping outside of Baghdad in the First Gulf War was a strategically sound move. Bush Senior's administration recognized the long, arduous process involved with regime change, and decided not to oust Saddam with American forces. Nor did it directly lead us to reinvade in 2003. While Saddam was certainly skirting international oversight, our intelligence indicating that he had a functioning weapons program was shoddy at best. We could have simply not invaded Iraq, and used our efforts to focus on more pertinent national security issues. In other words, the failure of H.W. to overthrow the regime in 1991 did not necessitate America's invasion in 2003.

    Furthermore, Iraq is a perfect example of why planting the flag is a poor decision for policymakers to make in some circumstances. Wether it was in 1991 or 2003, we would have dealt with the same political power vacuum and Sunni-Shiite divide that tore the nation apart following the fall of Saddam. When we look back at the two wars, it's clear that one was a strategic success, whereas the other was not. In our first incursion into Iraq, we managed to push Saddam out of Kuwait and contain him both militarily and economically. The result was a relatively stable Middle East. In the second, we unleashed a sectarian hell storm that only served to destabilize the region, distract America from more important security goals, and strengthen Iranian influence in what was previously an effective counterweight to the Ayatollah's reach.

    Secondly, I would contend that the chief purpose of our armed forces is to achieve political goals set forth by policy makers. If our goal is to prevent China from seizing the Senkaku Islands, then we can effectively do that without threatening a existential war. And I believe that history supports this idea. Japan decisively defeated Russia in the early 20th century. America decisively defeated Spain in 1898. Israel decisively defeated Arab nations in 1967. All of these examples lack regime change (unless you count the Philippines and Cuba as "regime change," but I don't think that's what you're getting at). There are a multitude of examples where decisive victory was obtained outside of an existential grapple between states.

    In fact, it's questionable if invading Russia was within Imperial interests in 1905. Their interests were not toppling the Czar's rule in Moscow, it was colonizing Asia. America definitely had no interest in invading Spain, and I can't imagine we regretted it down the road. Israel lacked sufficient capability to initiate regime change, so that probably wasn't factored into their calculus whatsoever.

    What separates the Cold War from today is the nature of it. Competition between America and the Soviet Union represented a struggle for the political future of not only Europe, but the entire world. The USSR was threatening a war in which they would steam roll Western Europe. Thus America had to be prepared to fight such an existential conflict involving the fates of multiple nations. The same cannot be said for the Senkaku Islands or Iranian nuclear proliferation. Perhaps you could argue that the fate of South Korea hangs in the balance if North Korea invades, but not even South Korea wishes regime change right now. Until they are willing to take on reintegration, American security policy needs to take into consideration this reality when it comes to contingency planning for North Korean provocations.

    1. LoS, remember that I'm writing about the US and USN rather than writing about other countries. Some countries simply don't have the ability to effect regime change in a war - Japan versus Russia, for example. If you don't have the ability then you do the best you can to the extent you can. The US does, however, have that ability. So, your non-US examples don't apply. Perhaps I should have made that point explicitly.

      However, even looking at some of your examples, don't you think Israel, for instance, wishes they could have planted the flag in some Arab countries? Look how much money, effort, and death has resulted by being unable to do so.

      If we're going to engage in "limited" military conflicts, one has to wonder whether we should even be engaged. Consider the Spanish American War. It was a war fought for highly questionable reasons. Consider the Kosovo conflict. And so on ...

      Think about the Viet Nam war. Setting aside the debate about the rationale, consider what followed - a protracted quasi-war with highly constrained ROE's and limited target lists. Many people died because the military did not unleash it's full power. Had the gorilla been let loose, the war would have ended quickly (look what happened just when the bombing was opened up a bit) and far fewer lives would have been lost. Perhaps we'd have a Germany/Japan type partner in a crucial part of the world today?

      Consider the Koreas. How much money (both US and SKorean), effort, and lives have been spent since the war in trying to contain NK? What do we have to show for it? A nuclear armed country led by an insane person who continually threatens to attack the US. Planting the flag would have solved a lot of problems in the long run. How many North Korean citizens have died under that regime since the war?

