The Navy Pushes for More

July 1, 2000

When Ronald Reagan was President, his military expansion built the Navy to some 600 ships. Today, as the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan takes shape in a Virginia shipyard, the fleet comprises 315 ships and is likely to be smaller by the time Reagan enters service in 2003. It is the smallest US Navy since 1933, a fact noted frequently by the Navy and its backers in Congress.

Since the end of the Cold War, as defense spending declined, the Navy has been retiring older ships faster than it has built new ones such as Reagan, a 90,000-ton Nimitz-class carrier under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. Under Reagan, the Navy ordered an average of 19 new ships per year. Since President Clinton took office, orders have averaged six ships per year.

Now, pro-Navy lawmakers on defense committees insist the service must buy more carriers, submarines, cruisers, destroyers, and other ships over the next decade if the nation is to meet its national security needs. They are joined by many Navy officials, who have begun openly calling into question the official ship levels that were set for their service only three years ago. Some warn that the Navy already is short of submarines for intelligence missions and cargo ships to transport troops and equipment overseas.

“A Crisis Now”

The state of mind of the Navy’s political backers on Capitol Hill was captured in a recent comment by Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.), whose state is home to the sprawling Newport News Shipbuilding complex. “It’s legitimate to describe this as a crisis now,” warned Robb.

That is a controversial claim, to say the least. Not all or even most defense experts think the Navy is in such dire straits. Given the demise of the Soviet Union-and with it, the once huge and modern Soviet Navy-some question the necessity of, for example, large numbers of hunter-killer submarines designed primarily for war at sea with the Soviet fleet.

Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute has claimed, “The nuclear attack submarine force remains too large. … The number of submarines could be cut to 25 modern boats, while still fielding the best force in the world.”

Critics argue that the pressure to build more ships comes from the Navy’s desire to get its share of future defense budgets and, with it, more force structure. They maintain that the Navy is simply positioning itself to compete more effectively with the other armed services, especially in light of the Pentagon’s ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review. Results of QDR 2001 will be announced early next year, and there will be a change of administrations at about the same time.

In its most recent posture statement, the Navy Department’s leadership telegraphed its intentions. It said:

“The Navy and Marine Corps continue to meet commitments primarily by drawing upon forward deployed ‘rotational’ forces rather than requiring additional deployments of units that have just returned from or are beginning to work up for deployment. We have been able to do this mainly by demanding more from our people and equipment. But this cannot go on indefinitely.

“As we approach the next Quadrennial Defense Review, the Navy and Marine Corps will make the point that our force levels need to remain balanced with usage expected in the future security environment. … Already, there is growing evidence that our forces are stretched. … The 1997 QDR stated that a fleet of slightly more than 300 ships was sufficient for near-term requirements and was within an acceptable level of risk. Three years of high-tempo operations, however, suggest that this amount should be reviewed in the next QDR.”

Within the last year, at least three categories of ships within the 300-ship plan have emerged as specific candidates for increased force-level goals-attack submarines, surface combatants, and amphibious ships.

So far, debate among lawmakers has centered on whether to build more warships rather than on the question of whether the US Navy has a sound strategy for deploying them around the world. As the critics see it, Congress should take a hard look at the naval mission before agreeing to substantial increases in shipbuilding and naval aircraft procurement.

Those who want a larger Navy argue that modern warships allow Washington to back up its diplomacy and project power to remote waters, as it has done in recent years in the Persian Gulf, Taiwan Strait, and Adriatic. Critics who challenge that view say it ignores the fact that the open-ocean threat has essentially vanished. No longer does the Navy face the daunting task of protecting sea lines of communications, conducting full-scale anti-submarine warfare, or taking the fight into the teeth of Soviet power on the rim of Eurasia.

Expeditionary Competitors

Moreover, note the skeptics, naval forces have played a supportive role in US military conflicts of the last decade, from Desert Storm onward-with the exception of Desert Fox in late 1998. Furthermore, they point out that the Navy and Marine Corps no longer form the only expeditionary military force. The Air Force has developed its own fast-deploying Aerospace Expeditionary Forces and reshaped its fleet of long-range bombers to conduct conventional operations, they observe.

