Washington Watch: From the Sea

Jan. 1, 1993

In 1989, before the Berlin wall came down, the Air Force began to devise a strategy for adapting to the post-cold war world. That strategy surfaced in the white paper “Global Reach, Global Power” in mid-1990 and was soon validated by the Persian Gulf War, an airpower extravaganza.

The white paper came in handy right away. It set the stage for Air Force reorganization around two new operational commands–Air Combat Command for global power and Air Mobility Command for global reach-as the core of the service’s combat operations. It also stated the case for the Air Force as the airpower service of choice.

The document went beyond the parochial to the ecumenical. “It lifted people’s sights to the broader aspects of airpower-to how airpower can play with joint forces and in many peacetime and wartime roles,” claimed Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice.

Now comes the Navy with its white paper “From the Sea,” which sets forth its startling new maritime strategy for the post­cold war world. Global reach and global power are left unsaid but are implicit throughout.

Strictly speaking, the Air Force and Navy white papers are unrelated to roles and missions reviews under way at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. In practice, though, they are all of a piece. The strategies in the white papers underpin the roles and missions that each service believes are rightfully its.

Airpower, the essence of both the Air Force and Navy game plans, is a major issue-maybe the biggest-in the running debates over roles and missions. The question is whether long-range, landbased airpower or carrier-based airpower-and the planes and forces that go with each-should become the main instrument of US global power at a time when the nation can no longer afford, and may not need, its customary abundance of both.

A Common Purpose

Although competitive from the roles and missions standpoint, the “Global Reach, Global Power” and “From the Sea” strategies serve a common purpose in a larger sense. Each makes the case for maintaining a powerful, though much altered, Air Force and Navy. Each, in its fashion, is a persuasive appeal for a strong national defense at a time of civic preoccupation with domestic affairs.

Lt. Gen. Steven B. Croker, vice commander of Air Combat Command, provided such a perspective not long ago in a speech at an AFA symposium in Los Angeles. These days, he said, “the toughest problem [for the US military] is an intellectual problem.” Why? Because “when the cold war ended, we lost our common framework for debate, our common set of assumptions, our intellectual model. We lost what we were all about. . . . The old defense paradigm has been destroyed or largely discredited, and there has been none to take its place. There’s no widely held model that everyone uses to talk about defense.”

In its 1990 white paper, the Air Force “offered a new defense paradigm, a new way to frame the [defense] debate,” General Croker said. “It has been largely successful. It hasn’t been universally accepted yet, but things are getting a little easier in Washington because of it.”

The Navy is now “adopting the same paradigm, the same kind of intellectual framework” as the Air Force in reshaping its organizations and operations to adapt to a fast-changing world, the ACC vice commander noted. “The Navy doesn’t call it ‘global reach, global power,’ but they’re talking about CONUS basing, expeditionary forces, doing away with large carrier battle groups [in some circumstances],” he said.

Roles and missions aside, what matters most is that both services are preparing for the future in concert. Maintaining a strong national defense is “an important challenge for us all,” General Croker said.

As things stand, he said, arguments can be advanced for cutting the defense budget every which way and by any number, and “they will all have equal credibility because there’s no common set of questions, no common set of assumptions” on which to frame such arguments. “Until we have a commonly accepted defense paradigm that people believe in and can see working, we’re going to have a very difficult time with the defense debate,” the ACC vice commander declared.

He claimed that it is chiefly up to Air Combat Command to make the case for the Air Force. ACC is “where the rubber meets the road. . . . If we don’t carry it through-put meat on its bones-that paradigm will be largely discredited, and we’ll be in a period of intellectual vacuum for quite a while.”

Traps lie ahead for both services. Their partnership in the larger purpose could come apart if their strategies become snarled in wrangling over roles and missions. Despite the best intentions of both, they may not be able to avoid falling out. If present trends persist, it is unlikely that there will be enough money for both to buy all the planes that they see in their futures.

The Air Force Edge

There is a school of thought that the Air Force has the edge as the result of its running start with a game plan and airplanes to match. Its strategy and requirements for future combat aircraft to carry out that strategy were in place prior to the Persian Gulf War and came out of it all the more credible. Its development of the hot, stealthy F-22 air-combat fighter for the next century has had some rough spots but seems securely in place.