      If you believe there's a difference between the Soviet Union and China then you aren't seeing the reality of China. China is planning on world domination. The only difference between the Soviet Union and China is that China takes the long view and is willing to work slowly whereas the Soviet Union wanted it quickly, overreached, and collapsed.

      Finally, yes, the failure to plant the flag in Iraq led directly to the second conflict and cost many people their lives. Recall the immediate aftermath of the premature stoppage of Desert Storm in which Hussein launched near-genocidal attacks. You might find the US News book, "Triumph Without Victory" to be an informative read. The book presents a very scholarly examination of the war and aftermath. Interviews some (not all) of the principals of the war reveal their regret about stopping prematurely. I think it's fair to say that most people believe our premature end did directly result in the second conflict. What's less certain is how many people, while recognizing the premature stoppage, think we should have planted the flag. Also, consider the second Iraq conflict. We again failed to plant the flag ala Germany/Japan and are now left with little gained and quite possibly a country that will wind up unfriendly to the US and a hotbed of terrorism for years to come.

  2. ComNavOps, what kind of US Navy would you prefer to see in a world in which a real war could occur? Would it be a submarine-focused navy that could deny sea lanes? Would it have a lot of ASuW capabilities concentrated in a large surface fleet? Lots of troop and heavy mechanized transport capabilities? Or would it focus more on land attack via planes, guns, missiles, ...? You're article and response to LoS touches on strategic considerations that you usually avoid, other than the very wise criticism that the Navy appears to often pursue systems and missions that are not based on real strategic issues, and this prompts my question.

    Basically, I'm asking what you would like to see in a warfare-oriented Navy, if we assume that a great power (say China) seeks to dominate the world and is willing to duke it out with the US.

    1. JI, well that's not only a great question but an insightfully asked one, as well, with the noted connection between strategy and force structure. I have a very specific idea of what the end result (victory conditions) of a war with China should entail. My ideal naval force structure is heavily influenced by that desired end result. -And now I'm going to disappoint you.

      Stating my desired end result would only result in a protracted geopolitical discussion with various commenters that I don't wish to engage in given the stated non-political nature of this blog. Sure, politics creeps in from time to time but I try to keep it to a minimum and then only in fairly direct support of naval matters. If you've read all the archived posts you can probably get a pretty good idea of the force structure I'd advocate though perhaps not the desired victory conditions. - hint: there is actually an alternate acceptable end result other than "plant the flag" but it involves a coherent world view that, again, goes beyond what I wish to dicuss in a non-political blog.

      As far as naval force structure, I'm guided by the truism, "The seat of purpose is on the land."

      Turn your question around. Given whatever desired end result you wish in a war with China and the resulting battle strategy you would envision to achieve that result, what do you see as the Navy's top need and top weakness? Feel free to answer or simply ponder the question for your own edification.

  3. "...WWII was a prime example of planting the flag, firmly and unequivocally, in the capitals of Germany and Japan. The result? Both are now pillars of the global community..."

    Germany was divided in two with a wall, barbed wire and landmines, for a long time. Japan got two cities erased with nukes and forbiden from have armed forces. Napoleon "planted the (french) flag" in many capitols, but that dont stoped wars in Europe.

    I am not saying that is not going to work, I am just saying that unless you are ready to nuke chinese cities one after another until they surrender and/or divide the country in to smaller ones and/or forbid them from having armed forces. I dont think that is going to work as good as you think.

    1. How many Frenchmen does it take to stop the Germans from planting their flag in Paris?

      I don't know, it has never been tried...

      (ba dum bum)

    2. mareo, planting the flag is the preferred outcome and, in the long run, the cheapest option and it produces the best long term result. Unfortunately, it may not always be possible. A China war is an example of such case where it is simply not possible. There is, however, a secondary option which is nearly as good. I'll leave it there with no further description as it involves an entire political element and this is not the blog for that.


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