As of this writing, the U.S. Navy is 289 ships strong. The stated requirement, established several years ago by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen, is 313 ships. That means the Fleet the country has today satisfies 92 percent of the requirement for deployable battle-force ships, and by all accounts is able to meet the vast majority of “demand signals” for naval forces that the combatant commanders levy on the Department of the Navy.
While not the ideal, the fact remains that today’s Navy – despite all the anxious commentary one reads about its size – is able to satisfy the demands of the nation and is able to accomplish what is expected of it. This is possible because Navy leadership over the decades has insisted on maintaining a Navy that was “balanced” in capability. The desire for balance has deep historic roots, dating to the era shortly after the end of World War I, when postwar reductions and naval arms-control agreements dramatically constrained the overall size of the Navy.
What exactly is a balanced Fleet? In my judgment, it is one that has the capability to:
- Command the sea where and when needed.
- Sustain credible overseas presence where required (over that last 60 years that has generally meant being in two different overseas theaters of operation).
- Ensure vital sea lanes are not interrupted (since the end of the Cold War this has been a lesser-included benefit that derives from overseas presence).
- Conduct precision attacks from the sea.
- Conduct sustained air operations from the sea.
- Conduct submarine operations, including sustained strategic-deterrent patrols.
- Conduct amphibious assaults.
- Execute transoceanic sealift to deploy the Army overseas.
- Conduct regional ballistic-missile defense from the sea.
Today’s U.S. Navy can do these things. What is of concern is whether the Navy will be able to do them in the future. According to the Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, by 2040 this will not be a problem: The Navy’s size will be somewhere between today’s’ 289 ship Fleet and the required 313. The trouble is, no one believes the 30-year plan. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) routinely castigates the Navy for submitting a plan based on unrealistic cost assumptions. When the Navy calculates building costs versus likely shipbuilding budgets in a very constrained budget environment, other, more dramatic approaches could upset balance by gutting certain capabilities. Preserving options is essential when the future is uncertain.
The inability to predict the future is also relevant to the overall Navy “requirement.” Who knows what the demand signal from the combatant commanders will be 20 or 30 years from now? Does it make sense to project today’s demand signal for naval forces 30 years into the future and assert it will be the same?
In the Western Pacific, for example, will the threat of a North Korean invasion still create a demand for a deterrent presence? Perhaps, North Korea is our country’s longest-running “official” enemy at 60 years and counting, but trends on the peninsula suggest that this is unlikely. Similarly, rapprochement in the cross-Taiwan Strait relationship suggests that having to deter a Chinese attack for the next three decades is unlikely. Trends today strongly suggest that over the next few decades Taipei and Beijing will reach a political accommodation. On the other hand, providing a credible Seventh Fleet capability in the region to support friends and allies in the face of a nearly risen China is likely to persist for many decades.
The same sort of speculation about the future can be applied to the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility. Will Iran still be a problem? Will the Navy still be flying sorties to support forces in Afghanistan? The simple answer is that no one knows for certain, and as a result the best way to hedge against an unknowable future is not to make rash decisions about what sort of a Navy the country will need 30 years hence. The most sensible approach is to maintain a commitment to balanced naval capability when apparently inevitable budget pressures force tough decisions, and “salami-slice” in order to preserve as much balance as possible.