The Fleet: Here or Abroad, Modern or Antique, Powerful or Weak?

By Frank Uhlig Jr.

Soon, we will have neither many new ships in the U. S. Navy—nor many old ones either. Without a change in our naval policy, solitary U. S. warships will sail the lonely seas, only occasionally meeting another geriatric member of their kind and flag. Long before this, the U. S. Navy's ability to conduct serious operations will have ended, and all the world outside our borders will have noticed. Presence long since will have lost any naval meaning. Except for the remaining nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines with their crucial but narrow influence, missions such as deterrence, sea control, and power projection also will lose their meaning.

These are simple straight-line projections—but there are some precedents:

  • From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the first ship of the "New Navy" was commissioned in 1885, we built an average of one ship a year. By 1880, the 600-ship Civil War fleet had declined to 39 on the active list (the Navy still had 38 commodores and rear admirals).
  • The first ship ordered after the World War I, a submarine, went into commission in 1924. Through the end of 1933, we began and completed 26 ships—an average of 2.6 ships per year.

So things have been much worse, and for substantial periods of time.

Since we should not expect more money, the Navy must reallocate what it has. Perhaps we should redirect funds from the operating budget into the shipbuilding budget. We would have to give up our plan for 12 carrier battle groups and 12 amphibious ready groups rotating between U.S. waters and distant stations. Perhaps we could keep a cruiser or a destroyer on each station for extended periods.

We will not have a force ready to respond to any unforeseen crisis. But the crises we know about now, or reasonably might expect to face in the near future, do not threaten the nation. We cannot have so much assurance about a more-distant future still veiled in mystery.

Despite our best intentions, we have been discarding ships long before they finish their nominal service lives. More important, while in peacetime any ship that can float and sail will do, when serious war comes, any ship no longer will do. We kept the old wooden cruisers safely at home during the Spanish-American War and fought it entirely with new steel steamers with breech-loading guns.

Some argue that our newest ships will remain battle worthy for a long time, or that we can modernize them quickly. We have heard this before. In light of the well-advertised pace of technological change, we cannot be so sure.

During World War I, no ship of more than eight years' service proved to be much more than a death trap for her crew. By 1939, when the next war began, the range of battle worthiness had risen to about 12 years. If the future portends only a few ships, we should make sure that each of them is battle worthy. Given the power of modern sensors and weapons, the likely absence of a substantial enemy fleet should bring us no comfort.

The Navy should consider developing a shipbuilding and replacement policy based on a determination of whether or not the nation can expect many more reasonably peaceable years. If the answer is yes, we can plan on using the ships we have almost indefinitely; if we are not sure, we should consider what those ships' battle-worthy lives might be and plan to have a replacement ready when each one reaches the end of that life. But, if we spend all our money on operating our existing ships at a frantic pace all over the world, we will be unable to build the replacement ships we need.

The Navy has time enough to think through this matter, but it does not have time enough to dawdle or to stonewall. If we allow that, what once had been time enough will disappear, and the job will still have to be done.

Mr. Uhlig , former editor of the Naval War College Review , and the Naval Institute’s Naval Review , is an Advanced Research Scholar at the Naval War College. He wrote How Navies Fight (Naval Institute Press, 1994).


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