Monday, June 03, 2019

History Majors vs. Math Majors: The Problem of a Coherent Fleet Architecture

We are blessed to start another week with a guest post by our friend Bryan McGrath.

Bryan explores a hard topic we have all had to deal with in our Navy - one fully meshed with the challenge of selling the effective vs. the efficient; the intangible vs the quantifiable.

Bryan, over to you;

Let’s get this out of the way early. I have a BA in History and an MA in Political Science. My budding career as a submariner (I loved the 70 days I spent on an attack boat the summer before my fourth year in NROTC and wanted to go submarines) was snuffed out by modest calculus and physics grades (ok, less than modest) resulting in my not even being asked to make the trip to DC for a nuclear power interview. I have nothing against math majors (or technically proficient people), I have just never been counted among them.

My time in and around the Navy has been as a man of words and ideas. Strategy and policy have been my game, and throughout my career, I have found myself across the table from an archetype in which the Navy specializes: the Operations Research/Operations Analysis (OR/OA) expert. The Navy mass produces these folks. There may even be a classified laboratory that digitally prints them. They are unflinchingly professional, incredibly intelligent, and mathematically adroit. I and others like me have been reduced to befuddled silence in their presence when they pull out their spreadsheets and spider charts and multi-variate analyses to utterly destroy a thought, concept, or initiative. You know I’m right. You’ve been there too.

Ultimately, it is these people who run the Navy, and generally speaking, this is a good thing. As the Chief of Naval Operations does not actually operate a navy, he and his staff are optimized to do one and only one thing well—and that is to build budgets. The building of budgets requires hard choices from among many seemingly critical options. Having math whizzes around to order and prioritize these choices employing elaborate computer models and intricate campaign analyses is very helpful in this pursuit. No, it is essential. And this is why I have always admired these folks.

Truth be told, I have also had my problems with them, and it wasn’t until I began thinking about this piece that the nature of those problems began to crystalize. The proximate cause of this focus was the recent DoD budget submission in which the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) was slated for decommissioning decades early, as a result of a decision to cut its mid-life refueling and overhaul from future budget consideration. This decision would presumably free up resources within the Navy budget for other purposes. The fact that the FY20 Budget submission also included a nearly $500 million line item for two Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSV) (which did not appear in the previous budget submission) fueled the widely held perception that the Truman was being harvested in order to devote resources to other priorities, including unmanned surface vessels. This perception was further advanced when CNO nominee ADM William Moran said as much in his confirmation hearing. Fortunately or unfortunately—depending on how you view the importance of aircraft carriers—while ADM Moran was making his statement before Congress, the Vice President was preparing to tell the Sailors of the Truman that the President had reversed his decision and that the Truman refueling would be funded.

Putting aside the unfortunate timing of the announcement and the questionable state of alignment within the administration’s national security-making apparatus, the decision to drop the carrier force from its congressionally mandated number of 11 to 10 (eventually) bears scrutiny. Here’s where the history major vs. math major thing comes in.

Make no mistake about it—a decision of the magnitude of the Truman cut would have been accompanied by reams and reams of data. Exhaustive campaign analysis and force on force excursions would have been run literally thousands of times within sophisticated computer models. Devising and implementing these models are the math majors, the OR/OA folks. Give them a set of assumptions and they will give you an answer. Sometimes you like the answer, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you question their assumptions (although you shouldn’t, because they don’t make up their own assumptions, they are given to them by leadership).

That the analytical community would conclude that within an acceptable level of risk given the existing major war plans, the Navy could get by with 10 carriers does not surprise me in the least. I have enormous confidence in their ability to conduct these types of analyses. When it comes to making these recommendations based on cold hard data obtained as the result of sophisticated models of naval warfare in which the capabilities and capacities of the combatants are known and assumed, the math majors are unbeatable.

You know where they aren’t unbeatable? They aren’t unbeatable when it comes to thinking about the force that does the job the nation asks it to do 99% of the time, and that is to regulate the security environment in areas of the world that matter to the United States. Just those words…. “regulate the security environment” …will drive a math major nuts. What does this mean? How do you measure it? How much does one unit of it cost? This lack of clarity is the root cause of the real weakness the math majors have when attempting to analyze the peacetime security environment, and that is they don’t have good models of it. Put another way, devising a mathematically coherent and defensible force structure to account for concepts like “presence” and “conventional deterrence” is simply harder than devising the force structure one needs to fight and win war. And because they cannot do it, they don’t, or at least they don’t like trying.

