Japan's accidental downing of a United States Navy A-6 bomber in early June put a short-lived spotlight on war-game exercises that have long-range significance for the US military, Congress, and the American taxpayer.
RIMPAC, as the biennial rim of the Pacific joint exercises are called, is the Navy's chance to show what it can do when it's not losing its focus because of Tailhook, cheating scandals at the Naval Academy, or the tragic suicide of its top admiral.
In waters off Hawaii, the Navy put on an impressive display of firepower and down-to-the-second integration of military hardware and computer software, joining with Canadian, Australian, Japanese, South Korean, and Chilean forces.
These mammoth exercises involved two US aircraft carriers, some 45 surface ships and submarines, 250 aircraft, and 30,000 personnel. They seemed to beg the question: Is the Navy fighting for a role?
Where is the threat? What power could challenge battle-group armadas like those assembled for RIMPAC? Are America's 12 carrier-based battle groups, and their attendant high maintenance costs, the best way to protect US interests abroad - absent the need to take the battle to Soviet shores? Couldn't the US get by with less - say, eight carrier battle groups instead of a dozen?
These questions will take years, if not decades, to sort out. But, by the look of current war-game scenarios, it's clear the Navy is placing a greater emphasis on in-shore or close-to-shore support operations in third-world environments. In Navy parlance, that's "littoral" or "brown water" missions, as opposed to the "blue water," open-ocean stuff that guided military strategy and congressional budgets for decades.
The skeptics' viewpoint
But some are skeptical. They see a continuing scenario of military overkill, using super-weapons for the past war that are ill-suited to regional conflict. And they are particularly concerned that, at a cost of billions of dollars, the Navy wants to upgrade systems, such as the carrier-based F-18 Hornet attack planes, that may only marginally improve its capabilities for the mission at hand.
"The problem is that the Navy is not configured for littoral operations," says Franklin Spinney, a Department of Defense analyst known for his iconoclastic views. Mr. Spinney thinks the Navy, if it is going to concentrate on littoral combat, should instead be developing more-durable, less-expensive planes - similar to the Air Force's A-10s - that can deliver more effective, sustained support to marines rushing ashore. The Government Accounting Office, citing cost-benefit issues, also has raised concerns about the F-18 upgrade. Nonetheless, the modification from the existing F-18 C's and D's to the new F-18 E's and F's looks like it will remain on track with the purchase of around 1,000 new jets.
Other observers say the Navy's carrier-based aviation needs will be covered by the new F-18s and a joint-strike fighter, due early in the next century, that will service the Air Force and Marines as well. While a gap in capabilities for supporting forces ashore may exist until those new planes are ready, the Navy has made strides in developing smart bombs for its carrier-based aviation operations and increasingly potent ship- and sub-launched Tomahawk missiles. It also has plans - introduced by the late Adm. Jeremy Boorda - to develop new, highly automated "arsenal" ships that will pack about 500 tactical missiles, operate at relatively low costs, and provide firepower for marines.
Concerns in Congress
Still, Congress has concerns about the Navy's ability to follow through on its new emphasis on littoral operations. First - ship survivability against attacks near shore by antiship Exocet or cruise missiles. Britain's loss of the Sheffield in the Falklands War and Iraq's deadly attack against the US frigate Stark are grim reminders. Iran's possession of Russian and Chinese-made sea-skimming cruise missiles is also troubling. Second - defense against mines in shallow, confined environments. During the Gulf war, the Aegis-equipped cruiser Princeton and another US surface ship were damaged by Iraqi mines. Finally - how to defend against quiet, diesel-powered submarines that a number of developing nations now possess.
An 80,000-ton carrier is believed massive enough to absorb a conventional warhead hit, or hits from precision missiles. But there's concern that such a mobile, multibillion-dollar platform - with more than 5,000 men and women aboard - could be badly disabled. Since the last carrier was purchased for around $4.4 billion, with a roughly equivalent amount for its air wing, the concern seems legitimate.
Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., commander of the US Third Fleet and overseer of the RIMPAC exercise, counters such concerns. "The tactical approach in the littoral is totally offensive. You're not going to sail in, sit there, and wait for someone to launch an Exocet at you. You're going to take them out before they become an imminent threat."
America, a maritime nation with national-security and humanitarian interests across the globe, certainly needs the ability to show the flag and project force quickly and decisively. Few question this, particularly at a time when "forward deployed" air bases and other land-based assets are being pulled back for budgetary reasons, and when overflight issues continue to arise. Tragically, the terrorist bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, also points to personnel security issues that will need to be addressed in any new strategy. For now, the carrier task force's proven flexibility, its ability to reach and maintain itself in distant corners of the world, ensures its place as an instrument of US foreign and military policy. But how many, for how long, and at what price remain key questions.
Striking a balance
In deciding how best to defend America's far-flung interests in an era of shrinking budgets, the debate does not have to come down to a choice between Navy or Air Force assets and operations. It's more a question of striking the right balance. Public discussion of these issues is almost nonexistent, yet the budgetary and policy implications are huge.
It would be helpful if the Clinton administration, or any successor administration, would further clarify how the Navy fits into the current strategy of fighting two major regional conflicts simultaneously. Indeed, not just the Navy but all the services face the danger of not having enough money to maintain and modernize their forces in accord with the mandated two-war strategy. America will soon have to choose between changing (i.e., scaling back) the strategy or confronting the politically fraught prospect of increasing the defense budget substantially over current levels.
As soon as five years from now, but almost surely within 10 to 15 years, the US will face a situation where much of its military equipment - such as the Navy's aging and trouble-plagued F-14 Tomcats - will be hitting retirement age at a rate that exceeds the Pentagon's ability to replace them. A broader reassessment of modernization issues in a changed world could head off that result.
The goal of that reassessment must be to reduce costs and provide relevant capabilities for the kinds of threats the country is likely to have to meet. Instead of spending over a billion dollars a pop on a strategic bomber, for instance, Congress might want to think harder about ensuring that the marines' helicopters fly reliably (their workhorse "Super Stallion" fleet was recently grounded by recurring technical problems) and that their amphibious landing vehicles, which commanders say are slow and suffer from propulsion breakdowns, get the troops to shore on time.
*Warren Getler is a senior writer for The Discovery Channel, which is producing a two-hour documentary on US naval battle groups.