1999 Muddy Waters, Rusting Buckets: A Skeptical Assessment of U.S. Naval Effectiveness in the 21st Century

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Muddy Waters, Rusting Buckets: A Skeptical Assessment of U.S Naval Effectiveness in the 21st Century

by Robert D Steele

Neither the U.S. Navy nor the U.S. Marine Corps are ready for the 21st Century. The current plan for a 320-ship Navy not only leaves America without sustainable power projection, but also makes no provision for new capabilities needed to engage in operations other than war. This article briefly reviews the threat, the nature of the expeditionary environment and pertinent Marine Corps shortfalls, concluding with a detailed case for a 450-ship Navy.

The Threat

Although naval planners have access to a number of threat studies, the focus of these studies continues to be on the traditional threat as represented by conventional forces. We face four completely distinct threat classes with four correspondingly distinct forms of conflict: first, the traditional high-tech brute with conventional and sometimes strategic nuclear forces; second, the low-tech brute represented by selected transnational criminals, a few criminal states, and a wide variety of terrorist organizations; third, the low-tech seer class, consisting of large groups of people, generally unarmed, who are political, religious, or environmental refugees or fanatics; and finally, the high-tech seer, the threat de jour, consisting of a combination of state-sponsored economic espionage and information warfare as well as many flavors of both corporate industrial espionage and individual electronic theft and vandalism.1

At the most fundamental level, each of these four warrior classes, each of these four forms of war, demands an explicitly distinct approach to issues of surveillance and reconnaissance, of command and control, of fire and maneuver. If the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps were willing and able to seriously consider these implications, one can only begin to imagine how a different force structure and a different acquisition and development strategy might emerge. Both air and ground forces must adapt to four different types of threat and four different kinds of operational environment.

Rethinking our naval capabilities in terms of the four threat classes is a good start, but our understanding deepens further when we delve into the actual nature of the expeditionary environment, and consider carefully how our existing and planned capabilities lend themselves to effective sustained operations in this environment.

The Expeditionary Environment

For planning and programming purposes, the “expeditionary environment” is not, as some tend to assume, “every clime and place” (although both the Navy and the Corps must of course be able to fight anywhere), but rather a fairly well defined list of specific countries, comprised of those countries where there is a high probability of employment. It differs from the traditional DoD planning environment because it is almost totally comprised of Third World countries and represents challenges calling primarily for operations other than war. This is an environment where the Navy-Marine Corps team should be without peer.

Below are some strategic generalizations that emerged from the original Marine Corps study of the expeditionary environment published in 1990. Although they were promulgated at the time, and the current Expeditionary Factors Study is in general use (but lacking the summary section), no one in the Marine Corps or the Navy appears to have made the connection between these strategic generalizations and how we train, equip, and organize ourselves for the future.

• Amphibious Ready Groups without benefit of an accompanying Carrier Battle Group are very vulnerable to significant coastal defense missile capabilities as well as submarines, frigates and corvettes.

• On the air side many of our countries have night/all weather capabilities and early if not third generation radar, stand-off munitions, and integrated air defense systems.

• The ground threat is complex and lethal, with trained experienced infantry, modern armor, relatively sophisticated artillery including scatterable mines, and some smart or stand-off munitions as well as surface-to-surface missiles.

• Of the sixty-nine countries examined in the prototype study, seventeen possess or have used nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and fully forty-one of the countries have active on-going insurgencies, drug wars, civil wars, severe instability, or a regional war in progress.

In brief, our world is a violent and unstable. Expeditionary operations must not be mis-construed as “lite” operations.

In considering the physical operational environment, stark distinctions emerged between the real-world expeditionary environment, and the current planning model used by the Navy (which designs our aircraft) and the Army (which designs our major ground systems).

• We found our countries equally divided between mountains, deserts, jungle, and urban environments—our naval aviation and ground assets must be able to operate in all four environments. In all four cases, the ability of aviation to loiter overhead safely is much more important than our acquisition managers support.

• Thirty-nine of our countries were hot, defined as a sustained heat index of 80o (and many were very humid as well) suggesting that our aviation systems will always be forced to operate at the outer edge of their performance envelope—delivering half the needed performance.

• Cross-country mobility was a showstopper—we could not get from the beach to the capital city off-road in 60% of our countries, and would have trouble in an additional 20%.

• The average line of sight distance throughout our world was less than 1,000 meters—only eight countries offered stand-off engagement ranges over 2,000 meters where the M1A1 begins to offer value.

• Although not documented in the study, the average bridge-loading limitation in the Third World appears to be 30 tons, with many areas limited even more, to 10 and 20 tons.

