Unless decisive action is taken, in a decade or two the United States Navy could be down to as few as 150 ships. Those 150 ships will still make our Navy the most powerful in the world and probably without peer. And, if peace and stability prevail, 150 ships may be sufficient. But not everyone accepts these assumptions.
To understand why the 150 figure is plausible, history and arithmetic are useful guides. Forty years ago, at the start of the Vietnam era, the Navy numbered nearly a thousand ships, many of World War II vintage. Thirty years ago, when the war ended, that number was cut in half to about 450. Twenty years ago, amid the Reagan defense buildup, the Navy was approaching 600 ships. Today, depending upon how one counts, the Navy has about 300 ships in service. Given the economic facts of life, a 150-ship future Navy is not imnossihle to imagine.
Put another way, for the past several years, Congress has appropriated about $10 billion a year for shipbuilding. However, costs of new ships (and aircraft) have soared, largely because of superb technologies that make these men-of-war the most capable in history and because smaller buys afford fewer economies. The newest nuclear aircraft carrier, paid for over nine years, will cost at least $10 billion, and that does not include the embarked air wing. New surface combatants and nuclear submarines run around $3 billion each. If history repeats, these costs will grow substantially in real terms.
Using a simplistic arithmetical example and assuming Congress will put one or two billion more dollars into shipbuilding annually, one carrier or three large surface combatants/submarines eats up almost an entire year's budget. Even with the new littoral combat ship (LCS) at about $220 million each, the Navy has an affordability problem. If the service life of a combatant is nominally 35 years, total numbers could easily slip to 150 ships depending on the mix of LCS and more capable warships. Because the average age of the Fleet is relatively young, it will be politically attractive and expedient to defer one-forone replacement, meaning that the problem in the future will be that much more difficult to resolve.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the CNO, and the senior naval leadership are keenly aware of this collision between money and numbers. If the Congressional Budget Office projections about future debt and deficits prove accurate and for the next few years recapitalization of land forces is a high defense priority, the financial crunch will worsen. So what might the CNO consider beyond what the Navy staff is doing?
First, instead of decommissioning good ships and particularly highly capable SSNs, consider the "cadre" concept used in the late 1960s. In those days, small skeleton crews manned the ships, keeping them serviceable so that they could be brought back to duty fairly quickly. And why not mandate a 50-year service life for some ships? After all, 200 years ago at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory-Nelson's flagship-was already 46 years old.
Second, convene a conference with General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman (the two remaining shipbuilders), members of Congress, OMB, and naval and Marine officers with the goal of finding means to achieve at least a 10% real reduction in total costs. Perhaps partnering, as with submarine construction, makes sense. One certain fix is to rationalize the archaic procurement rules and regulations as well as the processes by which we design ships that probably add 20-25% to the bill.
Third, utter ruthlessness is essential in approving the requirements that define the ship's operational capability. Surface warfare sailors and Marines will not like this suggestion. But why does the DD(X) really need a 155-mm gun with a range of 100 miles when the one thing the U.S. military does not lack is firepower?
If we are to have the right-sized Navy that we need, not just the one we can afford, there is no alternative to taking these steps.
Harlan Ullman is a columnist for Proceedings.