American military wives and Iranian Revolutionary Guards used to share the same comfort of the ticking U.S. military clock.
Two, sometimes three years in advance, they knew how the aircraft carrier groups would rotate through the Arabian Gulf and back to U.S. shores. Similarly, China’s commanders, building up their island bases, could rely on the same cycles.
Two years ago, that pattern was broken.
In 2018, for the first time in a decade, the Arabian Gulf was left without an aircraft carrier strike group, as the USS Harry Truman sailed to the Arctic Circle—the first carrier to patrol there since the Cold War.
It was the first taste of a new strategy—dynamic force employment—designed to keep U.S. adversaries guessing.
Now, with a couple of years of experience under its belt, the U.S. military is taking stock, analysts say—and counting the costs.
Ready and Waiting
“You could tell, three years out, basically where each U.S. carrier task group would be in the world,” said Dr. Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, referring to the past cycles.
“The traditional model of employment of Naval task forces involved a fairly long time at sea—for example in the realm of seven to eight months—followed by a sustainment phase of heading back to the continental USA for a refit and resupply,” he told The Epoch Times.
The problem with these clockwork cycles, the norm since the Cold War, was that they also telegraphed plans to adversaries, Kaushal said.
For the past two years, the Navy, along with the Army, has begun to experiment with dynamic force employment.
“If adversaries don’t know when a carrier will be on station, don’t know where a carrier is going, when it’s deployed from the U.S., or where it might end up, they can’t very easily read the U.S.’s intentions,” Kaushal said.
Dynamic force employment means that carriers are no longer methodically rotating through regions.
Instead, they sit in port at home, ready and waiting, like the sailors and their loved ones.
The new strategy follows the demands of the 2018 National Defense Strategy for the military to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable,” Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told The Epoch Times.
“U.S. allies and adversaries know that U.S. forces will be deployed overseas and will respond quickly if there’s a crisis. But day-to-day, they won’t know whether U.S. force deployments are going to happen.”
It’s not just the Navy that’s been trying to implement this strategy of unpredictability, Clark said. The Army’s deployments to Europe and the Pacific Pathways are also linked to dynamic force concepts.
Revamping for ‘Great Power Competition’
Pentagon leadership is pivoting the military away from counter-insurgency toward the challenge of renewed “great power competition” with Russia and China.
Russia, and even more so China, have been chipping away for decades at the post-Cold War supremacy of the U.S. military, using the latest technology to precisely target U.S. strategy and equipment.
While the United States was mired in the war on terror, China’s military spending increased around tenfold, according to many estimates.
Since 2018, the U.S. military has been revamping to meet the challenge.
In addition to replacing Cold War-era equipment, the generals are rethinking decades-old strategies.
The Marine Corps is reorienting itself to go back to its amphibious roots as an expeditionary force to focus almost entirely on the Pacific.
The Army has overturned the norms of acquisitions, trying to get new technologies into the hands of soldiers as fast as possible, to harness the exponential growth of digital technology. Navy strategists are looking at more numerous smaller, unmanned boats—and putting less emphasis on carriers and large amphibious ships.
The Price of Maintenance
The challenge for dynamic force employment is keeping a larger proportion of the military prepped and ready to go, Clark said—which means more money.
“Right now, operations and maintenance costs are the fastest-growing part of the DoD budget and have been actually crowding out procurement to some degree in this current budget,” he said.
“Service leaders are concerned that as the cost to maintain the force ready increases, their ability to equip the force with new technology is going to be reduced.”
The White House highlighted maximizing readiness as one of the features of the FY 2021 budget request submitted to Congress earlier this month, which it says puts aside a total of $126 billion for readiness and increases troop numbers by 5,600 in total.
But in ramping up for dynamic force employment, according to Clark, the Pentagon has stumbled on a new dilemma: keeping forces on such a heightened state of readiness—but not deployed—costs nearly as much as an actual deployment.
In other words, the main cost of deployment is in being ready.
“By maintaining these units at a high level of readiness, all you really save is the actual movement to the deployment area in terms of fuel,” Clark said.
