Proposals for deep cuts in military forces are swirling through Washington. Among the ideas being put forward just for the Sea Services are to reduce the number of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers from 11 to 9 and delay the start of the next Ford class aircraft carrier, cancel the next generation ballistic missile submarines, reduce the planned production rate for nuclear attack submarines from two to one, eliminate a large portion of the amphibious warfare fleet and cancel both the Navy and Marine Corps variants of the advanced, stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Such proposals are ill-advised from a strategic, operational and even industrial base perspective. The world’s oceans are once again becoming a contested domain which ought to concern Americans since we are a trading nation and dependent on the movement of materials and goods by sea. China, which is deploying a ship-hunting ballistic missile, has also sent its first aircraft carrier to sea. Beijing is seeking control over the South China Sea despite equally valid claims from several other Asian countries. Iran, whose naval operations were once restricted to the Persian Gulf, has recently been seeking to significantly extend its naval reach. The regime in Teheran sent a naval squadron through the Suez Canal. An Iranian admiral recently declared that it is his country’s intentions to deploy warships as far away as the Atlantic Ocean. Russia is acquiring four Mistral amphibious warfare vessels from France and has planted a titanium flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, asserting a claim over contested territory.
Operationally, naval forces provide flexibility, continuous forward presence and sheer military power. Inherent in the way we have designed and built our ships and structured naval forces is the ability to conduct a wide range of missions from humanitarian assistance and counter piracy to major combat operations. The reality is that virtually all U.S. military operations are away games. Regardless of how the U.S. seeks to engage, influence or fight states and non-state actors alike it must first get there and protect its lines of communication and resupply from the United States. The most straightforward and cost-effective way to bring power to bear across vast oceans is with naval forces. Reducing naval forces means a disproportionate loss of U.S. influence, combat power and security.
Naval forces also provide tremendous inherent operational flexibility. Due to their large volumes, U.S. aircraft carriers, large deck amphibs, SSGNs and cruisers allow commanders to employ them in novel ways, carry unusual cargoes and support a wide range of operations. This can include deployment of Army units and helicopters, the movement of humanitarian relief supplies and the operation of SOF. With the STOVL variant of the JSF, the F-35B, the Navy will double the number of ships that can deploy advanced combat aircraft. In the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) went from conducting combat training to providing emergency assistance in the blink of an eye. No other navy or branch of the U.S. military could have done this.
Proposals to delay ships and reduce build rates will have significant negative consequences on the entire shipbuilding industry. This is particularly true for the nuclear ship construction. Delay the next aircraft carrier and not only will its price rise but so too will the price of nuclear attack submarines and potentially the next generation ballistic missile submarine. Like proposals to eliminate the Jones Act, which requires that ships carrying cargo between U.S. ports be built in U.S. shipyards, cutting back on planned construction rates for nuclear-powered naval vessels actually could result in greater expenditures in the long-run. It is clear that those making such proposals have no clue about the integrated nature of the naval construction industry.
Finally, the idea of foregoing the next generation of ballistic submarines is the height of silliness. The SSBN force is the truly secure retaliatory portion of the current nuclear triad. It provides two-thirds of the available warheads under the New START Treaty. The existing Ohio class boats will need to be retired starting around 2020. There is no alternative to building a new class of SSBNs, at least until we reach the nirvana of a verifiable global nuclear disarmament regime.
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