Re-Thinking Capability to Protect US Interests
10/10/2011 – By shifting from the China focused Pacific globe to the Hawaii centered globe, the nature of the US defense and security approach to Pacific strategy similarly becomes re-focused. For the PRC truly to shift the situation, they must reach the US, its allies and partners, and not the other way around. The PRC landmass becomes salient in a major conflict, and Chinese modernization and power projection forces and their bases provide discernible targets, again if a major confrontation is in the cards. And classic conundrums such as the defense of Taiwan can be significantly re-thought.
But the place to start is the strategic need to have maritime assets deployed to provide support for US economic interests, and sovereignty. Indeed, the intersection of the capabilities is at the heart of rethinking Pacific strategy. A capability triangle can be conceptualized: one side are platforms available and deployed; the second side the ability to connect these platforms, and the third the capability to operate with allies and partners through the systems which connect US platforms in the first place.
In this piece we will start the discussion on platforms and presence.
The basic point is that simply to protect US economic interests there will need to be significant US maritime presence in the Pacific. And air power provides the significant force enabling the ships to have much greater coverage and effectiveness in their operations. Too often in the inside the beltway conversation about air power this discussion is confused with the fate of the US Air Force or the ability of earlier air power thinking to continue forward into the 21st century. Rather, air power is what you need if you want something other than binoculars to see or to weaponize something like a 21st century spear carrier.
Another way to look at the argument we are developing is that the Hawaii centered globe is the canvas onto which one moves various forward presence assets to shape a connected capability to protect American interests. We will then focus on how to shape this into a honeycomb structure, far more resilient than thinking of a centralized networked structure.
In this piece we will start with the USCG and its role in the Pacific, and how their baseline capability provides a fundamental building block in building an effective Pacific strategy.
If we start with the USCG, we can underscore how the C4ISR associated with air power – helos, MPAs, and other assets – can allow the USCG ships to operate in a domain as large as the Pacific and to be effective.
Let’s talk about just the Eastern Pacific drug mission. Let’s just use that as an example. In the old days, we literally went down there and bored holes in the water, and if we came across a drug vessel, it was by sheer luck. It might be on a lookout list, and we might happen to see it. Let’s fast-forward now to the 2000s and what we’ve started being able to do. By being able to fuse actionable intelligence, and not only that, but intelligence communicated at light speed. So now, we’re to the point where we’re telling a Cutter to go point A, pick up smuggler B with load C. And we’re doing that in real time with delivery of a common operational picture, which has been fused with intelligence. That was unheard of 10 years ago.
Rear Admiral Day has had many years of operational experience in the Pacific and underscored that the new helicopters, and maritime patrol aircraft are crucial in giving the USCG ships range and effectiveness in their operations.
And the new National Security Cutter being deployed in the Pacific provides a command post, not just a ship, to provide area coverage and comprehensive presence. A key element of the operational capability of the National Security Cutter is its endurance. And it can operate up to three fast boats as well as having a large deck for handling helos.
Most people don’t realize that 85 percent of the US exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are in the Pacific, mostly in the Central and Western Pacific. There are a lot of economies in that region that are driven by the fishing industry.
One of the things that I realized is that even with good enforcement in US EEZ’s, the fish know no boundaries. So they will shift from our EEZ’s to those of other nations and potentially be overfished there.
We formed partnerships with adjoining countries who are working their EEZs to try to manage the illegal fishing beyond our EEZ. We developed a joint strategy, a ship rider program where essentially we use Coast Guard assets and put enforcement officials from six nations that have signed ship rider agreements.
The Central and Western Pacific is significant distance away from the continental US. Most people don’t know that sovereign American territory is located as well in the Central and Western Pacific.
To deploy a Cutter from here (Alameda, California) to American Samoa requires ten or more days. And the thing you have to realize in the Pacific, you don’t have the infrastructure that you do in the Atlantic
So in terms of pier space, fuel, engineering support, food and other logistics, you have to take it with you. When you’re down in a place like American Samoa, you better have most of what you need to operate.
And for the Arctic the Vice Admiral underscored he has authority but no assets. It is useful to hover for a moment with regard to the need for maritime assets even to be a player in the Arctic.
A good look at what this means for the USCG and the nation is the look at the Arctic problem by a leading expert with 30 years of operational experience in ice conditions.
The Arctic is centered on a large ocean basin….(and while other nations are investing) the U.S. is in the process of divesting its Arctic capability. The nation’s multi-mission polar icebreaker fleet is being downsized by a third with the imminent decommissioning of USCGC Polar Sea. This will leave only the Polar Star, 35 years old and half-way through an expensive 2 ½-year refit, and the 11-year old Healy.
