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How doing more with less is hurting sailors - and the Navy

Fewer ships, stressed sailors and a rising adversary - we asked the experts whether the fleet can keep up

Sep. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Flash points

Five areas where the fleet could be in trouble:
China: A rising adversary
Budget cuts: Beltway battles do damage
Fleet size: Running the numbers
Industry: Can the yards do the job?
Risk aversion: Are leaders encouraged to play it too safe?
Have your say: We’ve asked the experts, now have your say — is the fleet getting weaker? Send your thoughts to
and they could appear in an upcoming issue.

The fleet is hemorrhaging hulls. Those that remain are short on parts and crew. Sailors are cross-decked from one ship to another at the last minute to head out on eight-month cruises. Other ships can't leave the pier.

The fleet is hemorrhaging hulls. Those that remain are short on parts and crew. Sailors are cross-decked from one ship to another at the last minute to head out on eight-month cruises. Other ships can't leave the pier.

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The fleet is hemorrhaging hulls. Those that remain are short on parts and crew. Sailors are cross-decked from one ship to another at the last minute to head out on eight-month cruises. Other ships can’t leave the pier. Squadrons are flying the minimum hours required. A decade’s worth of more cuts remain on the table.

Overworked and underfunded, U.S. sailors are weary.

All the while, a competitor is rising. Chinese shipyards are churning out stealthy attack submarines and soon aircraft carriers, forces capable of upending the balance of power in the Pacific region. Allies like Japan and Australia must contend with an aggressive neighbor — without the backbone of a robust U.S. fleet.

This is the vision of a small but vocal contingent of former Navy leaders and defense analysts who say your service is overextended — and growing vulnerable.

“American seapower today is heading for shoal waters,” warns Seth Cropsey, a former Navy deputy undersecretary, in a new book. “The U.S. Navy is stretched paper thin between operations in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, plus maintaining a presence in the western Pacific where impressive Chinese military modernization and assertiveness in the South China Sea ... point toward trouble ahead.”

Politics are at play with these arguments (with the occasional jab at President Obama), but today’s fiscal realities are leading many to question whether they have a point.

Is the Navy at risk of getting weak?

Navy Times talked with 10 defense experts, Navy leaders and senior war fighters, including former fleet commanders and a combatant commander, to separate fact from fiction — legitimate security concerns from hyperbole. Here’s what we learned:

■ China’s Navy is growing rapidly, but its ships and yards are still unsophisticated and would be no match for the U.S. fleet, which maintains the world’s most pre-eminent sea force: the U.S. attack sub fleet.

■ The U.S. shipbuilding industry is small and susceptible to the fallout from contracting budgets and spending uncertainty. Cuts triggered by sequestration only amount to a 10 percent spending drop — a cut that could reduce the fleet by three dozen ships, but won’t render it ineffective.

■ The fleet has halved in the three decades since the end of the Cold War. While more ships would provide enhanced presence and improve a fleet’s survivability, today’s fleet remains dominant and has quadrupled its offensive power.

Big Navy proponents argue the Navy’s ability to project power is limited by the smaller fleet size and can’t be everywhere. However, none of the 10 experts Navy Times contacted, including Cropsey, was able to specify a single instance where the U.S. Navy’s seapower was significantly contested in recent years.

But, it is worthwhile to assess the arguments of the Big Navy crowd, even if they represent a minority view among strategists; they see themselves as akin to the economists who warned a decade ago of a looming financial crisis and were dismissed by their mainstream colleagues. Similarly, instability abroad, rising opponents and fleet shrinkage could prove Big Navy acolytes right.

To be sure, defense experts of all stripes see a real possibility that the future Navy won’t be able to meet its global requirements, will lose its capacity to build ships in volume and could be outpaced by foreign navies. But for now, top officials say the U.S. is strong and will remain so, even if the fleet gets smaller.

“We’re going to have to prioritize our war-fighting capabilities and maintain the audacity of our junior and senior leaders,” said retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, the former head of U.S. Central Command who retired in June. “We’re going to have a smaller military so we’re going to do less with our military. That’s a reality. But we’re not going to do it less well, as [retired] Adm. John Harvey has put it.”

'The Navy's too small'

You may have heard this argument before. It took center stage in last year’s presidential debates, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney confronted President Obama on the fact the fleet has shrunk to levels not seen since World War I.

