Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fleet Size Matters

The US Navy is struggling to maintain an adequate size fleet, while fighting a War on Terror and keeping guard on the world's sealanes against future threats. This article from the US Navy League sums up this dire need:

Little more than 13 years ago, with the public release of the
U.S. Maritime Strategy, then-Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr.
effectively argued that a 600-ship Navy was necessary to meet a U.S.
national-security requirement for maritime superiority. Remarkably, the Navy
today is on the threshold of falling be-low 300 ships--the smallest fleet since
1931. If increased ship-construction funding does not become part of the current
Future-Years Defense Plan, the Navy's force structure inevitably will decline
below the level specified in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) issued by the
Department of Defense (DOD)...
There is a real risk under this scenario that
the burden of extended deployments and inadequate resources will fall on the
backs of individual Sailors and Marines--repeating the debacle of the U.S. military's hollow force of
the 1970s. Worrisome world events continue apace to present new and disturbing
national-security risks--from the Korean peninsula to the Taiwan Strait and
beyond to the Indian subcontinent, Southwest Asia, and the Balkans. On average,
roughly 50 percent of the U.S. Navy's active fleet is underway on any given day,
and more than a third is forward-deployed.

I agree with the threat and the need for an increased shipbuilding. How we get there is a different matter:

The U.S. Navy's operations of the past several years demonstrate
that a fleet of approximately 330 ships--including at least 12 carrier battle
groups, 12 amphibious ready groups, 107 surface combatants, and 65 attack
submarines--would be the valid baseline for a Navy able to accomplish its
present engagement and warfighting missions.

One of the few issues my friend Galrahn and I agree, is that the USN places too much emphasis on battle force ships, not enough on the essential littoral mission which we find ourselves contending with. In the Middle Eastern conflict, the Navy's principle role has been interdicting terrorist pirates on the high seas, and occasionally providing close air support for the ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the Navy can do the former mission, while the Air Force, Marines, and even Army aircraft can contend with the latter mission well enough.

The fleet composition mentioned above looks pretty good on paper, in a strictly Mahanian, Cold War view. The writers contend only about 50 new ships will solve the world-wide strain on our sea services, while my own idea is that a bare minimum of 450 will do. I've mentioned before that an All Submarine Navy could carry out all the battle force and sea control duties currently performed by vulnerable and too costly surface battleships, or in other words, the entire force structure of 330 ships from the article.

About 150 submarines of various composition such as SSGNs, attack subs, and even small conventional littoral subs would maintain our sea dominance for decades. Meanwhile, the show the flag, amphibious missions, and anti-piracy duties can be carried out by small, inexpensive, and expendable littoral ships. Not the too costly, too big, and too complicated Littoral Combat Ship currently facing constant delays, but warships bought off the shelf, like the Austal ferries used successfully in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and even European designed stealth boats.

Until the Navy leadership and its supporters get over their obsession with fighting hi-tech Industrial Age warfare, however, we may pretty soon pine for the days when we had even a 280 ship Navy!

Thanks to Phelps Hobart of Sea Power Ambassador for the article!