Confessions of a Reformed Revolutionary
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
A follow-up to my article titled, "Stop the Revolution, I Want to Get Off." First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2001.
Last year I wrote a piece titled “Stop the revolution, I want to get off” where I tried to make the point that many of the goals espoused by advocates of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) and military transformation communities have great intellectual appeal, but were constructively vacuous because of the constraints of real-world military operations.
Design with Ease
“The fact is if we continue to sacrifice sovereign power projection forces to pay for high-tech transformational advances, we could devastate our ability to prevail in many of the brutal, bloody conflicts we might find ourselves drawn into. ”
As a professional military officer, I completely anticipated the outcry that followed the publication of that article. I received responses spanning all extremes—my view was referred to as vitriolic, visionary, and everything in between.
What I didn’t anticipate was the recent resurgence of interest, albeit somewhat muted, following the transition to our new administration. The general theme of this second wind society goes something like this: revolutionaries win, Navy guy loses.
I could easily overlook this opinion if it weren’t for the fact that armchair warriors continue to publish more and more articles surmising that everyday military commodities like aircraft carriers are passé, to be replaced by “transformational” weapon systems like satellites and long-range bombers. So I’ve reached the point where it becomes necessary to inject some professional opinion into this largely amateurish debate, by highlighting some points of fact that should be obvious but apparently aren’t.
Let me start by saying I used to believe in the revolution. I’d like to think it was the romantic in me, but I suspect it was really due to the fact that my technical background led me to believe we could find salvation through better engineering. But I no longer believe we’re on the verge of the kind of a revolution in military affairs that will significantly assist with the kind of military operations we’re likely to face.
The fact is if we continue to sacrifice sovereign power projection forces to pay for high-tech transformational advances, we could devastate our ability to prevail in many of the brutal, bloody conflicts we might find ourselves drawn into. Think of trying to employ satellites and long-range bombers to bring peace to Rwanda. Or Macedonia. Or the Middle East.
Conventional wisdom proclaims that in the “transformed” military, smaller weapon platforms are the big winners, and the carrier Navy is the big loser. While the transformation community generally admits that there is no better intimidation force than a carrier battlegroup, they also suggest that carriers will become increasingly prone to missile attack, and are therefore vulnerable.
As a submariner who has never served on a carrier and has no ingrained affinity for them, I’m happy to go where the data takes me regarding their relevance. So let’s accept this hypothesis for the moment and carry this train of thought forward to its logical conclusion.
First, recall that ship-launched land attack cruise missiles have a range of over a thousand miles, and carriers can operate from a great distance offshore and still engage tactical aircraft. Let’s assume, then, that some future enemy will develop the missile technology necessary to find and attack ships at these great distances. In military parlance, this enemy would be employing an “anti-access” strategy, since he’s banking on being able to prevent the U.S. from gaining access to his combat zones.
In point of fact none of our potential enemies are anywhere near developing this capability, but for the sake of argument let’s just accept that it will happen.
Now consider this: if the enemy develops missiles that are effective against a carrier battlegroup that brings with it a robust missile defense capability, think of what these same missiles would do to the merchant ships that carry 90% of Army and Air Force weaponry to the fight. If our Navy can’t defend even itself, then how will we be able to defend the ships that transport the Army and Air Force? They’d be sitting ducks. Hence, if someone does develop such an anti-access capability, then that area would become an ever increasing naval theater of operations, since the other services would only be able to bring in what they fly in.
But would they even be able to fly in?
After all, if you intended to challenge the United States and had studied American tactics used in the Gulf War and the Balkans, would you invest your scarce resources in anti-ship technology, or would you invest in anti-air technology? If this theoretical enemy were able to develop the kind of anti-ship missile technology that so far has been able to evade development by the Russians, Chinese, and the most technologically advanced countries on earth, it’s likely that their anti-air defense force would be even better than their anti-ship capability.
And if their anti-air capability is better than their anti-ship capability, how will our Army bring in even the small percentage of its forces that move in by air? We might as well just build our missile shield, withdraw our claim to being the world’s only superpower, and stay home.
Another anti-carrier argument forwarded by the reform community has to do with their supposed vulnerability to submarine attack. I happen to be a submariner, and have run hundreds of simulated attacks against carriers in my time, and I can tell you that anyone who thinks carriers will become particularly vulnerable to conventional submarine attack over the next few decades doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Any student of military history knows that only one characteristic allows a submarine to get into a position of advantage over a ship: speed. Nuclear submarines have this characteristic. Non-nuclear submarines do not. Without the advantage of speed, it is almost impossible for a submarine to get into firing position against a modern, fast, defended carrier. Gone are the days of World War II when a submarine could reposition at high speed on the surface in order to get into firing position.
The amateur will then say that a conventional submarine doesn’t need speed if it can position itself in a chokepoint that the surface ship is force to proceed through. True enough. But name the choke point that would cause us to be vulnerable. Straits of Hormuz? A single American submarine could clear it of bad guys in a day. Bad guys wouldn’t have a chance. Taiwan Straits? We’d no more send a carrier through the Taiwan Straits in a war with China than we’d base an F-15 fighter wing in Shanghai.
The choke point issue is yet another red herring where used by anti-carrier zealots that simply don’t want to be confused by the facts. Truth is I’ve operated against real world enemy submarines. And with full knowledge of their capabilities, I would have no concern allowing my son or daughter to serve on an aircraft carrier any time in the foreseeable future.
More to the point, our carriers are defended better than any shore base or ground force in our arsenal, better than even our nation itself. If our carriers are vulnerable, then our nation is vulnerable.
So what solution does the transformation crowd suggest is the solution to the Navy’s problems? Small, fast ships— so-called “street fighters”— that present a smaller target, but also provide a ludicrously small punch. To do away with our carriers and instead relegate the United States Navy to the “street fighter” concept is to convert us to a corvette force— we’d be right up there with the navies of Italy, Greece, and Singapore. Belay that— we’d be outgunned by Italy. They have a carrier.
And what do the transformers point to as the model of reform? The Army’s initiatives to “lighten the force.” And what is the Army’s great technology advance? They’re quite literally reinventing the wheel. That is, they’re evolving from tracked vehicles to wheeled vehicles, migrating back to a device that was first invented over five thousand years ago. Perhaps if the Navy proposed going back to oared vessels, then we could get some respect.
Like it or not, with nations increasingly reluctant to allow the U.S. to establish anything but a defensive presence, I see no credible alternative to a carrier Navy in many scenarios we are likely to face. Long-range bombers are great, as long as you have thirty hours warning time and are willing to go to war only at night. But our revolutionary leaders, some of whom have been advancing the same ideas for the better part of a generation with little success, would lead us to believe the answer to our problems is a deeply clouded mystery.
I used to be a revolutionary, but I got better.
As a reformed revolutionary, I believe that military reform isn’t about technology. It’s about adapting the force to the future. And by networking our forces and extending the range of our weapons, initiatives that have been ongoing for the better part of a decade, while hanging on to those things that we know will work for the foreseeable future, I believe the Navy is well on the way to achieving that kind of reform.
Rodin once said that carving a sculpture was easy, all you had to do was take a block of stone and remove everything that wasn’t the statue.
Transforming our military will be just as easy. All we have to do is stop looking for Lenin and start looking for Rodin.