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Fleet Weak
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 10/10/07

My wife and I joined the Fleet Week spectators on the San Diego bay front recently to watch the annual Sea and Air Parade. It was somewhat underwhelming. The newspaper account advising readers of the event appeared under a headline that read: “Parade by land and sea still growing” and told of the precision involved in staging this event. “Just making these (ships) appear by the reviewing stands on time is difficult,” a Navy coordinator was quoted as saying.

The Navy was able to scrape up eight ships and 14 aircraft to participate. I guess you could say that this constitutes a parade but I remember seeing three times that many ships get underway in sequence during a routine Monday morning sortie 25 years ago. Please don’t get me wrong. The sight of a sleek, gray Navy warship standing down the channel still quickens my pulse and I sincerely appreciate the weekend efforts of the crews involved just to entertain the spectators but it’s rather sad to realize that the fleet has shrunk to the extent that eight ships are the most we can muster for a parade in the world’s largest naval complex.

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]

Take a look at the empty piers at the Naval Base at 32nd Street and ask yourself, “Where have all the ships gone?” Twenty-five years ago, pier space was at a premium and ship were often nested four deep at a berth. Fifty years ago the piers were generally full and ships were nested at mooring buoys all over the bay. I’m talking about years when we were not even involved in a shooting war.

Today’s Navy is still unquestionably the finest and most powerful in the world. Our sailors and technology are still the best and our ships are larger and infinitely more powerful than their predecessors. But they are also much fewer in number and it remains an incontrovertible fact that a single ship, however capable, can only be in one place at a time.

Fifty years ago, well after the end of the Korean Conflict, we had over a thousand ships in the active fleet and about 1,500 more in the reserve fleet, not counting service craft. Today we have 278 and we cannot maintain even that number at the current anemic rate of new ship construction. We are no longer engaged in Cold War competition with an expanding Soviet blue water Navy, but it can hardly be argued that the world is a safer place or that control of the seas and a visible naval presence around the world are less important today. Yet, our maritime presence is reduced because of the paucity of ships.

During these intervening years, moreover, we have demilitarized many traditional naval functions and deemphasized basic seagoing skills. Our logistics and underway replenishment ships are now almost entirely civilian manned and commanded. Seagoing billets for the uniformed Navy have been greatly reduced in number and with that reduction has come reduced at-sea training and command opportunity. Command tours are so brief and few that there is little time for the acquisition of broad experience in seamanship, shiphandling and other traditional seagoing competencies.

There is insufficient opportunity for junior shipboard officers to develop and practice shiphandling skills. Indeed, there is barely enough opportunity for the captain, executive officer and perhaps a few senior department heads to perfect these basic skills in part because of the demands on their time presented by modern naval warfare and the advanced equipment they must manage and maintain. Division officers and even department heads must get the bulk of their shiphandling training in shore based simulators under the instruction of senior retired naval officers with multiple command experience of the sort that few officers in today’s smaller Navy are able to acquire. Shiphandling skills are receiving less emphasis as today’s larger ships increasingly rely on civilian harbor pilots to berth ships and get them underway. Even the tugs they increasingly utilize are civilian manned and operated.

The need for a numerically large Navy and the expanded maritime presence throughout the world that it provides has never been greater. We must ensure that vital maritime trade routes are protected and we must maintain the ability to project American power ashore from the sea wherever it is needed to defend our vital interests. And whether or not we sign the Law of the Sea Treaty, we must be able to protect our commercial interests in the growing global competition to exploit the resources that lie under the sea. In this regard, Russia’s recently asserted claim to much of the resource-rich Arctic Ocean is particularly ominous. Presence is nine-tenths of possession.

The U.S. is still the world’s sole superpower but our status will be challenged in this century. We cannot maintain our role as the world’s dominant naval power with a fleet a quarter of the size it was 50 years ago. With a shipbuilding industry that is in a steady state of decline and given the time required to build ships, it will take years to turn things around. We had better start soon. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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