History challenges uniformity in fleet structure and capability

In today’s Defence Watch by David Pugliese an unnamed Canadian naval officer laments that the lack of progress on naval construction and refitting will result in the navy being short on “major warships,” which he categories at destroyers and frigates, in the foreseeable future.  The officer says that delaying this critical work will leave the navy impotent, leading him to recommend disbanding the navy and arming the coast guard.  His (or her) view is typical of naval officers who see the fleet only in terms of combat units, and not as a total assemblage of capabilities.  How long will it take before naval officers, such as this one, realize that the Cold War is over and that the geo-strategic construct that shaped our naval ‘niche capability’ is gone?  Such a challenge has been issued before, but it seems it was not taken seriously.  It is time to re-issue that message.

In the Spring/Summer issue of Maritime Affairs, Doctor/Lieutenant-Commander Richard Gimblett wrote a rather provocative (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) article entitled “A Transformational Fleet of Canada in The 21st Century.”  In it, he thoroughly perturbed the naval leadership of that day by suggesting that the fleet structure of the Cold War, which remains practically unchanged to this day, was unsuited for the emerging security challenges of the future.  He argued that the only way for the navy to ensure its continued existence was for it to be demonstrably supportive of the government’s foreign policy (and, I argue further, domestic policy).

Gimblett suggested that the new definition of security was broader than the exclusively military version of the previous era, and hinted (somewhat darkly) that the concepts of human security and soft power were in ascendancy.  Well before any other Canadian naval commentator, he postulated that humanitarian assistance is an important naval function more attuned to societal expectations and governmental requirements than combat capabilities.  In a hypothetical fleet structure for the 21st Century, he proposed: ten support ships, eight frigates (upgraded to a more modern configuration); four submarines; and twelve coastal patrol craft.  The numbers of the last two types, he said, could be reduced to match resource allocations.  The whole fleet would be divided equally between the coasts, had no destroyers, and four fewer frigates.  No wonder his critics panned the article!

Eight years later, Gimblett’s suggestions do not look so crazy.  Major disasters and human suffering have filled the national media since the turn of the century.  The new U.S. Maritime Strategy formally recognizes humanitarian assistance as a principal task of their sea services.  In 2007, the USN deployed both of their enormous hospital ships plus a large amphibious ship to different regions of the globe on medical missions designed to improve American relations and its reputation.  While controversy swirls over the future of the Littoral Combat Ship and the prospects of achieving a 313-ship fleet structure seem low, the USN continues to order fleet supply and strategic sealift ships for Military Sealift Command on a steady basis.

The Americans, masters of achieving strategic effect through robust logistical means, understand that mobility and sustainment have always been as important as fleet combat capability.  They also know that force multiplication of conventional sea power is achieved through intelligence and logistics.  It serves no purpose to be limited to the point of culmination when support services cannot meet operational requirements.  What we are faced with in this new security environment is expeditionary operational situations dominated by logistical factors and requirements.  This is a radically altered strategic circumstance from that of the Cold War.  To find a precedent, some knowledge of naval history is necessary.

Naval forces prior to the turn of the 20th Century struggled to adjust to new technologies, just as we see them doing today.  However, unlike today, fleets typically had small classes of ships in a wide variety of ship types as they experimented with configurations and employment options.  Ships quickly became outmoded, but carried on in secondary duties after relegation from the battle fleet occurred.  Our contemporary desire to see uniform levels of capability in all platforms would have been an anathema to fleet commanders of that era: it is clearly a hold-over from our Cold War way of thinking, when such measures were reasonable, even essential.  This thinking needs to stop.

Ours is an age of impressive new capabilities (yesterday’s shooting down of a crippled surveillance satellite by USS Lake Erie is a perfect example), the implications of which are not fully understood.  Concentrating our experimentation and upgrading efforts into a few warships while building logistical capacity is not only consistent historically, it is a political and fiscal necessity.  Uniformity in only one naval functional area can no longer be the measure of total naval capability.  The navy’s motto professes readiness, and does not caveat that declaration with limits on its employment.  It is time to change; its time to diversify.