The Navy's Hidden Crisis: It's Too Small - and Getting Smaller

Flickr: U.S. Navy

September 21, 2015

Not many Americans understand how many Army divisions we have, the percentage breakdown of the Air Force’s fighter/bomber mix, or the three “Triad” legs of our strategic nuclear force.

But just about everyone understands the Navy’s “ship count” and what it means for a president to send a carrier battle group into a crisis zone. And so, amid a more complicated and complex discussion over the sequestration’s impact, the media took notice when Ashton Carter, now Secretary of Defense (and then nominee for that post), told Congress earlier this year that the aircraft carrier fleet would likely continue to shrink.

It was only the latest revelation, though, about how deeply and how quickly the Navy’s ambitions are shrinking—even in an age when our adversaries are growing their own navies in oceans around the world. Ever since Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” the U.S. Navy has been how the country’s leaders have projected power on the world stage—but it’s now clear from years of cutbacks, sequestration, and an aging fleet that we’re going to be doing less of that power projection in the years ahead.

What is not clear, however, is that “less” is the right answer—and that’s a topic that going’s to be front and center in the debates over the nation’s military entering the 2016 presidential race. There will be a dozen voices on the GOP side alone—each struggling to connect with their own “peace-through-strength” message, grabbing the mantle of Ronald Reagan in some capacity or another. When talk in the debates and on the campaign trail turns to defense and national security issues, candidates will need a short hand message to communicate seriousness on the subject. It is easy to lose audiences here—to dive too deep into defense minutia and acronyms as candidates struggle to communicate their clear and steady commitment to American exceptionalism and a strong defense.

Having been involved in the last three presidential campaigns, I can say with certainty: the shortcut to connecting with voters on national security is via a discussion of the strength of the United States Navy. The American voter knows that we cannot protect the seas and our interests overseas unless we have ships that can fight and deliver Marines and carrier-based fighter jets to the world’s hot spots.

As the U.S. Navy gets smaller, the world's oceans are becoming more dangerous.

Here’s the starting point for that discussion: we have a crisis in the fleet, and serious contenders on both sides of 2016 should have a plan for fixing it—fast. Today, at 284 warships, the United States Navy’s fleet is the smallest since World War I. But even that number probably overstates the Navy’s true capability: the Pentagon recently changed the rules by which it counts active warships and if you apply the traditional and more stringent method, the Navy has but 274 warships. Given sequestration, the fleet will continue to decline, as Carter said this week.

Due to budget cuts and the follow-on threat of sequestration, the carrier fleet will likely shrink from the Congressionally-mandated eleven to ten or even lower. Politico reported that Carter further refused to agree to preserve the Navy’s fleet at a specific level, dodging the question by maintaining that “ship count is only one metric … to evaluate fleet effectiveness.”

The Obama administration’s failure to stem the Navy’s decline comes amid recent reports that China’s PLA Navy will surpass the U.S. Navy in the total number of warships by 2020—a troubling imbalance since the Chinese navy is concentrated heavily in the South China Sea, whereas ours is spread around the entire globe. Russia has also embarked on a naval modernization program focusing on new submarines and destroyers. It is expanding or building new naval bases in the Arctic, Pacific and Black Sea. Russia and China have both invested heavily in asymmetrical anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to deter the United States Navy from approaching waters near their shores. As the U.S. Navy gets smaller, the world’s oceans are becoming more dangerous.

The Secretary of the Navy’s “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for FY2015” documented a requirement of 306 ships for the Navy based on the Pentagon’s 2012 Force Structure Analysis. That number is certainly too low and is—as the Congressional Budget Office has found—unachievable under the current budget trend lines. No one in Washington would bet their own money that the Navy will grow in the decades ahead. In fact, given current budgetary trends, the Navy will shrink to around 240-250 ships, and America will no longer be the global naval power it is today.

It is important to remember that at any given time, the Navy can only keep about a third of its ships at sea; ships have to be maintained, and crews have to train and rest. The Obama administration has stated that it needs 67 ships on station in the Western Pacific. So if the Navy were sustained at 300 ships, and if the requirements for the Western Pacific were met, the Navy would have 33 ships available to carry out its missions in the rest of the world at any given time.

The bipartisan National Defense Panel’s report on the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review recommended a Navy of between 323 and 346 ships and warned that if China’s power and provocations continue to grow—and there is no sign whatsoever to the contrary—the Navy would need to be even larger.

