Increasingly visible rust on U.S. Navy ships warns of greater readiness issues hiding beneath. The Honorable Robert Work, former Undersecretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense, addresses Navy readiness in his December 2021 Proceedings article, “A Slavish Devotion to Forward Presence has Nearly Broken the United States Navy.” While I hold a deep admiration for Secretary Work, particularly for his Herculean efforts as a former Under Secretary of the Navy, I disagree that the root cause of the problem lies with Navy choices or with the concept of forward presence. The problem stems from civilian leaders’ consistent lack of restraint and inability to balance demand for forward presence with the resources required to sustain it.
The foremost point Mr. Work raises in his article and the accompanying Proceedings Podcast is the toll presence missions take on the Navy’s platforms and people. This is true—the Navy is directed to deploy roughly the same number of ships today as it did when I was an ensign in 1981, but with a fleet half the size. The wear and tear on a smaller pool of ships is increased, putting a heavy demand signal on a now smaller industrial base supporting repair and modernization.
And the Navy has limited resources to support the greater material readiness strain while addressing strategic recapitalization projects, including replacing the more than 40-year-old Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with the new Columbia-class. The first ship of that class is estimated to cost $15 billion, the second ship will drop to $9.3 billion, with drops for subsequent platforms resulting from shipyard learning curves and economies of scale. Sustaining the most survivable portion of the nuclear triad is a necessary break-even requirement for national security. However, it is a large bill for the Navy, and it will restrict the ability to put resources into other ship construction accounts or divert needed resources into repair and modernization.
But amidst the Navy’s resourcing challenges, I disagree with Mr. Work’s suggestion that the problems come from a Navy-driven “slavish devotion to forward presence.” The mismatch between the supply of ready naval forces and the demand for them overseas has been driven by senior civilian and joint military leaders, whose requests, “equate to approximately 130 ships at sea on any given day, nearly half of the present fleet”—a demand signal the Navy has struggled to meet. Forward naval presence provides the nation with tremendous strategic and tactical value, but “presence for presence’s sake,” driven by unmoored requirements is the problem. Regional combatant commanders should be planning and executing “presence with a purpose”—presence attached to specific goals and missions rather than general desire for forces. Mission creep or presence for presence’s sake, can be regulated with the proper oversight. Political leaders must take this into account when addressing the insatiable demand for naval forces from combatant commanders around the globe.
Forward Deployed Naval Forces: Capability at Lower Cost
A great example of presence with a purpose, that balances resources, maintenance, and demands on personnel, is the Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) in Rota, Spain. In March 2015, the Congressional Budget Office published: “How Could the Navy Maintain Its Forward Presence Under Smaller Shipbuilding Budgets?” This report cited three courses of action (COAs) to maximize presence with a smaller inventory of ships:
1. Deploy ships for longer periods
2. Assign more than one crew to some ships to permit longer deployments
3. Base more ships and crews overseas
COA 1 accelerates the fleet’s declining readiness. Deploying ships twice during a 36-month Fleet Response Training Plan (FRTP) cycle puts more wear and tear on them and their crews. Longer deployments and surge deployments also disrupt the shipyard and general maintenance schedules that are meticulously planned and balanced against availability months or even years in advance. COA 1 embodies all the worst instincts Mr. Work warns of in his article.
As for COA 2, the Navy has been dual crewing many platforms for decades. It has long been the model for ballistic missile submarines (blue and gold crews) and more recently for littoral combat ships. When well planned and executed, the dual crew system works. For example, in 2011, during combat operations in Libya, the USS Florida (SSGN-728) was a critical strike platform. Dual crewing allowed her to remain in the European and African theaters for 18 months. On her way home for a longer maintenance availability, she contributed more TLAM strikes than any other platform during the campaign. Florida offered persistent presence and precision strike to the fight. She was the right ship, at the right time, and right place—presence with a purpose.
Finally, COA 3—basing more ships and crews overseas—is the model for the FDNF in Rota, Spain. In 2014, the Sixth Fleet declared full operational capability (FOC) with a full complement of four Arleigh Burke–class destroyers in Rota. Achieving reliable forward operations required the proper facilities and adequate resourcing. Spain provided a top-notch home port—Rota Naval Base provides a full complement of modern housing, a DoD school, a U.S. Navy hospital, and high-quality maintenance facilities. The Navy collaborates with a Spanish shipyard for maintenance and repair of the destroyers with the regional maintenance facility and Destroyer Squadron 60 providing oversight.
The four Rota-based destroyers provide deterrence, warning, and response options for crises in the High North and the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Achieving the availability of Rota’s four destroyers would require ten stateside-based destroyers executing a traditional deployment schedule. In light of the growing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Navy has been present in the Black Sea, with two Aegis destroyers and the command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) just in the past month.
FDNF Rota provides this capability while observing a 50/50 split between time at sea and time at home for sailors with their families. The ships are normally deployed for four months, followed by a four-month availability period to conduct maintenance, training, and certification for the next deployment. The FRTP for these ships exceeds the goals for platform availability while maintaining high standards for readiness, adequate crew rest, and time in home port.
