No, Our Navy Isn’t Big Enough, or Why We Do Need Twelve Aircraft Carriers and Other Issues

Ladies and gentlemen, if you do not possess a modicum of knowledge on a subject, please do not speak on it. In this case, the offender is one Gregg Easterbrook. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Easterbrook’s work, I shall enlighten you: His primary column right now is Tuesday Morning Quarterback on ESPN’s website. What did he write on, you ask? National defense, specifically the budget increase requested by the Navy for the next fiscal year, a $11 billion hike to $161 billion. His article is here, an op-ed for the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html. Read it? Excellent. We shall deal with some of Mr. Easterbrook’s more egregious misconceptions below, and then I will explain the real problem this article is a mere symptom of, the disconnect between policy makers and the general public from the military and its true needs and desires.

First off, the Zumwalt class destroyer. Let’s make something very clear. The Navy is only getting three. That’s right, three of these powerful new warships. Those “advanced cannons”, the Advanced Gun System technically, are not rated yet for anti-ship fire (although I rather expect that’s on the Navy’s wishlist and not too far off). Why are we only getting three of these new ships? Well, Congress kept cutting the program. The DDG-1000 program was not without its setbacks, and it fell victim to the classic defense program death spiral: rising unit costs means politicians cut order numbers, bringing up unit costs to cover R&D, leading to more cuts, etc etc until a program is so gutted as to be near worthless. Don’t get me wrong, the three new destroyers, USS Zumwalt, USS Michael Monsoor, and USS Lyndon B Johnson are incredibly powerful and capable warships. The nature of the world however is that with three ships, only one will ever be available for patrol at a given time. Of the other two, one will be incapacitated with with overhauls and maintenance, and the other only partially available due to logistics requirements, such as training requirements, transit times, and other minor issues that still leave the ship out of the equation. In short, quantity is just as important as quality to a minimum level for force structures.

Next, Mr. Easterbrook asserts that national defense, particularly the expansion thereof, is a partisan issue in Congress, tied to the Republican Party. That may in fact be true, that that is the status quo. And that is an issue. How national defense is not a bipartisan issue truly baffles me. At the end of the day, you need a country if you’re going to govern it, and that means being able to defend it. Further, one should take a good hard look at the civilians within the Department of Defense (DoD) over the last decade or two, particularly SecDef and SecNav (Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy). There is a healthy mix of Democrats and Republicans in the list of names, but more crucially, the reports all read the same. They all tell the story of a Department who after the end of the Soviet Union and an obvious antagonist has been left to beg for scraps from the Congressional table. (I’ll return to this issue in a bit.)

Next let’s take a look at this next claim. “We have 10 aircraft carriers, ten more than anyone else.” This is a severe misconception and must be thoroughly deconstructed. Currently in service are the ten aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class, with USS Enterprise in the scrapyard (a true shame), and USS Ford currently being fitted out for commissioning in 2016. These ships are known in naval parlance as supercarriers. They outmass most other aircraft carriers by anywhere from 1.5x to 2.5x. They can carry far more combat aircraft at a time, up to 80 in wartime, including electronic warfare (EW) and command and control (C&C) aircraft, as well as utility helicopters. However, they are not alone on the oceans.

Medium carriers, capable of carrying from a handful to a couple dozen aircraft abound the oceans. These ships, while unable to find space for EW and C&C aircraft like their larger American cousins, are not to be underestimated. The Russian Navy has the Kuznetsov, a medium carrier and hold-over from the Cold War. The Indian Navy sails INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya, two medium carriers from foreign navies before the completion of two home-built carriers. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fields the Liaoning, a repurposed sister to Kuznetsov, and plans to build several equivalent ships before upgrading to true blue water carriers. Among our allies, the Italians have two, Cavour and the Giuseppe Garibaldi, the French have Charles de Gaulle,and the British are building two new carriers, likely to be true supercarriers, of the Queen Elizabeth class, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. So to refute Mr. Easterbrook’s point, no, the ten aircraft carriers of the USN are not alone on the seas.