Unanticipated engine problems in Polar Sea forced the cancellation of two Arctic deployments in late 2010 and early 2011, the result of attempting to keep complex 1960s-era technology in use beyond its reasonable service life.
The icebreaker is a key asset of presence. Garrett explained in another piece why this is so.
In an icebreaker, you are not up in the Arctic to break ice per se; you are there to permit mobility to accomplish missions of national importance. You are an enabler for transit and related operations. It’s really about mobility and being able to get to point A to point B or to wherever you want to go to do; whatever it is you’re out there to do. So what you need, is a ship with a lot of power, a very strong hull, and which has been designed to get through ice efficiently. In addition, people often overlook that you need significant endurance; there are no gas stations in the polar regions.
When you look ahead to what the Coast Guard needs to do its missions in evolving Arctic conditions, you see that there’s more open water, there’s more human activity, and there’s more maritime traffic. But the ice is still there, and its movements are becoming more unpredictable. You really need a ship that can operate in dynamic ice conditions to allow mobility and has the long legs to be there unreplenished for a reasonable length of time.
Protecting US economic and security interests in the North and South Atlantic requires the presence of USCG cutters and icebreakers. And these ships can be integrated as well into USN, USN-USMC and other defense operations. In a recent deployment of the Bertholf Cutter, US Special Forces used the deck of the new NSC as part of an exercise. The USN-USMC plan to work with the NSC in Pacific operations where appropriate as well.
The strategic point here is that the presence of maritime assets are required to protect US economic interests, provide for security, and protect US sovereignty. No presence; no assurance of the protection.
Two other examples from the recent operations of the Bertholf highlight the way ahead.
First, the Bertholf operates with a C4ISR D capability which can allow the commander of the Bertholf to leverage US, allied and partner’s assets.
In our discussion with Captain Prince we highlighted the following:
A key way to think of the NSC is a command post afloat with self-contained assets, and because of C4ISR, reachback and reachout capabilities to national assets and partner capabilities. It is an operational bubble at sea able to control and operate over significant areas of land or sea to execute its various missions. Much like one can conceptualize the revolution inherent in the F-35 cockpit, the bridge and its various tool sets represent the “cockpit” for the command team of the Bertholf.
Rather than thinking of the NSC as a new cutter and simply as a replacement for the Hamilton class, one should think of the ship’s entry into the 21st century world of C4ISR enablement, and the bridge as where C4ISR D (i.e, C4ISR enabled decision making) is executed.
While standing on the bridge with Captain Prince and Commander Ramassini, Second Line of Defense discussed the correlation between missions conducted on their recently completed patrol and the command assets on board the ship.
Secondly, the Executive Officer of the Bertholf underscored the impact of presence on protecting sovereignty. As Commander Ramassini emphasized:
We also offer great flexibility and adaptability for Homeland Defense and Security; and even serving abroad in support of U.S. Combatant Commander’s global maritime partnerships. The transit ability and the sea legs in this ship are remarkable – we offer outstanding partnership and persistent presence wherever we go.
Up in the Bering Sea where we’d cover a 300,000 square mile area, steaming all the way up to the Maritime Boundary Line, and back down to the Aleutian Chain, and cover that area in a very efficient manner waving our flag, protecting our exclusive economic and projecting U.S. national interests in the Arctic along the Maritime Boundary Line, the U.S./Russia Border. So we have that presence.
And just be able to show our peer competitors that we’re still concerned about this area, and we have a presence with remarkable helicopter launch and land capabilities up in the harsh Bering Sea with a ship like this is important to our nation and ultimately our sovereignty.
And the USCG example provides an understanding that no platform fights alone. By the USCG doing its job, other US forces can leverage what they do, provide scalable capabilities and provide for a significant expansion of impact with virtually no added cost.
James Carafano has rather forcefully put the proposition about sovereignty and his concern about the slow go on funding, building and deploying the new National Security Cutters.
The National Security Cutter’s capability really matters. Presence at sea is what ensures the sovereignty of American territory at sea. Sacrificing capability means sacrificing sovereignty.
Abandoning the National Security Cutter as a budget-cutting drill makes about as much sense as dispensing with a security alarm, putting up “no trespassing” sign and telling yourself you are more safe at less cost.
We will turn next to various USN platforms and then to the USN-USMC team.
For a special report on the National Security Cutter see
This article is a contribution to the strategic whiteboard.