Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has sparked an interesting debate on the future of the U.S. Navy’s undersea dominance. In a report published last month, Clark argued that even America’s quietest-running nuclear submarines might become vulnerable to discovery as countries are able to utilize “big data” processing to harness and exploit a variety of detection techniques. Clark has a novel solution though: turn submarines into undersea “aircraft carriers” that can operate at a distance and release unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs)—which are smaller and thus more difficult to detect—to conduct the intelligence, land-attack, and anti-ship mission U.S. Navy attack submarines currently do.
Harry Kazianias, a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and editor of RealClearDefense, agrees with Clark that the ability to locate U.S. submarines would severely compromise attempts to overcome an adversary’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities. He also finds Clark’s proposal for an American response intriguing and seems to think the Department of Defense is on the right track toward achieving those capabilities:
As nations around the globe develop ever more advanced commercial capabilities, along with increasingly sophisticated technologies that easily diffuse across borders, traditional areas of U.S. military dominance will begin to degrade unless innovation continues—some would say they already have considerably. Over the last several years, America has come to terms with the challenge of A2/AD and developed various tools to counter such problem sets (think Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC and now the Third Offset Strategy). Clearly, no military advantage is guaranteed forever. Just as Washington has innovated to find unique ways to maintain its battlefield edge, the challenge that will likely soon present itself in the underwater domain will also be met.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. For America and what seems like a very threatening challenge to its undersea dominance, we seem to have made that leap and are already working on possible solutions. You can’t really ask for any more than that.
Kazianias is right that admitting there is a problem is the first step, but those who wish the Pentagon’s Offset Strategy to succeed really should be asking for much more. Specifically, how does the Department of Defense plan to spur the type of innovations necessary to make the Offset Strategy work?
Scholars differ on the causes of military innovation. Barry Posen of MIT argued that civilian intervention was key because militaries resist changing technology and doctrine, while Stephen Rosen of Harvard argued that military organizations resist civilian intervention and therefore innovation only takes place gradually over a generation. Another MIT scholar, Owen Cote, has convincingly argued instead that military organizations innovate when they compete with one another for money and missions. Cote cites the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile—which the Navy developed in competition with the Air Force for a role in the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” strategy—as his primary example. But other examples exist, such as the U.S. Marine Corps’ development of its amphibious warfare doctrine in competition with the Army and the Air Force’s development of more sophisticated fighter aircraft in competition with Naval aviation.
The Obama administration’s budget request for 2016 includes $12 billion for applied research on technology to enable the Offset Strategy. But will money be enough? Moreover, even if new technologies are developed, will the military services adopt them? Will they fit them into existing doctrines? What incentive do they have to develop new doctrines to exploit these new technologies? If Cote is correct, then it is competition among the services, rather than simply an influx of funds, that will provide the necessary incentive. Developing the types of capabilities Clark envisions will certainly require the Navy to have the proper incentives. As it will for the rest of the U.S. military as a whole.