Does the U.S. Navy Submarine Fleet Need to Adapt?

Does the U.S. Navy Submarine Fleet Need to Adapt?
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How do you adapt to changing times and circumstances, particularly when your home institution is big, and bureaucratic, and has compiled a long record of success that seems to vindicate its approach for all time? An institution like, say, the U.S. submarine force, or the U.S. Navy as a whole?

You start by reflecting. The greatest strategist we don’t study systematically in Newport is none other than Florentine official and man of letters Niccolò Machiavelli. Best known in caricature—as a sort of mustache-twirling purveyor of ends-justifies-the-means logic—Machiavelli has far more to say than that. Indeed, my old professor Michael Handel depicts his writings as the interface between ancient and modern modes of statecraft and warmaking.

No small compliment. Now, Nicky the Knife was no stranger to bareknuckles politics. Few survived, let alone prospered, in Renaissance Italy without the capacity for occasional villainy. But his core idea is that keeping in tune with the times constitutes the central task of statecraft. Adapt, and you shall thrive. Stagnate, and you shall become the next Borders, or Blockbuster, or pick your favorite senescent enterprise.

Or, to stay in the underwater domain, the next Imperial Japanese Navy. Tokyo never truly fathomed that the U.S. Pacific Fleet sub force transformed itself from a fleet auxiliary into a fleet of independent raiders after December 7—or that submariners’ rampage against Japanese surface shipping would exact such a fearful toll, dismembering Japan’s island empire.

Machiavelli’s insight sprang to mind several times over the past week. The first was while perusing the responses elicited by my National Interest missive urging the silent service to think ahead to a future in which the oceans are transparent—more transparent, anyway—to antisubmarine forces sporting newfangled sensors, along with computers capable of processing Big Data and undersea weaponry capable of striking hard and at a distance.

Many respondents kept an open mind. Yet the mix included a fair amount to rah-rah boosterism about American subsurface supremacy. Its tenor: we rule the deep! There are subs, and targets!!! That sort of thing. In short, skeptics scoffed at antagonists’ capacity to stage a technological leap. In this view the laws of physics forbid any “abrupt close” to the age of stealth beneath the waves. Subs will retain their chief tactical asset: concealment. Forever and ever, amen, apparently.

Maybe that’s true. I hope so. But as the ancients teach, it’s a mistake of the first order to succumb to hubris. Pride goeth before a fall. Preening about your awesomeness also detracts from your intellectual nimbleness, leaving you unprepared—and out of sync with the times, and scrambling to catch up, and perhaps failing to do so—when the unexpected happens. And the ghost of Machiavelli will frown at you. Best to think ahead about the unthinkable.

While Machiavelli urges us to keep up with the times, he implies that means fighting human nature: “we are unable to oppose that to which nature inclines us,” while when we’ve “prospered very much with one mode of proceeding,” it’s impossible to convince us we “can do well to proceed otherwise.” It’s the timber of humanity, in other words. We keep doing what worked last time, projecting the past into the future in linear fashion. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Except competitive enterprises are seldom linear, or quantifiable, or especially susceptible to cost/benefit logic. Carl von Clausewitz, who among his other achievements is a forefather of complexity theorymaintains that human struggle “branches out in almost all directions and has no definite limits.” Constant interaction between antagonists determined to vanquish one another imparts a seesaw character to human competition.

Even the laws of physics may yield to human ingenuity—just as they did when the Wright Brothers took to the skies, at the dawn of the space age, and in the era of Moore’s Law. Some things are impossible—until they aren’t. And indeed, strategist Edward Luttwak proclaims that human competition operates not by linear cost/benefit logic but by a “paradoxical logic.” Each competitor’s fortunes rise and fall as it struggles for tactical and strategic advantage. “Ironic reversals” are commonplace.

Move, countermove—much like Clausewitz’s proverbial wrestlers grappling for advantage, or his swordsmen swinging two-handed battle swords, or whatever your favorite metaphor for martial one-upsmanship may be. Never say never, never say always is a helpful mantra when sizing up yourself and prospective foes. Humility is a virtue. Even Socrates—a guy who was no moron, regardless of what you may have heard—insisted that he knew nothing except the fact of his ignorance. The philosopher counseled keeping an open mind about, well, most everything.

But there’s a peril to keeping abreast of the times: what if you misread the times, adapting to false changes to the surroundings? That brings us to my other Machiavellian interlude of the week, which took place during a panel I oversaw at this year’s Current Strategy Forum. In effect I maintained that the U.S. Navy erred in its first post-Cold War strategy. In that document the navy leadership declared that with the demise of the Soviet Navy, we faced no threat to our command of the sea.

History, that is, had ended. No longer did we have to fight for command. If not, we could dedicate ourselves almost wholly to exploiting American control of newly permissive seas, using them as an offshore sanctuary for projecting power ashore. Tactics, hardware, and habits of mind needed to rule the waves in a contested environment languished.

This prompted some pushback from fellow forum participants. And yet I stand by it. Our navy in essence proclaimed that revolutionary times were upon us—that victory in the protracted East-West competition had repealed the laws of sea combat, ushering in an age of indefinite U.S. naval mastery. That’s pretty bold, and contradicts everything we know about struggles for high-seas mastery.

Maybe Machiavelli should have affixed an asterisk to his writings, to the effect that it’s possible to be too adaptable. Think twice before concluding that the old order is completely gone, replaced by something entirely new. Hey, no one—least of all Machiavelli, or Clausewitz, or Luttwak—said this strategy stuff is an exact science.

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