A nation going into battle must be as prepared as possible, since wars are generally “come-as-you-are” affairs. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy has recently been spending increasing time and resources on humanitarian missions, to the detriment of its core mission: warfighting.
Certainly, as a nation we would aspire to be the world’s foremost humanitarian as well as military organization. However, given the reality of limited budgets, it is just not possible to be both.
Let’s set aside the question of whether the United States should even be conducting relief missions. Right or wrong, the nation is in the humanitarian business. Thus, the question becomes whether the U.S. Navy is the appropriate service to conduct the mission. What could be wrong with having the Navy conduct such missions? Wouldn’t that be like arguing against world peace? Well, in fact, several things are wrong with it.
First, concentrating on the humanitarian mission adversely affects readiness because it is a zero-sum exercise. Every hour spent on aid work takes an hour from training for combat or conducting combat-related missions. Every hour of humanitarian flight-time racked up on an airframe deducts an hour from its combat life. Every gallon of aviation fuel used to deliver aid supplies is a gallon lost to combat-training flights.
The Navy cannot conduct such missions cost-effectively. Sending a multibillion-dollar warship and thousands of Sailors to distribute food on a relief operation is comparable to sending an Army division to arrest a jaywalker. They can achieve it, but it’s enormously expensive overkill. Does this make sense, when a commercial cargo ship and a crew of dozens could do the same job?
The impact of humanitarian missions on the Navy’s budget has been severe. Consider the programs that have recently been cut or curtailed. The Zumwalt-class destroyer (DDG-1000) acquisition has been halted at three units; production of new maritime pre-positioning ships has been deferred; nuclear-powered aircraft carrier refueling is at risk, resulting in the reduction of the number of available carriers; and the CG(X) next generation cruiser program has been cancelled. The list goes on. The acquisition of core warfighting equipment is being cancelled or postponed due to budgetary pressures, and yet relief missions continue apace, further depleting the budget. Make no mistake; the Navy is spending its warfighting capability to finance humanitarian missions.
The Navy must accept that its budget is severely limited. Every hour of manpower, airframe, or ship use must be carefully weighed according to one simple criterion: Does the use support the core warfighting mission? If it doesn’t, don’t do it. An hour spent undergoing maintenance is better for the Navy than providing an hour of humanitarian assistance. An hour a Sailor spends at home with family will produce a happier, less-stressed Sailor than an hour spent on a prolonged humanitarian-assistance deployment.
Does anyone really think the United States is going to stop providing humanitarian assistance anytime soon? Of course not. What, then, is the solution? It begins with the Navy dropping the humanitarian role from its mission. This is a hard decision, but, again, it bears repeating that the Navy’s core mission is warfighting. If resources are limited, missions must be prioritized. Either Congress must increase the Navy’s budget to the point where humanitarian missions no longer impede warfighting, or the mission must be dropped. This is elementary budgeting that every American family recognizes and deals with daily.
National security—to the dubious extent that humanitarian assistance can be classified as national security—is not strictly the military’s responsibility. Other government agencies must step up and meet those responsibilities for which they are better suited. The U.S. government needs to develop a dedicated humanitarian assistance organization with its own staff, equipment, and budget. For example, commercial cargo ships are vastly more cost-effective in this role than Aegis ships or supercarriers. The organization can be established along civilian lines, like the Peace Corps, or along quasi-military lines. The Navy should not be performing this mission and should begin making the case to drop it. When the next unexpected conflict or incident occurs will the Navy be ready to pass the ammunition or just meals ready to eat?