Small Wars

This Week at War: If You Build Up, Who Will Come?

The Pentagon may not have the resources to deter Iran and pivot to Asia at the same time.

Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, is accelerating a military buildup around the Persian Gulf, with new provisions added to parry possible Iranian military moves and to strike at targets inside Iran if necessary. This buildup comes just as a suicide bomb attack in Bulgaria on July 18 killed five Israeli tourists. In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it." Whether this bombing will result in Israeli military action against Iran remains to be seen. What is clear is that Mattis wants his forces in the region ready for that event.

Military planners at the Pentagon seem to be granting Mattis most, but not all, of his requests for reinforcements. Giving the general what he wants right now is not cost-free, however, and comes with its own set of risks. Now that the Pentagon has agreed to step up its commitment of air and naval power to deter Iran, the question becomes whether planners will be able to sustain such a commitment to an open-ended problem while the Pacific is making its own growing demands for U.S. air and naval assets. If not, the Pentagon will have to come up with alternate ways of sustaining Mattis's requirements while meeting growing demands for ships and aircraft in Asia. If the tensions in the Gulf continue to mount, the planned "pivot" to the Pacific may have to be indefinitely postponed.

The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf took on a new dimension in late April when the U.S. Air Force revealed the arrival of an undisclosed number of F-22 stealth fighters at the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. On June 23, four U.S. Navy minesweeping ships arrived in the Persian Gulf, doubling the Navy's minesweeping force there. To support the beefed-up minesweeping squadron, and to support maritime special operations missions, the Navy has positioned USS Ponce in the Gulf, an amphibious assault ship now reconfigured as an "afloat forward staging base." In September, the Navy and about 20 other countries will conduct an 11-day minesweeping exercise near the Gulf, a display no doubt aimed at deterring the military decision-makers in Tehran from any thought of trying to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Missile defense is also receiving stepped-up attention. Qatar has agreed to host a long-range X-band missile defense radar site, adding to similar sites the United States already operates in Israel and Turkey. The radar in Qatar will peer deep into Iran and will give the U.S. missile defense command network an earlier alert of possible Iranian missile launches. The missile defense command system will share the data received from the Qatar radar with missile interceptors based on Navy ships and with land-based interceptor batteries around the region.

Finally, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta personally approved Mattis's request for an early deployment of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group. The Stennis group returned to Bremerton, Washington in March from a long Middle East deployment. Panetta's order will send the group back in late summer and will cut four months off the time the crews expected to be back home. The Stennis was supposed to sail this winter for service in the Pacific Command region. Instead, it will replace USS Enterprise (which is heading for retirement) on station in the Arabian Sea and will provide Mattis with the uninterrupted presence of two aircraft carriers in his region.

The rapid turnaround of the Stennis group shows the Navy's ability to respond to urgent requests. However, neither the Navy's ships nor its crews can maintain this operational tempo as a routine practice. The Stennis and her escort vessels will not receive all of the between-deployment maintenance they require and sending the crews back out on another long deployment after only five months back will be demoralizing.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the Stennis's accelerated deployment is not aimed at any specific threat nor is it a direct response to tensions with Iran. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have reached an undeclared impasse, raising the likelihood that Israel will see the need for a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear complex -- a long-standing concern that the Bulgaria attack may aggravate. If war breaks out over Iran sometime during the remainder of 2012, Mattis wants Iran's leaders to know that he has his own forces in position to both parry possible retaliation and to retaliate inside Iran if necessary.

Mattis is making prudent preparations for a possible contingency. But conflict remains hypothetical, which leaves Iran as an open-ended problem that Mattis and his successors at Central Command will have to manage for some undefined period. In that case, instituting what are essentially wartime deployment practices, such as Panetta's early deployment order to the Stennis group, for the management of an open-ended problem is convincing evidence that the Navy is too small for the responsibilities policymakers are heaping on it.

Maintaining a continuous deployment of two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, in a manner that won't ruin the ships or drive sailors out of the Navy, requires committing six to seven carriers to the task. Such an allocation is required in order to establish a sustainable rotation schedule. With Enterprise's retirement, the Navy will have only 10 carriers until the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives in service in 2015. Under the current shipbuilding plan, the carrier fleet will then stay at 11 ships thereafter.

This will leave four to five carriers for all other responsibilities, including the Pacific Command area, which is universally considered to be the theater most suited for air and naval power -- and the region where the demand for U.S. forces is certainly headed higher.

