Commentary: Redefine the US Navy

By Everett Pyatt

Naval power is determined by the ability to conduct successful operations, deter others from destabilizing or aggressive actions, and promote freedom of the seas. But how much is enough?

Following the end of the Cold War, the US Navy declined from 600 ships. Numerous force level plans were defined, but none was implemented. Even though the current plan is for 306 ships, the force level is 274 and even less when 11 cruisers are taken out of active forces awaiting overhauls. A shrinking fleet is not likely to impress anybody, and it is the job of the requisite congressional armed forces committees to turn the tide.

There are many contributing reasons: the failure of the acquisition system to provide timely replacement ships and aircraft; the impact of budget sequestration; and rising personnel costs that take away funds needed for force-level maintenance.

However, the level of naval involvement has not declined. Increased demands for forces resulted in longer deployments, impacting sailors and wearing out equipment since maintenance activities have been reduced. One estimate indicated that area commanders’ requests would require 450 ships.

A bottom-up force study conducted in 1993 estimated a need for 346 ships. This was after the Cold War and before any indication of the Chinese Navy buildup.

The issue was raised in the quadrennial defense reviews of 2010 and 2014, which indicated discomfort with Navy force planning and suggested revisiting the problem, but accepted the bottom-up review as the baseline. This has been ignored by the administration.

Force level planning has become more complicated by the congressional budget process, including sequestration, but resource constraints have always been a peacetime issue. The acquisition system has failed to under­stand this. Most programs do not have cost ceilings and average overruns are about 25 percent, resulting in a total overrun of $400 billion in current major acquisition programs. The result is force reductions, but the world and oceans have not gotten smaller.

Challenges have actually increased since 1989. Drug smuggling, piracy and illegal immigra­tion have grown worldwide. Navy ships used in support of the Coast Guard have been retired. Activities in the Middle East dominate carrier operations. Ship-based ballistic missile defense, a mission unknown 25 years ago, is an important element of national and allied defense.

Aircraft have been worn down by excessive use, and inadequate numbers of replacement aircraft have allowed the fleet to age. The ballistic missile force is nearing the end of a 42-year service life, while ship repair funding has been insufficient to maintain materiel readiness.

Yet all of this is unaffordable with current budgets and acquisition processes.

Russia has started rebuilding its attack and ballistic missile submarine forces, possibly starting from where they left off in the 1990s with an almost undetectable nuclear submarine. China is in the midst of major ship and submarine building programs, including nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, supported by advanced conventional submarines and surface ships.

The strategic purpose is partially clear. China wants to use the Navy to expand worldwide influence. This started with participation in pirate control measures in the Arabian Sea, China’s first out-of-area operation where it gained important lessons as well as good will.

China has made it very clear it intends to control the China seas for resource exploitation and possibly traffic flow to Taiwan, Korea and Japan. In addition, Iran, militant Islam and North Korea provide major challenges, partially involving naval forces. Allies can contribute, but their plans are constantly changing and not too different from the turbulence in US programs.

Conflicting demands of international posture, budget reality and system costs can be solved only by top-down planning. This is where Congress must provide for defense, the resources needed to achieve desired goals and the program plans to live within the available funds.

Such planning is in the purview of the armed services committees, specifically the seapower subcommittees. These should work on a bicameral, bipartisan basis to develop the plan for future naval power. It is best done by mission area, including low-level sea control; anti-submarine warfare; power projection with associated air defense and antisubmarine defense; ballistic missile defense; amphibious warfare; undersea warfare; and combat logistic forces.

Start this process now with new programs while they can be adjusted to fit reality.


Everett Pyatt is the Leader of the Project for Defense Management Leadership at the McCain Institute, a part of Arizona State University. He is formerly Assistant Secretary of Navy.

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