You know who IS comfortable thinking about force structure and fleet architecture in the context of regulating the peacetime security environment? History majors. That’s right. History majors. Because we can’t (and shouldn’t) do advanced math, we don’t. Now of course, the answers we give are always far more subjective than the answers the math majors arrive at, but at least we try. We know that we can’t model the peacetime security environment to the degree that we can the war plans…so we don’t try. We look at the world as it is, and we think it wise to have major naval power available in and around Europe, in and around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, and in the Western Pacific. We know that having that power “present” demands some combination of a rotation base of ships and forward stationed units. We know that it takes a long time to get a ship from Norfolk or San Diego to Bahrain, and since the earth isn’t getting any smaller and ships aren’t getting any faster, the force is sized to account for these distances.

The other thing history majors do is—well, you know, read history. We have read that time and time again since World War II, adversaries have devised “carrier-killer” weapons that have rendered the carrier obsolete. And time and time again, circumstances arose that reminded us of the utility of the carrier in both peace and war. We are of late, engaged in one of these debates, and the certainty with which carrier critics contend that this time is different, that these threats are unanswerable, is notable. Their models show that the aircraft carrier is suddenly uniquely vulnerable, or more to the point, most everything floating is vulnerable. I take no issue with these facts. I understand the state of modern ISR, and I realize that EVERYTHING on the modern battlefield is vulnerable.

What I take issue with is their conclusions. Or at least some of their conclusions. We are told that because large is bad, we need many, small and cheap. Why? Because large is vulnerable in the models that have their confidence. And the models that have their confidence are models that replicate conflict. They do not have models that replicate the peacetime security environment, and so we are unable to assess how the shift from large, expensive, and few, to small, cheap and many perturbs that environment. Put another way, we haven’t a clue how our growing fascination with the conduct of high-end war impacts our ability to deter it.

We do know that the movement of fleets continues to be a powerful signal of national interest and intent. Have the Iranians been less aggressive as a result of our moving a carrier from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea? I really don’t know. Without insight into the minds of Iranian decision-makers, I cannot know (the modeling problem, explained). What I do know is that a large, powerful, chunk of U.S. naval power was re-routed in order to influence that leadership. I think that it did so—although of course, I cannot know. I think the President’s national security team thinks so, although I cannot know. I prefer to think that the strategic value of billions of dollars of national treasure and thousands of American lives moving into harm’s way as a signal of intent represents a considerable inducement to potential adversaries not to act. I am less sure of the influence of some of the platforms and systems that are considered beneficiaries of the demise of the carrier in doing so. Someday, my luxury of thinking this way may prove unwise. I see no evidence that this is so.

Which brings us back to the history major vs. math major issue. The plain truth is we need both to consider the inputs into the fleet architecture problem. We must have a fleet that is useful in peace AND war, and I’m not sure that the capabilities that matter in these pursuits are the same. I think it is horribly unfortunate that the narrative around the FY20 Budget became one of “carriers vs unmanned surface vessels”, because we need both. We need the unmatched power and flexibility of the CVN/Air Wing/Strike group as a means of regulating the peacetime security environment and for a number of critical war-fighting functions.

We need Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSV) to distribute and increase the firepower available to what appears to be a fleet topping out around its current size. We need a war-fighting and a war-deterring Navy. We need cold, hard, analytical facts, and we need experience and judgment to fill in where the facts aren’t available. We need history majors, and we need math majors.
Finally, we need to unabashedly embrace the notion that seapower is different than land and air power. Seapower serves a peacetime regulatory function in guaranteeing freedom of the seas that underpins both our security AND our prosperity. Air and land power are incredibly important aspects of national power, but they have little to do with peacetime prosperity and regulation of the security environment. One of the reasons history majors and math majors clash when devising fleet architectures is that we have ceased to make the strategic argument for seapower, and so seapower is treated within the Joint context solely as an instrument of war—and as an instrument of war, it can comfortably be considered within existing (and incomplete) analytical models. Seapower to a maritime nation is also strategy, national strategy, and we should not shy away from this.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC and the Deputy Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. He counts several math majors among his closest friends.

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