Right-sizing the United States Navy

Late one September evening in 1779, Captain Richard Pearson of the British Royal Navy stared from the deck of his 44-gun ship at a badly damaged foe. He yelled down to a vessel on the verge of sinking, to give his enemy the opportunity to surrender. John Paul Jones, captain of the broken and outgunned Bonhomme Richard, surveyed his own surroundings and answered, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

More than 3,500 miles from home off the east coast of Great Britain, Captain Jones ultimately won that fight, demonstrating that even at the dawn of our nation the United States Navy was a formidable expeditionary force. Today, almost 100 ships from the U.S. Navy are deployed overseas. But maintaining the right number of ships to meet global requirements is becoming harder every year under reduced budgets and frequent global crises.

As the Navy has focused on maintaining the numbers of ships it needs, maintenance, training, and modernization budgets have declined without a commensurate reduction in operations. The Navy currently operates 285 ships, a far cry from the 594 ships of the Reagan era, and no match for the World War II era when the Navy maintained over 6,000. While the number has declined over time, associated demand has not.

The Pacific: In its 2014 Report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted, “Given China’s growing navy and the U.S. Navy’s planned decline in the size of its fleet, the balance of power and presence in the region is shifting in China’s direction. By 2020, China could have as many as 351 submarines and missile-equipped surface ships in the Asia Pacific. By comparison, the U.S. Navy, budget permitting, plans to have 67 submarines and surface ships stationed in or forward deployed to region in 2020, a modest increase from 50 in 2014.”

Europe: Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of Naval Forces Europe, said he wants more time with carriers and big deck amphibious ships in his area of responsibility to return high-end naval skills to the region. He highlighted that, “Now faced with a sophisticated and aggressive Russia, NATO needs to sharpen its skills in areas such as amphibious operations, and antisubmarine and anti-air warfare.”

South America: General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, stated he needs 16 ships to fulfill the presidential mandate to reduce the flow of narcotics by 40 percent. He has gone so far as to say he just needs “something that floats, with a helicopter.”  

The Middle East: Despite America’s withdrawal from Iraq and continuing drawdown in Afghanistan, strikes against ISIS are flown from Navy ships, and the recent crisis in Yemen found U.S. amphibious warships standing by off the coast.

The picture is clear: supply is down, demand is high. So what must be done?

Previously, deployment lengths were increased. Now, the Navy plans to decrease deployment lengths from ten months to eight, still shy of the six-month deployments of just a decade ago. Consequently, the Navy still needs more ships, but how many? In 2014, the Chief of Naval Operations called for a fleet of 450 ships. Yet the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan tops out at 319 in 2028, and drops to 303 by 2044. With projected annual shipbuilding costs of $19.7 billion, it is questionable whether the Navy can even afford its current plan. The Navy only receives $15.7 billion per year for ship construction, pointing to the immediate need for a larger shipbuilding budget.

Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia, the chairman of the Sea Power and Projection Forces subcommittee may have a partial answer. The biggest burden on the shipbuilding account over the next decade will be the replacement for the Ohio class submarine. The Ohio class, arguably the most critical and certainly most undetectable leg of the nuclear triad, is reaching the end of its lifespan of over 40 years. Representative Forbes has proposed viewing the Ohio class as the strategic assets that they are: “I don’t think we can allow the Ohio Replacement to be part of the overall shipbuilding budget or else we will never meet the goals that we need to meet for the next decade or so.” While not completely relieving the pressure on the shipbuilding budget, funding the Ohio Replacement outside the Navy budget goes a long way toward allowing the Navy the discretion to build more ships.

But additional steps are necessary: end sequestration so services can place resources where they are most needed; allocate required resources to the Navy, which may entail decoupling defense discretionary spending from the rest of the budget; and pursue a high-low ship mix. Low-end vessels such as the Navy’s latest high speed ships—the littoral combat ship and the joint high-speed vessel—offer a lower cost approach for fleet commanders to maintain presence in their areas of responsibility in peacetime so larger ships needed for more traditional missions can focus on maintenance and training.

As the planet’s threats become ever more dynamic and dangerous—think ISIS, Syria, Boko Haram, Yemen, Iran, Ukraine, and the South China Sea—Congress must ensure that the Navy they are entrusted to maintain is able to win where and when it matters.