In light of growing tension across the world’s oceans and seas, this bipartisan recommendation of between 323 and 346 ships should be considered a floor rather than a ceiling.

Given Russia’s invasion and occupation of the Crimea, proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and saber rattling in the Baltic region, rising tensions between China and it neighbors in the East and South China Sea, and increasing demand for sea-based anti ballistic missile defense around the world, especially as Iran and North Korea ramp up their ICBM programs, the Navy’s 2012 analysis has been overtaken by events and the number of ships it deems necessary to fulfill its mission is certainly too low. In light of growing tension across the world’s oceans and seas, this bipartisan recommendation of between 323 and 346 ships should be considered a floor rather than a ceiling.

Yet under the Navy’s current plan, the ship count will not reach 306 until 2022 and will never rise above 316 ships. Further, independent analysts from Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service believe that current shipbuilding funding, even assuming that sequestration is reversed, is entirely inadequate to execute the Navy’s stated 306-ship plan. The Secretary of the Navy’s own report concedes that the current funding levels for shipbuilding are not adequate to fund both the shipbuilding plan and to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The Ohio-class submarines account for one third of America’s nuclear triad and are due to retire in the 2025-2035 timeframe. The replacement of the least vulnerable leg of the nuclear triad is a national priority and, thus, simply must be funded.

The administration that will take office in January 2017 regrettably has few tools left to address both the short- and long-term issues impacting fleet size. For many decades, the Navy maintained a large number of inactive ships which received caretaker maintenance and were, therefore, available to be placed back into service relatively quickly should the need arise. Since 1997, however, the number of inactive ships maintained by the Navy has dropped from over 200 to less than 50. The rate at which the reserve fleet is being wiped out has hastened under the Obama Administration.

Just recently, all six remaining U.S. owned ships of a class of modern minesweepers—the Osprey-class coastal mine hunters (MHC 51)—were scrapped. Further, there are current plans to scrap two Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships (MCM 1), which are out of service but could quickly be deployed to the Persian Gulf and East China Sea. These moves are particularly short-sighted since the recently announced “upgunned” version of the Littoral Combat Ship will no longer support a mine countermeasures mission. Together with anti-ship ballistic (ASBM) and cruise missiles (ASCM) and quiet submarines, maritime mines are a key asymmetrical tool that can be used by American adversaries—as Iran used extensively in the 1980s in the Persian Gulf. The unnecessary loss of the Osprey and Avenger platforms is, thus, particularly troubling.

Even as the reserve fleet is lost, following defense budget cuts and defense contractor consolidation, America has precious few shipyards capable of building major warships. The vendor base for critical ship components in several key cases has only one or two potential suppliers, which are small and cannot readily scale up to provide shipyards with more than the currently planned number of components.

Yet with dedicated and responsible action by the new administration and this Congress, it may still be possible to reverse what is quickly becoming irreparable damage to the fleet.

First, the 11 carrier commitment must be maintained and funded by Congress even in the face of current the Administration’s hostility to fleet of that size. Carriers still matter. No navy in the world can put to sea a ship comparable to the 100,000-ton-displacement American CVNs, which are powered by two nuclear reactors, carry up to 85 aircraft and are crewed by over 5,000 sailors and aviators when their air wings are embarked.

It is for this reason that in a crisis, the first question asked by an American president is, “Where are the carriers?” It is the reason that our ally the Philippines recently welcomed the USS Stennis and its escorts into the neighborhood as a counterweight to the region’s assertive superpower, China. It is the reason our commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq can send soldiers and marines into desolate and hostile environments. They rely on fighters launched from the carrier decks to deliver ordinance, on demand, to support the ground troops’ missions. These carrier-based aircraft do not require bases in the war zone or in nearby and often fickle allied nations. It is why China, which has been developing anti-access and area-denial strategies to deter the United States from sending its carriers into the Western Pacific, is, itself, building a fleet of five carriers.

Second, those inactive ships and ships facing near term decommissioning that offer the Navy meaningful capability should immediately be prohibited by Congress from being scrapped or sold until the next administration takes office. There are currently ten Oliver Hazzard Perry-class frigates, thirteen Los Angeles-class submarines, and one amphibious assault ship due to be decommissioned and either sold or scrapped in the next five years. Additionally, there are three Denver-class Dock Landing Ships currently in the inactive fleet that could be reactivated to provide immediate amphibious capability.

With dedicated and responsible action by the new administration and this Congress, it may still be possible to reverse what is quickly becoming irreparable damage to the fleet.

