The Obama Administration’s new national security strategy envisions a so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region which involves the deployment of the greatest share of U.S. military assets to that region as well as investments in new capabilities and operational concepts to deal with the emerging threats in that region. Recently the pivot has come under criticism from a number of quarters including supporters of the current administration. The major complaints are a lack of sufficient specificity with respect to the goals of the strategy and underinvestment in the kinds of capabilities and facilities that the strategy requires. Bluntly stated, the U.S. lacks sufficient Navy ships, long-range strike assets, amphibious warfare capabilities and defended bases to support a credible pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. Congress came to the aid of the Obama Administration. Rather than accepting the Obama Administration’s shipbuilding plan for Fiscal Year 2013 which would see the size of the U.S. Navy decline from nearly 300 ships to around 250, Congress added more than three billion dollars to the budget. It directed the administration to acquire one additional DDG-51 destroyer and one additional Virginia-class submarine. In addition, Congress provided money for advanced procurement to support continuing construction of LPD-17 amphibious warfare ships, to repair the USS Miami, an attack submarine damaged by fire, and to maintain nine warships that the Pentagon had planned to retire prematurely.
A major flaw in the pivot is the lack of sufficient sealift to support enduring amphibious warfare requirements. Repeated studies by the Navy, Marine Corps, and Pentagon have all confirmed the requirement for sufficient amphibious sealift to move and deploy two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs). Two MEBs is the minimum capability the U.S. requires in order to seize a major beachhead in an opposed landing. Given the growing threat to fixed ports and airfields that prospective adversaries can pose with ballistic and cruise missiles, going across the beach may be the best way for the Joint Force to successfully engage hostile land forces and defeat anti-access and area denial threats.. The Obama Administration has settled on a fleet of 29 amphibious warfare ships, well below the minimum number needed — 33 — to support a two MEB landing. Moreover, by not funding construction of additional amphibious warfare ships until 2017 (either additional LPD-17s or a new class of amphibious warfare ships) the administration risks crippling the shipbuilding industrial base.
Congress addressed this major flaw in the pivot plan in two ways. First, as noted above, it provided funding for advanced procurement of long-lead items for an additional LPD-17. Congress also specifically identified the requirement to lift two MEBs as the proper one by which to size U.S. amphibious lift requirements.
Unfortunately, Congress was not able to pass a FY2013 defense authorization bill before adjourning until after the November elections. However, it has put down a challenge to the current administration should it be re-elected as well as setting a floor under the shipbuilding program should Governor Romney win election. In either event, the message is clear. If the U.S. is to continue to play its vital role as the world’s sole superpower, the Navy and Marine Corps require more ships and Congress was willing to pay for them.
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