In other words, in virtually our entire expeditionary environment, our naval aviation assets—both fixed wing and helicopter—are severely constrained in terms of lift and range (or loitering capability) at the same time that we have virtually no cross-country mobility and our most expensive ground assets are next to useless. It is at this point that the Navy and Marine Corps must be driven to reconsider the roles played by artillery and armor, and evaluate how some functions might be down-sized (if left on the ground), realigned (if moved to aviation or naval gunfire) and/or enhanced (if augmented with C4I assets able to better orchestrate a mix of ground-based, air-based, and theater precision-munitions resources).

“Getting there” is half the challenge. When we looked at various parameters for naval deployment and employment, the following emerged:

• Forty-two percent of our countries could not be reached in less than six days with existing Amphibious Ready Group deployment patterns.

• Half of our countries did not have usable ports and would require instream off-loading of amphibious and Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships.

• Most of our world can accommodate strategic airlift but with Maximum on Ground (MOG) of one to two.

Once there, we found very severe constraints on operational effectiveness:

• Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) logistics presented some real difficulty—capital cites beyond the round trip range of a CH-46 (i.e. requiring forward refueling points), very hot aviation temperatures and very large numbers of Embassy personnel as well as U.S. citizens.

• Hydrography was not a practical constraint to naval gunfire but the Navy's 5″ is out-gunned by thirty-one of our countries’ coastal defense systems.

• The lack of adequate 1:50,000 map coverage of our world is a real show-stopper. This deficiency impacts not only on ground maneuver and fire support coordination, but also on aviation mission planning and precision-munitions targeting. This is the single most urgent constraint on naval effectiveness in the near and mid-term future.

• Our “cultural terrain” included 40 countries whose primary language was Arabic or other than English, Spanish or French (most practicing Islam or an eastern or tribal religion), and 22 Christian/orthodox countries where Spanish and French were the most common language.

What does this all mean? Our environment is lethal, but much of that lethality is static. We need to trade-off mobility in both services against firepower, lift against weight, communications and intelligence against weapons systems—and at the strategic level, we need to take a very hard look at the possibility of trading off or integrating maritime mobility with air transport mobility. An improved understanding of our cultural and physical environment, increased emphasis on lift and logistics as well as the communications and intelligence architectures to support our operations are our best means of maintaining capabilities in the face of a reduction in force.

The U.S Navy: Surrendering Our Heritage

This is not the place to rehash the debates of Corbett and Mahan nor to quibble over Joint Vision 2010 and our national security strategy. There is, however, one fundamental that we all must recognize as we prepare for the 21st century, and that is the value of being able to arrive early with “just enough, just in time” force to prevent a situation from escalating. The arrival of a single platoon of Marines, launched from 400 nautical miles offshore, at night, with a gasoline break enroute, stopped the takeover of the Embassy in Somalia—as the Marines landed, the hostiles were just coming over the walls. A widely-distributed well-balanced Navy is the core of our international power.

Below we show three navies: the Navy of 1980’s (the “six hundred ship” Navy focused on the Soviets), the Navy of the 1990's (a down-sized Navy confused about the threat and its mission), and the Navy of the 21st Century, both planned and as recommended by the author. The recommended Navy is achievable from where we are today.

This article proposes that our naval strategy for the 21st century focus on a broader distribution of platforms and platform types, with a view to being able to deliver a platoon of Marines with a Cobra overhead anywhere in the world within 12-24 hours, a company with Harriers within 24-48 hours, a full-up Battalion Landing Team within 72 hours, a Regimental Landing Team within seven days, and a full-up Marine Expeditionary Force within 14 to 21 days. This is the “early in, pile on” strategy.

The thrust of a 450-ship Navy is straight-forward. We must strive to retain the global reach and striking power of the traditional Navy, while significantly spreading out our existing amphibious forces across more platforms widely distributed. At the same time we must increase our ability to project a littoral force with dedicated carriers, shallow-water troop/attack submarines, reconfigured destroyers (leading toward a new class of ship, the Expeditor) and a combination of patrol craft and mine warfare ships. Finally, we must add the Seaborne Peace Corps, actually an important part of force protection in the 21st Century—assistance and hospital ships for every clime and place.

Click on Image to Enlarge
Click on Image to Enlarge

These recommendations have been developed with the assistance of some of the best minds available to the Secretary of the Navy as well as to Members of Congress. A few specifics:

First, it makes sense to extend the utility of the attack submarine to the amphibious arena. Fifteen of the Los Angeles class submarines can be modified in order to carry 50-100 Marines and smaller vehicles. These SSN’s have roughly fifteen years of service life remaining. With modifications, including improved sonar for shallow-water (<100 fathoms) operations and organic landing craft and related cranes for instream shallow-water offload, they would provide a stealthy option for delivering reinforced platoons into coastal areas where air delivery is not a viable option.