The argument didn’t gain traction with a public tired after a decade of war. But it’s being honed by defense hawks in the age of the sequester, giving it renewed currency.

Their solution is straightforward, but expensive: Build more ships.

“The Navy is too small to do the national security tasks that are part of the national strategy,” said former Navy Secretary John Lehman in a Sept. 25 interview. “It’s like a couple with a king-sized bed and only a single-bed-[sized] blanket. You can’t cover both the Pacific, American waters, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean [and] Persian Gulf with the sized fleet we have.”

Lehman, like Cropsey and other Big Navy proponents, argues that today’s Navy is too small for the nation’s overseas commitments and that this shortfall is leading to longer and more erratic deployments that are putting a strain on sailors and their families. With carrier strike group deployments recently stretching out to ensure that two carriers patrolled the Persian Gulf most of the year, there are certainly parallels to the mid-1980s, when some ships sailed on nearly yearlong cruises.

“You cannot expect Navy spouses to accept as the new normal seeing their spouse for three months of every year,” Lehman said. “We’ve seen this movie not just once before. Nobody ever seems to learn the lesson.”

Big Navy champions also point to recent reductions in pilots’ flight hours and ship steaming days, an overreliance on swapping parts and sailors between ships, and growing backlogs in ship overhauls and airplane maintenance.

They also say that the decades-long shrinkage of the Navy’s fleet, which they view as disastrous, will accelerate under sequestration into a fleet unable to defend America’s interests abroad. This will undermine our capacity to ensure oil tankers free-flow through the Persian Gulf, for instance, or to deter piracy off east Africa’s unruly coast or to dampen the military adventurism of rogue states like North Korea.

Into this vacuum comes China. The nation of a billion people is intent on building a Navy suited to a regional power with more than 9,000 miles of coast.

Other Asian nations are understandably wary of their emergence. China is locked in multiple territorial disputes with neighbors, many over uninhabited islands whose possession will endow their holder with exclusive rights to oil and gas drilling. These are potential flashpoints, as is the status of Taiwan. They’re also sailing far beyond the region.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of Chinese ship visits to the Mediterranean,” said Cropsey, who authored the book “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Superiority,” in a Sept. 26 interview. “They’re just acting logically and naturally. They’re filling a vacuum. Do we want to see that filled by the Russians and the Chinese?”

An industrial powerhouse, China has the possibility of outpacing the U.S. in a shipbuilding arms race. It is also armed with shore batteries whose so-called “carrier-killer” missiles are capable of striking ships up to 1,500 nautical miles offshore and denying them access to launch counteroffensives.

Building more billion-dollar ships won’t negate the threat — it’ll only create more targets. The real answer lies elsewhere, strategists believe.

Still, even those raising alarms say today’s Navy would make quick work of the Chinese fleet — or any other.

“Listen, if we went to war with China today — and you can print this — I think it would take us 10 days to destroy their Navy,” said retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commanding officer who has worked as a consultant with Cropsey. “I don’t believe the [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has the capability today to contest power. … That said, you can see where they’re going.”

'Mindless cutting'

So where is the U.S. Navy weak?

To make their case, Lehman and Cropsey both cited 2011 operations against the Libyan regime, which began when U.S. ships and a guided-missile sub unleashed more than 100 cruise missiles against targets that allowed the coalition to impose a no-fly zone and smash the Gadhafi regime’s military, leading to the fall of the government.

It took four weeks to put together this response — too long, Lehman and McGrath say, using it as evidence that the fleet wasn’t there when it counted.

Cropsey, who is a retired Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, believes that the U.S. showed weakness when the State Department relied on a chartered ferry rather than warships to evacuate Americans from Libya when the civil war broke out, even though these vessels are high-speed and able to comfortably handle more passengers than a destroyer or frigate.

No experts disputed that the U.S. maintained sea control in this crisis, nor did any cite any examples of recent operations where the U.S. Navy’s command of the seas was contested or even in doubt.

For this reason, some former officials wonder whether these are political arguments masquerading as strategic ones. Most experts took issue with the Big Navy advocates’ characterization of today’s Navy as weak or near its tipping point.

