A new report by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) is warning that the U.S. Navy is reaching a “tipping point” after which it will no longer be able to exercise global dominance. According to this analysis, “current strategies based on combat-credible forward presence are unsustainable.” The basic message behind this classic piece of military speak is that as the size of the U.S. Navy continues to decline, the costs of operating the Fleet increase and threats proliferate, the United States will not be able to dominate the world’s oceans as it has for decades. This is particularly interesting because the defense of the world’s oceans and the conduct of strategic operations from the sea (under the catchy bumper sticker of AirSea battle) are central elements of the Obama Administration’s new defense strategy.
Based on current shipbuilding plans and the expected life spans of existing ships, the Navy is on a glide path that will reduce its size from nearly 300 ships to around 240. At the same time, the costs of maintaining older ships continues to go up, as does the slice of the Navy’s budget that must be devoted to personnel costs. New ships are never cheaper than the ones they replace, although the next generation of combatants — the CVN -21, the DDG-1000, the new variants of the DDG-51, the Virginia-class attack submarines and the Littoral Combat Ship — will be more capable. Ironically, the demands on the Navy have not declined since the end of the Cold War. As a result, the CNA study concluded that “the Navy battle force has shrunk by 20 percent in the last decade, while the number of ships on deployment has remained relatively steady. In a period of constant demand, resources to meet those demands, pay for needed future structure, and meet growing demands for spending on people and health care have shrunk. They will not grow in the future. There is a gap that must be addressed.”
Even at 240 ships the U.S. Navy will be able to deploy overwhelming power in any one theater. But as the threat continues to evolve, including new anti-access capabilities such as ship-killing ballistic missiles, ultra-quiet diesel-electric submarines and advanced sea mines, it will become more difficult and potentially costly. Also, even with the planned deployments of new aerial capabilities such as the E-2D surveillance and command and control platform, the F-35 and possibly unmanned combat systems, air defense and strike will be a challenge in the face of more capable defenses.
The central question raised by the study is: can the United States continue to maintain its role as the provider of security for the entire Free World as its military shrinks in size? The situation CNA projects for the Navy also applies to the other Services. Costs are rising, the equipment pools are shrinking and also aging and the demands are going up. If, as the CNA study suggests, the Navy will have to be more judicious in its deployments and the nation overall more selective in its interventions, how will this affect the peace and stability of the world?
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