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opinion | James A. Winnefeld

Charting a new course for the US Navy

Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. prepared to testify in September on Capitol Hill. Next to him is a photograph showing an island that China is building in the South China Sea.Cliff Owen/Associated Press/file

The Obama administration made an important statement in recently authorizing the Pentagon to order a warship, the USS Lassen, to transit close to an island constructed by China on a submerged reef in the contested South China Sea. Key US interests served include protection of the global economic system, the security of our allies in the region, and preserving the rules-based international order that has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific region for decades.

While the US action was undoubtedly delayed in order to avoid affecting the recent summit between Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping, it fell well within the provisions of customary legal mechanisms governing maritime claims.


Aware of this, China has thus far been restrained in its protestations. It has also refused to acknowledge a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that the court has jurisdiction to hear competing maritime claims in the area. US partners and allies are likely, though more privately, pleased to see a more overt, though prudent, challenge to the Chinese claim. As such, the event is a setback for China’s model of “new great power relations” — code language for its desire that the United States cede its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

It remains to be seen how — and how frequently — the United States continues to reinforce international norms in the area. But because neither nation will benefit from a direct confrontation, both civilian and military diplomacy are already occurring to soothe this necessary friction between the two nations.

In any case, South China Sea tensions have once again raised the profile of the US Navy and its global mission. The USS Constitution, currently in Dry Dock 1 in Charlestown Navy Yard, serves as a constant reminder to Bostonians of the importance of having a powerful navy. Yet, laboring under the shadow of deep uncertainty over future budgets, the Navy is grappling with important and long-lasting decisions over how it will prepare to deter and, if necessary, win future conflicts.


Nowhere is the Navy’s future course more important than in the Western Pacific. While for the last decade the US military has focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, China has been strengthening its own military capabilities. Moreover, it is rapidly developing asymmetric capabilities intended to limit our ability to project power in the Pacific, including advances in countering surface ships, air power, space, and cyberwarfare.

While the US Navy still holds the upper hand, the traditional advantages in size and quality on which it has relied to overmatch China’s relative advantages in distance and initiative are rapidly eroding. As a result, new ways to deter Chinese aggression against our allies and partners — which are available — should be developed.

For any navy on the seven seas, near-term decisions have long-term effects. While the projected US fleet is generally positioned well to support these new concepts, the Navy should keep seven factors in mind now as it balances impending investments in capability, capacity, readiness, and people:

First, it is time to recognize how hazardous it has become to venture “in harm’s way” on the surface of the ocean. Today the “finders” have major advantages over “hiders.” More and more space and volume are being required to defend surface ships against relatively low cost, highly capable antiship systems, which detracts from their other capability. There is still great utility for the Navy’s impressive surface fleet, from smaller littoral combat ships to the larger cruisers the service is attempting to refurbish, as well as aircraft carriers. But all of these ships are more likely in the future to operate outside dangerous waters.


As a result, and second, the Navy will need to invest more in asymmetric weapons, such as smart mines, nonlethal methods of stopping ships, cyberwarfare, highly capable standoff weapons, and a full range of electronic warfare. Moreover, the service must continue increasing its investments in a full range of electronic warfare, which have languished for far too long. Unfortunately, the communities within the Navy that advocate for these systems are not traditionally highly empowered, which means senior leaders will need to provide extra support. The burden of these investments may demand a slightly smaller fleet.

Third, the Navy and Congress should ditch the simplistic benchmark of overall numbers of ships, under which an aircraft carrier counts the same as a frigate. This metric places unhelpful pressure on the Navy to build increased numbers of low-end ships that, while certainly very useful in certain scenarios, will not perform well in a highly contested environment. We need the right combination of vessels, and this requires a far more sophisticated discussion than merely counting ships.

Fourth, due to the political near-impossibility of stationing more of its warships overseas, the Navy will need to make difficult trade-offs between the forward presence intended to deter conflict and the surge capability required to win it. Creative thinking regarding how presence is actually executed could provide additional leverage in this area.


Fifth, the service will need to maintain its longstanding advantage in both offensive and defensive undersea warfare. Advances in a number of technologies will enable greater use of undersea autonomous systems, and it is encouraging to see the Navy investing in this area.

Sixth, the Navy must keep its vital partnership with the US Marine Corps in mind. While a major amphibious landing in a conflict with China seems unlikely, there are ample scenarios that could call for the Marines’ expeditionary prowess.

Seventh, Navy senior leaders, led by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, well understand the many challenges facing the service and the need for innovation. Their greatest obstacles are fiscal pressures imposed by a divided Congress and old-fashioned institutional resistance to change, with the former amplifying the latter.

Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, said of companies in financial crisis, “You spend more time arguing amongst yourselves over a shrinking pie than looking to the future, so you miss the big turn.” While there are promising signs that the Navy is pursuing innovative ideas, it is vital to our nation’s ability to protect its national security interests that the service avoid missing the big turn this time around.

James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld is distinguished professor at Georgia Tech and a non-resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.