Monday, April 25, 2005

Where are the Carriers? And the Humvees for that matter...

This article is already nearly three weeks old, but the topic is the political tug-of-war over the Navy's carrier fleet. However, as any defense budgetary matters go, it's moving at, well, a Titanic pace; so the underlying issue is still fresh.

The Navy needs to reduce costs, and to do so, it wants to mothball one of its two conventionally powered carriers. (The other ten are nuclear powered.) But, of course, the defense budget is turning into a political football that is more about local economies (and, in the case of our carrier based in Japan, local sensibilities) than about strategy.

I'm posting this article mainly to illustrate how peacetime defense decisions are made, and then to make a point about the unexpected ramifications once war breaks out. I know, know, the country is in fact at war, and so all services are of course playing their role. However, at moment, the operational fight is focused on land based forces (read "Army"). So, the Navy has a, well, operational pause to figure out what its strategic force should look like. Just look at the substance of the debate: it's about location of basing, the number of carriers in the fleet, aggregate capabilities, theater-level regional considerations, etc.--things that we discuss at the strategic, as opposed to operational or tactical level. However, as the article demonstrates, in peacetime, we don't discuss those considerations in a rationale way. Rather, we discuss local politics.

O.k., so what? Well, in the '90's the peacetime Army spent an inordinate amount of time debating its strategic mission, and the structure of its forces, including how "heavy" or "armored" the force should be. Change, or as Gen. Shinseki termed it, transformation, was stymied by institutional lethargy as well as irrelevant considerations like local German economies. The result? A dearth of light- and medium-armored vehicles which are most useful in counter-insurgency operations on urban terrain. Huh. But, that deficiency was still somehow rested at Secretary Rumsfeld's feet, even though he didn't take office until sometime in 2001.

More worrying is this: the structure of the carrier fleet is being most influenced by two senators who have fairly narrow interests that don't bear directly on whether the fleet can actually accomplish its missions. Given the importance of the carrier fleet to strategic power project, any miscalculations would result in far larger adverse consequences, than those resulting from a scarcity of up-armored Humvees in Iraq (and those were bad enough).


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