While all 27 of these ships are relatively old, they could fill a capability gap until an increased number of new warships can be built. In all but a few cases, they still outclass any ship they would confront in a conflict. With these 27 ships, and maintaining current building plans, the Navy would reach 306 warships by 2017 and could exceed 326 ships in 2019.

The Navy’s recently announced concept of “distributed lethality,” whereby it will enable everything that floats to fight by adding or upgrading weapons systems on its ships, is particularly suited to these older platforms. For example, it would be very useful to extend the amphibious carrier USS Peleliu’s life for ten years so that the ship remains available to deploy marines in a contingency. Additionally, using the ship’s massive flight deck and hangers as a platform to test and deploy VSTOL and VTOL aircraft and UAVs, such as the Fire Scout, as well as new lasers and rail guns could create a powerful surface combatant.

Turkey has already taken such an approach with the Perry-class frigates it purchased from the United States. Turkey’s frigates, now the G-Class, have been kitted with advanced radars and an eight cell Mk41 Vertical Launch System. The updated ships posses the ability to employ several variants of the long-range surface-to-air Standard Missiles, the short-range surface-to-air Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, and the RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile. These frigates are now among the most lethal ships in the Mediterranean. Australia executed a similar upgrade to four of its frigates. There is no reason the United States cannot match Turkey and Australia in upgrading its remaining Perry-class frigates.

The important gain in ship count as outlined above would be temporary, as it is unlikely those 27 ships would have any more than 10 to 15 years of additional useful service life, although ship life extension programs are becoming more effective and sophisticated. Buying time with these ships, however, would allow the Navy to build the new warships it requires to protect the global commons for the remainder of this century.

Third, over the long term, to maintain a fleet of 326 or more cutting edge warships requires an increase in the rate of shipbuilding. Prompt action is a must as building modern warships involves a long lead time. Virginia-class submarines and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers take roughly four years to build. Both of these ship classes are built at two different yards and the current Navy plan calls for one ship per year per yard over the next several years. Fortunately, even with the current diminished industrial base, there exists sufficient capacity to increase this build rate to two ships per yard per year for both classes.

 If America does not immediately reverse the decline of its fleet, free trade, commerce, and navigation will be at serious risk as will be the very security of our nation.

The Virginia-class submarine is perhaps the best antidote to A2/AD capabilities. With their wide variety of weapons, including underwater robots, the Virginias can stealthily dominate in even the most inhospitable coastal environments. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with their Aegis combat suite and vertical launch systems can defend carriers and amphibs in an asymmetrical environment as well as provide offensive punch. While these high-tech platforms are expensive, they are critical to maintaining America’s edge against potential adversaries whether they seek to deny access throughout the Western Pacific, Persian Gulf or even the Mediterranean Sea.

Since the Navy has been building submarines and destroyers at a lower rate for the past decade, the nation’s main challenge will be rebuilding the human capital at these four shipyards. Provided a long-term, stable ship-building plan is approved and funded, defense contractors should be able to make the required investment to expand their workforce. If production increased starting in fiscal year 2017, by 2024 there would be an additional 10-12 major warships over the current plan, with additional ships every year thereafter to replace those ships reactivated to fill the current gap as they reach the end of their extended service life.

The recapitalization of the Navy’s fleet on the foregoing basis would yield an additional 16 commissioned warships by 2024, bringing the projected total fleet to 329 ships by the time the next president is likely to leave office. Maintaining this shipbuilding rate would then allow for the responsible retirement of the 27 ships reactivated to fill our current fleet size gap. Such an undertaking will be neither inexpensive nor easy. It is not, however, dissimilar to the CBO’s recommendation for the Navy. The additional budget required for such a program would be approximately $10 billion dollars per year with new funds appropriated for the operations and manpower accounts to crew and deploy the ships. While significant, this amount can surely be funded out of a total federal budget of $3.8 trillion.

It is hard for anyone born after 1945 to imagine a world where the oceans—the global commons—are not open for trade and commerce or where freedom of navigation is imperiled. The benefits to this country and the international community of the Pax Americana that has existed at sea for so long are derived from a robust American Navy. If America does not immediately reverse the decline of its fleet, free trade, commerce and navigation will be at serious risk as will be the very security of our nation. Supporting the US Navy will be a winning message for any candidate in 2016.

After all, it’s a message that can resonate with just about any voter.


Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner at Arent Fox LLP and served as a U.S. Representative to the UN General Assembly.

A version of this post originally appeared in Politico.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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