The Navy is running behind. Its new strategy and latest requirements for future aircraft grew out of the Gulf War and seem well justified in the hindsight of that war, but the strategy and the requirements may be somewhat out of sync.

The spotlight is on the A/F-X multirole aircraft that the Navy is counting on as its mainstay multirole fighter for the twenty-first century. The Navy is modifying its original requirements for the plane to tailor it to the new strategy, and the tailoring may prove troublesome. The Air Force has eyes for the A/F-X and has enthusiastically endorsed its proposed modifications thus far. But the plane is looking less and less like the long-range interdiction aircraft that the Air Force will need and more and more like the stealthy fighter that the Air Force will have plenty of.

If the A/F-X does not pan out, the Air Force can always turn to building an air-to-ground variant of its F-22. Such a variant has been a live, though understated, possibility in Air Force planning circles since the Advanced Tactical Fighter development program began, as the genesis of the F-22, more than a decade ago.

None of the above is a knock on the A/F-X or on the Navy’s new maritime strategy as such. In performance alone, the stealthy, speedy A/F-X looks like a winner. So does “From the Sea.” It is widely hailed as a well-reasoned document that makes a persuasive case for the Navy’s break with its blue-water past, a break sharp enough to leave old salts incredulous. As a jolt to hidebound traditionalists, “From the Sea” ranks right up there with the Air Force’s decision to scrap time-honored distinctions between strategic and tactical airpower and to merge SAC and TAC.

The new naval game plan, which postdates the Gulf War by almost two years, places much less emphasis on the open-ocean, big-fleet, so-called “blue-water” operations-always on the lookout for oncoming Soviet attack submarines and long-range bombers and cruise missiles-that were central to US maritime strategy through the cold war-indeed, all the way back to John Paul Jones. “From the Sea” does not take the Navy out of the blue-water business but brings it much closer to shore.

Signed by top officials of the Navy and the Marine Corps, “From the Sea” proclaims that both will place “far greater emphasis on joint and combined operations” while providing “unique capabilities of indispensable value in meeting our future security challenges.”

Claiming for naval and Marine forces such natural attributes as powerful forward presence, strategic deterrence, sea control, power projection, and sealift, the white paper proclaims that “these maritime capabilities are particularly well tailored for the . . . crisis-response missions articulated in the President’s National Security Strategy.”

Farewell to Blue Water

“From the Sea” postulates “a fundamental shift away from open-ocean warfighting on the sea [and] toward joint operations conducted from the sea. . . . Our ability to command the seas in areas where we anticipate future operations allows us to resize our naval forces and to concentrate more on capabilities required in the complex operating environment of the ‘littoral,’ or coastlines, of the earth.”

It declares, “Mastery of the littoral should not be presumed. It does not derive directly from command of the high seas. It is an objective which requires our focused skills and resources.

“With the demise of the Soviet Union, the free nations of the world claim preeminent control of the seas and ensure freedom of commercial passage. As a result, our national maritime policies can afford to deemphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas.”

Thus, notes the white paper, “the answer to every situation may not be a carrier battle group.” Some situations, it says, may call instead for an “amphibious readiness group” with a large amphibious assault ship, such as Iwo Jima (LPH-2), as its flagship, and/or a “surface action group” composed of warships with Tomahawk cruise missiles, such as those that struck strategic targets in Baghdad’s environs with telling effect at the onset of Operation Desert Storm.

Or, says the white paper, a given mission may well require “the overwhelming power of a carrier battle group and an amphibious ready group with embarked Marines, operating with Air Force and Army forces.” Withal, it asserts, “the key is continuously tailoring our forces to anticipate and support national needs.”

Not long ago, Vice Adm. Layton Smith, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans and Operations, and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, Deputy Assistant Commandant for Plans and Operations, joined in a discussion of “From the Sea” with defense writers in Washington. They predicted, among other things, tighter teamwork between Navy and Marines.

