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Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Airman Jennifer L. Confer directs a V-22 Osprey from the USS Ashland (LSD 48), Nov. 22 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Allen Onstott/Released)

CNO's Losing Battle to Avoid a Hollow Navy

Bryan McGrath

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert has adopted the lingo of marine navigation to bring organization to his thinking about fleet priorities. His “Sailing Directions” provide top-line guidance, with occasional “Navigation Plans” to indicate programmatic implementation of the Sailing Directions. Then there are the periodic “Position Reports” to take stock of how well the Navy is doing in pursuing his priorities.

Recently, the Navy released his “Navigation Plan for 2015-2019” in order to “…describe how Navy’s budget submission for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015-2019 pursues the vision of CNO’s Sailing Directions.” Essentially a summary of priorities for the budget cycle currently in play, the document reveals the clear priorities of this CNO, and sends a message to the American people and their representatives about how the Navy will do its best to remain combat ready and forward deployed in the face of both fiscal austerity and uncertainty.

There is a lot to like in Admiral Greenert’s plan. The addition of industrial base concerns to his list of programmatic priorities signals the leading edge of concern that our manufacturing and repair base must be carefully watched, lest we lose forever the capacity to expand when the need is present. Additionally, his continuing emphasis on the electromagnetic spectrum and cyber demonstrate clear understanding of how high-end war will be conducted in the future. Finally, his emphasis on undersea dominance imposes costs on potential adversaries from a warfare area in which the U.S. already enjoys considerable advantage.

But the decline of the U.S. submarine fleet from 55 attack boats today to 41 in 2028 undercuts Admiral Greenert’s undersea emphasis. A shrinking “Silent Service” is emblematic of the Navy’s (and the other Service) conscious decision to favor capability over capacity.

Described by the CNO as “building appropriate capability, then delivering it at a capacity we could afford”, there is “betting on the come” quality to this approach, one in which the Navy sacrifices numbers (ships, submarines, aircraft) in order to ensure those platforms that remain are technologically advanced and field the latest weapons and sensors. Presumably, when the economy improves and fiscal order is restored to Washington, the resulting architecture would “fill out” with numbers (returning again to the emphasis on an industrial base that could support such increase). All things being equal, this approach privileges war-fighting over war deterrence, which the Navy has for decades asserted is the by-product of numerous ships forward deployed in peacetime. In fact, peacetime presence (and its deterrence/assurance qualities) has served as a significant force sizing rationale for the Navy.

But all things are not being held equal, and the CNO addresses this by asserting an increase in presence. Greenert’s plan would boost presence in the Asia-Pacific from approximately 50 ships in 2014 to about 65 in 2019. In the Middle East, the Navy would go from around 30 ships today to around 40 in 2019.

This increase in presence in the two major employment hubs the Navy currently occupies can be accomplished through a variety of means.

The Navy could build more ships, and according to the recently released 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan, this is exactly what is planned.

The Navy could forward station/forward deploy additional ships to these operationally relevant regions. This is also planned.

The Navy could implement innovative crewing concepts that rotate crews rather than ships, which provides a net increase in operational availability (presence) per hull. This strategy is part of the Littoral Combat Ship concept of operations, in which three crews rotate through two hulls, one forward deployed and one based in the U.S., with the “off-crew” undergoing rigorous training in high fidelity shore-based trainers.

Finally, the Navy could extend deployment lengths of its ships, something I will return to later in this piece. From all appearances, the Navy is doing what is required to ensure it maintains presence “where it matters, when it matters”.

But these plans are built on troubling assumptions, and there will be unanticipated long-term costs.

Specifically, the 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan continues to be dramatically underfunded by some $4-6 billion annually, something HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) has raised repeatedly with Navy officials. One of the major cost drivers in the shipbuilding plan will be the recapitalization of the nation’s strategic ballistic missile submarine force, which begins in earnest during the period of the CNO Navigation Plan. This is no ordinary acquisition; it is the CNO’s #1 programmatic priority. Yet the cost of this program renders the Navy’s 306 ship goal unattainable. And if the Navy assumes all the costs of the acquisition, fleet size will more likely fall eventually to 250 ships or less. There have been initiatives on the Hill to take the costs of this program out of the Navy’s shipbuilding account. However, even if that occurred (which is not a given), the shipbuilding account would still be underfunded by $1B a year across the 30 Year plan. At that point, legislators may be significantly less motivated to address the remaining shortfall feeling they had already provided the Navy significant relief.

The Navy stands today at 290 ships in its “deployable battle force”. With these ships, it strains to fill two combat power hubs (Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean and Western Pacific) and provide mission tailored forces wherever else they are needed. The plain truth is that even this number is insufficient, and the mechanism of necessity for mitigating this insufficiency remains extending deployment lengths. Late in the Cold War, the Navy arrived at a six month deployment standard, which it believed was essential to retaining the talent that had “voted with its feet” during the routine eight and nine month deployments of the Vietnam era. Yet just last week, the CARL VINSON Carrier Strike Group set out from the West Coast on its scheduled ten month deployment. This is not an aberration. Eight months has become the new goal, one that is regularly exceeded.

Added to this mismatch of forces to requirements is a growing sense that that the U.S. Navy’s large-scale abandonment of the Mediterranean at the end of the Cold War should be re-evaluated. As I have written elsewhere, a return of naval combat power to the Mediterranean is required. But with only two deployment hubs stressing the current fleet, any consideration of a third must be matched with resources to grow the fleet.

Not only do ten-month deployments wear out people, but they wear out ships and aircraft. Maintenance is deferred and hull life wear is accelerated, all of which diminishes expected service life of individual ships leading to premature retirement. Premature retirements exacerbate the already critical shortage of ships, which leads to longer deployments. And so goes the cycle of decline that leads eventually to a Navy too small for its commitments, with readiness problems stemming from insufficient maintenance, and critical manning shortages driven by Sailors who find other things to do for a living. We have been there before, and we called it a Hollow Navy.

The CNO is doing his level best to play the terrible hand he has been dealt in order to keep from going hollow. I fear that without significant, near-term increases in Navy’s top-line, he is fighting a losing battle. His Navigation Plan is a straightforward and sensible method of managing the decline and playing out the clock, but it should not be confused with a plan to provide the nation with the Navy that its strategic interests warrant. That kind of plan can only come as a result of a consensus among the Executive and Legislative Branches that there is a serious problem to be solved, and that solving it is more important than other priorities the government seeks to address.

We are apparently not at the point. I only hope that we reach it as a result of careful deliberation, and not after a terrible calamity.

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