Naval Services: We Need More Ships
The unequivocal message from the three services is that the world is becoming more dangerous and they need bigger budgets to expand and modernize their fleets.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph F. Dunford and Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul F. Zukunft released a new version of their maritime strategy March 13. It isan update of the 2007 document, “A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century: Forward, Engaged, Ready.”
The updated strategy seeks to "define sea power as we see it," Greenert said March 13 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It attempts to answer the question, "What are we really about?"
The document also is intended to impress on policy makers that naval forces are taking on new responsibilities and missions even as the size of the fleet continues to decline. The leaders of the sea services are steadfast about the need for more ships. The strategy recommends that the Navy’s forward deployed force increase from 97 ships today to 120 ships by 2020. The mix of ships would include forward-basing four ballistic-missile-defense destroyers in Spain and stationing another attack submarine in Guam by the end of 2015. The Navy would expand its presence in the Middle East from 30 ships today to 40 by 2020.
The unveiling of the strategy comes amid heated congressional negotiations over the Obama administration’s 2016 budget request, which seeks a significant spending boost for the Defense Department — about $35 billion more than Congress allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Defense officials said the release of the maritime plan was not intentionally timed to help support the president’s budget request, but the document clearly was written to influence decision makers.
If the Pentagon complies with the legally mandated spending caps, the Navy has said the fleet could shrink to 260 ships. The Marine Corps would drop to 175,000 troops, down from a 2012 peak of 202,000. The current fleet of 275 ships, naval officials have argued, is insufficient to maintain a global posture.
According to the new strategy, the Navy and Marine Corps “must maintain a fleet of more than 300 ships,” including 11 aircraft carriers, 14 ballistic missile submarines to be replaced by 12 new SSBN-X versions, and 33 amphibious ships. The Coast Guard needs a fleet of 91 national security, offshore patrol and fast response cutters.
Apprehension about funding cuts and surging demands on naval forces shaped the new strategy, said Rear Adm. William McQuilkin, director of the U.S. Navy’s strategy and policy division. The blueprint “accounts for changes in the global security environment, new strategic guidance and a changed fiscal environment,” he said during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.
The document bears the strong imprint of CNO Greenert, who started the process of updating the maritime strategy in 2012. Dunford and Zukunft took over as chiefs of their respective services in 2014. Greenert said he purposely delayed the release of the document "to make sure they [Dunford and Zukunft] were fully on board."
In previous guidance to the fleet, Greenert’s has consistently emphasized “war fighting” as a top priority, and that is reflected in the strategy, said McQuilkin. The threats to national and international security are more complex and demanding, he said, such as the Islamic State, continued saber rattling by North Korea and Iran, Russian aggression, the rise of China, and increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks. The strategy affirms that the sea services “remain a cornerstone of our national security.”
Of note, the strategy introduces a new function called “all domain access” that seeks to maintain “freedom of action in the sea, air, land, cyberspace and across the electromagnetic spectrum.” All forces will be trained and equipped with that function in mind, McQuilkin said. “It underscores the challenges forces face in accessing and operating in contested environments.”
The document explicitly discusses the role of China, something that was lacking in previous naval strategies. “China’s naval expansion into the Indian and Pacific Oceans presents both opportunities and challenges,” the document states. It credits China for its support of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, for assisting in humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions with its hospital ship, and for participation in multinational exercises. That said, “We are concerned about their naval expansion and lack of transparency about its military intentions,” McQuilkin noted.
In a departure from past practices, the services specifically listed their equipment needs in the new strategy. That is a marker of Greenert’s push to develop smarter naval strategists, said McQuilkin. “The strategy has to be informed by the fiscal environment,” he said. “We developed a cadre of subspecialty codes for strategists. They make sure they understand the linkages between strategy and budgets.”
All three naval services insist that they are stressed to maintain the same amount of forward presence with fewer ships. “When we had 450 ships, we had 100 of them forward. Now we are talking about increasing forward ships from 97 to 120 by 2020,” McQuilkin added. “We had to say what we need: at least 300 ships.”
Marines agree. “I’d like to go on the record as saying we don’t have enough ships,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, who leads the Marine Corps futures directorate and is commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.
The Corps for several years has said its global missions require 33 amphibious ships, and “today we’re fulfilling our commitments with about 20 that are available,” Killea said. The strategy highlights several “workarounds” that Marines have concocted to make do with less, such as using nontraditional ships and creating special purpose task forces that are far smaller than traditional Marine Expeditionary Units but are still able to respond to crises on short notice, Killea said. Breaking up a carefully structured force package on the fly “looks good on paper, but it’s hard,” he said.
Killea rejected the suggestion that the strategy is a product of wishful thinking. “It’s not a wish list,” he said. “We have a mandate to protect America’s interests forward. Until those requirements change we need a certain amount of ships. If we don’t get support from across the river, we’ll have to review our commitments as a nation.”
Rear Adm. Peter Brown, Coast Guard assistant commandant for response policy, said his service also is under-equipped. The biggest acquisition program under way today is the offshore patrol cutter to replace current medium endurance cutters. The Coast Guard is seeking congressional support to complete the acquisition of eight national security cutters, 58 fast response cutters and 25 offshore patrol cutters.
The maritime strategy recognizes that the United States will have fewer resources and naval forces will have to seek collaboration with foreign allies. It mentions the importance of operating in NATO maritime groups and participating in international training exercises. A classified annex is in the works, which discusses global threats in more detail.
Photo: Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (Navy)