An Incredible Shrinking Navy

The late Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, when he became the youngest and most reform minded chief of naval operations ever, vowed to restore the “fun and zest” of going to sea. He devoted much of his tour as the Navy’s top admiral to doing just that.

He knew as well as anyone, however, that a substantial part of the fun and zest he talked about meant throttling back on what in the Vietnam era had become a punishing tempo of operations. Naval ships were kept at sea too much and sailors in home port, with family and friends, too little.

When Zumwalt was CNO, in the 1970s, the United States had a Navy roughly three times as large as now. Today, it has but 278 deployable ships, and of these half are at sea at any one time. In this decade, Congress has appropriated funds to build fewer than six ships each year. In this same period, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have failed to push for more. Given the 30 years of service life today’s ships are presumed to have, the U.S. Navy is on a course that is leading it to an ignoble surrender of America’s long-cherished position of Mistress of the Seas.

Such a course will not easily be changed. Not only has the cost of building naval vessels exploded (the new Zumwalt class littoral combat ship comes in at about $1 billion), it is more than doubtful that America has shipyards capable of building the 300-ship fleet the Navy says it needs to meet current commitments. Equally uncertain is whether there exists the political will to do so, despite the demands of national security.

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