Small Wars

This Week at War: The Navy's Pacific Problem

Does the U.S. military have the resources for an Asian century?

A March 26, Washington Post article discussed a new expansion of the military relationship between the United States and Australia. According to the piece, the U.S. Navy is seeking to expand its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean from Western Australia, which would require a major expansion to a naval base in Perth. The Pentagon also hopes to establish a long-range air reconnaissance base on the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll midway between Perth and Sri Lanka.

This expansion of U.S. military capability into the northeast Indian Ocean quickly follows last year's agreement to permanently station a small force of U.S. Marines near Darwin on the north coast and to expand U.S. access to Australian bases and training ranges.

At the time, I noted that U.S. military power in the western Pacific is concentrated in Japan and South Korea (a legacy of the Cold War) while the emerging area of great power contention -- the South China Sea -- lies 2,000 miles to the south. The U.S. agreements with Australia, combined with a major expansion of military facilities on Guam, are an attempt to bolster the Pentagon's capacity to sustain a larger ongoing presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.

The U.S. interest in the South China Sea is in maintaining free navigation through what is arguably the most important commercial shipping passage in the world. The agreements with Australia and the buildup on Guam are helpful in this regard but insufficient. Ultimately, the Navy will need to provide a sufficiently reassuring presence to the countries bordering the South China Sea in order to prevent various disputes over the sea from threatening routine commerce through it. It remains to be seen whether the Navy will have the capacity and realistic plans to accomplish this mission over the long run.

This week, the Navy sent Congress an update of its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which would continue the trend of an ever-shrinking maritime force. The new plan foresees an average of 298 ships operating over the next 30 years, down from last year's forecast of a 306-ship average. And the plan foresees the Navy buying fewer new ships per year, reinforcing another unfavorable trend. The Congressional Budget Office's evaluation of Navy shipbuilding found those plans underfunded and over-optimistic. A few years ago, the Navy had plans for a 313-ship fleet. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel called for a fleet of 346 ships. There are no plans to reach either of these targets.

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a January 2012 speech to the Surface Navy Association, dismissed concerns about the Navy's shrinking ship count. Work asserted that the Navy's robust plans for long-range air reconnaissance, conducted by new aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and a Navy version of the Global Hawk drone, will do much of the routine maritime patrolling previously done by ships. Bases in Australia, the Cocos Islands, and elsewhere in the southwest Pacific would support surveillance of the South China Sea. If ships were required to respond to problems, admirals could send them in as always. But under Work's assumption, fewer ships will be needed for routine patrolling. And with less routine steaming, the Navy will save money and keep its ships better maintained.

The question is whether more aerial maritime reconnaissance and fewer ships making fewer port visits around the South China Sea and elsewhere will provide the reassuring and stabilizing presence that the visible presence of Navy ships has heretofore provided. Work's air reconnaissance doctrine and the Navy's slumping fleet size combine to form a new theory for providing a stabilizing presence in global commons such as the South China Sea. We will know that this theory is not working if the leaders of U.S. allies increase their diplomatic hedging behavior. Regional arms races, another response to a perceived decline in U.S. military power, would be another indication of failure. China's ongoing annual double-digit increases in defense spending and a looming submarine arms race in the region are not good signs.

The Navy's task of providing a stabilizing presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere is further complicated the growing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile threats. These threats are forcing the Navy and the Air Force to develop new ways of operating against adversaries from longer ranges, where ships and aircraft will be less vulnerable to adversary missiles. The missile threat is also encouraging the Navy and Air Force to rely more on out-of-sight platforms, such as submarines, and long-range stealthy aircraft, which purposely stay as hidden as possible. All of these trends work against the concept of a visible forward presence, which the Navy has used to deter threats to the global commons but which may increasingly become untenable due to adversary missiles.

Ships assigned to "presence duty," for example patrolling the South China Sea and making port visits in the region, will be most at risk from missile attack at the start of a conflict. This fact will increasingly encourage the Navy to hold the most capable and prestigious surface ships, such as its aircraft carriers, out of sight of allies located within adversary missile range. As the missile threat matures, the Navy's new and modestly capable Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), a few of which will be stationed in Singapore, may perform the forward presence mission, showing the flag during peacetime and serving as expendable "trip wires" if shooting breaks out. Meanwhile, the main fleet and other long-range striking power will wait over the horizon and out of sight.

In this case, policymakers in Washington will be counting on the small, fragile, and lightly armed LCSs to inspire awe in U.S. military power. With the new expansion in its relationship with Australia, the Pentagon is groping toward a way to bolster its presence in the South China Sea. As it does so, it will have to figure out how to continue to provide a reassuring naval presence -- something the Navy has done for decades -- while the missile threat to that presence grows. Compounding the problem is a Navy shipbuilding budget under pressure and inadequate for even the now-reduced plans. The Navy's leaders are attempting to devise new tactics and new structures to adapt to a deteriorating situation. But will those measures be sufficient to reassure allies and deter potential adversaries?

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Image

Small Wars

This Week at War: Rules of the Game

What message were U.S. officials trying to send by releasing the results of a CentCom Iran war game?