Second, given the increased emphasis on littoral operations and especially the increased expectation of great turmoil in the rapidly growing urban areas of the Third World, it makes sense to earmark four of the Navy’s twelve carriers for littoral/amphibious operations. These four carriers should have embarked and be especially equipped to handle air wings dedicated to a good mix of VSTOL/helicopter platforms for attack and close air support missions as well as very heavy lifting of large numbers of people and/or humanitarian assistance supplies. Each carrier should have several anti-mine helicopters aboard, and be equipped to serve as a general repair facility for VSTOL and helicopter assets from the rest of the fleet. In those instances where a high level of air threat is anticipated, a companion “blue water” carrier with F/A-18 Hornets and (until 2010) F-14 Tomcats would be assigned combat air patrol duties. Air wing composition and embarked maintenance capabilities are the crux of the matter—it is time the Navy gave amphibious aviation its due.

Third, we should reexamine the symbolic as well as the military value of the battleship. Two are recommended, one for the Atlantic Command and one for the Pacific Command, each to serve as a Presidential summit site as well as a fire support capability when needed. Although battleships as a type are expensive, their ammunition is dirt-cheap when compared with the extraordinarily expensive not-so-precision munitions that we cannot rely upon for sustained barrages. In fact, the annual operations cost including salaries for one battleship is almost exactly equal to the cost of the 79 rounds of precision ammunition expended against the Saudi terrorist leader in Afghanistan in 1998—an attack that killed 26, wounded 40, and scared a few goats.

Fourth, we must protect the destroyer fleet and use it to fill gaps in our fire support as well as our amphibious strike capability. It may come as a surprise to many, but a series of modifications can be made to the SPRUANCE (DD 963) that will permit it to carry as many as five Harrier-type aircraft or a couple of Harriers and a couple of heavy helicopters, while also embarking a reinforced platoon of up to fifty Marines. This same vessel can be fitted with a 64-cell VLS (vertical launch system) plus the enhanced 5-inch/62-caliber gun. Every destroyer should be kept alive, with 25 of them being refitted to carry Marines and amphibious aircraft, while the remaining 59 are upgraded in terms of fire support. In the 1970’s Congress authorized funds for two DD 963 variants that could carry several VSTOL aircraft or helicopters, and designs were prepared. It is time to restore Congressional interest and make a serious commitment to this program as a means of refitting and retaining 25 of the existing SPRUANCE destroyers. A new class of ship should emerge from this initiative, one we call the Expediter. The 2,000-ton Streetfighter described in a recent international publication does not exist, but it should—provided it is designed to carry Marines and VSTOL aircraft. At the same time, the planned DD-21, a $1 billion dollar a copy vessel, must be held to very high standards of over-the-horizon fire support as well as embarked aviation tailored to the needs of the Marine Corps.

Fifth, we must recognize the imbalance in our plans for a limited number of very large LPH/LPD craft—each an enemy submarine skipper’s dream target—and also take note of the fact that such large craft will tend to be four to six days away from crisis points at any given moment. Instead, if we accept the 24-48 hour response imperative in implementing the “pile-on” concept, we need a mix of the planned “big decks” and additional WHIDBEY ISLAND-class LHDs capable of carrying reinforced companies and VSTOL/helicopter gunships. In combination with the much faster modified SPRUANCE-class destroyers, this would give the Navy-Marine Corps team the ability to deliver in extremis platoons and companies anywhere in the world with only overnight notice.

Sixth, we need to dramatically expand acquisition of the CYCLONE-class patrol boat as well as the new deep-water patrol craft hull planned jointly by the U.S. Coast Guard with the U.S. Navy. Such a craft, at the mid-to higher tonnage range, could carry up to fifty Marines for limited periods, and could also operate two H-60 helicopters or one H-53 helicopter and one Harrier. It could not, however, carry fire support missiles in adequate number at the same time. This suggests that a good out-of-the-box solution for 2010 brown water needs as well as high-seas drug interdiction and other coastal defense needs might be 25 three-ship squadrons, with one ship being primarily a troop carrier, one a helicopter/VSTOL platform, and the third a fire support ship with one VLS and a mix of heavy-caliber anti-air and surface-to-surface weapons.

Seventh, we have gone overboard on mine-laying platforms. We can achieve savings and distribute the anti-mine capability more widely by reducing the planned number of ships from 26 to 20, while spreading the programmed helicopters as embarked organic assets across the fleet.