Some in the Navy frankly acknowledge their concern about additional service claims to the “presence” mission. One of them is Navy Capt. Sam J. Tangredi, senior military fellow of the QDR 2001 working group at the National Defense University. “Having disparaged the need for naval forward presence, … the Air Force now has discovered that its Aerospace Expeditionary Forces provide forward presence,” Tangredi wrote in the May issue of US Naval Institute’s Proceedings. “[O]ur sister services are jumping on the forward presence bandwagon, diluting the argument for a strong naval forward presence structure with requests for such forces of their own.”

As such arguments ring across Washington, however, the Navy’s fleet continues to be heavily utilized at sea. Because of such frequent utilization, and because naval technology is changing rapidly, Navy officials, naval experts, and lawmakers say that it makes more sense to build new ships than to keep old ones around past their prime. Some lawmakers-particularly those whose districts have shipyards that depend on Navy contracts-are pushing the service to become more aggressive about its needs.

One case in point: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military procurement subcommittee, represents a San Diego area district that is home to about a third of the 3,700 workers at National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., one of the “big six” US shipyards that build all major Navy vessels. The shipyards have survived in an era of reduced defense spending through a blend of consolidation, creative cost-cutting such as sharing projects, and the continued support of Congress.

At a Feb. 29 hearing on shipbuilding, Hunter bluntly told senior Navy officials, “We’ve gotten almost to the point where you gentlemen need to be pounding the tables with your leadership and with the Commander in Chief, and I think we in Congress should be doing exactly the same thing.”

Given the demands on the federal budget and public complacency about the military’s size and shape, those who favor a larger Navy acknowledge that the odds are against success. “Is Congress institutionally, as a whole, ready to support the kind of shipbuilding program that I believe we need to have?” Robb asked at a March 8 forum of shipbuilding and industry officials. “I would say no, regrettably.”

The Administration’s Fiscal 2001 budget proposal to the Congress contained a request for $10.7 billion to build eight new ships. Sought in the package were three destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense system for coordinating radar and missiles, two amphibious ships, an aircraft carrier, one attack submarine, and one support ship.

The Navy also said it would like to have-but did not fund-a $1.2 billion helicopter carrier to be built by Litton Industries in Pascagoula, Miss., hometown of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. It would be the eighth such ship Litton has built, if Congress provides the money to pay for it. The ship is designed to carry 1,800 Marines and their helicopters. Although critics say the carrier’s inclusion is intended merely to appease a powerful Republican, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has said the ship was planned for the Fiscal 2005 budget, and buying it sooner would be a reasonable decision if the money is available.

Friends in High Places

Lott, the son of a shipyard worker, has long been one of the industry’s most reliable allies. Although he has sought to ensure that Litton-Mississippi’s largest private employer-receives enough orders to keep it afloat, he warns that he alone cannot build a broader base of Congressional and public support for the Navy.

“Is word [about the Navy’s decline] getting out? Not sufficiently,” Lott said in a recent interview. “Armed Services Committee members know it. The people in the Navy and industry know it. But the general populace doesn’t know it, and they don’t care unless they’re told, ‘We don’t have the ships to go into harm’s way to protect our national interest.’ “

Lott said the current debate should not focus merely on ensuring that American naval yards get enough work to maintain an industrial base. At stake, he argued, is the Navy’s future. “At some point you have to decide, are we going to have a sufficient Navy or not?” he said. “It’s not just about building more ships in my hometown, which I’m for, obviously. It’s that they [ships of today’s fleet] are getting antiquated.”

Robb, a member of the Senate Armed Services sea power subcommittee, said that shipbuilding should be near the top of the next President’s national security agenda, because of the time it takes to design and build new vessels.

Not even the Secretary of the Navy will sign up totally to that point of view. Danzig actually has been playing down talk about a major, immediate increase in shipbuilding. Although he would like to see increases, he contends that the Navy’s fleet has not yet reached critical age. Because the Reagan Administration’s defense buildup pumped so much money into the Navy, Danzig notes, many active ships still have more than a decade of service left.

