For decades, the United States has maintained a permanent naval presence in key overseas waters to reassure friends, deter potential adversaries from aggression against those friends or initiate immediate combat or relief operations.
The Navy has accomplished this by a predominant method: Staff a ship and train its crew in U.S. waters, then send crew and ship across the oceans to maintain an American presence overseas. But this approach is very costly, particularly when, as now, we are conducting extensive operations halfway around the world. A given crew and ship can maintain presence overseas only about 15 to 20 percent of the time in this way, requiring the Navy to own five or six ships for every one continuous deployment it wants to make.
Recently, the Navy has been experimenting with training crews in U.S. waters, but then having them fly overseas to already deployed ships. Thus, a ship could remain on deployment for a couple years at a time, but crews would rotate in and out every six months, consistent with the Navy’s normal practice of not wanting to keep sailors away from home longer.
Transit times across the oceans, typically a month each way, would be eliminated in most cases, allowing a given crew to devote all six months of its deployment to the presence mission and improving efficiency at least 25 percent.
Why is this idea important? Because today, the Navy’s size is determined less by possible war-fighting demands than by the overseas presence mission. Yet, given the fleet’s current size, the Navy is having trouble doing so without overworking people and equipment. To maintain deployments in the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf and Western Pacific, and conduct other tasks as well, the Navy has just over 300 major ships. They include a dozen aircraft carriers, 115 major surface combatants like destroyers and cruisers, 55 attack submarines, 18 ballistic missile submarines, 38 amphibious-assault ships (for the Marines) and various other vessels, including minesweepers and support vessels. With a more efficient way of maintaining overseas presence, the Navy would not need to increase these numbers, and could do more with its existing fleet.
A few years ago, the Navy adopted this crew-swapping idea for minesweepers. But it has resisted trying out the concept for its main warships. Admittedly, it is harder to make this idea work for a large destroyer with 300 sailors than for a small minesweeper with a dozen or two. One must find overseas ports that can handle all the extra people securely, and overseas shipyards that can perform the necessary maintenance on U.S. vessels.
The Navy also may have thought that this crew-swapping practice, if widely adopted, would weaken its case for a larger fleet—and possibly even lead to a smaller one. To its credit, the service is trying out the idea anyway, first applying it to a half dozen destroyers based on the West Coast.
Recognizing that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations are increasing the size of its fleet, it still must explore ways to reduce the strains on its ships and sailors. It also may be assuming that, on the heels of a major combat operation in which its aircraft carriers delivered much of the punch against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it faces no imminent political danger of having its fleet cut back in size.
This crew-swapping idea is only the latest in a number of initiatives the Navy has been undertaking, under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, to improve its use of existing assets. It is now forward-basing submarines on Guam and continuing to homeport a full range of ships, including an aircraft carrier, in Japan near the waters where they are frequently used. It is converting four unneeded nuclear-armed submarines to carry conventional missiles.
But this crew-swapping idea could be the biggest yet, the kind of idea that we should expect from a Defense Department that is asking taxpayers to increase its annual budget dramatically. Big increases can only be justified if the Pentagon works hard to get more bang for the buck.
It also is the kind of idea that should appeal to those who want to transform the armed forces. Military transformation is understood to mean the development of new weapons. However, it often is more dependent on new uses of what we already have. Especially for warships, which cost between $1 billion and $5 billion and stay in service for 30 or more years, it is no less important to make better use of existing assets than to build new ships.