Unsustainable Pace of Naval Deployments Stirs Concerns

By Allyson Versprille

As U.S. naval forces become increasingly stressed and overworked, rivals such as Russia and China are bolstering their maritime assets, former military officials and lawmakers said Nov. 18.
Potential adversaries see weaknesses in U.S. naval capabilities and are moving to close the gap, said House Armed Services Committee member and defense hawk Randy Forbes, R-Va. 

Forbes spoke at a Capitol Hill news conference following the release of aCenter for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report detailing the strain on the sea services.

The report, titled, "Deploying Beyond Their Means: America's Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point," describes the state of the Navy and Marine Corps fleet at a time when ships are deployed overseas at higher rates even as the size of the fleet shrinks.

The Navy's battle force, which is currently composed of about 271 ships, has shrunk about 20 percent since 1998 when the service had 333 ships, the report said. At the same time, the number of ships deployed overseas remained roughly constant at 100. "As a result, each ship is working harder to maintain the same level of presence," the report said.

Additionally, "the percentage of time each ship spent at sea went up over the last decade, since the size of the fleet went down and the number of ships underway rose or stayed the same," the report noted. This has resulted in an unsustainable operating tempo that affects readiness by deferring needed maintenance and giving sailors and Marines less time to train. The high operating tempo can also hinder the efforts of the services to retain talented people because of the long time away from their families, the report said.

"The force is not as ready, and then when you have the Russians and the Chinese who are having a more ready force to fight at the higher tempo, we're going to be less ready," said retired Adm. Sinclair Harris, former vice director for operations on the joint chiefs of staff. Furthermore, "they [the Chinese and Russians] don't care about the cost per ship and per man. They see that gap, and they see an opportunity."

The Marine Corps is strained in part because of a shortage of amphibious vessels. The service has a stated requirement of 38 amphibious ships. However, it has accepted greater risk, "bringing the needed amphibious shipping down to 30 ships and the overall amphibious ship requirement to 33," the report said.

Bryan Clark, a naval analyst who co-authored the report, noted that the Marine Corps' shrinking personnel numbers are further adding to the problem. "The Marine Corps is drawing down to about 182,000 Marines by 2017. That's going to make an operational force of about 108,000 Marines," he said at the briefing. "At the level of deployed presence we have with the Marine Corps today to maintain a one-to-two deployment to dwell ratio requires about 108,000 Marines, meaning in 2017 when the Marines draw down to that level, they will be using their entire operational force to do the continuous forward deployed operations that they're currently tasked with."

The increased operating tempo and reduced availability of ships has also impacted the ability of the Marine Corps and Navy team to respond to crises, said a joint press release from CSBA and the Navy League, an advocacy group that sponsored the study. "The current carrier gap in the Persian Gulf is a result of high operational tempo and backlog maintenance caused by sequestration," the release said.

A second carrier gap will occur in the Pacific in 2016 and gaps will reoccur intermittently in both the Persian Gulf and the Pacific until 2021 when the USS Gerald R. Ford becomes operationally available, according to the CSBA report.

One way to alleviate the strain on the Marine Corps and Navy would be to build more ships, but that option is unlikely, the report said. The Navy's current shipbuilding plan is $5 billion to $7 billion more per year than the historical average over the last 30 years, and the service may be compelled to revise this plan to meet fiscal constraints, it said.

Over the next three decades, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the Navy’s fiscal year 2016 shipbuilding plan will require over $552 billion (in constant 2015 dollars) worth of ship purchases. If the plan is executed as written, the average cost of new-ship construction would be approximately $18.4 billion per year, 32 percent more expensive than the Navy’s historical average annual shipbuilding budgets.

The CSBA report examined the Navy's shipbuilding plan in addition to three alternate plans averaging $13 billion, $11.5 billion and $10 billion per year, respectively. "None of the shipbuilding plans — including the Navy’s own plan — would enable the Navy to sustain the global presence it maintains today," the report said.

Topics: International, Shipbuilding

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