Mattis's requirements reveal some surprising observations. The first surprise is the enduring utility of the aircraft carrier, at least in the eyes of commanders such as Mattis. Carrier critics point to their extravagant cost and the fact that adversary navies possess no similar capability and won't for the foreseeable future. But the flattops remain critical to field commanders because of the risks and limitations associated with positioning comparable land-based air power at forward bases. Such deployments are often politically untenable and forward air bases are increasingly vulnerable to missile attack, problems U.S. commanders face in both the Middle East and in the Pacific. In addition to being a strong diplomatic signal, aircraft carrier deployments are frequently the only way to position reliable striking power in unstable regions.

Second, a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has conditioned observers to view the Central Command area as a region for ground forces. According to the Pentagon, 6,524 U.S. service members have been killed in the wars since 2001, almost all of them Army and Marines. Central Command was and is a ground force theater but won't be much longer. Although infantrymen shouldered the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan, deterring and containing Iran is a job for the Navy, Air Force, and the Army's air and missile defense units. Like the Pacific, the Central Command area is quickly turning into an air and sea power theater.

Third, Central Command's demand for air and naval power is causing the pivot to Asia to stumble out of the starting blocks. The Obama administration's strategic vision foresaw the Asia-Pacific as the "center of action." For military planners, the Pacific would eventually become the main effort, with all other areas relegated to a secondary "economy of force" status. Indeed, only last month, Panetta boasted in Singapore that the Pacific would get 60 percent of the Navy's ships. But for now, it is Iran that seems to be absorbing 60 percent of the Navy's aircraft carriers and causing Panetta to issue unsustainable deployment orders. Far from being the main effort, it is the Pacific that is the economy-of-force region. It will remain so as long as deterring Iran remains an open-ended commitment.

If we can assume a fleet of 14-15 aircraft carriers is out of the question, the Pentagon will have to find ways to get the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to share the burden of deterring Iran. Beyond that, the Sunni Arab countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council will have to become a more effective military alliance in order to balance Iranian power across the Persian Gulf. Until U.S. planners and diplomats get those tasks accomplished, the Pentagon will find itself propping up an overstretched and unsustainable military strategy in the Middle East and Pacific.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Size Matters

Why the Pentagon should be thinking bigger (literally).

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, has created a tempest with an article in the latest issue of Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Defense analysts have zeroed in on Greenert's assertion that U.S. adversaries will eventually be able to use unusual radar-wave forms and high-powered computing to find even the most elusive stealth aircraft. Many observers interpreted this acknowledgement by the Navy's top officer to be a crack in the Pentagon phalanx defending the troubled and hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A Navy spokesman later denied that Greenert intended any such implication and declared the Navy remains committed to the F-35.

The larger point of Greenert's essay was an argument for a fundamental reassessment of how the Pentagon should approach weapons procurement. His discussion of the fleeting advantage of stealth technology was an example of how the accelerating advance of technology renders weapons platforms such as aircraft and ships obsolete and vulnerable at a breakneck pace. Yet due to the immense expense of such platforms, Pentagon acquisition officials will require them to stay in service for decades. The task for designers and program officials is find a way to keep platforms relevant even as new technology quickly makes them obsolete.

For Greenert, the answer is to fashion platforms such as aircraft and ships to be large, simple "trucks" rather than exotic, yet soon-to-be-obsolete, "luxury sedans." Platforms carry payloads such as missiles and sensors, which field commanders change depending on the required mission at that moment. It is much easier for weapons designers to upgrade to new payloads as technology advances -- a process much cheaper than upgrading platforms to the latest technology. Thus, according to Greenert, it makes more sense to focus technology investment on the payloads and economize on the platforms by buying simple "trucks."

This is hardly a new concept for weapons procurement and is a technique the Pentagon has successfully employed numerous times over the past five decades, resulting in huge savings to taxpayers. Yet the success stories of platform adaptation have more often been the result of fortuitous improvisation rather than calculated design. The platforms that have most successfully adapted to new roles have one dimension in common: they have all been some of the biggest ships and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Successfully implementing Greenert's adaptable "truck" concept may require Pentagon planners to favor "big box" platforms over their little brothers.

