Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in a Time blog published on September 16th sought to address what he implied was public confusion caused by “conflicting claims about the U.S. Navy being too large or shrinking too much.” No serious observer has argued that the Navy is too large.
Some, including the Navy secretary, have said that because ships today are more capable than their predecessors, fewer are needed. This overlooks the Navy’s important mission of global presence. The appearance of U.S. combatants in foreign ports reassures allies as it does our friends and allies in East Asia and reminds potential adversaries of U.S. combat power as it does in the Persian Gulf. Even if a single ship today were to possess the capabilities of several ships built 25 years ago, that single ship can only be in one place at a time.
Fleet size does matter. Secretary Mabus correctly notes that when terrorists attacked the U.S. 14 years ago the combat fleet stood at 316 ships. Today we have 273. In its most recent publication on the subject, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office states that if the Navy receives as many dollars per year for shipbuilding over the next 30 years as it has over the previous 30 years, it “will not be able to afford its 2015 plan.” The U.S. combat fleet will shrink.
The secretary deserves credit for his efforts to reduce shipbuilding costs by encouraging competition and writing contracts for several ships at once.
But his conclusion that “some like to say that our fleet is declining in size or compare the size of today’s fleet to what it was at some point in history” misses the mark. No one who is troubled by the position of the U.S. in the world today or the fact of a shrinking fleet and the likelihood of an even smaller one in the future likes this.