One of President Trump’s signature campaign promises to the American people was a 350-ship Navy. The Navy itself has stated unequivocally that it needs a bare minimum of 355 ships to meet the missions with which it has been tasked by our regional combatant commanders. Yet, sadly, it is becoming clear that no real budgetary steps have been or will be taken to fund this promise. Further, there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that anything will change on this front.
The failure to rebuild America’s fleet could not have come at a worse time. The world has grown increasingly dangerous, with a nuclear madman in North Korea testing an ICBM a month, mullahs in Tehran plotting the takeover of the Middle East, Russia engaging in “frozen conflicts” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, a very hot civil war in Syria, and China appropriating a vast swath of the Pacific to itself. The forgoing list does not even take into account the United States’ continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other remote locales where we are in daily combat with al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and their assorted jihadi fellow travelers.
The Navy has not helped itself either. It has not pursued service-life extensions for retiring ships, such as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers or Los Angeles–class attack submarines scheduled for decommissioning in the next few years. Nor has it recalled into service ships such as the ten sturdy Perry-class frigates that are in the ready-reserve fleet. In fact, with regard to the reserve fleet, the Navy has acted precipitately either to sell off useful hulls, such as the Osprey-class mine-hunters — ships that could have accompanied the fleet during operations off the coast of North Korea or Iran — or to outright scrap or sink, in target practice, ships such as the Spruance-class destroyers, many of which had years of life left in their hulls. Neither has the Navy pursued low-cost/high-impact solutions such as building missile-patrol boats or installing vertical-launch-system cells on its new amphibious ships to give its smaller fleet a bigger punch. The Navy has demonstrated time and again that it is unwilling to embrace innovative approaches that are both efficient and effective with regard to its force structure.
The combination of congressional budgetary irresponsibility and the Navy’s passivity with respect to platforms is occurring even as Chinese shipyards are launching warships at record rates and Russia continues to invest in exquisitely effective submarines that, though produced in low numbers, can dominate the North Atlantic. As Admiral Dönitz almost proved in the last century, a submarine blockade of Western Europe could render the purpose of the treaty organization that bears the North Atlantic name moot. Key adversary naval and aviation platforms look remarkably similar to their U.S. counterparts because of massive ongoing campaigns to steal advanced U.S. military technologies. Both cyber and old-fashioned human-intelligence industrial espionage has occurred for decades without any significant retribution by the United States. There has been, perhaps, no greater demonstration of strategic lassitude since the West watched passively as Germany rearmed in the 1930s.
The cost of this conduct has been high. In less than a year we have lost the lives of 17 sailors who slept in their bunks while their destroyers collided with massive merchant ships. The policy of “doing more with less” was exposed as a sham that has resulted in the firing of multiple senior naval leaders. While the human toll of “doing more with less” is beyond bearing, the hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to two destroyers alone — McCain and Fitzgerald — would have been more than enough to refit all ten Perry-class frigates in the reserve fleet and return them to active service.
The Fleet Is Not Big Enough to Fulfill Its Current Missions
The nation’s civilian leadership — the president and Congress — decides our “national interests.” The regional combatant commanders then determine the forces needed to uphold those national interests. The combatant commanders have identified the 18 maritime regions where the Navy must operate to preserve the global security and economic system that America created after World War II. Some of these regions, such as the Caribbean, require only two ships to keep one ship deployed. Other regions, such as the Pacific, require four ships — one in maintenance, one training, one transiting, and one deployed — to keep one ship forward. Similarly, some regions, such as the Arabian Gulf, require a full carrier strike group (six ships), while others, such as the Gulf of Guinea, can be serviced by a single amphibious landing-ship dock. Taking all of these regional factors into account would set the necessary fleet size at approximately 440 ships. The Navy’s leadership, however, has established that it can deploy 85 to 100 ships at a time to meet combatant commander missions with a smaller fleet of 355 ships.
The policy of ‘doing more with less’ was exposed as a sham that has resulted in the firing of multiple senior naval leaders.
What is now very clear is that the Navy cannot continue to meet all combatant commander–requested missions with the current fleet of just 279 ships. If the Navy tries to do so, we can expect more collisions, more injuries, and more deaths in the fleet. At some point the broken fleet will enter into a “death spiral,” as the growing number of sidelined ships places an even greater strain on the remaining operational ships, calling those ships’ readiness in question.
There Are Strategic Options for a Smaller Navy
If Congress will not appropriate funds to build the 355-ship fleet, and the Navy’s leadership will not innovate to increase its warship numbers, then America must have a new naval strategy to prevent the fleet from entering a death spiral from which it would be very difficult to recover.
