by Brett Davis. He is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, who also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. Brett holds an M.A. in International Relations from Northeastern University. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.
Another Presidential election cycle is upon U.S. citizens, and the chorus of inputs regarding national security and naval policy has already started. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, and former governor Mike Huckabee all advocated for an increase in naval assets as part of their potential national security strategy. And, as expected, critics point out the perceived uselessness of a large Navy. To summarize using the words of the current U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, “we also have less horses and bayonets […] It’s not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s ‘What are our capabilities?'”. However, these arguments miss the point entirely. A larger Navy is necessary to reduce the strain on already overworked assets and maintain presence around the world.
A common critical reply to the call for more ships falls in the capability category. Many critics point to technologically advanced weapons systems in today’s fleet, able to fight their way through any battle and emerge victorious. With hundreds of missile tubes, embarked helicopters, deck guns, and the like, all the U.S. have to do is to top-load the current fleet with the latest and greatest weapons systems and America’s Navy is ready for war. Not even close.
With regard to weapons systems, the U.S. Navy fields some of the world’s most outdated equipment and is being outpaced by its potential enemies. Outgoing Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert recently predicted a shortfall in weapons systems in just five years – including torpedoes and several types of missiles. Also, the U.S. Navy fields one of the oldest and irrelevant anti-ship missiles in service, the Harpoon. It’s limited range and antiquated guidance system pales in comparison to Chinese “carrier killer missiles” (Dong-Feng 21D) and several fielded by Iranian forces.
Of course, it all comes down to size: “The U.S. Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined! Why do we need more if we’re already the largest in the world by such a big margin?” This argument is flawed in several ways. For one, the naval size argument is based on gross tonnage; China’s navy is more numerous than the U.S. Navy, but with smaller and lighter ships. Also, most navies lack a requirement to defend national interests around the world like the United States, and their ships are not built for ocean transits or strong sea states that accompany these deployments. A large number of them are tasked with defending their nations’ littoral areas and coastlines – so there is no requirement for worldwide deployments and large numbers of heavy ships. The rest of the world may have smaller, lighter fleets, but they are built for different purposes than the U.S. Navy.
The bottom line, however, is this: The Navy is stretched entirely too thin. The current fleet of roughly 285 ships conducts constant deployments to the South China Sea, Middle East, and Mediterranean. Deployments have already been extended for most Carrier Strike Group elements well beyond the normal 6-7 months, and extended and accelerated deployments put an added material strain on ships in desperate need of maintenance. Sequestration already forced the cancellation of two dozen ship availabilities, and these units continued to operate without the required upkeep. Advanced weaponry is definitely cool, but it doesn’t matter much when your unit is too broken to stay on station and use those weapons.
The Navy’s first responders, forward deployed forces in Japan, Europe, and the Middle East, fare the worst. Due to their high operational tempo in volatile regions, maintenance and upkeep are regularly pushed aside in order to add maritime security patrols. With limited numbers of ships in these locations, large numbers of ships with maintenance problems will create a gap in patrols in these locations – there is already a two month gap in aircraft carrier deployment in the Persian Gulf, severely hampering air operations against the terrorist organisation “Islamic State“. If forward deployed vessels in strategically vital areas are allowed to deploy until breakdown, what are the chances for the rest of the fleet?
“Doing more with less” is a shortsighted strategy that will only work in the short term. Very soon, the Navy will be forced to do less with less when skipped maintenance availabilities and rapid repeat deployments render the fleet non-mission capable due to degraded material condition. The fleet that is already stretched thin at 285 ships will be stretched even thinner when they are forced into emergent maintenance periods and endure long overdue repairs and upgrades. It’s time to shed the complacent attitude surrounding naval ship numbers – adding more vessels to the Naval Register is the only way to ensure constant naval presence in the world’s volatile regions.
- Tyler Rogoway, “All The Things The GOP Candidates Got Wrong On The Military“, Foxtrot Alpha, 07.08.2015.
- Diem Nguyen Salmon, “A Proposal for the FY 2016 Defense Budget“, The Heritage Foundation, 30.01.2015.
- Skye Gould and Jeremy Bender, “Here’s how the US military spends its billions“, Business Insider, 25.08.2015.