Congressional leaders expect conference negotiations on the approximately $400-billion Defense Authorization bill for fiscal year 2004 will be completed soon, but differences persist over major policy issues.
To ensure that the nation's maritime defense needs at home and abroad are adequately addressed the House introduced an initiative for eight independent studies to describe the ideal Navy of the future. Senate conferees should not only accept this provision in the Authorization bill, but also expand it to include an assessment of the U.S. Coast Guard's needs and requirements.
While the purpose of the annual authorization bill is to establish spending caps for Pentagon programs, the legislation can also be used to establish Congressional policy guidelines and defense reporting requirements. The studies proposed by the House would require the Department of Defense to re-think the shape of future naval forces with a "clean sheet of paper," taking into account emerging threats and potential new missions. Four of the eight studies would have to come from outside the Navy and they would all be "fire-walled" to ensure independent analyses.
Senate conferees seem less inclined to commission the studies, not wanting to interfere with the Navy's authority under Title 10 of U.S. Code that charges it with the responsibility of planning its organization and equipment. However, the studies proposed by the House would not usurp the role of the Navy or the Department of Defense. They would provide alternative visions of future naval needs that Congress could use to assess how thorough and effective Pentagon planners have been in forecasting requirements and thinking through options to meet those needs.
Indeed, the Pentagon needs some fresh ideas that will offer alternatives to the customary roles, missions, and platforms that drive current naval programs. The Defense Department seems intent on achieving a military "transformation"- innovation on a grand scale, designed to bring about a quantum-level of improvement in military capability. A centerpiece of such transformation would be the development of a "system of systems" that would link diverse networks together so that war-fighters could take full advantage of available information and bring all their assets to bear as rapidly and with as much flexibility as possible.
Ironically, while many of the ideas of such "network-centric" warfare came from naval thinkers, the service's acquisition and modernization programs seem the most tradition-bound and are overly focused procuring a large number of new ships that will perform many of the same functions as the craft they would replace. The Navy could use some alternative requirements strategies that look more aggressively at capabilities such as sea basing, unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles, and alternatives to nuclear-powered submarines.
Protecting the Home Front
Not only should the studies proposed by the House be conducted, they should be expanded to include projections for the Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard is part of the new Department of Homeland Security, there are good reasons to conceptualize a future holistic force that would comprise the Navy and Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard provides important support functions for naval operations overseas, but even more vital and closer to home; the Navy and the Coast Guard are key partners in providing maritime security for the United States. This partnership begins in the deep oceans and extends to the U.S. littoral regions, ports, and waterways. It only makes sense to synchronize the programs of the Coast Guard and the Navy to ensure that the United States can have maximum naval power at the best cost. Augmenting the studies proposed by the House to include analyses of the Coast Guard could yield a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of the future requirements and potential capabilities of the nation's maritime forces.
Senate and House conferees should include a provision for the naval studies in the final Defense Authorization bill. It is time for new thinking on the critical challenge of maintaining America's maritime dominance.