Budget Woes Could Sink Future Navy Plan
Flattening budgets could scuttle the Navy’s plan to boost its combat fleet from today’s 285 warships to 313. But don’t panic. Far from resulting in a “hollowing” of the Navy, as GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney has claimed, the funding cuts will most likely produce a future Navy that’s about the same size as today’s.
In other words, the U.S. Navy will still be the biggest and most powerful maritime force in the world.
Multi-year ship buys already in place should bring around 10 new ships annually into the fleet for years to come. Even after some cuts, that’s enough to maintain the size of the force for decades.
There is a downside to the steady-state fleet, however. After a very busy decade that has taken its toll on the Navy’s frigates, destroyers, cruisers and other vessels, it’s possible the Navy could scale back its operations in the less volatile parts of the world such as Europe and Latin America. Deployments to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific will probably remain at their current level.
To be fair, the Navy has only telegraphed changes to the future fleet plan; nothing’s official yet. The service will “will have to re-look” the 313-ship plan that was originally released in 2006, Adm. Mark Ferguson, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said at a recent conference. “I think all of us recognize that under those  assumptions and that financial picture that was a great force structure to do what was needed,” he said, according to Carlo Munoz of AOL Defense. “We are going to go back and take a look and see what direction that is [now].”
Funding cuts aside, a shifting strategy alone could justify a fleet smaller than 313 vessels. The 2006 plan, written at the height of the Pentagon’s obsession with counter-insurgency, emphasized maritime security operations against smugglers, pirates, seaborne insurgents and other low-tech enemies. Maritime security operations tend to favor large numbers of inexpensive ships spread over a large area, constantly alert for bad guys. As opposed to, say, full-scale war with China. That kind of major combat is the purview of less numerous, high-tech warships sailing in tightly-packed battle groups.
The Obama administration’s new Defense Strategic Guidance, announced last week, calls for a “global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.” The flipside is that U.S. military will likely invest fewer resources in Latin America and Europe. “The world has changed,” explained Adm. James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The “Pacific pivot” means greater focus on high-end warfare. That in turn could see the Navy spending more of its dwindling budget on large, sophisticated vessels such as Virginia-class submarines, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ford-class aircraft carriers. There have even been rumors the Navy could expand the truncated DDG-1000 stealth battleship program.
The pivot’s big losers could be the smaller, cheaper ships optimized for low-intensity operations: the Littoral Combat Ship and the Joint High-Speed Vessel catamaran, for instance. Cutting the troubled LCS program in half, from 55 ships down to the 24 already on order, alone could reduce the future fleet from 313 to today’s level. “We say we’re going to build 55 LCSs,” shipbuilding expert Norman Polmar said. “Well, I’ll bet anyone here a whole dollar bill we’re not going to build 55.”
The steady-state fleet will still be overwhelmingly huge and powerful. At a combined 3 million tons displacement, today’s U.S. Navy outweighs the next dozen biggest navies, combined. The U.S. enjoys similar advantages in missile capacity and naval aviation. While China struggles to operate just one aircraft carrier, the U.S. Navy possesses 11 big flattops and nine small ones. After a brief period during which China built more submarines than America, U.S. sub production now equals Beijing’s — and American subs are bigger, better and last longer.
Slicing 30 ships from future plans will not significantly affect this calculus. And if the new Navy plan favors high-end warships over less-capable, smaller vessels, when it comes to major warfare the American advantage could actually increase. Even if the overall number of warships doesn’t.