Admiral Gary Roughead, the Chief of Naval Operations, opened the 2010 Current Strategy Forumat the Naval War College. Right now, some have called into question the relevance of the U.S. Navy given the types of operations the United States is involved in; Admiral Roughead noted that at this moment, there are "more sailors on the ground" in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa than deployed at sea. However, looking to the future, he foresees a resurgence of the Navy's traditional Cold and post-Cold War role as the vehicle for the projection of a "credible military presence offshore" anywhere in the world. Given the importance of the sea lanes for the global economy, the importance of the oceans for transport and communications ("the internet swims with the fishes"), and the increasing size of the oceans (considering the climactic changes in the Arctic opening up the northern passages), the United States will need to be able to demonstrate it has credible capabilities for ensuring its interests. The U.S. must cross two oceans to reach many of the areas that are vital to U.S. interests, which requires a robust force structure.
His concern is that, given economic realities, we will have insufficient resources to meet these needs. We no longer have some of the traditional cushions that have carried us through the lean years. In the past, the Navy could fall back on a fleet built up during times of economic upswing, and could find savings by reducing the personnel base without sacrificing core missions. In addition, the country had a formidable industrial base in place,
Today, the situation is different. The U.S. has the smallest navy since 1916; the fleet shrank during the last period of budget growth; and the increased focus on front-line engagement means assets are being constantly used (and depreciated). In addition, we have new high-technology threats that make control of the seas more problematic, and the industrial base in the U.S. is shrinking. If previously there were 6 major shipbuilding conglomerates, now there are two.
Partnerships help to bridge the gap. He cited Task Force 151 dealing with Somali piracy as an example of growing cooperation (among the U.S., the EU, Malaysia, India, China, Russia, Australia and others) to secure the global commons. He views some of the examples of naval cooperation (antipiracy, disaster response, etc.) as bypassing the political problems that can emerge when countries attempt to coordinate onshore/on land operations.
But the U.S. military will have to rethink its personnel and procurement policies. Programs must meed the needs of the U.S. to secure its interests--and this means that programs that are not delivering required capabilities or at a price that can be afforded must be re-examined (and canceled if necessary).
Finally, U.S. strategists will have to grapple with the question: are we creating and sustaining a naval force sufficient to influence the global order? Does it require the creation of networks and partnerships with other countries--and what capabilities do we need to retain to be able to act alone if necessary?
The admiral talked about the need for "provocative questions" that have to be asked for the U.S. to continue to field credible military power. Other countries--both partners and potential adversaries--are paying close attention not only to what the U.S. says but how it plans to invest its defense resources in the future.
[This report represents the personal impressions of Nikolas K. Gvosdev and does not reflect any official position of the Naval War College or the U.S. government; it is also not a transcript of Admiral Roughead's remarks.]