Navy Ship Numbers for Asia-Pacific Shift Don’t Add Up (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson
 U.S. Pacific Command’s area of operation consists of 36 nations located in 105 million square miles, of which 83 percent is water.

The Defense Department’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region announced in 2012 has gone hand in hand with a budget crunch, which in turn may test the Navy’s ability to maintain a sufficient number of ships to carry out a global mission, analysts said.

PACOM Commander Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said at an Atlantic Council presentation recently that it’s the U.S. military’s goal to have a robust and capable forward presence in the region.

“We send only our very best cruisers and destroyers with high-end capabilities,” to the area, he said.

The types and numbers of U.S. Navy vessels required to patrol and respond to calls for action in the Asia-Pacific is still a matter of debate, experts interviewed said. According to PACOM figures, there are already some 180 ships and submarines in the region, which includes five aircraft carrier groups.  

“The great distances and broad range of requirements combine to put a demand on the fleet that is very difficult to meet at the level we are currently at,” said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America and a retired Navy rear admiral.

The great expanses that must be covered means the more ships the better, and all classifications are needed, he said.

“I think the Asia-Pacific region is a perfect example of why you need a balanced Navy. … You need more of everything,” he said.

Bernard D. Cole, a retired Navy captain and now a professor at the National War College, said, “From a naval perspective, the rebalancing is going to be pretty subtle.”

Depending on how they are counted, the Navy has some 283 ships. It needs to get a few more than 300, but current shipbuilding plans don’t quite get the Navy there.

“There are some real problems in the future with the shipbuilding budget,” he said.

For example, the Navy wants to build 12 new submarines for its nuclear deterrent force. The costs of these expensive boats would eat up the surface ship budget, he said. Some have argued that as a strategic asset, subs should be in a separate budget, he said.

Carnevale said: “Frankly, I look at it and think 283 ships is just not enough.”

That also brings up the question as to what kinds of ships are needed in the Asia-Pacific.
Every kind, Carnevale said.

Amphibious ships for humanitarian relief and forward presence, submarines for their intelligence gathering capabilities, Aegis-capable cruisers, aircraft carrier strike groups and all the auxiliary ships needed to support them are all required, he said.

“So how do you pick and choose which individual ships you need more of? That’s a detailed requirements issue that’s got to be addressed in the shipbuilding plan,” he added.

Since the strategic shift was announced, only one aircraft carrier group and two submarines have been reassigned to the Pacific, Cole said.

Retired Navy Capt. Wayne Hughes, professor of practice at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., said, “If the surface Navy is going to be a player, it has to be in a position to sail there in crisis situations.”

China is building and modernizing its navy and bullying its neighbors, some of which are U.S. allies, he said. There’s no talk of bombing mainland China or a ground invasion, so that leaves the U.S. Navy to act as a deterrent, he said.

“We don’t want to fight China. We want to influence China and persuade them to back off. And influence our allies by saying, ‘We are sturdy soldiers, and we don’t want to abandon you,’” Hughes said.

If China is going to deny access to the South China Sea, then the United States can demonstrate to the nation that it can deny access to the same waters. “And submarines are an impressive way to do that,” Hughes said.

Aircraft carriers are too valuable to lose, he said.

“We can’t send a carrier in and have it put out of action, or a $2 billion destroyer,” he said.

The Chinese navy in March blocked two Philippine ships from delivering supplies to a disputed island in the Spratley chain, which sparked a diplomatic rebuke from the United States. The Philippines by treaty is an ally of the United States.

Hughes said if friends and allies such as the Philippines, Japan and Australia want the United States to be in the Pacific, one way to boost ship numbers is to lean on them to supply more vessels. This was once called the “1,000-ship Navy” concept, although that term has not been heard in a while, he added.

“We can tell China, ‘If you interdict our friend’s shipping in the South China Sea, then we will interdict your shipping.’ That is a calibrated capability,” Hughes said.

It would be difficult for China to react far from its shores in the areas such as the Singapore Strait or Sunda Strait in Indonesia, he said.

Almost all the ships in the U.S. inventory can be used for interdiction missions, including the new littoral combat ship, he said.

The LCS has taken its share of criticism of late, and its planned numbers were reduced from 52 to 32 in the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal.

Hughes, and others interviewed, all see roles for the new vessel in the Asia-Pacific.
“The LCS has the advantage of having an aircraft and it’s speedy, and that’s pretty good for interdiction,” Hughes said.

Taking part in small-scale exercises with friends and allies is another role, Carnevale said.
And then there are the mission modules. The LCS was designed to come with three main modules: mine-sweeping, anti-submarine and surface warfare.

Cole said: “It looks good on paper but I don’t think there has ever been a successful modular warship. … I think the Navy has a lot of work to do in proving out the concept.”

PACOM’s Locklear is a proponent of the ship, having been involved in its development since the beginning.The Navy wanted a ship that was modular, that could perform several different missions, with a shallow draft and be lightly crewed, he said.

“It got all that,” he said.

“They have a role where you might want to operate with other navies that feel more comfortable operating alongside a littoral-sized ship than a big cruiser or an aircraft carrier,” he added.

There has been criticism as to whether they are lethal and survivable enough, he noted. “They can be moved in that direction. But they weren’t built for that criteria. … They are good ships,” he said.

Carnevale said the LCS’ acceptance in the Navy will only come after it proves the utility of the modules, which have yet to be employed.

“Ultimately, the fleet is going to decide the value. When the fleet decides the value, then I think everyone else will line up, both the acquisition community, the Congress and defense officials of all ilk,” he said.

“If the fleet says, ‘No this is just not working out,’ then it’s the end.”

Also in the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal was a plan to “lay up” 11 Aegis cruisers that will be placed in “long-term phased modernization.” During that time, they will be unavailable for deployment, according to budget documents. They will be overhauled to update technological capabilities and lengthen their lifespans, then returned to the fleet, the documents said.

Carnevale said the money to keep these ships in the inventory was already allocated. There is speculation on what the Navy means when they say they want to “lay up” half of the guided-missile fleet.

His theory is that the Navy simply doesn’t have the sailors with critical job ratings to man all the Aegis systems. The service will leave a skeleton crew, and program money to do modernization in some planned manner and then bring them back online in a process that accommodates both the modernization and refilling the pipeline for trained personnel, he said.

The plan further strains the ship number problem in the Pacific, he said. There is a demand for Aegis capable ships in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas and the Persian Gulf.

“It’s not just a Pacific issue, but it will be felt there as well,” he said.

The Navy’s budget request includes $5.9 billion for two Virginia-class attack submarines in fiscal year 2015 and $28 billion for two submarines a year through fiscal year 2019.

Carnevale added: “The budget faces the reality that submarines are absolutely essential, especially in the Pacific.”

Locklear said: “The submarine force is biased toward the Pacific in a pretty significant way, and that will continue.” Once the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier switches places with the George Washington at its naval base in Japan in 2015, PACOM will have a state-of-the-art carrier at its disposal, he added.

Hughes said submarines can be used in the Pacific to deny the seas to adversaries, but they can’t control the seas. That must be done with surface ships.

There is demand for as many as 15 flattops. Yet the Navy is saying if sequestration continues past 2015, it may be forced to settle for 10 instead of 11, Carnevale said.

Cole said the fact of the matter is that carriers are too expensive. Once the ship and the aircraft are factored in, it’s a $20 billion tab.

“Ten is probably fine for a certain amount of time,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of nuclear deterrent submarines the Navy wishes to build.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy, Shipbuilding, Submarines, Surface Ships

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