Time Is “Not Right Now”

Danzig told the House Armed Services Committee on March 22, “The time for me to build and replace those ships is not right now; it is … further out. And what I ought to be doing at the moment is taking advantage, in my view, of the youth of the Navy to invest heavily in the research and development that I’ve emphasized, … so that I can build better ships more cheaply in the time ahead.”

The final report of the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review-DoD’s most recent determination of military missions and needs-called for maintaining a fleet of slightly more than 300 ships. The review recommended retaining most of the existing armed forces, missions, and strategies and for maintaining the power to fight and win two widely separated regional conflicts even if they were to break out at more or less the same time.

The review said that, to maintain an adequate presence in the western Pacific, Arabian Sea, and Mediterranean Sea, the Navy would have to maintain a battle force of 12 big-deck aircraft carriers (one used primarily for training) and 12 helicopter carriers. It also called for reducing the planned number of surface warships from 128 to 116 and the number of attack submarines from 73 to 50 during the period 1997-2003. The remainder of the fleet would comprise smaller combatants and support ships such as oilers.

Things have changed, however. During the past year, some senior Navy officials have said that the 300-ship fleet would not be adequate to meet the service’s commitments. Instead, they say, the American Navy needs a force of about 360 ships.

Current Navy plans call for building 39 new ships over the five-year period 2001-05. With the average life span of a ship at around 30 to 35 years, Danzig said that, to maintain a 300-ship fleet, Congress must authorize a “build rate” of 8.6 ships a year. Industry officials and lawmakers contend the rate should be as high as 12 ships a year. Otherwise, they say, the fleet risks dropping below 300 after 2010, when the large numbers of ships built in the 1970s and 1980s begin to hit retirement age and are put into mothballs.

“The 300-ship Navy is a threshold below which we cannot go if we desire to retain superpower status,” remarked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican and a former Navy Secretary.

Ronald O’Rourke, a Congressional Research Service defense specialist, claims that, if the current build rate is maintained over the next 35 years, the Navy will wind up with a fleet of just 263 ships. He said that such drops can easily be avoided if a decision to build more ships is made sooner rather than later. “This is like a crop duster that’s moving along the field, and there’s a barn down there … and you’re too low to get over it right,” O’Rourke said. “You can do it two ways: You can sort of ease up gradually so that you clear the barn without straining the airplane, or you can wait until later and then pull back on the stick and hope that the plane climbs at a rate that’s sufficient to get over the barn.”

Now, Navy advocates are preparing to make a case for a major increase in shipbuilding. At Robb’s urging, Congress wrote into law last year a requirement for the Navy to report on its ship needs through 2030. A late-stage draft version of the report called for building back to a steady state of 360 “or more” ships-a goal that would require spending as much as $19 billion a year to build 11 ships annually.

According to the Navy draft, this new 360-ship fleet would include:

  • 15 big-deck carriers
  • 14 helicopter carriers
  • 68 nuclear-powered attack submarines
  • 134 surface combatants-cruisers and destroyers
  • 40 combat logistics ships, such as fleet oilers, assault ships, and sealift vessels
  • 16 mine warfare ships

The report was due to be sent to Capitol Hill in February but was held up for months. Robb said he suspected the Navy failed to deliver it because it was embarrassed by the discrepancy between the number of ships it currently was seeking and the much-higher totals in its report. “They [senior Navy leaders] don’t have good answers to any of the questions that go beyond 2010,” said Robb.

No “Dramatic Breakpoint”

Danzig, however, claimed that coming up with a conclusive study has proved to be difficult. The Navy Secretary told the House Armed Services Committee March 22 that, as much as he would like to see a larger Navy, he does not believe reaching the 360-ship level is the answer to the problems facing his service.

“I wouldn’t … say that there’s some dramatic breakpoint, some magic number that, when we get there, we have arrived at nirvana and, short of that, we’re in some kind of purgatory,” said the Secretary of the Navy.

