Searching for a 21st Century Navy

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At its core, the United States is a maritime nation.  Since the founding fathers crafted the Constitution as the guiding document for a new nation, they wisely saw the need for maintaining a Navy capable of defending the new republic.  While the forces necessary to maintain American seapower have waxed and waned over the years, the need for a strong Navy – capable of defending the homeland as well as projecting power around the globe – has never been more stark than today.

A recent panel discussion hosted by RealClearDefense examined the future composition of the U.S. Navy needed to safeguard our interests.  The Navy must maintain the capability and credibility, backed by the military and political leadership of the nation, to defend our economic and national security interests on the high seas.  A key point raised was the need for a clear national security strategy, directly translatable to force structure with clearly defined risk across all branches of the military.  The Navy especially needs a strategy-focused force structure, not one driven by the lazy expediency of a budget number.

The paradigm of “one-third, one-third, one-third” Army-Navy-Air Force budget split, was rightly criticized as unreflective of current realities. Similarly, the mindset that the Department of Defense must live with the “reality” of sequestration was challenged. Sequestration is a political imposition, not a financial requirement. As currently implemented, it is undermining the ability of every service, but especially the Navy, to sustain its forces today and continue to build and maintain the fleet of the future.

The Navy is being challenged on every front – manning, training, equipping, growing, and shaping the fleet.  The size of the current fleet continues to raise concern within the Navy itself as well as on Capitol Hill.  While ships today may have greater capability than just a generation ago, an inadequately sized fleet without the ability to sustain continuously forward deployed assets wastes those advances.

While contributing on its face to the numbers of ships in the active fleet, the Littoral Combat Ship has repeatedly fallen short in meeting its mission requirements.  Unfortunately, the program is being continued to artificially inflate the Navy’s fleet numbers for political purposes while maintaining the embattled industrial base that builds and supports it until a suitable guided missile frigate program can be developed.

In the interim, a true success story in shipbuilding continues with remarkable results – the Arleigh Burke class Guided Missile Destroyer.  The Navy is on track to field the Flight III destroyer, built to counter the growing vulnerability of the aircraft carrier to the threat of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.  As the threat has evolved, so has the Navy’s ability to defend against it.  Greater survivability will ensure the Navy’s ability to project power in anti-access/anti-denial combat environments such as the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific.

Combat systems don’t work if they are not exercised in training like they would be in combat.  Today, the Navy routinely deploys ships that are undermanned, undertrained, and underequipped. The ability to operate and survive in a hostile environment depends on being combat ready.  If a ship sustains the level of damage I experienced aboard the USS Cole when it was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, it might not survive if the manning numbers and training opportunities remain as low as ships experience today. 

On the equipping front, the recent decision by the administration to downsize and eliminate the Tomahawk missile program without a suitable replacement on the horizon borders on negligence.  Since its initial large-scale use in Desert Storm I, the Tomahawk missile remains the go-to weapon of choice in almost every operational scenario planned for by combatant commanders in their theaters.  As warfare tactics have advanced, so has this unique weapon system, which is deployed extensively on Arleigh Burke class destroyers and submarines.  Until a suitable replacement is developed and is ready to be fielded, it makes far greater sense to upgrade the Tomahawk than create a capability gap in the Navy’s ability to project power.

Throughout the panel discussion, the one point that consistently came through – the United States needs a combat-capable, forward-deployed Navy capable of defending our national security interests at home and abroad.  The Navy must develop a clear strategy that can be directly tied to force structure.  We can no longer afford the political temptation to cut corners under the guise of budgetary discipline in the form of sequestration.  The American people deserve better and so do the young men and women who choose to risk their lives in the service of our nation.

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