Analysis: Navy may benefit in revamped military

U.S. Navy Times - 2/10/2012

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants to “rebalance our global and presence to emphasize where we think the potential problems will be in the world” with the goal of producing a leaner, more rapidly deployable military.

Translation: Shrink land forces and rely more on the Navy.

At least that’s the early take on the secretary’s blueprint, which calls for spending cuts of $487 billion over the next decade, another round of base closures, and a significant reduction in Army and Marine troop levels.

It’s part of the Pentagon’s strategy to shift from a conventional, land-based mission that’s been central to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to one more capable of quick-strike capabilities in hot spots such as the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, the Pentagon must meet congressionally mandated spending reductions.

Panetta has announced that the Navy will:

• Maintain its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers with 10 air wings.

• Modernize its submarine fleet in a design that will allow new Virginia-class submarines to carry more cruise missiles.

• Spend more to upgrade sensors for aircraft, ships and missiles, and to buy the most advanced electronic warfare and communications capabilities.

• Keep its current Marine troop strength in the Pacific despite an overall reduction in force from 202,000 to 182,000.

• Protect the “highest-priority and most flexible ships” such as the Arleigh Burke destroyers and littoral combat ships.

“The goal here is to focus on those areas that involve the greatest concern,” Panetta said. “And that means, frankly, that we need a strong Navy, a strong Navy in the Pacific, a strong Navy in the Middle East, a strong Navy across the world.”

Charles Nemfakos, former deputy assistant defense secretary for Installations and Logistics, said it’s unlikely any branch of the military will escape the effects of such major spending cuts.

But the Navy is probably better positioned to adapt, he said.

“One of the premiums that the nation gets from making investments in the Navy is the fact that (it’s) very flexible and can therefore pivot more gracefully because that’s what you’re paying for,” said Nemfakos, who retired from the Pentagon in 2001 and is now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation, a research organization.

That flexibility could bode well for Florida installations in the Panhandle, notably Pensacola Naval Air Station and Whiting Field Naval Air Station in Milton. They house missions that seem to dovetail with the nimbler Navy Panetta is touting, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla.

Miller represents both bases and sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Pensacola NAS includes Corry Station, home to the Center for Information Dominance. If missions such as cyber warfare become more important in a revamped military, Corry will play an essential role, he said.

More importantly, Panetta’s commitment to an 11-carrier fleet means the Navy will need plenty of aircraft. That should offer plenty of opportunities to train pilots — a main reason Pensacola and Whiting Field exist.

The naval air stations do all the Navy’s rotary-wing aircraft training and most of the fixed-wing training, Miller said.

“Carrier-based aviation appears to be an area of significant focus,” he said. “And I would say that this suggests the training missions in and around Northwest Florida will remain healthy as the demand for naval aviators remains robust.”

Unmanned drones have increasingly played a crucial role in U.S. military strategy. Some drone training takes place at Eglin Air Force Base.

Experts say an expected increase in drone use shouldn’t mean a major decrease in training at Whiting Field or Pensacola.

“It would be foolish to say there’s no implication,” Nemfakos said. “But having said that, I don’t see drones replacing manned naval aircraft. I see drones being an enormous supplement to (existing) capabilities.”

That’s not to say the Navy won’t be affected by the budget cuts as well.

Panetta’s plan includes another round of base closings that could shutter or shrink some naval installations.

Nemfakos thinks the consolidation of commands at Pensacola during earlier realignments makes the naval air station well-equipped to withstand another round. And Miller thinks that the just-announced temporary transfer of an F-18 training mission from Virginia to Whiting Field is a sign the Pentagon views the Milton facility as a valued operation.

Panetta also wants to retire “lower-priority” cruisers that have not been upgraded with ballistic missile defense capability or that require significant maintenance, as well as some combat logistics and fleet support ships.

And he’s proposing to slow down purchase of the costly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Ret. Navy Capt. Jan M. van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the slowdown shouldn’t mean the weapon will be scrapped.

“All of the services are basically heavily invested in the F-35,” said van Tol, who served as special adviser to the vice president. “It’s the only game in town at this point.”

Nemfakos said there’s a fairly simple reason why the Army, and to a lesser extent the Marines, could bear a disproportional brunt of the cuts.

“When you’re making a large reduction and when so many of your resources are people-related, it’s inevitable that reduction will be taken in areas that have more people as opposed to things,” he said.

Van Tol said the nation is okay with moving away from large Army operations, which may benefit the Navy.

“The Army guys, I feel for them in a sense, because they’ve been a good and faithful servant,” he said. “But they face the question, what will the country want us to do in the future? And frankly I don’t think either party or any important actor politically foresees large-scale ground wars in the near term.”