by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Navy probably won’t shrink in the coming decade. Neither will it get any bigger as the Pentagon absorbs at least $450 billion in cuts compared to earlier projections. A Navy that holds steady at 285 combat vessels plus roughly 110 support ships would represent a small reduction compared to plans forged roughly five years ago that anticipated an increase in the combat fleet to 313 vessels.
The possible flattening of the Navy’s force structure is not yet official policy. The sailing branch “will have to re-look” the 313-ship plan, Adm. Mark Ferguson, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said at a recent conference in Virginia. A formal plan for a steady-state fleet could take another three years to hammer out, Ferguson said.
The looming change in long-range planning comes on the heels of the Barack Obama administration’s recently unveiled new Defense Strategic Guidance. The military “will have a global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, while still ensuring our ability to meet our defense commitments to Europe, and strengthening alliances and partnerships across all regions,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote in the 16-page document.
Analysts have unanimously interpreted the Defense Strategic Guidance to mean a shift in resources away from land forces and counter-insurgency towards air and naval forces and deterrence operations.
But the shift in resources doesn’t necessarily mean more resources, once the planned overall budget cuts are made. The Navy’s budget is not likely to get much bigger in real terms; likewise it’s unlikely to significantly shrink. It’s the lack of growth that could force defense planners to abandon the 313-ship fleet. Even before the $450-billion haircut was announced, the annual cost of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan exceeded likely budgets by at least 7 percent, according to Ronald O’Rourke, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service. The Navy spends around $12 billion a year buying 10 new ships, on average.
Navy leaders are already assuring audiences that a steady-state fleet is adequate. At a presentation in Washington this month, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, displayed a graphic showing the current distribution of the Navy’s approximately 140 deployed combat vessels (the other 140 are in maintenance).
Eighty U.S. warships are in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, within range of China’s own, rapidly-modernizing navy. Another 15 vessels are near the U.S. Pacific coast. Forty-five ships are in the Atlantic. Today’s Pacific force levels are high enough, Greenert said. There is no “big naval buildup in the Far East,” he claimed.
If the overall size of the U.S. fleet is to remain the same in coming decades, the Navy must reduce future shipbuilding or decommission existing ships early — or both. It’s not clear yet which approach the Navy will take. All possibilities are under consideration, according to information leaked to the press.
The Navy has mulled early decommissioning for seven of its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and five amphibious landing docks. The cruisers and amphibious ships would leave the force in 2013 and 2014, several years earlier than planned. The amphib cuts seem less likely, as the Navy has reached an agreement with the Marine Corps to boost the amphibious fleet from today’s 29 vessels to 33, down from the Marines’ preferred 38.
The most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan anticipates the production of 276 new vessels. Some areas are more likely than others to see cuts.
The Navy has considered building new aircraft carriers every seven years, instead of every five, as is currently the practice. The slower build rate would eventually translate into a smaller carrier fleet, today numbering 11. But the Navy has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the 11-carrier fleet.
The Navy is unlikely to reduce submarine production. For years the sailing branch struggled to fit two Virginia-class subs per year into the budget — and finally achieved that goal in 2011. Cutting subs would waste billions of dollars in efficiencies and would eventually drop the sea service below the 40-something attack submarines considered the bare minimum for a global presence. Owing to maintenance and transit times, fewer than 10 attack submarines are available to regional commanders at any one time.
The technically-troubled Littoral Combat Ship — a lightweight, modular corvette optimized for low-intensity operations — seems most likely to suffer the biggest cuts. Building 55 LCS was “the driver that gets us the floor of at least 313 ships,” then CNO Adm. Gary Roughead said last year. Likewise, eliminating LCS flattens the force structure. The Navy has already ordered 24 LCS for production through 2015. Ending production with the current vessels alone could produce the 285-vessel, long-term fleet … and spare the Navy the headache of managing weapon-system development for the corvette.
As always, details regarding force-structure plans will emerge only after the Navy has thoroughly vetted them. And long-terms plans could change on short notice depending on projected budgets — and also depending on the world security situation.