With regards to the supposed technological superiority of the United States Navy (USN), let me say this. We don’t have it. The Navy is nowhere near as invincible as it might seem on paper to a sports commentator. This is not to contest the USN would win any war for the deep seas. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind, anywhere, that eventually between technology and numbers, the USN would defeat any comer. However, closer to shore, without room to maneuver and within range of land-based weapons and aircraft, under concentrated force, even an aircraft carrier battle group is at risk. The PLAN by and large fields upgraded Soviet weaponry. Here’s a historical fact for you folks, the Soviets have always led the field in missile technology, both surface to surface and surface to air. This is not to say our own weapons are slouches, but the Russian and now Chinese ones are quite good themselves. Those former Soviet weapons gave us fits then, and continue to to this day.

Let’s take a crack now at one of the poorest, most misconstrued analogies I’ve seen in a good long while. Mr. Easterbrook compares expanding Chinese influence and firepower in the seas inside the South China Sea and other disputed sea lanes to the USN’s Fourth Fleet. Fourth Fleet is responsible for the Caribbean and the oceans around Central and South America, and is popular within the fleet for training cruises and shakedowns. The South China Sea contains dozens of islands and atolls disputed among (variously) the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese, and the Philippines. Last I checked, Fourth Fleet is not in the habit of sitting off Havana or Caracas and intimidating fishing vessels from those ports. USN assets don’t fire fire-fighting hoses at peaceful ships, and intervene warships in disputed waters, in direct violation of previous agreements. USN assets don’t overtly aim their weapons at ships of other nations in disputed territories, so no, I don’t find this analogy appropriate.

China is a growing power and is flexing its new sea-bound muscle. There is a reason the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is growing. The Chinese seek to control the seas around their coast totally, without regard for the other nations with interests there. They are even building new islands in contested areas for airstrips and supply stations for their growing navy. A stronger US Navy would give the Chinese more pause before further illegal actions. A stronger, present US Navy to back up international sea law would prevent the Chinese from being able to act so boldly, which is why they are investing so heavily in the technology and capability to deny us the ability to operate freely in such waters.

Sea power could perhaps be considered an aspect of great-power rivalry, as you call it, but it is a symptom of the world we live in. It is at their own peril for any nation with a coast to ignore the sea. The vast majority of the world’s cargo still moves by ship. It is simply easier and more efficient to move items by sea when time is not a consideration, and remains that way when it is for bulk or heavy cargoes. The fact of the matter is that since the Civil War in America (as a rough historical waypoint), the world has been a global world. Events in China affect those in England, and materials produced in South America and refined in South Africa might find markets in Russia. The vast majority of the economic capital and products of nations around the world at some point move by sea. Thus, he who controls the sea controls the world’s pocketbooks and stores, and by extension the world. British dominance in the 19th century was very much aided by the undisputed superiority of the Royal Navy.

These strategic implications are just as true today as they were one hundred years ago. The idea that there was no great sea-power rivalry during the Cold War is simply untrue. The Soviet Navy and the navies of NATO both prepared and drilled to face each other in battle, perhaps in the Atlantic and perhaps in the Pacific or in other locales around the globe. It was an asymmetric rivalry, with asymmetric tactics deployed by both sides, but a rivalry there was still, and to assume there was not ignores a great deal of the tension and intelligence gathering that was done by both sides’ fleets.

To say there has been no great sea battle since Okinawa is a further misconstruction of history. (The last true battle prior to that I hold to be Leyte Gulf, but that is a discussion for another time.) There has also been no real war since there with a significant naval component. In every case, either one (or both) protagonist(s) lacked a navy, or refused to challenge the overwhelming superiority of his opponent. Of course there have been no great naval engagements, but the ongoing war under and above the seas, between submarines, their hunters, and their surface forces, to spy, to probe, and to threaten, have shaped history in incalculable ways. (For those interested in further reading on Cold War submarine exploits I highly recommend Blind Man’s Bluff, by Sherry Sontag, and Christopher and Annette Lawrence Drew.)

Finally, Mr. Easterbrook seems to finally kiss up to the Navy he is trying so hard to hamstring and gut, saying that American naval hegemony is a great achievement and is secured by a dramatic margin. And he is right, it is a spectacular achievement for a nation not on the same continental mass (Eurasia) as the bulk of the human population and the global economy. This is what makes the Navy of the United States of America, surrounded to both east and west by vast oceans, so critical to the foreign policy and the defense of this nation.

