As 2019 grinds to a close, conventional forward-looking strategists will cite North Korea, Iran, China, climate change and the militarization of Space as future national security flash-points in the years ahead. They are, of course, right. But each of those daunting threats, for the large part, have been studied and are widely understood. More often than not, real threats to global security emerge from unexpected quarters, only to be mis-managed because they are unexplored and misunderstood.
So, rather than focus on reinforcing the daunting set of “known” security challenges and issues for the next decade, we will try to highlight some near-term, mid-term and long-term “sleeper” maritime national security issues out there that may have a disproportionate impact on national security in the decade to come.
Thomas Modly, acting secretary of the Navy.
© 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP
What Will The “Modly Interregnum” Mean?
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly stepped into his new “temporary” post on July 15, 2019, in the middle of what was already shaping up to be a period of dramatic change within the U.S. Navy. Big changes were afoot in strategic direction, procurement plans and war-fighting strategy, and they are continuing apace under the “Modly Interregnum”.
For the Trump Administration, this is relatively normal. As the White House moves so slowly in filling government posts, acting “appointees” are eschewing caretaker “do no harm” approaches and are putting their own stamp on the agencies they have been tasked to lead. But few are putting more of a stamp on their agency than Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly. He’s set to be one of the most consequential “Acting” Navy Secretaries in modern history.
It is evident that Modly is leading like bureaucrat who has nothing to lose. While he is taking on the all the dirty-work, clearing the deck of contentious issues that could trip up a new permanent SECNAV, he isn’t shying away from making big plays—committing the Navy to fixing the Ford class aircraft carriers, pushing forward a draconian Defense Department plan to decommission the first four littoral combat ships, three dock landing ships and four cruisers early. To advance unmanned prototypes, he is cutting five out of twelve Arleigh Burke class destroyers from the mid term shipbuilding plan, and reducing the buy rate for everything from Virginia class submarines to the Navy’s next-generation frigates. What happens in Modly’s tenure will affect the Sea Services for decades to come.
It is pretty unprecedented for an unconfirmed bureaucrat to have such a weighty impact upon a military Service. But we don’t know how this experiment in un-appointed U.S. naval leadership will turn out. By the end of the decade, Modly will either be scorned as the steward of America’s precipitous naval decline or hailed as an innovative herald of America’s future command of the seas.
The Navy must gird for operations in a radioactive environment.
The Navy Will Struggle To Operate In A Radioactive Environment:
As the decade advances and the relative margins of U.S. power recedes, a number of second-tier powers—beyond the usual suspects like Iran and North Korea—will acquire nuclear weapons and the delivery systems required to employ them.
Lacking a focused national strategy to manage future nuclear proliferation, the prospect of an array of mini-Cold Wars is a grim one. The prospect of a nuclear exchange in the next decade cannot be dismissed. While these types of exchanges may occur in North Korea or in the Middle East or at the India/Pakistan border, other countries, when faced by a more dangerous world, may opt for a nuclear deterrence.
In that regard, the U.S. Navy merits putting a far greater and more urgent focus upon reducing the operational impact of radioactive environments. The Navy cannot afford to sideline critical ships—or entire fleets—in the event they are exposed to radioactive fallout. Old operational practices, little changed since the Cold War, are outdated, and the Department of Defense needs to refresh their Concepts-of-Operations for a potentially radioactive battlefield. The Navy needs a means to not simply protect warships and aircraft from fallout, but it will need to manage the mundane aspects of logistics, figuring out how to land and resupply the force in an environment compromised by fallout from a nearby nuclear explosion.
It’s not an easy task, and things need to be decided upon now to prevent a surprise later in the decade.
Fussing about CBRN protection is something of an oft-mocked, old-school Cold War concern, but the threat of nuclear fallout is real enough that it should be a far stronger driver of U.S. Navy preparedness posture and platform procurement than it is today.
The US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Oft-Ignored Areas Will Be The Source Of Crises:
As the U.S. focuses upon holding the line in the South China Sea and the Arctic, the Mediterranean keeps sliding into instability while the colonization of the largest unclaimed area of the earth, the Antarctic, keeps looking more and more likely.
Having covered the creeping instability of the Mediterranean before, it is worth remembering that the Mediterranean remains a locus of Western maritime commerce, accounting for fifteen percent of global shipping activity in 2013. Destabilization of this key maritime crossroads poses an underestimated risk to the global flow of commerce as well as Europe’s longstanding NATO alliance.
To the South, mainstream Western strategists are ignoring an enormous geopolitical prize, the Antarctic. With Antarctic stability governed by the Antarctic Treaty, a relic of a more idealistic time, far too many have dismissed the Antarctic as a geopolitical force. But it is the largest ungoverned land mass in the world, and China, with it’s apparent apatite for unclaimed territory, is already encroaching on territorial claims and working to secure safe maritime pathways to the region. It is steadily positioning itself to overturn the Antarctic Treaty even before the scheduled Treaty review in 2048, opening the region to resource extraction and, ultimately, colonization.
With America serving as the primary driver of measured Antarctic policy and, with the longest-established base network, America is, arguably, one of the more viable claimants to Antarctic territory. With that in mind, America should decide upon a strategy now, today, and relentlessly pursue that strategy over the next decade—just as China is as is currently working to secure seaborne transit paths to and from this desolate, ice-covered continent. Either that, or America will have frittered away one of America’s most under-appreciated ventures in enlightened global stewardship.