The United States and its allies have far fewer ships than they did in the 1980s but have larger commitments. The number of ships is not the best measure of sea power; the kinds of ships matter, too. A fleet that has to patrol large parts of the world needs numbers, however; no ship, no matter how impressive, can be in two places at once. And in a protracted war, hull casualties are inevitable. Ships take time to build. An early wave of losses, such as the United States suffered in the Pacific during 1942, has to be replaced.
The U.S. Navy is overcommitted and could absorb few losses in a fight with Russia or China before its effectiveness would be reduced greatly. In the 1980s, it was likely that any crucial crisis would be the result of action by a single enemy—the Soviet Union. Today, it would not be difficult to imagine a crisis on the Korean Peninsula (with nuclear implications) leading to Russia using it as cover for aggression in Central Europe while China made moves in the South Pacific and Iran triggered action in the Middle East. Where would the Navy concentrate? Each player in such a scenario would benefit from the acts of the others, but there would be no central controller deciding whether or how to adjust the crisis level.
The Navy has discarded or sold nearly all the ships it once would have sent to a “mothball fleet” in Texas, California, or Pennsylvania. Arguments in favor of this policy ranged from the obsolescence of the older ships to the need to fund new ship programs such as the littoral combat ships (LCSs) and Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000) guided-missile destroyers.
Neither program has turned out as envisioned. The LCS was conceived as a less expensive surface combatant that could be built quickly in large numbers, but it has proven to be not nearly as robust as it should have been, and the projected future frigate probably will be much more expensive than originally envisioned. This should have been foreseen; it is extraordinarily difficult to build an inexpensive but survivable and effective surface combatant.
The Zumwalts eventually should be both, though the first ship in commission has suffered from engineering casualties, and its new guns have been sidelined by the unusually high price of the advanced projectiles. But it is too expensive ($4.2 billion per unit, compared to $1.8 billion for a Flight IIA Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer), and the planned purchase of up to 32 ships has been reduced to 3.
These points miss an essential reality. The Navy can and should continue to buy more ships—but ships need sailors, and sailors are increasingly expensive. The need to reduce manning for each hull has been the most important factor in ship design in recent years. One reason ships are driven by gas turbines is that many fewer people are required to operate them compared to a steam plant. The initial requirement for what ultimately became the Zumwalt class was not the stealth that dominates its look but its dramatically reduced crew size. The Zumwalt has a crew of around 140–150, excluding its aviation detachment, against a complement of around 300 for an Arleigh Burke.
The growth of staffs ashore—in response to the requirement set in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that officers spend time on joint staffs, among other reasons—has exacerbated the personnel crisis. When that law was being debated in the 1980s, it was pointed out that in peacetime as in war, the Navy spends more time operating compared to the Army or Air Force. It needs line officers more than it needs staff officers, it was argued, and to treat all the services identically is to forget that they differ in where and how they operate. That argument looks prescient in light of today’s problems.
What can be done? Purchase more ships, certainly, but also rethink how to replace those lost or damaged. Designs should shift toward more mod-ular ones, parts of which can be built outside the ever-shrinking number of U.S. shipyards and then assembled as needed. Shipyards already use modular techniques, so shifting fabrication of sections to non-traditional suppliers is not radical.
The United States certainly does have naval allies, but their fleets also are undercapitalized. It has no potential peer ally like the pre-1939 British, nor does it have the sort of heavy industry that in 1940–42 allowed two years of prewar ship construction and mobilization.
As for personnel, the Navy and Congress must rethink the number and size of staffs and joint requirements. Changes would allow the personnel system to be reformed to provide more sea time.
The movement toward smaller crews will continue, in part by accelerating the shift to more unmanned systems. For example, much of the crew of an aircraft carrier is needed to maintain the planes that fly every day to maintain the pilots’ skills. Unmanned aircraft have no such proficiency requirements, significantly reducing the need for training flights. This is the direction in which the Navy should be heading.
• Dr. Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, fifth ed., and Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter Through Three World Wars, available from the Naval Institute Press at www.usni.org.