On March 19, the New York Times described a classified U.S. Central Command war game conducted this month that simulated the outcome of an Israeli attack on Iran. According to U.S. officials who discussed the results with the newspaper, the game "forecasts that the [Israeli] strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead." Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, found the outcome "particularly troubling" because an Israeli first strike would have "dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."

The article, with its discussion of "dire consequences," is one more indication of the gap between the Israeli government's calculations concerning Iran and those of the U.S. government. Why that analytical gap exists should be of interest to policymakers.   The military's conclusion that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region could suffer hundreds of deaths following an Israeli strike could be an indication that U.S. commanders and policymakers have not adequately prepared for such a scenario. But perhaps most important, we should examine what goals U.S. officials had in mind when they leaked the results of the supposedly secret war game to the New York Times.

According to the article, the two-week Central Command war game, called Internal Look, was specifically designed to test internal military communications and coordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon, Central Command headquarters in Tampa, and field units in the Persian Gulf. According to the scenario, Iran would conclude that the United States was an Israeli partner and therefore U.S. military forces in the Gulf were complicit in the Israeli first strike. The simulation had Iranian anti-ship missiles strike a U.S. warship killing hundreds of sailors. The United States then retaliated with its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

This simulation appears to differ sharply from Israeli expectations. According to Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting at Bloomberg, Israeli officials believe Iran will not target U.S. ships or facilities in the region because it would hardly be in Iran's interest to bring Central Command's military power into the conflict (a point I made in a recent column). Indeed, according to Goldberg, Israeli policymakers believe that if Israel's strikes are limited to a handful of nuclear targets away from urban areas, Iran might actually downplay the severity or cover up the damage, as Syria did after the 2007 Israeli strike on its nuclear reactor.

Since Internal Look was designed to give U.S. military global command and control systems a workout, it would not help commanders achieve that objective if the scenario didn't escalate up to high-intensity combat action. Requiring the scenario to do that is completely different than having the war game objectively conclude that such escalation is the most likely outcome -- a conclusion Israeli planners presumably don't share. If Internal Look really did make an unbiased and informed prediction of Iranian behavior, it is easy to understand why Mattis is troubled. But if the exercise had to manufacture that Iranian response in order to achieve other exercise goals, it is less easy to understand his anxiety. In any case, he and his staff should consider why their assumptions -- which seem to require irrational Iranian behavior -- differ from Israeli assumptions.

Mattis's long experience as a combat commander may have taught him to err on the side of pessimism when formulating military plans. In this case, that pessimism would imply having U.S. forces in the Gulf assume Iranian missiles will soon be on their way following an Israeli first strike. If that is the case, have U.S. commanders done all they can to prepare their forces for Iranian action? And have U.S. policymakers done all they could to deter Iran's decision-makers from striking in the first place?

On March 16, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, briefed defense reporters on what the Navy is doing to increase its readiness in the Persian Gulf. Greenert is sending additional minesweeping and patrol craft to the Gulf and will add more short-range defensive weapons to Navy vessels operating there, in response to Iranian small boat "swarming" tactics. Greenert expects most of these capabilities to be in place "within a year." This seems a bit tardy, given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's forecast of an Israeli strike in "April, May or June," and a major Pentagon war game from 2002 that showed the effectiveness of the Iranian small boat swarming threat.

U.S. leaders could likewise do more to deter Iran's decision-makers in an effort to avert the dire Internal Look scenario. In a recent discussion of possible Iranian behavior, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that a U.S. conflict with Iran could occur not because of Iranian irrationality but more from "gross misjudgment." Dempsey pointed to the disastrous assessments made by an otherwise rational Saddam Hussein, who serially misjudged U.S. will and intentions. U.S. officials could help Iran's decision-makers avoid similar mistakes by rapidly reinforcing U.S. air and naval forces in the region, conducting useful and visible training exercises once the reinforcements have arrived, and by clearly stating to Iran's leaders the consequences of Iranian action against U.S. forces and interests. In January, Panetta expressed confidence in the level of U.S. military forces already present in the region. But if, as Dempsey believes, Iran's leaders are rational, yet Mattis's planners still believe Iran will attack U.S. forces, either Panetta is wrong, U.S. leaders haven't been clear with Iran, or both. And that says nothing good about U.S. preparations regarding Iran.

Finally, why did U.S. officials leak the results of Internal Look to the New York Times? If it's a memo aimed at Israeli policymakers to complain about their saber-rattling, the message is unlikely to get through. U.S. and Israeli officials at all levels have thoroughly discussed the Iran issue and have clearly formulated different assumptions. Repeating the message will hardly help at this point. U.S. military officials may have leaked the story in order to make the case for a military build-up in the region. But they would only need to make such a case in the New York Times if the White House had for some reason refused such a request.

Finally, Mattis and others may have revealed the war game's pessimistic conclusions in order to prepare the U.S. public for the increasing likelihood of another war and for the casualties that could result. If that is the case, political leaders should have an honest and open discussion with the public, instead of sending a murky message through anonymous leaks to the New York Times.

EBRAHIM NOUROZI/AFP/Getty Images