The first and most obvious option is to reduce the number of maritime regions serviced by the United States. America spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on its defense. Its partners do not. If the United States withdraws from various maritime regions, it may cause the allies to step up to the task. For instance, Norway (1.6 percent), Denmark (1.1 percent), and Canada (1 percent) could rebuild their own navies and take up responsibilities for the Arctic. Norway, Denmark, Germany (1.2 percent), Poland (2 percent), Lithuania (1.5 percent), Estonia (2.2 percent), and Latvia (1.5 percent), as well as technically neutral Western powers Sweden (1 percent) and Finland (1.4 percent), could invest in their maritime capabilities and patrol the Baltic with sufficient force to deter the Russians. Given that Aegis Ashore systems have been installed in Romania and soon will be operational in Poland, another region that could be considered for American withdrawal is the Black Sea, which could be covered by Turkey (1.7 percent), Romania (1.5 percent), and Bulgaria (1.4 percent). In the Pacific, the contentious South China Sea could be left to the states on its borders — Taiwan (2 percent), the Philippines (1.3 percent), Vietnam (2.4 percent), and Malaysia (1.4 percent). Given that the United States is now nearly energy-independent, a sub-300-ship Navy could also consider withdrawing the Fifth Fleet command element from the Arabian Gulf (saving additional funds by doing away with a three-star staff).
Vacating these regions and turning them over to allies and partners would allow the Navy to lower its deployed naval force to a range of 65 to 75 ships, thereby returning the fleet to a more balanced maintenance-training-deployed cycle of operations. Whether our allies and partners would step up to the task of defending their own interests in these regions or instead just cut weak-handed deals with Russia, China, or Iran is an open question. Even the remaining 14 maritime regions deemed critical to the national interest would still have to be patrolled very judiciously, given our current fleet size. The U.S. might enjoy naval superiority in many of those remaining maritime regions, but not naval supremacy.
There is a second option: The Navy could return to its pre–World War II deployment pattern. During this era, when the Navy had between 300 and 400 ships in the fleet, it used a “surge and exercise” model. Maintaining fleet hubs in Norfolk and Pearl Harbor as well as in the Philippines, the pre–World War II Navy engaged in major exercises as a battle fleet twice a year (summer and winter) and then marshaled its ships in port to keep readiness high in order to surge in response to crises — the way the U.K. assembled its entire fleet to send to the South Atlantic in the Falklands war of 1982 (at a time when the Royal Navy was much larger than it is today).
If the United States chose to return to this model, it could actually shrink the size of the fleet to around 240 ships, all of which possess the highest war-fighting capabilities, and organize it into two powerful fleets, Atlantic and Pacific. The ships could be consolidated and based in fewer strategic locations, such as Yokosuka, Japan; Pearl Harbor; San Diego; Norfolk; Mayport, in Florida; and Rota, Spain. From these bases the Navy would be responsible for a greatly reduced number of missions. The fleets would exercise as fleets with allies twice a year and spend the remainder of their time operating in and around their home ports in order to maximize maintenance and training. Such maintenance and training would be critical, as the United States would certainly be tested in the years following, since such a repositioning would be interpreted as a retreat by America’s adversaries.
The Slippery Slope of Managed Decline
On February 27, 1947, the British embassy in Washington, D.C., notified the U.S. State Department that it was sending a courier over to deliver a “blue piece of paper.” A “blue piece of paper” was diplo-speak for a message of ominous importance. The note informed the United States that Great Britain could no longer uphold its interests in Greece and Turkey and would soon withdraw from the eastern Mediterranean. The United States understood that without continued British support, Greece would quickly fall to the Communists and join the Soviet bloc. The need to protect the Mediterranean from the Communists in light of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal was a key catalyst for both the Marshall Plan and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
If the United States attempts to turns over key maritime regions to its allies or to reposition its fleet to an “exercise and surge” model, the message to the world will be even more dramatic than Great Britain’s “blue piece of paper” was in 1947. Indeed, it would make the past eight years of “lead from behind” look like an assertive foreign policy. The message would be clear: The world’s remaining superpower is no longer up to the task of defending its interests and those of its allies. The ensuing vacuum of power will be filled by other powers, and the scramble to do so will be fraught with danger and uncertainty. All of the benefits of Pax Americana that we have taken for granted for three quarters of a century — peace, a stable and prosperous global market, and the economic freedom derived from the dollar’s being the reserve currency — will come to an end over a relatively short period of time.
The powers best positioned to take advantage of a world where the U.S. Navy does not protect the global commons — China, Russia, and Iran — are authoritarian powers that scorn Western civilization and the values America and its allies hold dear.
National decline is not an easily managed process. Post-war Great Britain did not fall from No. 1 to No. 2 and just hold on there. Britain’s decline continued through fits and starts in the decades that followed. The Royal Navy, which had once been sized to exceed the next two great-power navies combined, now sails just 89 ships, with only 37 of those being front-line warships, and that number will likely slip further with recently announced defense-budget cuts. Mirroring the decline of its navy, Great Britain’s influence in the world has also diminished. While still an important power, especially when acting within its “special relationship” with the United States, the United Kingdom can no longer bring its once-great influence to bear in Asia, Africa, or even Europe, as it did in centuries past. Navies and international influence go hand in hand.
Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States does not now have the luxury of simply handing off its responsibilities to a rising power that shares its democratic values and commitment to the rule of law. The powers best positioned to take advantage of a world where the United States Navy does not protect the global commons — China, Russia, and Iran — are authoritarian powers that scorn Western civilization and the values America and its allies hold dear. The Obama administration took the first steps down the managed-decline path with its doctrines of “strategic patience” and “leading from behind.” The ensuing crises from Ukraine to Syria to Yemen to the South China Sea and North Korea are just a foretaste of what is to come if the United States signals to the world that it is committed to a path of managed decline by not rebuilding its Nav
In a world where the United States Navy is not forward-deployed, Russia, China, Iran, and other adversaries will aggressively seek to carve out their own spheres of influence. Smaller neighboring nations and even some located farther afield, recognizing an America in decline, will lean away from the United States and toward our adversaries. Europe itself will likely reach an accommodation with Russia. This course would be natural, as Europe’s undisputed leader, Germany, has looked east for much of its history. Stalwart Pacific democracies such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan will have no choice but to seek economic and security deals with China. Africa, which is already at the tipping point of Chinese influence, will fall fully into Beijing’s orbit.
India will have to gird for the coming border war with an expansionist China, and Taiwan will prepare for the inevitable cross-strait invasion. The alternative for both democracies — the surrender of critical border lands for India, or of freedom for Taiwan — are probably too great to negotiate away. Iran and Saudi Arabia will seek to establish Shia and Sunni spheres of influence in the Middle East. The battle for supremacy there will be particularly grisly, as we have seen over the past decade. Assuming that Russia continues to back Iran, the outcome of that contest, without American involvement, will probably be Iranian hegemony from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea.
Under these circumstances, the United States could find itself the dominant Western Hemisphere power but fighting a rear-guard action for influence in South and Central America, where authoritarianism has a long tradition and where China is already very active on the economic and diplomatic front. While sphere-of-influence world politics can sometime appear attractive as a means to manage the globe, one lesson that history teaches is that spheres of influence are inherently unstable. The descent from spheres into a balance-of-power competition can be a precursor of war. Since 1945, even during the Cold War, the United States, through its Navy, has protected the sea lanes of communications and managed the global commons to ensure a generally peaceful world not divided up into spheres of influence. However, our Navy is now stretched too thin, and our adversaries are becoming too strong, for us to assume that this will remain the case for much longer.
The Surest Guarantee of Peace
Today’s fleet is simply too small to continue to guard American interests around the globe, as those interests are currently defined, and to maintain the freedom of the global commons. By attempting to fulfill the combatant commanders’ many and varied missions over 18 maritime regions in an increasing dangerous world, we are literally breaking the fleet by asking our sailors to do more with less. The four recent collisions and groundings in the Pacific, with their attendant loss of American blood and treasure, are sad testaments of this fact. Further, at least as of now, it is apparent that there will be no congressional funding for a 350-ship fleet. Moreover, naval leadership does not appear willing to take the innovative and necessary steps within the current budget to significantly enlarge the fleet’s size within the operative budgetary confines.
Accordingly, we have presented above two options for the deployment of the Navy going forward. We are not in favor of either option, but America simply cannot and should not condone the continued risk to the fleet — both its ships and its sailors — of operating with too few resources to accomplish its present missions. Changes have to be made. Unless Congress overturns the 2011 Budget Control Act and fully funds the National Defense Authorization Act, or the Navy pursues innovative approaches to increasing the fleet by performing service-life extensions on older ships, recalling ships such as the Perry-class frigates from the ready-reserve fleet, and/or pursuing a low-cost/high-impact acquisition strategy, there will be no choice but to accept one of the options we present, or some unappetizing mix of the two.
America and the world have been great beneficiaries of the forward presence of the United States Navy around the globe since the end of World War II. The U.S. Navy has been a key foundation of this Pax Americana. Abandoning that successful strategy is not something that we should do lightly, as the dangers, which we have merely glimpsed over the past decade, are serious indeed. Theodore Roosevelt, one of our great presidents and the only one who was a true naval strategist, stated in his second message to Congress: “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” We agree. It is time for Congress to fund, and for our naval leadership to build, a 355-ship U.S. Navy. This effort must not take 30 years but be done now. The American people voted for and deserve such a Navy, and our sailors and Marines, who serve on those ships, do as well.
— Robert C. O’Brien is a partner at the law firm of Larson O’Brien LLP. He has served as a U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly and an adviser to Scott Walker, Mitt Romney, and Ted Cruz during their presidential campaigns. His book While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis was published last year. Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.