The sum of these Chinese offset strategies means that in the South China Sea the U.S. can no longer deter a war because we can longer guarantee we can win one.
This does not bode well for our treaty allies, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Control of the South China Sea would allow China to control fishing operations and oil and gas exploration; to politically coerce other countries bordering in the region; to enforce an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea; or to enforce a blockade around Taiwan or invade it.
What To Do About It?
Today the Navy has aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, aircraft, and sensors under the sea and in space. Our plan to counter to China can be summed up as, more of the same but better and more tightly integrated.
This might be the right strategy. However, what if we’re wrong? What if our assumptions about the survivability of these naval platforms and the ability of our marines to operate, were based on incorrect assumption about our investments in material, operational concepts and mental models?
If so, it might be prudent for the Navy to have a hedge strategy. Think of a hedge as a “just in case” strategy. It turns out the Navy had one in WWII. And it won the war in the Pacific.
Unfortunately for us Japan didn’t adhere to our war plan. They were bolder and more imaginative than we were. Instead of battleships, they used aircraft carriers to attack us. The U.S. woke up on Dec. 7, 1941, with most of our battleships sitting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The core precept of War Plan Orange went to the bottom with it.
But the portfolio of options available to Admiral Nimitz and President Roosevelt were not limited to battleships. They had a hedge strategy in place in case the battleships were not the solution. The hedges? Aircraft carriers and submarines.
While the U.S. Navy’s primary investment pre-WW2 was in battleships, the Navy had also made a substantial alternative investment – in aircraft carriers and submarines. The Navy launched the first aircraft carrier in 1920. For the next two decades they ran fleet exercises with them. At the beginning of the war the U.S. Navy had seven aircraft carriers (CVs) and one aircraft escort vessel (AVG). By the end of the war the U.S. had built 111 carriers. (24 fleet carriers, 9 light carriers and 78 escort carriers.) 12 were sunk.
As it turned out, it was carriers, subs, and the Marines who won the Pacific conflict.
A hedge strategy is built on the premise that you invest in different things, not more or better versions of the same.
But there is an equally accurate statement that this is not a diversified portfolio because all these assets share many of the same characteristics:
If the primary asset of the U.S. fleet now and in the future is the large and the complex, then surely there must be a hedge, a Plan B somewhere? (Like the pre-WW2 aircraft carriers.) In fact, there isn’t. The Navy has demos of alternatives, but there is no force structure built on a different set of principles that would complicate China’s plans and create doubt in our adversaries of whether they could prevail in a conflict.
The Hedge Strategy – Create “the small, the agile, and the many”
In a world where the large and the complex are either too expensive to generate en masse or potentially too vulnerable to put at risk, “the small, the agile, and the many” has the potential to define the future of Navy formations.
We need formations composed of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below, and on the ocean surface. We need to build collaborating, autonomous formations…NOT a collection of platforms.
This novel formation is going to be highly dependent on artificial intelligence and new software that enables cross-platform collaboration and human machine teaming.
To do this we need a different world view. One that is no longer tied to large 20th-century industrial systems, but to a 21st-century software-centric agile world.
The Selby Manifesto:
How To Get “The Small, The Agile, and The Many” Tested and In The Water?
Today, “the small, the agile and the many” have been run in war games, exercises, simulations, and small demonstrations, but not built at scale in a formation of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below and on the ocean’s surface. We need to prove whether these systems can fight alongside our existing assets (or independently if required).
ONR plans to rapidly prove that this idea works, and that the Navy can build it. Or they will disprove the theory. Either way the Navy needs to know quickly whether they have a hedge. Time is not on our side in the South China Sea.
ONR’s plan is to move boldly. They’re building this new “small, the agile, and the many”formation on digital principles and they’re training a new class of program managers – digital leaders – to guide the journey through the complex software and data.
They are going to partner with industry using rapid, simple, and accountable acquisition processes, using it to get through the gauntlet of discussions to contract in short time periods so we can get to work. And these processes are going to excite new partners and allies.
They’re going to use all the ideas already on the shelves, whether government shelves or commercial shelves, and focus on what can be integrated and then what must be invented.
All the while they’ve been talking to commanders in fleets around the world. And taking a page from digital engineering practices, instead of generating a list of requirements, they’re building to the operational need by asking “what is the real problem?” They are actively listening, using Lean and design thinking to hear and understand the problems, to build a minimal viable product – a prototype solution – and get it into the water. Then asking, did that solve the problem…no? Why not? Okay, we are going to go fix it and come back in a few months, not years.
The goal is to demonstrate this novel naval formation virtually, digitally, and then physically with feedback from in water experiments. Ultimately the goal is getting agile prototyping out to sea and doing it faster than ever before.
In the end the goal is to effectively evaluate the idea of “the small, the agile, and the many.” How to iterate at scale and at speed. How to take things that meet operational needs and make them part of the force structure, deploying them in novel naval formations, learning their operational capabilities, not just their technical merits. If we’re successful, then we can help guarantee the rest of century.
RADM Selby’s plan of testing the hedge of “the small, the agile, and the many” using tools and technologies of the 21st century is exactly the right direction for the Navy.
However, in peacetime bold, radical ideas are not welcomed. They disrupt the status quo. They challenge existing reporting structures, and in a world of finite budgets, money has to be taken from existing programs and primes or programs even have to be killed to make the new happen. Even when positioned as a hedge, existing vendors, existing Navy and DoD organizations, existing political power centers, will all see “the small, the agile, and the many” as a threat. It challenges careers, dollars, and mindsets. Many will do their best to impede, kill or co-opt this idea.
We are outmatched in the South China Sea. And the odds are getting longer each year. In a war with China we won’t have years to rebuild our Navy.
A crisis is an opportunity to clear out the old to make way for the new. If senior leadership of the Navy, DoD, executive branch, and Congress truly believe we need to win this fight, that this is a crisis, then ONR and “the small, the agile, and the many” needs a direct report to the Secretary of the Navy and the budget and authority to make this happen.
The Navy and the country need a hedge. Let’s get started now.