The Rota-based destroyers provide a steady, rather than episodic, opportunity to train with allied and partner navies in a variety of missions, gaining real familiarity over time. A successful example was Exercise Formidable Shield.
Before taking command of Sixth Fleet in 2014, I met with Vice Admiral Jim Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. We wanted to enhance the quality of allied interoperability in missile defense for the European theater. During the Obama Administration, the United States took the lead on the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) for the missile defense of Europe. The Navy accepted a large portion of the task with its four destroyers in Rota. In addition, the Navy constructed two Aegis-ashore facilities for land-based defense—one in Romania and one in Poland. Jim and I wanted to add realism to the training environment, seeking to obtain funding and execute a live-fire event with an SM-3 missile fired from an FDNF destroyer operating in consort with allied navies. This came to fruition with the first-ever SM-3 fired from the Hebrides range, off the coast of Scotland, during Formidable Shield in 2015.
That first Formidable Shield was so successful it became a biennial exercise, following in 2017, 2019, and 2021. Each subsequent exercise is bigger, with more participants than the last. Allies and partners contribute ships, provide cueing data, and protect the high-value unit by firing antiship cruise missiles in a variety of challenging scenarios during the two-week period at sea. It is an outstanding training event, made possible by the forward-deployed Aegis destroyers in Rota. Eventually, European NATO Allies will lead this exercise.
Eliminating “Presence for Presence’s Sake”
In his essay, Mr. Work recalls Samuel Huntington’s accurate observation that maritime services must have a strategic concept to gain public (taxpayer) support, and, as the world evolves, the service must adapt its organizational structure to the new mission.
As far as a Huntington-like strategic concept, the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that the Navy and Marine Corps’ forward-operating concept ensured forces were immediately available on-scene. The presence of the USS Enterprise and USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Groups made rapid strikes against al Qaeda in Afghanistan possible. Had these ships not been forward deployed, how much longer would it have taken to conduct sustained, regular strikes against al Qaeda at the heart of its base in Afghanistan? The Navy is not a “garrisoned” force like large contingents of the other services—it is forward deployed to deter conflict, respond to crises in remote regions of the world, and be ready to fight on demand.
The Navy’s “presence problem” proceeds from a lack of political restraint and a joint addiction to the flexibility the Navy provides without prioritizing requirements the Navy must obey. The Constitution guarantees that the U.S. military chain of command remains subordinate to a civilian chain of command. Under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation, the service chiefs have a Title 10 requirement to man, train, and equip their forces. They must do this with the resources allocated. For the past 20 years, however, the Navy has been burdened by contradictory but legal orders to maintain levels of readiness and forward presence that are unsustainable with current resourcing.
So, barring the obvious solution of properly resourcing the Navy, what to do about the problem of presence for presence’s sake? One solution was first suggested in the 4th century BC by Aristotle, a member of the court of Philip II of Macedon and the exclusive tutor to Philip’s son, Alexander the Great— “Government begins when fathers can no longer control their sons…”
In the 21st-century U.S. military, those “sons and daughters” are the combatant commanders (CoComs), with an insatiable desire for forward-deployed forces. But the Department of Defense must be judicious in deploying its forces forward and conduct presence operations only for a defined purpose. The Navy’s ability to deploy forces hinges on the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, and the Navy understands how much capacity it can generate at any one time based on complex maintenance, training, and certification schedules—none of which are CoCom concerns.
When there is real or potential tension in a CoCom’s area of responsibility, the natural reaction is to submit a request for forces (RFF) to the Joint Staff. Normal allocation of resources is controlled by a Global Force Management Board that tries to forecast demands a year or more in the future and responds to CoCom requirements in peacetime. However, when a crisis arises and an emergent RFF is submitted for Joint Staff review, a process ensues to determine which service can meet that requirement. The services are sometimes reluctant to fill these requests because of the disruptive nature they can have on maintenance and training schedules.
When services decline to support an RFF, the results are reported to the Secretary of Defense. A Joint Staff briefer will inform the Secretary of the RFF and the reluctance or acquiescence of the services to fulfill the request. More often than not, in deference to the CoComs, the Secretary will direct a service be “forced to source” the requirement.
If service limitations are heeded, the short-term political cost may strike far sooner than the long-term readiness costs. Failing to resource RFFs could leave open the possibility that during testimony on Capitol Hill, when asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee if a combatant commander was being adequately resourced, the answer might be “No,” leading to political sniping at the administration from one or both sides of the aisle. Navy attempts to deny RFFs diplomatically and internally have failed.
This failure of the political process is the main reason for the current Navy readiness predicament Mr. Work describes. Neither forward presence nor a lack of long-term naval planning have caused the problem. To address the problem, a serious dose of appetite suppression is needed at the Defense Secretary level. Senior civilian leaders must be judicious in committing forces to satisfy short-term CoCom requirements today that may be needed for a protracted fight tomorrow. As fathers often opine when disciplining their offspring, imposing limits on CoComs today “will hurt me more than it hurts you,” but those limits are necessary to be ready for future national security contingencies.