FPI Bulletin: Relief for an Overextended Navy

February 22, 2016

The growing length of deployments is putting enormous pressure on a Navy that has fewer ships and sailors than 15 years ago, even as its responsibilities grow. The Navy hopes to relieve this pressure by building more ships, yet its plans rests on optimistic assumptions about the amount of funding that will be available in future budgets. In order for the Navy to gain relief and successfully accomplish its missions, two steps will be necessary. First and most importantly, Congress and the President should invest substantially more in the fleet. Second, the Department of Defense can mitigate the problem by basing more ships closer to potential theaters of conflict, which will increase on station time while the Navy rebuilds.

An Overextended Navy

The constant presence of American sea power, especially in the Western Pacific and the Middle East, comprises a core tenet of the Pentagon’s approach to deterrence and crisis management. Therefore, with remarkable consistency, the Navy has kept about 100 ships forward deployed at any given time over the past two decades. Yet today’s battle fleet has 15-20 percent fewer ships than it did in the late 1990s, forcing each ship to bear a greater part of the burden. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) lays out the troubling consequences of this trend.

The authors of the CSBA report, Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, describe in detail how longer and more frequent deployments wear down a ship and its crew. “Historically,” they write, “the Navy has planned for its ships to execute cycles consisting of a single 6 to 7 month deployment in a 24 to 32 month period.” They cite the Navy’s finding that from 2001 through 2009 each of the fleet’s surface combatants—i.e. warships other than submarines—had to spend 18 percent more time at sea.  Additional time at sea translates into less time for maintenance. The more a ship deploys without sufficient maintenance, the greater the risk of serious damage. Thus, after back-to-back deployments in 2012 and 2013, the carrier USS Eisenhower had to spend almost two years undergoing maintenance, or 65 percent more time than expected.

All of the additional maintenance now required has significantly curtailed the number of ships capable of responding in the event of a crisis. The Navy’s standard for full preparedness is the ability to surge three aircraft carrier strike groups (CSGs) within 60 days. Yet the service’s top officer testified in March 2015 that the Navy could only surge a single CSG in the event of a crisis.

Optimistic Shipbuilding Plans

The law requires the Navy to submit a long-term shipbuilding plan each year. For more than a decade, these plans have projected a growing inventory of ships, yet the size of the battle fleet has continued to decline, from 316 in 2001 to 282 in the current fiscal year. The shipbuilding plan of March 2015 projected an increase of 35 ships within 10 years, to reach a total of 317. However, as it often does, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has called into question the fiscal plausibility of the plan.

The CBO review of the Navy’s plan arrived at the conclusion that the Navy will have to build 15 fewer ships than expected over the next five years unless Congress lifts the current sequestration-level spending limits. The outlook for years six through ten is considerably gloomier. Over that span, the Navy expects its shipbuilding program to cost $18.9 billion per year. Yet over the past 30 years, the average appropriation for the shipbuilding program has been only $13.9 billion. In other words, the Navy is implicitly counting on a 35 percent increase over historic funding levels in order to meet its targets. To make matters worse, CBO believes the Navy is underestimating the cost of the ships it plans to build over the next ten years, by an average of $1.3 billion per year.

The Value of Forward Basing

Last March, a separate CBO study sought to assess whether and how it might be possible for the Navy to maintain its current level of overseas presence despite having fewer ships. The study assessed two types of approaches: those that increase the length and frequency of deployments, and those that rely on basing additional ships in allied ports closer to the site of deployments. Forward basing can substitute for longer and more frequent deployments because a ship whose home port is in Europe or Asia does not have to cross the ocean at the outset and conclusion of every deployment.

To maintain the current level of overseas presence, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers would have to spend at least 10 months deployed out of every three-year cycle, although budget cuts could push that number to 12 months per cycle or even higher. In contrast, the current standard for deployments is just 8 months out of every cycle. In light of the troubling maintenance shortfalls discussed by Clark and Sloman, it is very difficult to see how increasing deployment times could be sustainable.

The requirements of forward basing are much more manageable. The CBO found that forward basing a single aircraft carrier, along with a complementary number of other classes of ship, would allow the Navy to maintain current presence levels. One example of this approach would be to base a second carrier strike group in an allied port in the Western Pacific, such as Yokosuka, Japan. Clark and Sloman endorse forward basing as a means of compensating for the declining size of the fleet, although rebuilding the fleet would be their preferred option. Their principal concern is that a smaller fleet cannot support a significant surge in the event of a crisis, regardless of its basing footprint.

Growing Demands

Clark and Sloman further point out that maintaining current levels of overseas presence may not be a sufficient objective in light of growing threats. Currently, the Navy seeks to maintain one carrier strike group at all times in the Middle East and another in the Western Pacific. It is struggling to maintain that presence because of the wear and tear inflicted on its ships. However, the re-emergence of a Russian threat in both Europe and the Middle East presents a strong argument for maintaining a third strike group in the Mediterranean. Similarly, a study by the American Enterprise Institute argues that increasing Chinese capabilities, along with Beijing’s reliance on intimidation, call for the presence of two strike groups, not one, in the Western Pacific.

Achieving this level of presence with today’s Navy would be unlikely at best. Clark and Sloman calculate that even if the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan were realistic, it would not deliver enough ships to support a “three-hub” Navy. Most importantly, the Navy would need to construct a twelfth aircraft carrier.

While forward basing provides an important means of maximizing deployment potential, it is ultimately no replacement for building the Navy the country ought to have. Of course, it is not only the Navy, but all of the armed services that are struggling to meet unceasing demands despite having fewer troops and aging equipment.  The first step toward addressing the Armed Services’ challenges is to reverse the $1 trillion of budget cuts inflicted on the U.S. military by the Budget Control Act and sequestration. There is always room to spend taxpayer dollars more wisely and efficiently, yet right now the funding available for the Armed Forces is simply insufficient.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More