The Navy’s Last Chance for Reform
Sometimes you think you are a “voice in the wilderness”, then something like this comes along. Not sure if David Axe reads this blog, though more likely this is just plain common sense coming from the military journalist and fellow Carolinian, who echoes the desperate call that the Navy reform for today’s conflicts. From the Stimson Center blog here is “Navy’s Chance for Reform, Slipping Away“:
For decades, the Navy has been built around its aircraft carrier battlegroups and amphibious groups. The numbers of each, and the total number of warships in the fleet, has declined modestly, while the average size of ships and their aggregate combat power has increased greatly. Today the Navy has just 280 major warships, compared to nearly 600 two decades ago. But owing to the collapse of any serious competitors, and the rapid advance of American technology, “in terms of overall fleet combat capability, the US Navy enjoys a 13-navy standard,” according to Bob Work, a former naval analyst and current Navy undersecretary. That means the U.S. Navy is as capable as the next 13 world navies combined. By contrast, the British Royal Navy, during the height of its supremacy in the 19th century, pursued only a two-navy standard.
With such overwhelming conventional superiority, the Navy has a rare opportunity to reform, in benign conditions, in order to address capability shortfalls. These shortfalls lie not in the realm of state-on-state conflict, at which the Navy excels, but in small, low-intensity conflicts and stability operations. The Navy could play a more meaningful role in today’s small wars, if it possessed the right equipment and mindset. That means a willingness to invest in smaller, cheaper ships capable of operating closer to shore.
The writer goes on to discuss why the USN must build ships costing hundreds of millions, instead of the billion dollar warships the admirals prefer. Small ships are desperately needed for small wars, the kind we most often fight, and such vessels have proven essential in the Big Wars as well. On a daily basis we advocate fewer aircraft carriers, surface battleships (missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, there is little difference anymore), nuclear submarines, and large amphibious ships, since such vessels are individually more capable than ever before, as Mr Axe points out. The high costs of deploying only exquisite warships, not only in price but the numbers you buy and the other important capabilities you give up, hasn’t deterred the Navy:
Work estimates the Navy needs as much as $20 billion annually for new ships in order to maintain the existing force structure. But in the last decade, the Navy has been appropriated just $12 billion per year, on average. Vessels for low-intensity conflict rarely cost more than a few hundred million dollars apiece; traditional big-war ships rarely cost less than a billion. A single DDG-1000 stealth destroyer costs as much as $4 billion…
They are also too big for the soft-power mission:
Today, the Navy sends large amphibious ships on humanitarian missions across the developing world. But existing amphibs are too big for most ports in poor countries. The USS Kearsarge assault ship had to anchor miles off the coast of Nicaragua in August 2008 and was forced to shuttle doctors and engineers ashore in heavylift helicopters. When the helicopters suffered maintenance problems, health clinics ashore were nearly overwhelmed by angry patients, waiting for hours under the hot sun…
But the Navy sees no need for Reform as it continues business as usual, says Axe. You get this idea as well after reading two recent articles from defense-focused websites. The Monster Myths of the CVL Concept maintains there is no substitute for large deck aircraft carriers, which might be the Navy’s F-22 Raptor since it focuses the service disproportionately on the rare Great Power conflict. Also, A Navy Ship On Time, Budget lauds the “economy” of the $5 billion, 14,000 ton Zumwalt destroyer, even though only 3 can be bought to replace 30 of the previous Spruance class. Wedded as it is to a smaller fleet, they seem out of touch with all reality, with a shrinking budget and as foreign navies welcome small carriers, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels, conventional subs, fast attack craft, and even stealth boats, all of which the Navy rejects as being incapable for modern warfare. A sad state for our worn-out sailors and ships who must do more with greatly reduced resources available.
David failed to point out that there might be one other opportunity for the very conservative USN to reform, but a very dangerous one. During wartime the Navy has been known to take to change quite speedily and successfully. Why take such a risk though with the lives of sailors if you don’t have to? Now is the time.