The Navy faces an operational “tipping point” where the demand for overseas presence will far exceed the number of ships, according to the influential Center for Naval Analyses.
CNA's new report, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?”, which was provided to DOD Buzz, is being used by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to evaluate future force plans. It says that despite a 20 percent decrease in the size of the total battle fleet over the past 10 years, the number of ships deployed, around 100 at any given time, has remained constant.
The Navy has been able to pull this off with a smaller fleet by lengthening deployments and more frequent cruises. What has suffered is training, as the number of available training ships has declined. Now, however, the Navy faces a dilemma, that of maintaining forward presence and meeting maritime security requirements in the face of a shrinking battle fleet and declining resources, CNA says.
The military’s future unfolds in a world of constrained federal budgets and Navy budgets will not experience growth rates above inflation; “getting well” in future budgets is a myth, CNA says. Rising shipbuilding costs, ever increasing personnel and health care costs, and the need to fund ongoing operations will all exert serious downward pressure on ship numbers. If the Navy continues on the current shipbuilding course of about six or seven ships per year, the battle fleet will face a steady decline over the next two decades that will see it go from 286 ships today to around 230-240 ships from 2025 and out.
What to do? The Navy must change its strategy. CNA offers five strategic options for the future Navy: Two Hubs; One Plus Hub; Shaping; Surge; and Status Quo Shrinks. Each option involves either a significantly reduced force structure or a significant change in strategy.
For the past 60 years, the Navy has maintained significant combat capability in two “hubs”: in the Western Pacific and the Mediterranean during the Cold War and the Western Pacific and North Arabian Sea/Arabian Gulf today. To maintain a two hub strategy with a strong presence in the Pacific to counter Chinese naval expansion and in the Gulf to counter Iran, along with Aegis ships for Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) missions and to support ongoing operations will demand cuts elsewhere.
The biggest losers in this scenario are the Marines, as amphibious ship numbers would be significantly reduced, as well as other “low end” ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), in favor of high end combatants. Overseas engagement missions would be drastically reduced. Surge capacity would be negatively impacted in favor of visible presence in the two hubs, deployments would be lengthened and training would also suffer.
The Navy would also risk losing relevance in low end operations and the ability to respond quickly to humanitarian disasters along Haiti lines. Counter-piracy operations and partnering with smaller foreign navies would be cut way back.
A one hub Navy would be centered on the Western Pacific (WESTPAC). It would reduce carrier strike groups (CSG) and CSG presence in the Gulf as Iraq winds down and would provide limited support in Afghanistan with a low end “routine,” not constant, presence in CENTCOM area with amphibs and LCS. Fleet surge capacity would be reduced in favor of major combatant presence in WESTPAC. BMD missions would be prioritized as WESTPAC, CENTCOM and EUCOM, in that order.
This approach risks producing an unbalanced fleet, CNA says. Carriers and surface strike ships would be stacked in the Pacific while Norfolk would become home for low end engagement ships and missions. It would have the advantage of increasing ships for engagement and partnering with smaller foreign navies, counter piracy and other littoral missions while maintaining the Navy as far and away the dominant maritime force in the Pacific.
“It also assumes that the internal Navy culture can be overcome and that the Navy can create two separate fleets with different emphases and objectives and training and manning and equipping for their missions,” CNA says.
This option sees the Navy moving to an “engagement” model. It would sacrifice high end ships, such as carriers and Aegis, for building the largest fleet possible with cheaper and smaller ships, such as the LCS, JHSV and corvettes. “It could concentrate its efforts on maximizing engagement and interoperability with other maritime forces, creating a fleet that is busy with many maritime security operations and low-end contingencies for a chaotic, messy world.”
Large deck amphibs would be emphasized, used as afloat staging bases, naval special warfare would be big winners and littoral forces would be used to patrol ungoverned spaces and support counterterrorism and counterinsurgency “from the sea.” A reduced forward deployment would result in WESTPAC; it would assume that China’s naval force is developing more slowly. This strategy would also lean heavily on the Air Force and regional allies, particularly in the Pacific, where “routine” CSG cruises would be the norm.
Some high end and big war escalation capability would be lost. BMD missions would be maintained or grow. “It would risk escalation dominance and control in favor of trying to achieve regional stability and security through engagement and de-escalation.”
This approach is based on a powerful “home fleet” able to surge forward with powerful strike groups to overwhelm any aggressor. It would get by with fewer carriers and other high end surface combatants because it would give up presence missions. BMD missions would be maintained with minimal presence. “It would be created by the knowledge among allies and potential adversaries that the United States could mobilize its fleet and be able to exercise maritime dominance at any place on the globe.”
The “future fight” would be emphasized over the “current fight.” This option would require a more stable world with less low end presence requirements. “Most important, this option assumes that the foreign policy of the United States becomes less activist, and more like that of an “off-shore balancer,” with greater attention to domestic issues and reliance on deterrence... A navy that stays at home and prepares for the future is a navy that America last saw in the isolationist days between the world wars. ”
Status Quo Shrinks
This is the most dangerous option, CNA says. This navy would be based on proportional cuts across all platforms to maintain a “balanced fleet.” The Navy struggles to maintain all current missions, but slowly loses that ability as the battle force shrinks. Readiness would suffer as maintenance and training is sacrificed for shipbuilding. Still, the reduction to a 230 ship navy is inevitable. There is a steady erosion of combat capability and forward presence.
“The inevitable conclusion of this process is that the shrinking status quo Navy will do all things, but none of them very well (“managing” at 2/3 speed and hoping there are no shocks to the system). The steady slide down the slope could easily erode combat credibility (“hollowing out of the fleet”) and lead to less reassurance of allies in WESTPAC and other places around the world, over time,” the paper says.
The Navy must choose. In the projected budget environment it has no choice. CNA says there is no magic number where the fleet ceases to be a global navy. “When you are no longer present in one or two areas of vital national interest with dominant maritime forces, you are at the 'tipping point.'"
“The Navy can remain the global maritime power with either the 2 hub or 1+ hub-WESTPAC option. Both preserve a global presence for the Navy and allow it to be a force for reassuring allies, deterring the major maritime challenger, and working within joint and combined environments to address the security threats in the two top priority areas of global politics for the foreseeable future. The Shaping and Surge options sacrifice either presence or combat credibility to an extent that threatens the Navy’s ability to maintain its status.
They could be chosen only within the context of major changes in U.S. foreign policies; an acceptance of a much diminished role for the United States as a leader willing to act only in concert with other nations in protecting the global system from low-end threats, or a neo-isolationist America willing to go it alone on high-end threats and letting other issues resolve themselves at the local and regional levels. If the Navy refuses to choose an option, it faces the prospect of a long, slow glide into the Shrinking Status Quo.”