The United States Navy fields, at last count, 10 nuclear powered supercarriers, 10 amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers, and 71 submarines. Of these assets, consider that any one time, no more than a third, and possibly as low as a quarter of those assets are either on patrol or available to command structures for new missions. Consider that of our ten carriers, one is undergoing midlife refueling and comprehensive overhaul (USS Abraham Lincoln, CVN-72), so we are really down to nine. Due to construction patterns this is essentially perpetually true. Figure further that for three on patrol (down to six now), at least two and more likely three are in transit either to or from patrol and thus committed. Now, the remaining three, perhaps two, are in port are taking on food, fuel and parts for their aircraft, undergoing routine maintenance, and giving their crews a well deserved rest. This is before that carriers doing training cruises can’t be in port, and that it is logistically impractical to cycle air wings at sea for training exercises and keeping the ship at sea, which I might add stresses the ship itself and her crew even further. Ten seems like a lot fewer ships now, doesn’t it? The Navy has done studies, and for every carrier on patrol at any one point, three more are required to prevent undue and unnecessary stress on any one ship in that collection of four. In other words, the Navy is keeping three carriers on patrol when they can only afford two and a half.

The problem is also only going to get worse. Consider that the majority of the Nimitz class were built and deployed in five year intervals. Nimitz is the eldest in the fleet, after Enterprise‘s decommissioning, and was scheduled for decommissioning before the end of the decade at her fifty year lifetime. However, USS Ford, originally intended as the decommissioned Enterprise‘s replacement, is suffering delays and may not be ready in time to even serve as Nimitz‘s replacement. According to Congressional plans, the follow-on ships of the Ford class, USS John F Kennedy and USS Enterprise (CVN-80 as opposed to -65), are to be built at eight year intervals, placing larger gaps in an already stressed and stretched fleet.

The United States military is unique in this world, and not just for its fighting power. It is the only military built around going somewhere else in the world and fighting the war there. Such an undertaking involves truly massive expenditure of resources, and aircraft carriers are critical to that strategy. The United States is the sole superpower in the world at the moment, and, for better or worse, the only power appearing invested in maintaining an international community whose tenets are founded on law and order and economic exchange. This means the United States finds itself defending the world, a world which has reaped massive benefits from this order, in many conflicts around the world. The most critical part of this is controlling the three-quarters of our planet’s surface covered by water, a job handled by the Navy.

The United States’ international power is built on the power of commerce. Much of our strength comes from the strength of our economy, and the bulk of that travels by sea. It is not a coincidence that during our growth during the Cold War the Navy was also at its strongest. The fleet protected not only American commerce but the economy of the world, and had to do so around the world around the clock. We maintain ships and assets all over the place, and with good reason. In order to protect a global world, we must be able to protect it from threats everywhere, every time, from China to Somali pirates to African rebels to illegal Russian invasions. Such a massive undertaking requires a massive force, one estimated by the US Navy at 300 active ships and twelve aircraft carriers, compared to 275 and 10 respectively at present. And those numbers are only going to get worse.

Here’s the real problem, folks: Americans don’t know how to listen to the experts. It’s the same issue I went after when I wrote about Ebola, that in America democracy is interpreted to mean that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. Here the experts are the Navy. This is their entire job, friends. If they screw up, it’s their lives on the line, literally. The Navy asks for what it asks for because they genuinely believe they need it. I for one am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

For those of you worried about American adventuring or imperialism, consider before you complain that we declared our invasion of Iraq and have since left the country. Consider that we are not building islands with military purposes around the Bahamas. Consider that we are not threatening to blockade the Hormuz Strait and practicing blowing up Iranian capital ships (not that they have any), and bring somewhere between 20-40% of the world’s oil trade to an immediate halt. Mr. Easterbrook brings up that 129 nations send students to the Naval War College. Firstly I can assure you they do not walk out of there with a feeling of American invincibility. Second, I can tell you of three nations that don’t, who I mentioned just a sentence or two ago. Think about that for a moment, and tell me we don’t need to give our Navy the attention and support it deserves.

For those interested in more reading here is another article along these same lines: http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/03/10/the_us_navy_is_big_enough_a_zombie_idea_that_wont_die__107725.html

For the original article again, here you are: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html

As always, thanks for reading and feel free to share and to comment. – GP

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