Eighth, somewhere in all the planning for the naval fleet of the 21st Century we have over-looked operations other than war! The best force for the avoidance of conflict and the resolution of non-combat crisis is the force that can deliver food, water, medicine, engineering and other civil affairs relief from the sea, with a low logistics and ideological footprint. The seaborne peacekeeping force should be comprised of at least 16 roll-on/roll-off bulk carriers such as we use for the Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) but modified to berth a few hundred engineering, police, and civil affairs personnel, to have a small field hospital capability combining onboard capabilities with MASH-type capabilities that can be established ashore, plus the right kind of supplies as well as a good mix of ground and air mobility assets. Half of these ships should be designed to operate in support of the half of the countries from which pier-side offload is not an option, i.e. they should be able to do a combination of instream and helicopter-borne offload.

Ninth and finally we come to hospital ships. Two exist in the reserve fleet and there are no plans for any more ships of this type. In the face of growing concerns about continental-level diseases and the risk of bio-chemical terrorism, and out of respect for the growing dangers of revolution and forced emigration related to starvation and disease, it would make sense to invest more heavily in medical assistance platforms, possibly with multi-national manning. A naval force properly cognizant of the four warrior classes and the deteriorating expeditionary environment should have three large hospital ships and five small hospital ships. In combination with the civil affairs platforms and a discreet mix of destroyers and patrol craft, these hospital ships (each capable of cooking 7,500 meals daily while also distilling 75,000 gallons of fresh water daily) could be the centerpiece of a naval peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance force.

There is a small cost. One rough estimate, outlined in the figure below, suggests that it will cost (very roughly) just under $20 billion dollars—or roughly two percent of the Department of Defense budget per year for just four years. This cost is immediately convertible to jobs and new work for shipyards located in many different states. The practical effect of this expenditure must be carefully considered by those that authorize and appropriate our national security budget, for at one stroke we modernize the Navy, create a seaborne littoral and peacekeeping force, and dramatically increase our ability to protect Embassies and Americans overseas.

Click on Image to Enlarge
Click on Image to Enlarge

Naval Planning Guidance

Now, when we combine a strategic understanding of the four threat classes with an operational understanding of the expeditionary environment, one can easily draw from these the following elements of “planning guidance” for the Navy-Marine Corps team:

1) Establish a Department of the Navy commitment to the pile-on concept as the means by which it will serve as the global “911” force.

2) Work toward a 450-ship Navy that will support the pile-on concept.

3) Re-design all Marine Corps aviation assets toward a hot humid day and reevaluate the Navy’s own standard aviation day.

4) Place MC&G (Mapping, Charting & Geodesy) at the top of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant's deficiency lists, and encourage each CINC and each other Service to do the same.

5) Restructure the Marine Corps Reserve to place emphasis on foreign area and foreign language expertise in civil affairs, intelligence, engineering, military police and public affairs. Create Reserve regiments able to field integrated foreign area support battalions (one company or platoon for each key mission area) in 90-180 day rotations. Significantly increase the U.S. Navy’s medical reserve.

Adaptive engagement, understood in the context of the multi-faceted threat and the strategic generalizations that we have discussed above, provides a frame of reference for making deep and decisive changes in how we train, equip, and organize both the Navy and the Marine Corps. Adaptive engagement will place a premium on many smaller and faster platforms widely distributed; on foreign area and language skills; on civil affairs, military police, combat and non-combat engineering as well as hospital services, public affairs, and intelligence skills. Adaptive engagement will place a premium on being able to “pile-on” anywhere in the world—a platoon with a Cobra overhead within 12-24 hours; a company with a couple of Harriers within 24-48 hours, a Battalion Landing Team in full force within 72 hours, a Regimental Landing Team within seven days, a full-up Marine Expeditionary Force within fourteen days. Adaptive engagement will also validate the need to reduce shooters and doers by ten percent so that intelligence and civil affairs and other forms of “engagement” can be doubled and tripled within the declining force structure.

That’s your challenge, Sailors. It will be easier for you, and those who follow in future generations, if you plan and program in relation to the four warrior classes and the true nature of the expeditionary environment. Now go tell it to the Marines.


1 For a earlier discussion of the threat and the expeditionary environment, see “Intelligence Support for Expeditionary Planners,,” (Marine Corps Gazette, May 1991). The official studies guiding these articles can be found at 1989 Expeditionary Environment Briefing and 1990 Expeditionary Environment Analytic Model.

The author was founding Special Assistant and also Deputy Director of the Marine Corps Intelligence Center (now Activity). He is a graduate of the Naval War College and CEO of OSS Inc.

2017 UPDATE: CEO of Earth Intelligence Network (501c3) and Open Source Everything Inc. (C Corp). Visit him at https://robertdavidsteele.com

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