Navy in Transition: Commanders Grapple with Changing Missions, Smaller Fleet

Article excerpt

In anticipation of impending changes in U.S. military strategy, naval commanders have kicked off a series of studies that tackle fundamental questions about the Navy's missions and competencies.

As the size of the fleet continues to shrink, decision makers at the Pentagon are grappling with how to reshape a Navy that is fighting unconventional wars largely with Cold War weapon systems.

"We need to understand what effects we need and what capabilities we have," said Vice Adm. David C. Nichols Jr., commander of naval forces in the Middle East, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

More than a year ago, Nichols began a strategic review of Central Command's naval assets and responsibilities. Like other forward-deployed commanders, Nichols has gotten the word from Washington that budgets are getting tighter and that the Pentagon's new defense strategy has taken a decided shift from conventional warfare to antiterrorism.

Despite a commanding presence of 30 U.S. and 15 allied ships, as well as hundreds of aircraft, naval forces in the Middle East are not ideally suited to fight terrorism against non-state enemies, Nichols said during a video teleconference from Bahrain.

Non-traditional adversaries, such as failed states or extremist Islamic groups, are known in Pentagon-speak as "fourth generation" enemies.

"Naval Forces Central Command decided to look at how to employ a Cold War-procured force structure against a fourth generation terrorist threat in the maritime environment," said Nichols. "This study will help the U.S. Navy develop and procure forces designed specifically to fight this emerging fourth generation threat."

Other fleet commanders also are conducting similar reviews.

The downsizing of the Navy in the coming years--from 290 ships currently to possibly 260--is not an indicator that the service will be less capable of fighting terrorism, Nichols said. "In the fourth generation fight, it's not about the absolute size of the force," but he noted that these cutbacks will make U.S. commanders increasingly reliant on allies.

Having a solid coalition, Nichols stressed, is critical to naval operations in the Middle East. Non-U.S. ships make up one-third of Nichols' forces. U.S. and foreign coast guards also provide 10 patrol boats for search and seizure of contraband. Of 15 maritime patrol aircraft, five are from foreign allies. …