The U.S. Navy's Paradigm Paradox
Last Friday I had the good fortune to be invited up to the Charlestown Navy Yard to deliver remarks commemorating the bicentennial of USS Constitution’s final battle. Reports of Boston’s death—from blizzards, plagues of locusts, whatever—have been greatly exaggerated. Mountains of snow now make up the Navy Yard’s landscape, but its work goes on as Constitution’s crew prepares to drydock the frigate for extended upkeep.
The February 20, 1815 encounter pitted the American man-of-war against HMS Cyane and Levant off Madeira. Constitution benefited from the advantage the U.S. Navy is trying to restore two centuries hence: weaponry that outranges prospective opponents. Constitution was evenly matched against her Royal Navy antagonists when measured by weight of shot—the amount of cannonballs a ship could throw during a broadside. The difference was that she carried long guns that could fling projectiles 1,200 yards. Cyane and Levant, by contrast, were armed mainly with “carronades.” These shipkillers could do enormous damage—but only against targets within 400 yards.
Range is no guarantee of victory. It took some masterful—and at times unorthodox and risky—shiphandling by Captain Charles Stewart to overcome the numerical odds. Stewart’s exploits kept the frigate Boston’s only undefeated sports team. But extended reach does bestow a pronounced tactical advantage. Constitution could blast away from a distance, or administer a beating while her nemeses tried to close to carronade range. Long range, then, translates into more damage inflicted before an enemy can reply—and, if the long-range fire is effective, into a weaker reply when one does come.
Hence the contemporary U.S. Navy’s feverish quest for extended-range anti-ship missiles to equip its surface combatants and submarines. In a way the founding-era U.S. Navy had it easy. Weakness clears the mind. Few on board Constitution could entertain illusions about their navy’s inferiority to a Britannia that ruled the waves. The Royal Navy shut down American sea traffic by late in the war. Squadrons loitered off American seaports, ready to pummel any merchantman or warship that braved the blockade. Seagoing commerce withered.
Indeed, Constitution was lucky even to escape from Boston for her 1814-1815 cruise. Such are the wages of maritime weakness. Now fast-forward to our own day. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy declared that no one could contest its command of the sea. “With the demise of the Soviet Union,” proclaimed the strategic directive ...From the Sea, “the free nations of the world claim preeminent control of the seas....As a result, our national maritime policies can afford to de-emphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas.”
Areas such as fighting peer navies for sea control—the sine qua non of naval mastery. If the sea services could afford to assume they controlled the sea, they could devote their full energy to exploiting that control. Why try harder? And indeed, …From the Sea instructed them to rebalance strategy, operations, and force design toward the “littorals,” the sea/shore interface from which seaborne forces can project power ashore. Preparations to fight peer navies languished.
By issuing ...From the Sea and similar documents, then, the navy leadership in effect put a new “paradigm” in place for making and executing maritime strategy. For philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a paradigm is a set of basic assumptions about some endeavor or field of inquiry. It endures as long as it appears to explain reality, and helps practitioners shape actions that conform to reality.
Over time, however, anomalies—facts or events for which the paradigm can’t account—may begin to appear. A crisis may ensue as such anomalies mount up. If so, a “paradigm shift” may result. As Kuhn tells it, a paradigm shift is a political revolution as much as a rational, incremental, orderly process for revising theories about the world. Meaning? Paradigms acquire stakeholders. In the sciences, researchers conduct research based on the governing paradigm’s assumptions. Their life’s work comes to depend on the paradigm. They cling to it.
Stakeholders become gatekeepers when the old order comes under challenge. How do guardians of the status quo handle challenges? Says Kuhn, they ignore contrary facts and theories as long as they can. When a response becomes unavoidable, they try loosening the paradigm’s rules and predictions to accommodate the anomalies. Only when contradictory evidence becomes overwhelming—and only when a new, better theory comes to light—does their last-ditch defense implode.
The new theory next becomes the ruling paradigm—and soon appears as natural and inevitable as the now-discredited one. A new intellectual equilibrium sets in—until new anomalies emerge. Kuhn appraises the Copernican revolution, which saw Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy give way to Copernicus’ heliocentric worldview. He also reviews other scientific revolutions that have taken place over the centuries—and finds that similar patterns hold.
You see where I’m going with this. The post-Cold War U.S. Navy leadership decreed that new assumptions would govern American sea power. Senior leaders installed a new paradigm—and in effect sought to repeal the most basic function of navies, fighting for command. Small wonder the fleet stopped making more than incremental improvements to its arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles shortly after ...From the Sea appeared. Bureaucratic signals discouraged such investments.
Anomalies—evidence contravening the new paradigm—started building up within a decade. In 2002, for instance, the U.S. Navy conducted an exercise dubbed “Millennium Challenge 2002.” Retired U.S. Marine general Paul Van Riper played the part of “red team” Iran during the maneuver. Van Riper deployed low-tech but imaginative tactics to thwack a U.S. Navy task force operating offshore. Teeth were gnashed, garments rent.
After the debacle Van Riper accused navy leaders of rewriting the assumptions governing Millennium Challenge in order to let the naval force “win” a rerun of the engagement. As Kuhn might put it, they defended the existing paradigm about U.S. maritime supremacy—loosening its parameters while, according to the general, introducing fudge factors into the assumptions underwriting it.
That kept the official worldview in place. As a result, the navy has been playing catch-up in a nautical revolution. This revolution has seen a new “near-peer competitor,” China’s navy, take shape. In the meantime new, cheap, precision-guided weaponry is super-empowering coastal states loath to let America project power onto their shores from the sea.
Old paradigm: America rules the sea. Why procure pricey hardware like new anti-ship missiles, or practice tactics for sea fights that will never happen? New paradigm: coastal states are beneficiaries of newfangled “access-denial” technology and methods. If handled as sure-handedly as Van Riper handled his simulated Iranian force, access-denial forces could deter Washington from fighting in faraway theaters; delay intervention, letting the access denier accomplish its goals in the theater before U.S. reinforcements arrive; or cut U.S. expeditionary forces down to size should a climactic battle become inevitable.
The good news is that naval officers and officials appear to have undergone a paradigm shift in recent years, rejoining the hardscrabble world of great-power rivalry. And last month’s test of an anti-ship Tomahawk cruise missile suggests that the material dimension of this revolution is closing the gap with the intellectual one. Virtual deterrence will result. Prospective opponents must now wonder just what that U.S. destroyer or cruiser is carrying in its missile launchers: land-attack or anti-ship Tomahawks?
That question mark in red teams’ minds will help the U.S. Navy compete more effectively. And perfected weaponry will lend the fleet new combat power when it enters service, further amplifying deterrence and coercion. Solving the range mismatch constitutes only an interim solution. There are no permanent solutions in naval competition, only a cycle of constant challenge and reply. But embracing a new, old paradigm—one that regards such one-upsmanship as daily routine—boosts our navy’s chances of prevailing in long-term strategic competition.
Let the paradigm shift continue.