What can you say to a military service that is faced with a shrinking force structure, increased demand for its services, growing threats and declining budgets? How about get ready for a train wreck; or in the case of the U.S. Navy, a shipwreck.
In a speech on June 8 at the Naval War College, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Gary Roughead, made it clear to his audience — and one would hope the entire Navy — that they are confronted by a potential disaster of titanic proportions. Simply put, the mismatch between the nation’s willingness to invest in national security, on the one hand, and the demands it makes on the military, on the other, is reaching a crisis point. With a lackluster economy and deficits of a trillion dollars or more projected out at least a decade, it is becoming clear to everyone that defense spending is going to decline sharply. No reasonable observer can really believe the administration’s promise to hold defense spending essentially flat. Cuts are coming.
What makes this situation particularly dangerous for the Navy is that it is ill-prepared to weather such a downturn. According to the CNO, the Navy has little fat left to cut. The size of the Navy actually shrank over the past decade, even as the defense budget soared. The Fleet is the smallest it has been since 1916, its personnel and operating costs continue to rise and the industrial base that supports the Navy has shrunk to a handful of companies and shipyards. Yet, the demands on the Navy continue to grow.
The last great power to experience such a situation, Great Britain in 1972, was forced to abandon its forward deployments and security commitments to half the globe. Then the U.S. Navy was able to take up the slack. Today, there is no one.
It is ironic that the Navy should be in such a position just at the time when in many ways it is more powerful and capable than ever before. Yes, the Navy has shrunk in size. However, in the absence of a blue water threat and deploying an array of modern platforms and weapons systems, it can exercise near total command of the sea. The modern nuclear carrier will soon deploy an extraordinarily powerful air wing consisting of F/A-18 E/F and F-35 strike aircraft, the state-of-the-art E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and the new F-18G Growler electronic warfare platform. Carrier-launched unmanned aerial vehicles will soon join this array. New surface combatants including the DDG1000, advanced DDG51s and the Littoral Combat Ship with its modular mission packages will provide unparalleled capabilities in surface warfare, mine countermeasures, ASW and anti-aircraft/missile defense. Naval missile defenses based on the Aegis radar and the Standard Missile 3 are so good that the administration plans to expand its deployment to at least 38 surface combatants and to make it the centerpiece of a new land-based theater missile defense system. Then there is the fleet of nuclear submarines, in particular the Virginia class with its innovations in sonar arrays, photonic masts, enlarged launch tubes and power plant.
There have been various proposals for how to hold back the tide and make the maximum use of the Navy as a declining asset. So far, the strategies proposed — just muddle through, focus on key centers of national interest or hubs, withdraw from forward deployments in favor of surging the Fleet on demand or create a two-tier Navy — are backward looking. Each reflects an approach to the international order in which the United States and its military are at the center of the global security system. Perhaps it is time that this assumption is challenged. Otherwise, the Navy is facing a shipwreck.
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