The Seas Are Great but the Navy Is Small
The Obama administration says it wants 300 ships, but it is reducing the number now while promising to build more far into the future, most after a second Obama term.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon leadership has been defending the indefensible before Congress. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently on record deploring last year’s budget cuts are now claiming that the Obama administration’s latest—and still lower—defense budget is adequate. Really?
Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work, an experienced veteran, defended the president’s goal of a 300-ship Navy in an interview last week with the website AOL Defense. He claimed it was equivalent to the Reagan administration’s goal of a 600-ship Navy, on the grounds that newer ships are better than the ones they replace.
That is true in some cases, such as submarines. But it is not true for other ships such as the new LCS (littoral combat ship), which does not have the firepower of the older frigates. Moreover, our potential adversaries, from pirates to the Iranian Navy, have improved their ships as well.
But most important, numbers still count: The seas are great and our Navy is small. Mr. Work’s statement to AOL Defense that “the United States Navy will be everywhere in the world that it has been, and it will be as much [present] as the 600-ship navy” is not persuasive.
The size of the Navy in the Reagan administration (it reached 594 ships in 1987) reflected a strategy to deter the Soviet Union’s world-wide naval force. Today we face no such powerful naval adversary, but the world is just as large, and there is now greater American dependence on global trade and many more disturbers of the peace.
While we do not need 600 ships today, no naval experts believe a 300-ship Navy is large enough to guarantee freedom of the seas for American and allied trade, for supporting threatened allies, for deterring rogue states like Iran from closing vital straits, and for maintaining stability in areas like the western Pacific. For example, the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel led by Stephen Hadley and William Perry last year concluded that the Navy should have at least 346 vessels.
Last week, members of the House Armed Services Committee challenged the president’s plan. In response to a question about whether the Navy was changing how it counts ships to prop up the size of the fleet, Mr. Work insisted that he was following the same rules for counting ships I established 30 years ago as President Reagan’s secretary of the Navy. He is correct; while there are some differences, they are minor. The Navy has not fudged the numbers.
The more troubling problem is that the administration is counting ships that won’t be built at all. Last year, the president’s budget called for cuts of $487 billion over the next decade. Mr. Obama also supports the additional cuts growing out of the sequester that went into effect after last year’s super committee failed to agree on savings in the overall budget. Unless the law is changed, this means an additional half-trillion dollars in mandatory defense reductions over the next decade—cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said would be “devastating.”
A fighter jet approaches the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Indian Ocean.
Naval readiness is already highly fragile. In order to meet current operational requirements, the shrunken fleet stays deployed longer and gets repaired less. There is now a serious shortage of Navy combat aircraft, and for the first time since World War II there are essentially no combat attrition reserves. But the biggest effect of budget cuts will be on naval shipbuilding.