The Corner

National Security & Defense

Yes, the Navy Really Is Too Small

Recently PolitiFact published a piece criticizing Presidential candidates who — in arguing that the Navy is too small — make historical comparisons to the size of the Navy in the past.

The Washington Post has weighed in from time to time with similar criticisms of similar statements by other candidates. And the issue isn’t going away, because, fortunately, many of the presidential candidates keep raising it.   

Fact checkers provide a useful service to the public, and they are right to look below the surface of issues. But in this case they are wrong; the Navy is too small, and historical comparisons are a legitimate way to show it.  

Let’s look at the PolitiFact piece. The article takes Senator Lindsey Graham to task for noting that the Navy is smaller than at any time since before World War I and criticizes Governor Scott Walker for noting that the Navy is half the size it had attained under President Ronald Reagan. 

Everyone concedes candidates like Graham and Walker are stating actual facts. The Navy is smaller than at any time since 1916, and is half the size it reached under President Reagan.

Everyone also concedes that the candidates are not the only people injecting such arguments into the political narrative. PolitiFact quotes Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as making similar comparisons and for the same reason: to make the point that the Navy was too small.

Many other defense authorities believe that comparisons to the past are relevant to judging whether today’s force is large enough. When Admiral Gary Roughead was Chief of Naval Operations (the Navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) he was fond of using the same comparisons which Walker and Graham used.  This is from a speech he gave in 2008 on the 211th anniversary of the USS Constitution:

But as I’ve said, capacity (size) is our greatest need right now. When I was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy there were 614 ships. When George Emery and I were serving in the Pentagon, we had recently passed through the period where we were building the 600-ship Navy. When I became the Chief of Naval Operations a year ago, our Navy was the smallest it has been since the 19th Century: 279 ships. And I submit to you, and to this group in particular who understands the maritime imperative of this nation, that that fleet is far too small for our interests globally and for the prosperity of this country.

Last year I served as a member of an Independent Panel chaired by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former CentCom Commander John Abizaid. The Perry/Abizaid Panel was bipartisan and included several former high ranking Obama-administration officials.  It unanimously recommended that the Navy be increased by at least 50 ships, and explicitly relied on a historical comparison in reaching that judgment:

In other words, if a force sized at the BUR levels (the level during the Clinton Administration) was necessary twenty years ago, when the world was much more stable and less risky, that is powerful evidence that the substantially smaller force of today, much less the even smaller force of the future under the QDR or sequestration, is too small.

In total, we have at least two former Secretaries of Defense, the current Secretary of the Navy, the former Chief of Naval Operations, and a unanimous bipartisan panel of defense experts all stating for the record that the Navy is far too small, and all basing that finding in part on historical comparisons. It’s hardly a surprise that presidential candidates feel free to make the same point for the same reasons.

The typical argument for discounting historical comparisons is that the Navy has better ships now and so needs fewer of them. The argument has some merit; of course the Navy does constantly improve its technology, and modern ships have more firepower than their past counterparts, so there are scenarios today where a few vessels can do what in the past only many ships could do.

But that does not make historical comparisons irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t mean today’s Navy is big enough, for two reasons.   

First, all of America’s armed forces, but the Navy in particular, has the vital mission of presence. The phrase “showing the flag” applies especially to naval power; it means being visible in a number of different places at once, to establish an authoritative presence that supports diplomatic initiatives, political influence, and deterrence of conflict.

Of course the United States cannot be present with ships it does not have. At any given time, and certainly during peacetime, America can only keep about a third of its Navy deployed at once, because ships have to be maintained, and sailors have to train and rest. For those reasons, a Navy of 250 ships – which is where the Navy is heading – will struggle to keep 80–90 ships constantly deployed. 

The United States needs 67 ships in the Western Pacific, where China is building its “wall of sand” — and that’s according to the Obama administration.  The actual requirement is probably much higher because China has the advantage of proximity; the Chinese Navy can concentrate the vast majority of its approximately 300 modern, multi-mission ships in the East and South China seas. 

That’s the reason the Pentagon’s new Asia Maritime Strategy calls for a 30 percent increase in naval assets in the region over the next five years. 

But even if the 67-ship requirement is enough, meeting it, given current trends, would leave the Navy with perhaps 20 vessels available for the Persian Gulf, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the rest of the world’s oceans.

One proof that the Navy is too small is that the Obama administration announced its “pivot” to the Western Pacific almost four years ago, yet the Pentagon does not believe that it can meet even the 67 ship requirement until 2020. The Navy should be big enough that it does not take a decade to shift 15-20 additional ships when the President has determined that increased presence in an unstable region is a priority.

Second, while it’s true that the quality of the United States Navy improves with time, so does the quality of the forces which the Navy must confront.  So the question is not whether America’s Navy today is technologically superior to its own vessels of the past; the question is whether America’s technological superiority over potential adversaries is greater or less than it was in the past. 

There is no doubt that the Navy’s qualitative edge is eroding, largely because of the unprecedented buildup in Chinese military power over the last 20 years.   

What all of this adds up to is that the United States needs a lot more ships.  Most experts believe that the minimum necessary is around 350 vessels, which happens to be the requirement stated by the Clinton administration in the 1990s, and a strong argument can be made that the number should be higher than that. In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pentagon stated a requirement of 451 ships for the Navy. 

Currently the fleet has 273 ships and is declining in numbers.   

I can well believe that it’s hard for journalists, and in fact for most Americans, to accept the true extent of the damage done by our government’s defense policies and especially by the sequester in recent years. But the damage has been done and is continuing, and all the services, not just the Navy, have been affected.

The United States is a maritime nation, with vast interests that only a truly global Navy can protect. Right now, through no fault of its dedicated sailors, the Navy is struggling to meet its worldwide obligations. Absent an immediate and decisive buildup in both the quantity and quality of its fleets, America will in the near future, and for the first time in a hundred years, no longer be able to maintain a sufficient global naval presence or project the maritime power necessary to protect its interests.

There is no unseen fact or invisible circumstance — no rabbit hiding somewhere in the hat — which should make any of us sanguine about what that portends.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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