Greenert opens his essay by noting that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise made it through five decades of service because it was easily able to upgrade its payload  -- the aircraft it hosted -- as new generations of aircraft replaced obsolete models. Enterprise's huge size also contributed to its adaptability; it had the space, storage, and electrical power generation capacity to receive new aircraft types, adjust crew requirements, and upgrade ship equipment, factors that have constrained the adaptability of smaller ships. Other examples of adaptation include the temporary conversion of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk into a sea base for special operations forces at the start of the Afghan war in late 2001 and the arrival in the Persian Gulf this month of USS Ponce, an amphibious assault ship now operating as a floating forward base. Just as Enterprise has seen several generations of aircraft on its decks since the 1960s, more than a few classes of smaller escorting destroyers and frigates have come and gone, too. Having learned from Enterprise's example, the Navy has built adaptability into the design of its new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.

Size and electrical power constraints may obstruct the Navy's current plans to upgrade the fleet's air and missile defense capabilities. Fleet commanders must contend with advancing anti-ship missile threats. The Navy has also been tasked to play a major role in a national missile-defense system and the Obama administration's European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan. The Navy is developing a next-generation Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) suite to cope with these requirements. However, there are doubts about whether the current Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers -- the intended host of the AMDR -- has the space and power capacity to take full advantage of the new radar's capabilities. If not, Navy program managers should consider adapting the larger San Antonio class amphibious assault ship, both to accommodate the new radar and to host a much larger arsenal of interceptor missiles than the Burke destroyers can support.

The Navy's biggest submarine has also been one of its most flexible and adaptable platforms. The 1994 nuclear posture review determined that the Navy did not need four of its 18 large Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Instead of scrapping the boats, the Navy removed the 24 strategic nuclear missiles on each and replaced them with 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (one of these subs, the USS Florida, used its Tomahawks to take out Libya's air defense system at the start of last year's Operation Odyssey Dawn). There is also room on each of these four converted subs for up to 66 special forces personnel, their equipment, and facilities to insert these commandos ashore. The large space and power available on the big Ohio class submarines made such conversions worthwhile. In the future, Marines on Navy surface ships will face increasing risk approaching enemy shorelines defended with anti-ship missiles. Large submarines converted into troop carriers could permit a clandestine approach to a defended shoreline and would have the capacity to support the landing of hundreds of assault troops, who could clear a beach for follow-on forces.

The Air Force similarly provides examples of its "big box" aircraft -- its long-range bombers -- outliving many generations of smaller fighter aircraft. Now in its sixth decade of service, the B-52 has seen careers as a nuclear bomber, a cruise missile "truck," and as a conventional bomber flying close air support missions in Afghanistan with satellite-guided bombs. Now it is reinventing itself once again for maritime missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The 1970s vintage B-1 bomber has followed a similar path, from the nuclear mission in the 1980s to one of the premier close air support aircraft over Afghanistan. It is the B-1, not small fighters, that has dropped 60 percent of the bombs in support of ground troops in Afghanistan. And like the B-52s, the B-1s are now outfitting for maritime reconnaissance and strike contingencies. The Air Force's big bombers have been adaptable because they have had the space and electrical power to take on new equipment and because their large payload bays have provided the flexibility to accept a wider variety of munitions. Finally, their long range has meant that theater basing constraints have never been an issue.

Technology is the Pentagon's double-edged sword. It has brought the U.S. military impressive, but inevitably fleeting, advantages. Greenert's "truck" model recommends shifting the technology race to the payloads rather than the platforms. This will mean designing adaptability into systems from the beginning rather than counting on clever improvisation later on. For Greenert, the simple but adaptable trucks provide the best long term value for the Pentagon.

Greenert's logic is appealing but has its limits. Simple or not, the "big boxes" are still very pricey; there remains a strong correlation between platform size and cost. And no matter how capable or capacious, a ship or aircraft can only be in one place at one time. As long as the United States military retains global responsibilities, it will need enough quantity to maintain a presence where those responsibilities require. The Pentagon thus cannot afford just big box ships and airplanes.

In addition, commanders will still need a fully diversified portfolio of capabilities. Even if the trucks are poised with large magazines of long-range missiles, they still need to be told where to shoot those missiles. That will require a stealthy aircraft, manned or unmanned, that can find and cue targets while loitering for long periods inside defended airspace. That essential task will fall on the F-35, the F-22, the Air Force's next-generation bomber, and the Navy's future carrier-based drone. Greenert was right to remind his readers that the Pentagon's uncontested advantage in stealth is coming to an end. But it is also true that the competition between aircraft and air defenses has been going on since World War I. Stealth was not the last move in this game.

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