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  The Vanishing Fleet
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 2/13/07

Senior Navy and other defense officials descended on the San Diego Convention Center recently for an annual three-day conference and exhibition sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA International. Called “West 2007”, this year’s theme was “Swords and Diplomacy: How do we build the right military to fight, win and influence?” Panel sessions dealt with questions like, “How do we build the U.S. piece of the 1,000-ship Navy?”

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Good question. In case you haven’t heard of the 1000-ship Navy, don’t get too excited. The ships won’t all be ours. Not at the cost of shipbuilding today. The concept refers to a proposed network of allied navies of which ours would be only a part. It sounds impressive and 1000 is a nice, round number. But how well it would work is anyone’s guess and it’s still only a goal, like Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship Navy, which we never quite achieved. His 600 ships, however, would have all flown the stars and stripes.

As everyone should know by now, the incredibly shrinking U.S. naval fleet is well below the 300-ship goal only recently deemed to be the absolute minimum necessary to meet the Navy’s commitments to defend our national interests. At 276 ships, it is now the smallest it has been since the Great Depression and it will grow smaller still since ships are being retired faster than we are building them.

As the Navy downsized after the first Gulf War, we attempted to put a smiley face on it by calling it “right sizing”. We have a way of justifying the numbers we are stuck with. We dealt with the problem of fewer ships and an increasing tempo of operations by such things as shortening turnaround times between deployments and keeping some ships forward deployed while rotating crews, something new and different for the surface Navy where ships, even of the same class, are thought, by their crews at least, to have somewhat distinctive “personalities”. Ships and crews bond, so to speak.

Socialized by the “can do” military culture to making do with what we have, some Navy leaders are now heard to say that it’s really not the number of ships that is important. Rather, it’s the mix and the capability of the ships that matter. Still, it’s a well known fact that a ship can only be in one place at a time, so numbers do matter.

The shrinking fleet is bad news for the nation because we still rely on ocean-borne transportation for over 90% of our imports, including, of course, oil. Our continued participation in the global economy clearly requires unimpeded access to the world’s oceans and their many critical passages, straits and other choke-points. In the continuing war on terrorism, Carrier Battle Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups still give us unique ability to project American power virtually anywhere it is needed without reliance on foreign bases or overflight rights.

Why, then, are we allowing our fleet to shrink?  First, Congress, suffering from chronic shortsightedness, doesn’t see any imminent urgency. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no rival Navy. China may well build one but it’s still a relatively long way off. The military conflicts that engage our attention today are fought primarily by ground forces and helicopters, once the shock and awe phase is over, that is. The Navy and Air Force then recede into support roles seldom making the evening news.

Second, the cost of shipbuilding, like medical care, has skyrocketed out of control. Ships are increasingly automated to reduce crew size and save manpower costs. They are jammed full of the latest technology which typically has to be updated even before construction is completed, resulting in delays and increased cost. The requirement for survivability under battle conditions means that redundancy must be built in. We try to make the ships smaller to reduce cost but smaller is not necessarily cheaper. A Zumwalt-class Guided Missile Destroyer (DDG 1000) is projected to cost nearly half as much as the many times larger new Ford-class nuclear powered Aircraft Carrier. That means that fewer destroyers are apt to get built. But fewer ships of a class means higher per unit costs since design and other overhead expenses must be paid.

Cost overruns are frequent. Ships are not, after all, mass produced like cars and trucks. They take years to build and to shake down. The Ford-class carrier will require seven years to build. The Navy recently issued a stop work order on one of its new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), advertised as a flexible and reconfigurable platform designed to deal with emerging coastal threats, because of cost overruns.

Current annual new ship construction rates are not only insufficient to maintain current fleet levels, they may not be enough to sustain our shipbuilding and repair capacities. If we lose these capabilities, they will not be quickly regained. Future contingencies will almost certainly require a major Navy response. With our ground forces overcommitted, it may be our only immediately available response.

It’s expensive being a superpower. Part of that expense is maintaining a properly-sized, powerful Navy. We can’t afford not to, if we plan on remaining a superpower. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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