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The changing of the watch

After three consecutive surface warfare officers, the Navy's new boss is a submariner who's taking the helm of the service as it crosses into uncertain waters. New Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told an audience in Annapolis on Friday, per Navy Times' Sam Fellman, that his natural instinct was to just dive the boat and breeze under the storm, but that's where all these naval metaphors break down. Through no fault of his own, Greenert could well be the CNO under whom much of the Navy's fleet disappears.

Galrahn got annoyed back in August with our discussion about whether the Navy should build frigates instead of LCS. Quit daydreaming, he wrote -- the Navy will be lucky if it can keep much of its existing surface force, let alone even ponder building new warships. His full post is worth a read, but here was an important conclusion:

Who in the hell seriously thinks the Navy is going to immediately move to design a new frigate in this fiscal environment? The Navy will be lucky to afford a DDG-51 Flight III design, much less a frigate from scratch. Let's get back to real issues, shall we?

How long before those 29 Perry class ships in active commission or active reserve status are decommissioned? The best bet is the Navy will retire every single one of them next year. The USS Peleliu (LHA 5) will be retired immediately. The USS Cleveland (LPD 7), USS Denver (LPD 9), and USS Ponce (LPD 15) will all be retired immediately. The USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) will both be retired immediately. All of the Coastal Patrol Ships will be retired immediately. Those 10,000 sailors will be the tip of the iceberg in terms of pink slips.

Will the Navy also retire the first 8 Ticonderoga class cruisers because they lack the radar for BMD? Maybe. Will the Navy move all of the MCMs into reserve status immediately? Maybe. The F-35C will likely be immediately canceled. The impact to the Maritime Sealift Command won't be pretty, and those Submarine Tenders among other MSC vessels will be retirement targets.

Beep, bop, boop -- all those figs and PCs gone, right off the rip. Plus maybe those eight Ticos, plus all 14 minesweepers, plus who knows what MSC loses -- pfft! All of a sudden, Greenert presides over a shell of the force that itself was a shell of its former self -- the smallest U.S. battle fleet since 1916, as outgoing CNO Adm. Gary Roughead liked to repeat.

So is this what's going to happen? Maybe ... but Galrahn's predictions are a little on the bleak side, and they assume the super-congress will fail to get an agreement and trip off the dead-man's switch. It's also possible that only some, or even none of these ships could go away next year, though it looks pretty certain the Navy will keep shrinking either as fast as it grows, or faster.

These are realities that have been building for decades and are bigger than any one CNO. The next question is, how much do they matter? The gators and command ships will definitely be missed. Today the Navy mostly uses its Perry-class frigates to take goodwill cruises to third-world ports, where their crews train local sailors to fix their outboard motors or enforce local fishery laws. But as we've asked before, is this a role the Navy would take on no matter what, or did it do so because it had a fleet of operationally irrelevant ships with nothing better to do? If the figs all did go away in the coming year, it's difficult to imagine the Navy would send front-line Aegis destroyers or cruisers to play patty-cake in Cape Verde.

The Navy needs its DDGs and cruisers to patrol the Mediterranean protecting Europe from ballistic missiles; to escort its expeditionary and carrier strike groups; and for your occasional pirate-killing or North Korean cargo ship-tailing missions. So one of the biggest questions for Greenert will be how he balances his predecessors' emphasis on international goodwill with what looks to be an unrelenting demand for ships, submarines and aircraft. All the while, he's got to keep building LCS, keep pushing on SSBN(X), and coax the F-35 along -- if it still exists.

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