The budget problem that confronts the Navy affects all military services. Overseas missions have increased, types of missions have changed, and, although Congress has added money to Clinton’s defense budget request each year since Republicans took control in 1995, harsh fiscal pressure prevents the majority party from adding more.

Danzig has claimed that the Navy is taking on new missions. For example, noted Danzig, it is “remarkable” that Tomahawk missiles were fired in 1998 from naval vessels toward suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. “Afghanistan is not your classic naval power,” Danzig told reporters Feb. 12. And the Navy is currently developing sophisticated, accurate long-range weapons-missiles, aerial bombs, and guided munitions-to allow it to fight even farther inland from the sea. But some critics say that such weapons do not replace having troops on the ground or bombers and fighters in the air.

In particular, the Navy’s attack submarines have been in demand for an expanding range of intelligence missions, such as eavesdropping and reconnaissance, as well as supporting counterdrug operations in the Caribbean.

O’Rourke said the post-Cold War downturn in the number of submarines began sooner and was proportionately deeper than for most other types of Navy ships. He said catching up with the backlog and maintaining adequate future levels pose a particularly formidable challenge. And now, Navy officials are warning that the submarine fleet is becoming overtaxed. Rear Adm. Al Konetzni, commander of submarine forces in the Pacific, said he lacks enough submarines to take part in essential engagement exercises with US allies in the region.

The number of attack submarines has dropped from 93 in 1990 to 56 today. Although the 1997 QDR plan proposed a goal of 50 attack submarines, a Joint Chiefs of Staff study released in February concluded that the Navy actually would need to maintain a minimum fleet of 55 submarines in 2015 and 62 in 2025.

Supporters of increased shipbuilding have seized on those numbers to say the situation warrants building two new, SSN 774 Virginia-class submarines every year. At present, plans call for building one per year. The Virginia-class subs are designed to replace Los Angeles-class boats that are approaching retirement, but at a lower cost than the Seawolf class, of which just three are being built. The Navy plans to spend about $64 billion over the next 18 years to acquire 30 boats of the Virginia class.

Pressure on Congress

Some claim that, because submarines take so long to build and can only be constructed at two of the six major shipyards-Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and Electric Boat in Connecticut-by a relatively small pool of skilled workers, the situation warrants quick attention by Congress.

Proponents of a big naval buildup are scrambling to generate support on Capitol Hill. The American Shipbuilding Association, a Washington, D.C., group representing the six major shipyards, has joined forces with the Navy League of the United States to start a “Sea Power Ambassadors” program of 300 retired Navy and Marine Corps officers to do grassroots lobbying about ship shortfalls. In February, the groups persuaded the House of Representatives in Iowa-a state more than 700 miles from the nearest ocean-to pass a resolution asking Congress to authorize at least 10 Navy ships a year.

Shipbuilding industry officials say that such symbolic actions are far from enough. Unlike the aerospace industry, which is widely dispersed throughout the United States, the shipbuilding industry is concentrated mainly in the six major shipyards. And while other military-related industries can augment their defense contracts with commercial work, the US shipbuilding industry has lost much of its market share to Europe, Japan, China, and South Korea, where lower labor costs and generous government subsidies have enabled shipbuilders there to produce the vast majority of the world’s cruise ships, tankers, and freighters.

Supporters of increased shipbuilding say they must persistently plead their case with Congress and the public. “Now is the time to start,” Robb told shipbuilders at the March forum. “We have a period, and it does not go on forever, where we can start putting money in the bank, … [but] it’s going to take a great deal of education on the part of many of you here.”

Danzig, for his part, took a more measured view of the Navy’s prospects. “When you look at futures, everybody generates different visions. Even the fabled ‘600-ship Navy’ [of the Reagan years] was nothing but a vision. They never actually got to that number. Different people have very different expectations about what the world might look like in terms of 2025 and 2030 and therefore about how big a Navy they’d have. There are many people who would like to see a 360-Navy. … There are many people who think the Navy will stay at 305 ships or 300 ships. However, I don’t think there are many people who think the Navy will fall below it.”

Chuck McCutcheon, a reporter based in Washington, D.C., covers national defense and foreign affairs for Congressional Quarterly Weekly. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.