With the Soviet Union long gone and pirates a thing of the past, some people think that America no longer needs a big navy. Navy leaders don’t agree, but budgetary pressures are forcing them to take steps that make it seem as though they do. On August 3, the Navy submitted a proposed 2006 budget to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) that would buy only four ships – a submarine, an amphibious vessel, a coastal patrol boat and a cargo ship. That number matches the lowest level of ship construction seen during the Clinton defense depression of the 1990’s. Warships last for about 30 years, so a construction rate of four per year eventually yields a fleet of 120 vessels. Remember Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship fleet?
The Bush Administration undoubtedly will argue that shipbuilding is programmed to increase in future years, just as the Clinton Administration always claimed until the years in question actually arrived. But the Navy’s 2006-2011 spending plan doesn’t exactly ooze optimism on that score. Among other things, it delays funding construction of a new class of aircraft carriers (the first in 30 years), delays a planned increase in submarine construction to two per year (from the current one per year), delays construction of next-generation destroyers (maybe forever), delays construction of a new class of maritime prepositioning ships, and proposes early termination of a class of amphibious vessels already in production.
So much for the Bush defense buildup. Apparently deferring modernization of major military systems has become a bipartisan phenomenon. At least during the Clinton years the U.S. was shrinking a fleet that really was oversized for the post-communist world. But having rightsized the fleet, budget planners are now inventing new excuses to continue the Navy’s contraction. Under a so-called “6+2” posture, one of the Navy’s aircraft carriers will be rationalized into oblivion, leaving the service with a mere eleven flattops to cover the world (three of which are in maintenance at any given time). Meanwhile, the forward-basing of submarines at Guam is being advanced as a reason for letting the number of attack subs in the fleet fall to the low forties, and maybe even lower.
The nicest thing you can say about these trends is that at least the money didn’t come out of aircraft. It could have: with huge shortfalls in their investment accounts as far as the eye can see, Navy leaders considered gutting their aviation modernization program to make ends meet. But because the average Navy aircraft is actually older than the average warship, it was decided to let shipbuilding take the hit. Obviously, that reasoning will only work for so long — the planes won’t be much use if there aren’t carriers and amphibious vessels from which they can operate. It appears the Navy is running out of options.
Like the other military services, the Navy has entered a budgetary death spiral in which skyrocketing personnel costs and aging equipment are undercutting the investments needed for future warfighting effectiveness. The service wants to reduce its headcount, but that partly depends on buying new ship classes that require less manning. It wants to have the benefits of new technology, but money keeps draining away to maintenance of the existing fleet. It is a measure of just how desperate things have become that Navy leaders thought their best option was to not buy ships. This isn’t the sort of situation most people were expecting when Dick Cheney assured soldiers and sailors four years ago that help was on the way.
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