In his first speech to the Navy League, Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out a grim portrait of a smaller fleet, one with fewer aircraft carriers, few or no new submarines and a sharply curtailed expeditionary capability for the Marines.
Gates told a somber audience today that he did "not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions. At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers." On top of that, as the current wars "recede, money will be required to reset the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the conflicts. And there will continue to be long-term – and inviolable – costs associated with taking care of our troops and their families." Bottom line: no "significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions."
Gates also fired a clear shot across the bow at Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway. Conway told DoD Buzz several weeks ago that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was on track and performing well and remained a core commitment of the Marines as they seek to rebuild their ability to mount major amphibious operations. And the first EFV prototype is being unveiled by the Marines tomorrow in a public ceremony.
So Gates asked rhetorically, "what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire – in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?"
While the Marines fended off efforts by Gates and others to reform their expeditionary role during the Quadrennial Defense Review, the SecDef clearly has not given up.
After Gates took on the Marines, he moved on to aircraft carriers, perhaps the holiest of holies for the surface Navy. "Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040. To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities," he said.
(Buzz readers will remember that we reported the QDR was on track to slice the carrier fleet to nine groups and the EFV.)
In case no one had yet gotten his general message that Navy and Marine Corps platforms face the axe, he made it explicit. "But, mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities. We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms – thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets."
Lest anyone point to China and its burgeoning blue water presence, Gates laid out the arguments that the Navy's own deputy secretary, Bob Work, made before leaving the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment: "Potential adversaries are well-aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race prior to World War I."
Comparing sub and carriers to dreadnoughts must leave ship drivers bereft. After all, this is the generation that oversees the greatest, most potent mix carrier. And he hammered home just how tough both the budget and congressional environments are, saying, "we have to accept some hard fiscal realities. American taxpayers and the Congress are rightfully worried about the deficit. At the same time, the Department of Defense’s track record as a steward of taxpayer dollars leaves much to be desired." Then he mentioned that he would be addressing "the issues surrounding political will and the defense budget" at a Saturday speech at the Eisenhower library. The tepid applause that greeted Gates' speech demonstrated pretty clearly that the Navy, Marine Corps and their friends got the message.