April Handgrenade 2021

John T Kuehn's picture


John T. Kuehn

The online national security magazine War on the Rocks published the following quotation over a month ago while running a series on the maritime policies of the United States.

 “Persistent and insatiable combatant commander demands have worn out America’s indispensable naval force, consuming resources that could have been used to redesign the fleet and replenish readiness for great-power competition.”  From the article “NAVIGATING THE SHOALS OF RENEWED AMERICAN NAVAL POWER: IMPERATIVES FOR THE NEXT SECRETARY OF THE NAVY”  by Bryan Durkee and Chris Bassler (26 February 2021)

I agree with the claim that combatant commanders (COCOMs in DOD-speak) have worn out U.S.  naval forces.  But this needs a look historically with some examples of this happening from the past.

First some definition and context are in order.   The COCOMS have been around for a while, but they really came into their own after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act (GNA) in 1986.  Prior to that point it had been difficult for the COCOMS to behave badly as regards naval forces.  Both Pacific Fleet and Atlantic Fleet Commanders (PACFLEET and LANTFLEET) were four star commands and had much say in how the forces under their control were used after they were deployed.  Too, the numbered fleets, especially the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, but also the 2nd  Fleet in the Atlantic during the Cold War tended to defer and confer more with the Fleet commands, while being officially under the operational control of a geographic COCOM.  So Goldwater Nichols was the milestone for change.

It was not until the joint operations, first in Panama, and then—much more importantly-- during Desert Shield-Desert Storm, that the COCOMS began to actually use their beefed up powers under GNA.  In Panama the SOUTHCOM commander exercised for more direction of the naval forces in support of JUST CAUSE and began to establish the norm of more active involvement in naval operational matters by a COCOM for the forces that were, after all, under his operational control (OPCON).  The COCOM in this case was an army officer, General Max Thurman.

However it was during the run up to the so-called First Gulf War, DESERT SHIELD, where another Army General serving as the CENTCOM COCOM began to misbehave.  In the past if the naval forces under the “command” of the COCOM, usually a numbered fleet, made a recommendation about deployment positioning and stationing, the COCOM deferred to the fleet commander’s recommendation, as long as the missions assigned could be performed as directed.   General Norman Schwarzkopf, established the precedent of micromanaging naval operations, both in port visits for naval forces on call in the Sixth Fleet area in the Mediterranean as well as micromanaging US air defense by AEGIS cruisers for a transit President Bush made during a transit to the theater and to Europe.  These might seem minor, but once a precedent confirms a way of behaving, that becomes the new norm.  Bottom line, the advice of naval flag officers was rejected, despite their assurances that they could accomplish assigned missions  A precedent that had been in place since the Korean War, which had been the last time such a thing had happened (under another Army General and his staff, Douglas MacArthur).[1]

Since then,  the actions of COCOMS regarding the use of naval forces have only become more invasive and have spread to a conception that whenever they need an aircraft carrier, for example, it should be made available to them, even though they might have more than enough land-based aircraft in their theater to meet all their requirements.  Everyone likes to have a bit in reserve, but often the costs for having that extra bit of “slush” are also misunderstood.  In one case, a COCOM whose area of operations included Afghanistan said he preferred using Navy aircraft carriers, despite the fact they needed significant support from Air Force tankers. Why?  Because he did not have to worry about the administrative and logistical requirements of using aircraft actually based on land in his theater. In other words, it saved his staff work, and despite the fact that tactical air squadrons were available for deployment in country, where their reaction times to tactical events were much shorter.  

Thus the arguments that this kind of behavior by the COCOMS has contributed to the current poor state of readiness in today’s Navy.[2]  Recently, because of attacks far inland in Iraq an aircraft carrier was delayed in leaving the Persian Gulf, despite the multitude of air bases in the region…but the belief that the carrier provided a more robust signal won the day.  This does not seem to have done much good, using aircraft carrier to keep Shia militias and others in Iraq and elsewhere from attacking US forces and partners.  But COCOMS learn slowly—if at all.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Arleigh Burke,  “Burke Speaks out on Korea,” in USNI Proceedings (May 2000), pp. 68-72: 

[2]See Mackenzie Eaglen, “Putting Combatant Commanders on a Demand Signal Diet,” 09 November 2020 at https://warontherocks.com/2020/11/putting-combatant-commanders-on-a-demand-signal-diet/ (accessed 3-31-2021).

To be fair, the insertion of aircraft carriers into operations where they were almost certainly not necessary is often done for *Dept of the Navy* institutional reasons as much or more than just COCOMS behaving badly. This is sometimes referred to as the "Little League rules" factor of U.S. military ops, where if there is a major operation going on than *everyone* both and wants and must be allowed to participate lest they appear irrelevant to those controlling their budgets.

Example: in the Balkan conflicts from 1992-95 (NATO operations Sky Monitor, Deny Flight and then Deliberate Force), the area of operations was amply covered by NATO bases (including permanent U.S. bases like Aviano). There was no particular need to put or maintain aircraft carriers into those operations. If anything, one could argue aircraft carriers should have been deliberately kept available as a reaction/presence force in other theaters--especially the Indo-Pacific (not a term used at the time). With land-based air heavily tasked for Northern and Southern Watch (operations over Iraq) as well as Deny Flight/Deliberate Force, relying more on aircraft carriers in other places as a presence/reaction/reserve would have made sense.