The Pentagon has been taking advantage of this equation by shifting slightly back toward a more stable deployment pattern, he said.
“You might as well harvest the benefits of deployment if you are going to pay for them,” Clark said.
In theory, less overall deployment is needed with dynamic force employment, he said. This is because of the stronger deterrent effect of a less predictable force. But with little cost saving in not deploying, he thinks that the Navy will deploy the same levels as before.
“DoD is still trying to wrestle with how much they can really reduce the average number of deployments,” he said.
Changes to carrier groups in the Arabian Gulf over the past two years are often cited as the first example of dynamic force in action.
For the past decade or so, carriers have been a constant presence in the Gulf.
“During 2018 and 2019, they deployed carriers instead to Europe, to the North Atlantic, to the Mediterranean, and then just accepted a reduction in carrier deployment overall,” Clark said.
“They accepted that gap, but the expectation was that they could deploy carriers wherever they want, and they deployed carriers to the European theater instead, to give the Russians something to think about.”
Allies in the Dark
The United States is the only Navy in the world to have adopted such a strategy, Kaushal said. Other forces simply don’t have the military muscle or money; nor do they shoulder the same international burden.
But the new strategy brings challenges to maintaining relationships with allies who are used to seeing forward-deployed American forces as proof of commitment.
The U.S. military wouldn’t inform allies in advance of their plans, according to Kaushal. He said America needs to communicate with allies to make sure they don’t misread the shift in strategy as abandonment.
In the past, America’s generals were charged with creating credible deterrence through being able to guarantee victory in all-out war.
But in recent years, adversaries such as China and Russia have developed new tactics that exploit the gray area between all-out conflict and peace: the so-called gray zone.
U.S. military planning now demands that the United States be able to tussle with adversaries in that gray zone—what is also sometimes called below the threshold of conflict. For now, dynamic force deployment has a limited effect in the gray zone, because for now, the U.S. military comes in packages that are too large.
But that may change if the United States adopts the advice of many strategists pushing for the adoption of smaller units.
“In theory, if you have a more dynamic deployment, you don’t have to send them in big packages,” Clark said. “So your forces don’t need to go out as brigade combat teams, carrier strike groups, Air Force air expeditionary wings.”
The problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t have smaller packages.
“Your smallest unit of issue for a ship is the littoral combat ship. The Navy is trying to use littoral combat ships to try to do some of that gray-zone work,” Clark said.
But even now, dynamic force deployment will make adversaries think twice about gray-zone aggression, Kaushal said, because they are no longer certain when a U.S. carrier group might appear on the horizon.
Naval commanders during the Cold War also used to keep adversaries guessing about the location and destination of carriers as they sailed through multiple regions, Kaushal said, but not to the level of dynamic force employment.
“[Dynamic force employment] is in some ways a return to form, but in terms of its intensity and just how short the cycles are, it’s a new take on an old way of doing things,” he said.
Kaushal and Clark both think that dynamic force employment is here to stay.
“I think it’s definitely going to intensify,” Kaushal said. “Not only is it embedded in the Navy’s thinking, it’s also spreading to the other services. I would say this is definitely one of the things that will outlive [former Defense Secretary James] Mattis’s tenure in office.”
Apart from the cost, another drag on dynamic force employment is likely to be the effects on those waving goodbye to their loved ones from the quaysides in San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia.
“We are not yet seeing the impact of that in terms of morale or retention, but we will,” Clark said. “It will take a couple of years to manifest itself.”
“When we had more predictable deployment patterns, you knew months or years in advance when your next deployment was going to be. Now that’s much less true,” Clark said.
In the past, when troops were ready, they would leave right away. Now, they may leave immediately, or they may wait several months. And in the past, when troops got back from deployment, they would quickly stand down. Now, some returning troops remain ready to go.
The intensity of operations and uncertainty might appeal to some adventure-seeking troops, Clark said.
“But it also means that you can’t depend on that deployment schedule like you used to, which, with families, is hard.”