A new “island strategy” for reaction forces could make carrier and amphibious groups less essential.
On Monday, the American Hellenic Institute hosted a luncheon with Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos on the occasion of the rollout of a paper by Dan Gouré’s of the Lexington Institute on “Souda Bay: NATO’s Military Gem in the Eastern Mediterranean.” I appreciated the free lunch, and some of the discussion that followed. Loren Thompson reminded his colleague, with a useful softball question, to talk about how the base would be a good location for half a dozen V-22 Ospreys and a pair of KC-130 Hercules tanker-transports. That’s the composition of the composite air squadron within a handful of those new model, shore-based air-ground task forces of the US Marine Corps. Benghazi, he noted, is easily within range and an hour’s flying time of the NATO airfield at Souda Bay. Not much further away are Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria—if anyone were keen to go there kinetically. To this end, Crete would be a seriously useful island. But if so, then so would be Mallorca, Sardinia, Sicily, and Cyprus. And if those places in the middle of the midland sea are so useful, what does that say about the importance and future composition of naval forces?
About a year ago, Andrew Krepinevich of the CSBA effectively called the Mediterranean a large lake in the operational context of a “mature precision-strike regime”. His thoughts on the South China Sea were similar. In a review of the study for Breaking Defense, Sydney Freedberg termed any place like these a “No-Man’s Sea”. The Syrian Army already has the sharp end of such a regime, built around the supersonic, sea-skimming P-800 Yakhont missile. In 2010, the Russians delivered seventy two of them, enough to sink an American battlegroup. In 2013, the Israelis obligingly bombed one of the warehouses, destroying a presumably small and unknown number. However many missiles survive, they have the range from their launcher-trucks to reach out past Cyprus. When dispersed, they’re hard to find; in combat, they’re probably very difficult to shoot down. That’s when the Russian missiles work, of course—and assuming that the Syrians could find a fleet offshore. Hiding missile launchers is easier than hiding warships, but hiding warships is still easier than hiding immovable airfields.
The balance of power, however, may be changing technologically. The much-debated Schulte Thesis holds that active defense against antiship missiles is very difficult close to shore, in particular because the historical track record is terrible. In over two hundred engagements by antiship missiles on ships, only one missile has every been killed with another missile, and rather few by guns. For all the investment in killing sea-skimmers, passive defenses have actually worked far better. The problem is that the incoming missiles have been getting harder to decoy. Recently, Kongsberg has demonstrated how its new Naval Strike Missile doesn’t just remember the visual outline of its target. The NSM actually homes on the particular part of the ship that the shooter wants destroyed: the bridge, the combat information center, the missile magazine, etc. That’s a Norwegian missile, but eventually the Russians or someone else may figure out how to make something similar. And as for shore-based reconnaissance, the launcher trucks for spotter drones are a lot harder to bomb than big and obvious airfields.
In December, I suggested that this challenge to surface ship survivability was behind Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s instructions to the Navy to spend less money on ships and more on jets. (I did also wonder whether that was the right call.) The strategy certainly seems behind the new basing deal between the US and the Philippines, which Armando Heredia of USNI News yesterday called “heavy on air power, light on naval support.” The arrangement brings access to four airfields and Fort Magsaysay, home of the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division, but no piers or drydocks. One of those airfields is just 300 miles from Pagasa Island, the main Philippine base in the Spratleys. The Chinese may want to turn those waters into a bastion for their ballistic missile submarines, but fighter sweeps overhead and marines descending on their shake-and-bake islands would complicate such plans.
And thus there is an obvious programmatic implication. In the early 1960s, the Royal Air Force proposed that Britain’s military stance around the world be built around a chain of airfields on Commonwealth islands from Britain to Cyprus to Australia. As Greg Kennedy wrote, “the Admiralty correctly interpreted the Island Strategy as an attack on their plans for aircraft carriers and amphibious ships” (British Naval Strategy East of Suez, 1900-2000: Influences and Actions, Routledge, 2004, p. 184). The argument at least challenged naval plans for the composition and role of the fleet, eventually leading to the 1966 cancellation of Britain’s first attempt at a supercarrier. These days, American carrier and amphibious groups don’t frequent the Mediterranean much, and with plentiful airfields ashore, they probably shouldn’t be hazarded in the Persian Gulf. The development of a wider array of USAF and USMC operating fields around the world could make those battlegroups less essential yet.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.