As always, there are two levels to this: one, is the activities that the Navy actually does and, two, is the activities that the Navy should be doing. Predictably, we’ll focus on what the Navy should be doing.
Just to gather our thoughts and set the table for the comparisons to come, let’s ever so briefly review what the Navy actually does during peacetime.
The Navy engages in interminable deployments (see, “Deployments or Missions?”), usually several months long, that amount to nothing more than austere, low budget cruise ship ‘vacations’ for the crews. The cruises accomplish nothing other than adding wear and tear to the ships and running up huge operating costs while plinking occasional pickup trucks and colliding with commercial cargo ships.
The deployments are supposed to promote deterrence but are utterly ineffective as such. China is still engaged in annexation of the entire East and South China Seas and ordering us out of the area while seizing our UUVs and expanding into Africa and other countries. Iran is mining commercial ships and shooting down our UAVs. Russia is engaged in annexation and invasion of neighboring countries while engaging in unsafe harassment of our ships and planes. North Korea continues their ballistic missile program. Houthi rebels launch anti-ship missiles at our ships, if the Navy is to be believed. Clearly, our enemies are unimpressed with our deterrence cruises.
In addition, we engage in chasing pirates in skiffs, showing the flag to anyone who cares, hosting foreign dignitaries, and exercising with foreign navies whose biggest warship is, all too often, a patrol boat or corvette – none of which prepares us for war.
So, if deployments accomplish nothing and we’re not deterring anyone from anything, what should the Navy be doing during peacetime?
Well, the answer is obvious – we should be preparing for war. We should be training hard, exercising constantly, and performing maintenance when we aren’t training. We’ve discussed this in previous posts so I won’t belabor it.
Beyond this, is there anything legitimate that the Navy could and should be doing? Yes! The world is an unhappy, angry place marked by unfriendly peers and near-peers, terrorists, and third world countries full of unrest. These represent a threat to our interests and should be monitored and dealt with before they become major problems. In addition, we should be preparing the battlefield for potential future wars (as distinct from training for wars).
Let’s look a bit closer at these peacetime activities.
Monitoring. This consists of monitoring our potential enemy’s capabilities and developments. If we can better understand their capabilities then we can be better prepared for the inevitable war. We need to monitor signals, electronic capabilities, military testing and exercises, and the like. This is where the Navy can make a huge contribution. Surveillance ships should be parked 13 miles off the coast of every potential trouble spot in the world. As a nation, we have many types of surveillance capabilities but ships offer the one thing that no other surveillance asset can and that is persistence. A ship can sit off a trouble spot continuously, providing uninterrupted, real time surveillance.
A lot of people will object to this out of fear that we might offend or upset an enemy. Hey, they’re called enemies for a reason. Who cares what they think? If they don’t want us monitoring them that closely then maybe they should consider being a little more friendly.
For the case of countries that are harboring terrorists, whether intentionally or not, we should be flying UAVs over those trouble spots regardless of international law (see, “The Navy and the War on Terror”). There are two justifications for this:
1. I’ve previously discussed that a country that won’t or can’t stop terrorists in their country forfeits their right to the protections of international law.
2. Given the world’s evolving cavalier attitude towards unmanned assets (the Chinese have seized our unmanned underwater drones and Iran has shot down our UAVs) UAVs are quickly taking on the characteristic of being above/beyond/outside of the constraints and protections of international law.
If terrorists are forming, we need to know about it before it becomes a major problem. If an unfriendly country is testing and developing new radars to missiles, we need to know about it so that we can develop countermeasures.
Interestingly, a suitably modified LCS would make an outstanding surveillance platform (see, “The Electronic LCS” and “LCSAlternative Uses”). Modifications would have to include a larger crew and facilities to conduct onboard maintenance as well as specific surveillance equipment. Such an LCS would have the speed to avoid trouble and enough firepower to discourage troublemakers.
Pre-emptive Action. Monitoring is only half the peacetime activity. Pre-emptive action is the other half. We need to stop problems before they become major. America should not be apologizing for aggressively exercising our legal rights and our inherent right to self-defense.
The Navy has much to offer in the realm of pre-emptive action. In addition to the obvious direct action such as air strikes and Tomahawk strikes, the Navy is ideally positioned to support other, less obvious actions, direct or indirect. Navy ‘barges’ (could be a MLP, JHSV, AFSB or, gods forbid, an actual barge) could be parked just outside territorial waters (or inside, if needed) and used to host special forces and UAVs. That terrorist training camp that we’ve been monitoring should be struck before it actually generates functioning terrorists. That corrupt government that is unofficially supporting terrorism should be ‘visited’ in various ways to encourage them to cease their support.
Battlefield Preparation. We know where war is likely to occur (looking at you China and Iran) so let’s study the battlefield. Let’s map the underwater domain. Let’s map the electronic ‘geography’. Let’s practice trailing enemy subs. Let’s fly practice missions to the extent we can. Let’s intercept any aircraft or ships that venture into international air/water. Let’s insert ourselves into enemy exercises and observe the reactions and capabilities (China has done exactly this during RIMPAC, for example).
We see that there is much productive work that the Navy could be doing during peacetime but it all starts with ending the useless, interminable deployments that wear out ships and accomplish nothing. We need to pull our ships back and engage in intensive maintenance and hard, realistic training. That will free up ships to conduct the missions described above.
It is noteworthy that none of the peacetime missions described require high end, sophisticated ships. Thus, the bulk of the fleet can undergo maintenance and training without adversely affecting the peacetime missions that should be done. Indeed, converted commercial ships could perform most or all of the peacetime missions.
We need to make the Navy truly productive during peacetime and now we know how to do it.