No one wants to get socks for Christmas and yet they're far more useful than most of the shiny new toys we hope for. Similarly, when it comes to military procurement we all gravitate toward the exciting, big ticket items. However, it’s the unexciting items that will ultimately make or break the Navy’s success. Just as logistics and numbers, rather than technology, determine ultimate battlefield success, so too do the mundane procurements determine the ultimate success of the Navy (or military in general). While we focus on, and debate the merits of, the high price, high technology weapon systems, it’s the unexciting but vital pieces of equipment that enable the weapon systems to succeed. The carrier and its airwing get all the attention but it’s the forklifts, galley equipment, UNREP gear, spare parts, and thousands of other equally unexciting equipment that makes the carrier succeed.
OK, granted, but so what? Where is this going?
Well, just as most of us focus on the exciting weapons and systems, so too does the Navy. While understandable on our part, the Navy is the professional war fighting organization and should know better. Here’s a partial list of some items that illustrate the unexciting but vital equipment that is currently un- or under- funded.
Port Repair Equipment – The military believes (at least, I think they do although public statements and actions cast some doubt on this) that a sustained, heavy assault can only be logistically supported through a port. ComNavOps has some doubt about this philosophy but that’s beside the point. If port seizure is critical to a successful assault then we need heavy duty port repair and building capabilities. We need to be able to transport and install, or repair, or build on-site, heavy lift cranes, piers, and all the other equipment associated with rapid loading and unloading of cargo ships. Further, we need to be able to do this while under fire. An intelligent, determined enemy will recognize this Achilles Heel of assault and will make every effort to deny us the use of captured ports. Port facilities will be destroyed, sabotaged, and continually attacked.
Ship Based Counterbattery – During the initial stages of an assault the Marines are going to lack counterbattery capability until their artillery can be brought ashore and setup along with counterbattery radars and such. While aviation assets can offer a degree of support, only a true counterbattery capability can neutralize devastating artillery barrages. This capability can only come from ships equipped with a dedicated counterbattery function. Unfortunately, this capability does not exist and is not an active procurement or development item.
C-RAM – As with the need for counterbattery support for Marines during the initial phase of a landing, there is a need for anti-mortar, anti-artillery, anti-rocket defense. This need is being met on land with the C-RAM adaptation of the Phalanx CIWS. However, until these units can be transported ashore and set up, the Navy will need to provide the protection at the point of landing. While the Navy has CIWS, my understanding is that is not C-RAM capable, as is, it is short ranged, and very few units are mounted on any given ship. A more robust capability is needed.
Heavy Lift UNREP – We’ve mentioned this one numerous times. JSF engines are too heavy for existing UNREP transfer gear and the Navy has deferred upgrades to the handling equipment for at least a decade. The only ship that can handle the weight of JSF engines, currently, is the Ford and there is no ship that can transfer the engines to the Ford. For now, carriers cannot get replacement JSF engines while at sea.
Carrier Based Tanker – This one is obvious. We’re using combat aircraft, the Hornet, as tankers. Every Hornet used as a tanker is one less available for actual combat from an already shrunken airwing. We’re racking up wear and tear and consuming the limited number of rated airframe flight hours performing a non-combat task that could be better performed by a generic airframe like the S-3 Viking, as we just recently discussed.
Target Drones and Threat Surrogates – DOT&E, the military’s testing group, has been after the Navy to obtain or develop realistic target drones for many years. Whether it’s drones that can simulate known enemy cruise and ballistic missile flight profiles and performance, enemy diesel sub movements and emissions, high performance enemy aircraft, or enemy small surface craft, the Navy has steadfastly refused to obtain realistic target drones and threat surrogates. Weapon systems are being fielded without being properly tested under realistic conditions.
LST Replacement – The LST offered a tremendous ability to land large quantities of men and materiel and, in particular, heavy equipment. We’ve lost that capability except in very small increments. An LCAC, for instance, can land a single tank at a time – not very efficient. We need an LST replacement.
M1-Based Combat Engineer Vehicle – Properly utilized, a Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) is worth its weight in gold and, arguably, may be the most valuable vehicle on the battlefield. The existing M728 CEV is based on the old M60 Patton tank chassis and entered service back in the 1960’s. We need an updated CEV based on the Abrams and incorporating the lessons of recent conflicts, in particular, the type of urban warfare needs we see today.
There are, undoubtedly, many other equally worthy items that I’ve overlooked. The Navy’s (and, to be fair, the military in general) focus on the shiny toys is eroding our overall combat capability – the JSF is the poster child for this. We need to relearn the lesson that combat is not just about the shiny new toys. It’s about the million mundane items that make a viable combat organization.