Not a Smaller, But Different Navy
A few quotes in the Gates speech before the Navy League yesterday has some claiming (here and here) the Defense Secretary wants to shrink the Navy. I can prove from within the same speech this is emphatically not true, but instead shows his intent to change the fleet. First, though, here are the quotes in question:
I do not foresee any significant increases in top-line of the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions. At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to 6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.
But then at the same time he goes on to critique the shrinking number of assets:
We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms – thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.
Earlier in the speech, the SecDef pointed out our Navy’s overwhelming capability in conventional warfare:
- The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
- The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
- The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines – again, more than the rest of the world combined.
- Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells. In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
- All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
- And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.
Then went on to show how our enemies are taking advantage of our obsession to build a force for a particular kind of last century warfare, to counter it with newer cheaper alternatives:
Potential adversaries are well-aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the us to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.
Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages – to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.
He goes on to lists these “neutralizers” such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, swarming suicide speedboats, and old-fashioned naval mines. Historically, you may remember reading from the world wars, large warships such as those the USN is exclusively armed with are at risk from light and lethal threats, especially in shallow waters. Again historically they must be escorted with and preceded by small warships in such waters, the age-old but unglamorous flotilla. Here is where the “different” Navy comes:
In particular, the Navy will need numbers, speed, and the ability to operate in shallow water, especially as the nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war.
Three key words mentioned: numbers, more, and networks. He is talking of building up the fleet of ships geared toward the new warfare. Here’s more calls for increase in another capability:
Last year’s budget accelerated the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, which, despite its development problems, is a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go places that are either too shallow or too risky for the Navy’s big, blue-water surface combatants. The new approach to LCS procurement and competition should provide an affordable, scalable, and sustainable path to producing the quantity of ships we need.
No one I know likes the LCS. It is too large and expensive for the type of warfare he is talking about, just not as big or costly as the aircraft carriers, destroyers, and amphibious ships. But did you note the important word “quantity” here? You don’t want cuts when you are talking quantity. And he rightly places the blame not on the budget but on the type of ships the Navy buys:
The Navy’s DDG-1000 is a case in point. By the time the Navy leadership curtailed the program, the price of each ship had more than doubled and the projected fleet had dwindled from 32 to seven. The programmed buy now is three.
Gates is not decreasing the shipbuilding budget. It is the rising cost of high end warships that is sinking the Navy:
Just a few years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected that meeting the Navy’s shipbuilding plan would cost more than $20 billion a year – double the shipbuilding budget of recent years, and a projection that was underfunded by some 30 percent.
So, it is their own fault, for trying to build a fleet meant to fight another type of warfare that is unlikely, a decisive battle with another carrier-based navy that doesn’t exist, then using it like a world-spanning gunboat navy for peacetime policing.
Of course we need a large fleet, and I think one which includes many small vessels, corvettes, patrol craft, HSV catamarans for the amphibious role, motherships, would see our numbers rise to historical proportions, from 400-600 easily under current shipbuilding budgets. The point Mr Gates made in mentioning our conventional capability, is because we are already overwhelmingly strong in this area, we should start considering other areas where we are weak and in which the enemy might take advantage of for their own gains.
So, do we really need a fleet more powerful than 13 other navies, or would fewer battleships to contend with 2 or 3 such peer foes be enough? Consider that the other 10 or 11 navies we are in competition with are likely our close allies! Gates here is without doubt calling for cuts in certain capabilities which we spend way too much of our small budget upon, but in quantity he is calling for increases.