Salvaging A Maritime Power

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-09-2021

On April 21st KRI Nanggala, an Indonesian submarine, sank  in the waters north of Bali. This past week the Chinese military offered a large, state-of-the-art salvage ship to assist the Indonesian Navy in recovering the remains of that submarine. 
What is fascinating is that the US Navy, which has - or had - a much closer relationship with Indonesia than China, was not leading the recovery effort. Why not? Because the US Navy only has two salvage ships left in its fleet. The two ships (USNS Grasp and USNS Salvor) are both nearly 40 years old, and are finally due to be replaced over the next decade as the Navy adds eight ships designated as both salvage and ocean tugs. That it has taken the Navy a decade to get the new construction program started speaks clearly to the Navy’s inability to enunciate the basic needs of a maritime power.
An observer might comment that: “the US last lost a submarine in 1968 (USS Scorpion) and the few things we do lose in deep ocean probably don’t warrant any more extensive recovery capability than these two ship - Grasp and Salvor."
That, of course, would be consistent with the thinking of much of the national security community in Washington DC. That community has endorsed, since 1945, a steadily declining US Navy. To be fair, the Army and Air Force have also declined dramatically in size since World War II. But there’s a dramatic difference and the difference is this: the US is not a land power, it’s a maritime power. 
Or was. 
Since the 1960s the US national security community has refashioned the United States as a land power, mainly because it could. We had huge ground forces in Europe, and sizable, though not as large, land forces in East Asia (Korea, Japan, for a while Vietnam), and the Navy’s function was to get the army to the fight, a la World War II. We created an overarching system that would allow the US to fight WWII in Europe - again. 
WWII in Europe was an Army, or more accurately Army - Air Force war, not a Navy war. To make this point, remember this: the Army used the Marine Corps landing manual to plan the landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France. But they did not use Marines. The number of US Marines who served in Europe in WWII is a very short list. Not to take anything away from the Army planners, but the politics behind that decision were neither honorable nor high-brow.
Part of the decision is, perhaps, because those who take it upon themselves to fashion national security policy understand naval operations even less than they understand ground and air operations. And, after World War II wrapped up, the strategic thinking had already been done for them. Between 1945 and 1991 Washington could get away with little strategic thought because it wasn’t really needed; countering the Soviet Union was the end, and the ways and means had been worked out already. All they really needed to do was follow the instructions. But, it’s of note that the one guy the national security community loved to ridicule as a simpleton - Ronald Reagan - was the guy who implemented the strategic shift that brought the conflict to a successful and peaceful conclusion.
And since then…
Since the Goldwater-Nichols (GN) legislation of 1986, this trend among the cognoscenti of Washington towards land-power thinking has accelerated. Among other things, GN had the effect of forcing rough balance in budgets, with each service getting something approaching equal shares. More importantly, it made senior officers “Joint;” by the late 1990s Admirals and Marine Corps Generals talked blithely about acting as force providers to the Joint Force Commander but spoke little about Naval operations. The unique “naval” perspective of the Navy - Marine Corps team began to fade away and with it the one thing that made this team so valuable to the nation: strategic perspective.
By 2016, after 15 years of the War on Terror, we had an entire generation of Marines who had essentially no naval experience.
For well more than 130 years prior to the creation of the Department of Defense, US Naval forces, Navy and Marines, operated around the world furthering US interests, promoting trade, and engaging in strategic shaping (the number 1 mission of a great power navy) and yet staying out of strategic difficulties. One of the major reasons for that was the very nature of Naval forces - they were (and are) both mobile and they are limited. A single ship, even a single carrier battle group, can do a great deal, but it can’t invade and hold a nation. Even if you have the forces to pound the enemy into pulp, you can’t stay there forever - you simply don’t have enough people. That simple fact forced Naval forces to devise elegant solutions that served to get US interests back on track, but without the “unpleasantness” of long-term occupation of some country. Naval forces had to act, achieve the desired result, and then leave - in relatively short order.
That isn’t how ground or air forces work: an Army needs a large base, as does an Air Force, and once there, the investment being so large, they don't want to leave. Consider Camp Bondsteel...
Long before we had a Department of Defense, long before “Joint Doctrine,” and joint staffs and joint publications teaching “Military Decision Making and Planning,” we had small teams with exceptional talent developing comprehensive long-range strategic and operational plans that, when put to the test, succeeded admirably; search the internet for “War Plan Orange” and “Rainbow 5.” Two years before Pearl Harbor was attacked the combined planning staff (which was tiny compared to today’s monster staffs) laid out in great detail not only what forces would be needed to defeat Germany and Japan, but how they would be used, and what weapon construction programs would be needed, what factories needed to be built, how to train millions of men in just a few years, etc.
And before that, strategic thought was clear enough that threats to the US had been clearly defined and were understood by those in uniform.
Would we have had clearer strategic thinking today if we had separate Naval and Army-Air Force Secretaries as we had before World War II? It’s impossible to say, history cannot be rewritten. But what is clear is that 76 years after the end of World War II, 74 years after the creation of the Department of Defense, and 35 years after Goldwater-Nichols, we have little if any strategic clarity and while we can succeed tactically and operationally, our strategic failures represent a growing and painful list. And one of the major “threads” that run through US strategic malaise of the last 75 years is the lack of thinking as a maritime power, and the prevalence of land power thinking.