Navy Adapts to a New Era

With the cold war over, US admirals have replaced their global, deep-water strategy with plans to support limited projections of American power

WHO would have thought that the Navy, the military service pundits claim is the very last to change, would be the first to come up with a radically new strategy in the post-cold-war era? But its white paper, "... From the Sea," makes the Navy the first military service to recognize that it has to do things differently in the new era. To get a sense of how big a change the Navy's statement is, compare "... From the Sea" with what the Navy declared as "The Maritime Strategy" in the 1980s.

At the core of the old maritime strategy was the assumption that, while the Soviets could determine when and where any ground conflict would start, United States naval forces could define where the maritime battles would be joined. Strategically, the problem was sea control. The operational concept was to move the US fleet into areas close enough to attack Soviet territory and missile-launching submarines, and then to destroy Soviet forces as they tried to contest American control of those sea areas. Thi s would, the Navy argued, keep the Soviet Navy bottled up and away from the US reinforcements flowing across the Atlantic, and it would divert air defense and other Soviet forces away from the fight in central Europe.

The focus on sea control and horizontal escalation dominated Navy thinking from the late 1960s on. Two generations of naval officers honed the weapons and other systems for open-ocean warfare and embedded the assumptions of maritime strategy into the Navy's philosophy.

Some of the results were controversial even before the Berlin Wall was pulled down. Some analysts questioned why most of the aircraft and weapons on US aircraft carriers seemed to be there solely to protect the carriers. Others pointed to a widening gap between the Marine Corps and the Navy because of the focus on war at sea. Still others argued that the Navy always wanted its own logistical support and opposed buying weapons and material that were standardized or interoperable with those used by the oth er military services. To some, these were all examples of service parochialism and arrogance.

But to most in the Navy, these factors were logical outcomes of the professed strategy. Aircraft and weapons designed to protect the carriers were exactly what was needed within a strategy that moved the carriers close enough to the Soviet Union so that the Soviets had to come out and attack. There had to be a gap between the Navy and Marine Corps operations because the strategy focused on controlling places like the Norwegian Sea while using the Marines to bolster the ground defense of Norway.

And if the Navy were going to operate hundreds of miles away from where the Army and Air Force would fight, it made sense for it to have its own logistical support and to optimize the weapons and other equipment for the specific problems the Navy would face on the open ocean rather than worry about how they could be used by the Army or Air Force fighting in central Europe.

BUT the emerging strategy, as laid out in the new white paper, is quite different. It starts from the assumptions that the US now has uncontested control of the seas and that any military confrontation will not be global. There may have once been a strategic rationale for using naval power hundreds of miles away from the central battle, but now it's hard to see how maneuvering carriers in the Atlantic or Pacific can deter a regional predator like Saddam Hussein in, say, the Persian Gulf.

The new concept of operations focuses on the littorals and calls for extending the fleet's battle space across the shoreline so that naval forces can fight alongside the Army and Air Force. In other words, the central concern of the new operational concept is land control, not sea control.

But the Navy has to do this with weapons, tactics, training, and skills that have been perfected for a different war, in a very different place. Its tactical radar systems and long range air-to-air missiles, for example, work well where there is no radar shadowing from land masses, less well where the water meets the land. The means it has to find submarines are very good - in the open ocean. Fire-and-forget missiles, like the Navy's Harpoon, aren't the best military solution in crowded coastal waters wh ere good guys, bad guys, and innocent bystanders are intermingled.

Here are some other gut issues for the Navy:

* How many nuclear submarines does the US need and what are they good for in the absence of numerous opposing nuclear attack submarines?

* How many aircraft carriers does the US need and what kind of planes should they carry, now that the Navy will be operating with the Air Force in a region? Should the Navy get out of the "deep strike" mission and forget about the longer-range, stealthy - and very expensive - aircraft designed for that mission?

* What do you do about mines, when the problem is no longer how to get out of our ports when an enemy has planted a few mines there, but how to get into his ports and across his shores and the minefields he has had plenty of time to establish?

The concepts laid out in the Navy's white paper open all these questions, and the answers it implies are very different from what the Navy was arguing as little as a year ago. The authors must have known that "... From the Sea" would do this. That's what makes its publication so impressive, for the document is not simply another defense of the concepts, tactics, and weapons a military service has honed for decades.

The Navy's white paper argues for wrenching changes inside the service. It is a directive for internal shifts in perspectives, assumptions, training, and resource allocations. And that's what makes it the first actual recognition by a US military institution that the cold war is really over.

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