“The Fog of the Littoral”

Under the Navy’s former strategy, war meant “war at sea . . . with the Soviet Union,” Admiral Smith explained. Under its new strategy, he said, the Navy “will have to go into the battle scene . . . fight in the fog of the littoral.”

“If we have the Marines ashore in a contested area, the [aircraft] carriers will be right in there with them, providing what they need in terms of cover, close air support, interdiction, or whatever,” the Admiral declared. “We will have a very direct-not an indirect-effect on the war on land.”

General Wilkerson predicted “much closer integration between [Marines] and the Navy, because they’ll be spending more time in the regime of naval combat power where we’ve been all along and less time in the regime of the deep ocean.”

Rear Adm. Riley Mixson, the Navy’s director of Air Warfare, emphasized at a US Naval Institute seminar on US airpower late last year that “From the Sea” is not an attempt to take the play away from the Air Force. The US “must maintain . . . a mix of long-range bombers, landbased interdiction aircraft, and seabased tactical aircraft,” he declared.

Admiral Mixson contended, however, that the Navy is “unique” among the US military services and among the world’s navies in its prowess for “projecting power ashore.” He called this the Navy’s “core competency,” the capability that sets it apart from the other armed services and from all other navies as well. The Navy now plans to “put one of its feet on land” and must “maintain a very robust, seabased aviation force as a vital part of the air triad,” he said.

The Admiral pictured future scenarios in which “naval aviation from aircraft carriers and, if required, landbased expeditionary aircraft will supply Marines ashore with sustained, high-volume tactical air support to extend the landward reach of our littoral operations.” Navy aircraft, he explained, are “well-suited for expeditionary airfield operations ashore when additional landbased support is needed.”

Near the end of 1992, the Navy moved to tighten its teamwork with-some would say, its hold over-Marine aviation. It announced a plan to disband two Navy squadrons on each of two aircraft carriers-Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln-and replace them with four Marine squadrons of F/A-18 strike fighters and EA-6B electronic warfare planes. The Marine squadrons will operate off the carriers or from airfields ashore at the discretion of their carrier battle group commander, a Navy admiral. The Navy plans more of the same if the switch works out.

Meanwhile, the Navy is encouraging the Marine Corps to sign up, as the Air Force has done, for the planned A/F-X multimission fighter. The Navy needs all the A/F-X buyers it can get in order to achieve economies of scale and thus keep the plane’s cost under control. The A/F-X may be the Navy’s best and last hope for the urgently needed modernization of its carrier-based aircraft fleet in the long term.

Two Tracks, Two Crashes

In the early 1980s, the Navy introduced a two-track plan to replace its aging A-6E carrier-based bombers. It proposed producing an updated variant called the A-6F and then, in the longer term, the stealthy Advanced Tactical Aircraft, later designated the A-12. Both the A-6F and the A-12 programs were subsequently canceled amid financial difficulties.

After the A-12 went off the boards in early 1991, the Navy came up with another two-track aircraft modernization plan with a somewhat different twist. This one dealt with fighters as well as bombers. It called for development of the F/A-18E/F “stretched Hornet” strike fighter to replace-and greatly improve upon-the F/A-18C/D in the near term, and for the A-X, as it was called at the time, to replace the A-6E as the fleet’s mainstay, long-range, all-weather bomber.

Last summer, while putting the finishing touches on “From the Sea,” the Navy switched signals on the A-X. Senior Navy officials announced that the plane would be designed as a multirole fighter-bomber, not exclusively as a bomber, to replace not only the A-6E but also, ultimately, the F-14 long-range interceptor and the F/A-18 strike fighter well into the next century. They began calling it the A/F-X.

The Navy’s move caused a stir on Capitol Hill, where the Pentagon’s aircraft-acquisition plans were already under fire. As the leader of a congressional move against roles and missions redundancies, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, claimed that the nation could not afford and would not need each and every airplane the services had on their shopping lists.

The central question to be resolved in sorting out superfluous airplanes, said Senator Nunn, is this: “What is the best and most cost-effective way to provide air interdiction in the future-with long-range bombers from the United States or with large numbers of aircraft carriers with medium-range bombers on their decks?”

