What’s your Number? The 450 Ship Navy

Last week Military Times reported that the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the House Armed Services Committee:  “For us to meet what combatant commanders request, we need a Navy of 450 ships.”

As one would expect in the 2014 election cycle, those critical of the Administration such as Representative Randy Forbes (R-Va), who is Chairman of the HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, were quick to jump on this statement.  According to the report he said: “In 2007 we met 90-percent of the combatant commander’s requirements. This year we will only meet 43 percent.”

Hmmmm.

I have traced U.S. ship force levels, which are summarized in the handy little chart as follows for the fiscal years 1972 through 2011:

Navy Ship Levels FY 1972 to FY 2011

What our chart shows is that ship force levels began their fall in 1989 and didn’t level out until 2007.  It also shows that the U.S. Navy was last at 450 ships in FY 1993, the last budget of the Bush I Administration, with further reductions planned in that budget.  In 2007, the year noted by Rep. Forbes in which he posits that force levels had met 90% of combatant commanders’ requirements, ship levels were at 115 surface warships and and 278 total active levels–the nadir of force levels for both surface warships and total fleet assets.  In the most recent fiscal year the total number is 122 and 289 respectively.  It is simply not clear how operations have doubled since 2007, given that the fleet force levels have actually risen slightly.

So how did active ship levels get to the levels they are now and how is the optimum force determined?  The answer begins with what was called the Bottom Up Review (BUR) reported out in October 1993 by then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.  With the fall of the old Soviet Union, our own military force levels were falling but the question on everyone’s mind was–what gets cut and what would be the new force composition?

Secretary Aspin ordered that the Services realign themselves away from Cold War force levels and assumptions toward the a more realistic set of threats based on the new reality.  This document established as a baseline that U.S. force levels would be maintained at a level to be able to engage and prevail in two near-simultaneous regional conflicts.  After that time Congress mandated that the Department of Defense continue to reassess its force alignment and provide a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) every four years beginning in 1997.

QDRs have been reported out in 1997, 2001, 2006, 2010, and most recently, this month.  The BUR and the subsequent QDRs have consistently established as a goal a Navy force level of between 288 and 322 ships.  The QDRs are required to be in alignment with national defense strategy, which is how they achieve their goals.  Because it takes a long time to develop and construct ships, the Navy looks 30 years down the road in terms of future ship construction.  Over the next 30 years the Navy is proposing to build about 266 new ships.  At the proposed rate of replacement–and due to the increased operational tempo from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that has contributed to equipment overuse and early aging–the fleet level will vary from year-to-year from a low of 270 to a high of 306.

In 2010, Congress mandated an independent review of the QDR by an Independent Panel.  This panel reiterated for clarity the goals of national defense strategy:

“…the defense of the American homeland; assured access to the sea, air, space, and cyberspace; the preservation of a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of that region; and provision for the global common good through such actions as humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster relief…”

In its conclusion for an alternative plan for force structure, the Independent Panel recommended a force of 346 ships based on the educated conclusion that the threats identified in the original BUR were still valid.  What the Independent Panel did not take into account in its estimates, which the QDR does, is the factor of resource constraints in determining how to handle risks.  Thus, absent some overriding new factor, it seems both unlikely and unjustifiable to advocate for a 450 ship Navy.  In all fairness to the CNO, the article did not detail how he came to his conclusion, the threats such a fleet would be designed to meet given force restructuring, the doctrinal changes upon which the force requirements are based, nor the period of time he would project such a build-up.

But given the criticism regarding the assumptions from the FY13 budget two years ago voiced by the Congressional Budget Office, about whether the Navy would be able to reach the force levels goal of more than 300 and maintain its surface combatant numbers under the current budget ceiling, advocating for a 450 ship Navy at this time is very odd.

The CNO, whose career stretches back to the mid-1970s, must be more than aware that the brave talk of a 600 ship Navy in the early 1980s came to naught.  This was at a time that force levels began at about 530 ships and so the bump-up then was 70 ships, where the bump-up today would be 160.  Even given the massive infusion of funding in reaction to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in Fiscal Years 1979 through 1981 during the Carter Administration of more than 6.5% a year, and the tremendously wasteful “rounding error” under Reagan, ship force levels did not reach a peak of 594 until 1987, leveled off for two years, and then quickly fell to just above 400 by 1993.  Much of this precipitous fall was due to the methods employed in achieving an arbitrary target of ships: obsolete mothballed ships were activated, service life was extended for outmoded destroyers and other auxiliary ships, and the mismatch in mission and the cost growth for other hull types, most notably the FFG-7, created a situation in which a 600 ship Navy, given the most likely threats, was neither desirable nor sustainable short of major war.

A build-up to 450 ships means that the Navy construction and service life extension programs would have to double, depending on the mix of ship types.  That would take an additional investment over current levels beginning FY15 of about $16-20 billion a year–about 3 to 4% of the total defense budget and almost 2% of the total federal discretionary budget.  This investment would need to extend over several years.  Given that ships reach their service life limits and are retired on a regular basis, and that naval construction involves several years, this type of investment would need to extend for at least a decade at the least and, most likely, for the entire 30 year window.  For anyone who knows about ship driving, adjusting fleet levels is not like driving an SSBN, it is more like driving an AO.  You turn the wheel and the results are realized far down the road.

In addition, though I loved to kid my Army and Air Force colleagues that the Constitution requires a Navy and prohibits a standing army, the reality is that the effective defense of the United States and its interests requires that all Services be adequately sized, funded, and trained.  It takes significant investment to build a wing and a cohesive fighting unit.

The United States, through over 30 years of economic policy, exposed its industrial base and the commodities upon which the Navy depends, to foreign competition.  As a former Navy contracting officer and project manager, I found it increasingly hard over the years to find the necessary spare parts–or those companies with the capabilities to produce those spares.  This was particularly true for older hulls and airframes.

In the D.C. atmosphere of trophy hunting, this perspective is probably the key one.  We now find ourselves dependent on using the Navy to protect resources needed by that very Navy far from the continental United States.  The countries and economic interests that benefit from our security umbrella are yet to step up and pay the bill.  Finally, the window to prevent the squeeze that the Navy is currently experiencing would have been in FY 2002 when, in the wake of 9-11, it became clear that we would require naval and support operations half a world away that would eventually exhaust both the finite numbers of personnel in an all volunteer force and the equipment necessary for them to carry out the mission.  It is important to remember that even though naval combat has not been involved (though combatants provide the necessary security), over 95% of the cargo and equipment needed for war-fighting and humanitarian aid travels by ship.

With the caps set for the latest budget agreement it appears that Congress will have difficulty finding the money for the refueling and service life extension of USS George Washington, an option that is projected to cost $7 billion.  The question then arises as to where there is an additional $16 – $18 billion per year can be found in the absence of an overriding strategic and operational vision?

The real threat is that the current poor-mouthing of the U.S. budget picture and the overblown political rhetoric on deficits has enforced an austerity regime that leaves us vulnerable both economically and militarily.  By all means let’s course correct now, but let’s not undermine credibility in the process.

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