“The United States Navy today remains No. 1,” said retired Adm. John Harvey, who retired last year as the head of Fleet Forces Command, the fleet’s top boss. “It is a globally deployable Navy that is logistically supportable on a global scale. We are the only Navy on the planet that can say that. The United States Navy, when it chooses to, owns the undersea domain. Not ‘is dominant’ — we own it. And every other navy knows it. ... If we choose to, we can amass immense maritime power, including the projection force from the United States Marine Corps.”

But there are many concerns that Harvey and other top officials share with the Bigger Navy crowd. Harvey believes the drop in defense spending is normal and cyclical, and cites the 20 percent and higher cuts in military funding after wars in Korea and Vietnam and following Operation Desert Storm.

What makes this cycle’s budget more concerning is the across-the-board nature of the billions in cuts. He worries that this hampers the brass’ ability to steer the Navy’s bureaucracy.

“We go through these cycles and our Navy knows how to deal with these cycles, and they’re painful sometimes, and there’s winners and there’s losers,” Harvey said in a Sept. 26 interview. “Ships evolve, planes evolve. But we come out of these things with a Navy that is global, deployable, powerful, sustainable. Because we’ve been able to make choices and to muster the political will to make those choices and make them stick.

“Here we’ve defaulted out of choices into mindless cutting.”

Another recently retired four-star called sequestration simply “stupid.”

“If I told you you’re taking a 10 percent pay cut this year, you would probably not go home and say, ‘We’re going to cut food by 10 percent, education by 10 percent, vacation by 10 percent and rent costs — we’re going to move out of our house,” said Mattis, the former CENTCOM commander whose strategic vision and flinty personality have made him a revered figure among rank-and-file Marines. “Right now, we’re not giving the service chiefs enough discretion, if we have to do something like this. But we can defend America even under budget cuts so long as the service chiefs are given discretion and we have a strategy that matches reduced means to reduced strategic ends.”

Many experts believe that sequestration is the wrong mechanism: Its cuts are too deep and too inflexible. But most are skeptical this cost-cutting will weaken the U.S. Navy enough to boost a competitor like China.

'A really tough problem'

The U.S. fleet is larger than the 184-ship Chinese navy, but even those numbers mask their relative strengths:Most of the U.S. ships and subs are many times more potent than their Chinese counterparts.

“The accumulated inventory of advanced weaponry, including ships and aircraft and missiles and other systems, in the U.S. Navy is something in the range of $1 trillion,” estimated Michael O’Hanlon, a influential defense analyst with the Brookings Institution. “It compares to a Chinese [force] that is $100 billion at most.”

O’Hanlon believes that “no one’s going to catch us in 10 years. No one’s even going to come close” — a view shared by many other naval experts.

And even if they could, China is not on a collision course with the U.S., many experts believe. They are critical trading partners, and China is heavily invested in America, including $1 trillion in of its national debt. China’s industrial economy depends on the trade routes that U.S. warships keep open. This makes them unlikely opponents.

China’s top admiral, Adm. Wu Shengli, met with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert in mid-September. Wu wants advice on building up a carrier-based aviation and is looking for areas of cooperation, including exercises and exchange officers.

But seen from certain angles, the Chinese are developing a nasty defensive system capable of countering American advantages, including the reach of cruise missiles and strike fighters. The most problematic of these is the DF-21D, an anti-ship missile that moves at Mach 10 speed and reaches out as far as 1,500 nautical miles — the “carrier killer” mentioned above that is forcing the U.S. to rethink its tactics.

The Chinese could build enough of these missiles to overwhelm a strike group’s defenses, including the relatively limited number of interceptor missiles and Close-In Weapons System rounds in their magazines.

“Now you only have to throw enough guided munitions to saturate a defense because any leaker that gets through is probably going to hit the target,” explained former Navy undersecretary Bob Work, who now heads the Center for a New American Security think tank. “These anti-access, area-denial networks are designed to deter a naval power projection network coming in. And that’s a really tough problem.”

Work sketched out a few of the leading options. Building lasers capable of rapidly shooting down bevies of incoming missiles. Building hundreds of new, smaller guided missile ships to complicate the enemy’s targeting. Or fielding more subs — “and going underwater is extremely expensive,” Work added.

All these options will mean another technological leap for the fleet. And each is likely to come with a hefty price tag.

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