But the institutional Navy was not interested in having its prized assets stand down while land based air took care of ongoing air operations in the Balkans as well as over Iraq. That might have had ugly implications in the ongoing post-Cold War defense reviews (truth in advertising: I was a member of the HQ USAF Quadrennial Defense Review staff from 1998-2001). No WAY the Navy was going to cede pride of place completely to the USAF after the Navy's angst about its performance in Desert Shield/Desert Storm air operations. And if the Navy was insistent, COCOMS sure weren't going to turn them down. "You want to give us assets? Sure!"

Similarly, use of aircraft carriers for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan arguably were not (after the first insertion operations of Operation Enduring Freedom, where the Navy's flexibility as sovereign U.S. bases was vital) particularly efficient ways to deploy airpower once land bases were reasonably ample. Afghanistan in particular is not terribly close to blue water, making heavy USAF tanker support absolutely necessary to allow aircraft carriers to project power to the theater. There's not a lot of maneuvering room in the northern Arabian Gulf for aircraft carriers to operate either. But OEF/OIF, like Deliberate Force, were the big games in town--so the Navy absolutely wanted to be part of the fight. *

So yes, COCOMS bear a share of the burden of longstanding optempo problems on the force. But the institutional Navy itself deliberately pushed that optempo because of concerns that if troops were in contact the Navy *HAD* to be there for institutional reasons.

* This is of course not just a Navy thing. Having USAF airplanes fly literally around France and Spain through the straits of Gibraltar from the UK to bomb Libya during El Dorado Canyon in 1983 was not a particularly efficient way to project force. But the USAF wanted to make sure they were involved. One could similarly argue that Task Force Hawk in Albania during the Kosovo war was made as much or more for Army institutional reasons as for operational requirements.

"Little League rules"--if there is a military operation that is likely to draw the attention of the public, military services that ultimately depend on public support for funding are going to be highly incentivized to insert their assets into the fight. Senior service leaders almost invariably view heavy optempo/wear and tear on the force as an acceptable price to make sure their service is seem as "relevant."

Mike Condray
Colonel, USAF (retired)

Re: Mike Condray's response: no argument from me on the Navy leadership enabling COCOM misbehavior in order to get visibility for the service.

It is a whole lot easier to make the case for the Navy on these grounds rather than doing the tough explaining for why this nation needs a Navy. Those sorts of arguments are difficult to master and require sustained effort, and the sustained attention, of the people one is trying to persuade.
The most cogent recent argument I have seen for why the United States needs a navy is to bound in the April 2021 Naval Institute Proceedings by Nicholas Lambert, "What is a Navy For?" https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/april/what-navy
A more extended polemic (that word used in its positive sense) is Jerry Hendrix's book _To Provide and Maintain Navy_, published by Focsle Books in 2020, although it is a bit more strident than Lambert.
Both of these are easier reads than going back to Mahan's geopolitical framework of Chapter 1 of Influence of Sea Power and his inferences about why navies are important, although Lambert restates them in his article.

At any rate, this means reading, understanding, and then articulating correctly...which is harder than pointing to an aircraft carrier on TV heading for the Persian Gulf and saying "see, that's why we need a Navy." best, John

Is anyone seriously arguing about the need for a Navy? The argument ought to be about what kind of Navy. Do we really need as many CVBGs as we now have? We certainly need a few in the Pacific and (once in a while) in the Indian Ocean, but in the Atlantic? I'm not so sure. In our last general war -- World War II -- carriers were of marginal utility in the Atlantic, and we should ask if that might also be the case today. In the First Gulf War they were kind of a luxury, and the air campaign assets we needed could have all been land-based. In fact, after the war I recall a spate of articles suggesting that Naval Air ought to be more like the Air Force -- able to deliver more & larger munitions. Questions arose about the ratio of strike assets to force protection.

So yes, we need a Navy, but maybe we don't need so many CVNs. (I'm just a retired Air Force guy, asking.)

Ralph, it is not that they deny the need for the Navy, as much as its opacity with the American public and the publics around the globe (except in China). The other problem is not the need, but the size and how it fits in in national defense. I have always found it odd that island nations would privilege land forces more than air and sea forces nowadays, yet they do with some notable exceptions (I think the JSMDF in Japan gets the larger share of Japan's self defense budget). Also, as the requirement for extended forever wars in obscure middle eastern and south Asia cities, mountains, and deserts fade, the need for NATO forces to fulfill those stagnant or stalemated missions also reduces in importance, but the publics and many of the land power services have yet to catch up to this reality.
Most of the folks out there, especially if they are younger, are more worried about climate change than about whether or not the sanctity of the international commons is slowing being eroded away.

vr, John

Question: IF the Navy were abolished, what would be done about a]protecting commerce at sea, b] Others who would not abolish their Navies ? A couple of conditions that would exist without a Navy.

Also, the 1921 Treaty eliminating Naval Forces by having a ratio between major Naval Countries, is this a modern version of such arms limitations ? Not that Arms Control is necessarily a 'bad' value or condition.

Further thoughts ?

John, if public perception of the need for NATO standing forces (land, sea, air) is indeed fading away as a public priority in lockstep with the fading need for these "forever wars," that is indeed a long-term concern -- perhaps linked to your comment about the erosion of the "sanctity of the international commons." Is there a parallel here with the Western democracies asleep at the wheel during the interwar period that saw the rise of fascism?