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Navy Spends Itself out of Existence

July 9, 2008

I want to comment on a couple of recent articles questioning US Navy shipbuilding practices that are causing the fleet numbers to shrink to its smallest size in a century. First from Winslow Wheeler at the UPI:

In early 2001 the U.S. Department of Defense anticipated an approximate budget of $900 billion for the Navy and Marines for the period 2001 to 2009. Not counting $95 billion subsequently received for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy/Marine Corps “base” — non-war — budget was increased by $174 billion to $1.07 trillion.

Did this additional $174 billion reverse a central trend that has plagued the U.S. Navy for decades? Did the extra $174 billion stem the receding tide of a shrinking and aging fleet? The opposite has been the case: The U.S. Navy’s fleet of active duty combat ships has sharply declined over time. Overall, the U.S. fleet is today as small as at any point in the post-World War II period. From a 1953 high of 835 combat ships, it persistently hovers in the 21st century at about 300.

We think that the hi-tech military is directly responsible for the drop in numbers coinciding with the rise in shipbuilding costs. Around the late 1960s and early 70s, the USN leadership devised a long-term maritime strategy (as did the Army and USAF did with their particular services), to restore the relevance of their Industrial Age battle fleet, designed to defeat the German and Japanese navies of WW 2 and modernized for the same function against an almost nonexistent Soviet Fleet until the later Cold War. Multi-billion dollar platforms like Aegis cruisers  would defend the carriers against cruise missiles, in partnership with F-14 fighters to counter Russian bombers. Fast and deep diving super subs would protect the Task forces from Soviet submarines, while new amphibious forces were themselves given a stand-off “over the horizon” mission. 

What this has given us is mushroomed costs geared toward keeping the aircraft carrier fleet still relevant rather than a strategy to fight 21st century war at sea. Warships should be built to fight, but instead we get  ships that are too costly to lose in a major war at sea, and unprepared for a war of attrition. They remind us of Admiral Jellicoe’s magnificent fleet of dreadnoughts at the Battle of Jutland, where he had the fate of the British Empire in his hands and the German High Seas Fleet in his gunsight. At the last minute he turned away for fear of losing his high tech and massively expensive battleships, and would never get a second chance.

There is a way back, though, and one way might be to begin construction NOW of small craft that can restore ship numbers and offer a greater flexibility for fighting terrorists and conducting missile war at sea. Galrahn points to this article in the Armed Forces Journal encouraging future naval strategists to “Think Small“:

The Navy has a relatively large number of surface combatants capable of conducting a wide range of missions in a high-intensity conflict. However, the Navy lacks adequate capabilities to operate effectively in the littorals, in particular in enclosed and semi-enclosed seas (popularly called “narrow seas”).

A force of the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), when they enter service in the next decade, will not significantly increase the Navy’s capabilities in conducting littoral warfare. This bad situation can be changed by building or acquiring a force composed of multipurpose corvettes and missile combat craft…The quickest and cheapest way to create a capable force of small surface combatants is to build them at home or buy ships already in service with U.S. allies. Several classes of corvettes are built by friendly countries, such as the Israeli 1,295-ton Sa’ar 5 (Eilat), the German 1,685-ton MEKO A-100, the Swedish 620-ton Visby, South Korea’s 1,200-ton Po Hang and the Italian 1,285-ton Minerva. For example, the Sa’ar 5-class multipurpose missile corvette — three of them were built at Litton’s Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. — is one of the best designs of a small surface combatant today.

The report also details the fact that the new LCS is too far in production for cancellation and should be complemented in service with the corvette type mentioned above. Building small ships, to us, should be a no-brainier and we are astounded that the Navy didn’t take the opportunity to commission large numbers soon after the start of the War on Terror. Is the leadership in some state of shock over the profound changes in warfare since the end of the Cold War? Is there no one in the higher command who will say “the old ways aren’t relevant anymore and were must change how we build ships in line with our Maritime Strategy”? This was the impression I got from reading the new strategy, that the Navy knew what it had to do but just couldn’t bring itself to cancel the Big Ships it loved so well and which served it so effectively over the last century.

Only when there is a change in leadership and a bulk retirement or firing of the old Cold War Admirals can we see real change in the force structure. The practices of the past can no longer work when you are faced with an enemy that doesn’t play by the old rules of warfare. It is either adapt or die, and so far I think we’ve done enough of the latter as we speed for a 200 ship navy, or less.

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