He raised many related questions, such as: Will the Navy really need both the A-X (as it was still being called outside the service) and the stretched F/A-18E/F? Should the Navy be required to relinquish its longer-range bombers like the A-6E and the A-X and make do on carriers with shorter-range strike fighters like the F/A-18

Not long thereafter, at the Naval Institute’s airpower seminar, Admiral Mixson said, “Could we make do with our existing aircraft, forgo the [F/A-18]E/F, and wait for [the A/F-X]? Yes, we could do it. But the problem is, we don’t have much growth left in our current [F/A-18C/D] Hornet out there, and we would have to do some things to some other aircraft, which are also costly.” He said the Navy “very much needs” the F/A-18E/F “to fill the void” until the A/F-X comes along.

The Navy is being careful not to pit its two premier aircraft programs against one another in terms of their future needs for annual funding. It recently slipped the A/F-X program schedule two years, thus deferring the plane’s initial operational capability until 2007. One reason for this was to comply with a congressional requirement to develop competitive prototypes. Another was to put more distance between the A/F-X program’s peak funding years and those of the F/A-18E/F.

The Navy seems to be out of options where the A/F-X is concerned. It urgently needs to replace its A-6Es, and time is running out. Though still admirable in many respects, those burly bombers are very old, relatively slow, and decidedly unstealthy. If the A/F-X program comes to grief, like the A-12 program before it, the Navy may have to default on its deep-strike bomber mission.

Some defense aficionados suspect that the Navy is already taking that very risk by turning the A-X into the A/F-X and tailoring it more to coastline operations. This means less emphasis on-and less built-in range for-the deep interdiction mission, and more emphasis on supporting amphibious operations in the air-superiority mission, now performed by F-14s and F/A-18s, and in close air support, a mission now dominated by F/A-18s.

Deep Interdiction Less Likely

At a recent session with defense reporters, Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe claimed that the Navy does not require the A/F-X to be “a long-range interdiction aircraft” because deep interdiction missions “are not the highest probability [for the service] in the years ahead.” Thus, he said, it makes sense that the A/F-X “evolved” from its A-X beginnings as a straightforward replacement for the A-6E bomber to become “an attack fighter aircraft, with primary focus on attack.”

“We just don’t need . . . this extraordinary 750-mile range” once earmarked for the A-X, said Secretary O’Keefe, “because nobody’s going to be out there” for the plane to attack.

Adapting the A/F-X to littoral warfare may draw the Marine Corps into its program. Admiral Mixson predicted as much. However, the modifications, including a likely 100-mile reduction of the plane’s required maximum range, seem risky for the Navy in other respects. They fortify the argument that the service has no need for both the F/A-18E/F and the A/F-X. And they may influence the Air Force to think twice, sooner or later, about buying the A/F-X to replace its deep-interdiction F-111 and F-15E.

The Air Force is not making waves at the moment. Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Chief of Staff, told an AFA symposium audience last October that the A/F-X is “as much a requirement for us as it is for the Navy” and that the Air Force is an “enthusiastic” partner in the program.

“I foresee a lot of problems yet to solve in the program, but we’re in it for the long term . . . fully signed up,” General McPeak declared. “This is not a sham, where we are half-hearted in our participation.”

Secretary Rice took the same approach at the AFA symposium, but with a pointed reminder. He noted that the Air Force has the F-22 “in reserve” and asserted, “We can always fall back to an air-to-ground version of the F-22 if that’s necessary.”

Dr. Rice claimed that the Air Force still finds the A/F-X very much to its liking, even though it has lost weight and range in the reordering of its performance requirements. He said the multimission A/F-X designed for carrier launching “will probably provide us a little more capacity to adapt it to an F-111 or an F-15E-like mission off a long runway than will the F-22.”

He explained that the Navy, in switching from bomber to multirole fighter, can now draw more fully from advanced fighter-engine technologies, as well as from the avionics and the materials, that the Air Force developed for the air-superiority F-22.

There is nothing phony going on. The Air Force and the Navy are clearly in this together-in their mutual quest of the A/F-X and in their promotion and implementation of new strategies for a strong national defense. The thing to watch is how well and how long both stay with the A/F-X.