Is the Fleet Steaming Forward...Or Backward?

Photograph of the USS George Washington Air Craft Carrier U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ryan T. O'Connor

This commentary is available at Time's Battleland blog, and below:

Part 1: If More Money Buys a Smaller U.S. Fleet, What Will Less Money Buy?

Part 2: More Than the Navy's Numbers Could Be Sinking

The U.S. Navy: Troubled Waters

Is the Fleet Steaming Forward…Or Backward?

By Winslow Wheeler Dec. 05, 2012

Last of three articles

The prevailing wisdom holds that America’s smaller fleet is more capable than the U.S. Navy of yore because of higher capability per individual ship. It is a dangerous assumption.

To its credit, in 2010 the Navy completed a study of the surface fleet’s manning, training, and equipment readiness.

The Balisle Report was a brutal assessment: ship maintenance went underfunded for years; one-fifth of the fleet cannot pass inspections; aircraft and ships had junk as equipment and/or insufficient spare parts; fewer than one half of deployed combat aircraft are fully mission-capable at any given time; training throughout the surface fleet has been inadequate; ships are undermanned, and returning ships are cannibalized for parts to keep others running.

The fleet was in substantially worse shape than it was in 2001. A less-comprehensive report from GAO also identified some of these problems and trends.

The prospects of finding the money to address these shortfalls are bleak: the Navy plans to put its budget emphasis on new hardware, not maintenance, and is not even certain that the limited funds it does seek for maintenance will be available.

In 2012 the Navy claimed it had made progress in addressing the deficiencies. But one of its biggest defenders in Congress, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., retorted that “the readiness trends for full-mission capability rates suggest less-than-satisfactory performance.” Vice Admiral William Burke admitted as much, saying, “I am concerned that we will not properly fund maintenance in the future.” Such worries will only be exacerbated as maintenance and training are further stressed with continued expanded deployments in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and increased operations in the Pacific.

The Navy’s plans for future ships may exacerbate the negative readiness trends. In the face of too few qualified sailors for required maintenance at sea, the Navy plans to address this kind of problem with “smart ships,” such as the Littoral Combat Ship and Ford-class carriers, where technology, not people, provide the maintenance.

The idea is to save money by deploying smaller crews, but it may not pan out. Admiral James J. Shannon, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, has told National Defense magazine:

We realized we went too far [with ‘smart ships’]. We need more sailors. We can’t handle maintenance, or watch standing…We are going to wrestle with that throughout my lifetime and the next generation.

There is also the survivability problem associated with smaller crews aboard the “smart ships.” If one considers the higher manpower needs of ships in combat for damage control, there may be yet another area where capability is going backwards.

The question isn’t whether the Navy will catch up with its readiness problems. Rather, it’s will they get even worse?

Are New Ships More Capable?

One needs to consider what additional capability individual new ships, even theoretically, bring to the fleet. In some respects, there may be no increase; in others there may be declines.

For example, both Navy and public sources estimate the number of aircraft and helicopters carried by both the older Nimitz and the new Ford-class of aircraft carriers to range from 60 to 90, depending on what is counted. Their complement of strike aircraft is commonly described as up to 60 aircraft. Clearly, the new (twice as expensive) Ford class brings no dramatic improvement in the major measure of merit for aircraft carriers: combat aircraft on board.

This photograph is of a Navy Fighter Plane F-18 taking off of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier while at sea.
This photograph is of a Navy Fighter Plane F-18 taking off of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier while at sea.

However, the new Ford class is said to be able to generate more sorties of aircraft per hour with its new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). But it is not entirely clear it will work as designed while at sea, and looms as an issue of concern to the Pentagon’s weapons-testing chief. But there is a problem even if EMALS does work, and provides the marginal advantage of launching the same number of aircraft at a faster rate.

Stealth aircraft are notoriously bad at generating sorties. The F-117 was unable to fly more than 0.7 sorties per day in Operation Desert Storm, on average. The B-2 was reported to fly only once every five to seven days in the 1999 Kosovo air war, and while it has never seen combat, the F-22 flew less than eight hours per month, on average, in 2011. Even if the “stealthy” F-35C, the Navy’s version of the new Joint Strike Fighter, can improve on the F-22 for availability, it is highly-unlikely to be able to fly more than once every other day in any sustained combat.

The ability of Ford-class carriers to generate sorties with the F-35 is likely to be less than that today generated by Nimitz-class carriers with F-18s. Beyond that, with the F-35’s inability to bring any significant improvement in terms of range, payload and maneuverability, the F-35 is unlikely to produce any increase in per-sortie capability.

Worse appears to be the case for the Littoral Combat Ship. It clearly offers diminished capability compared to some other navies’ frigates, corvettes and even fast-attack boats, and it may be a step backward from the U.S. Navy’s own FFG-7 frigates.

Multiple news articles present a depressing picture of what the LCS is, and is not. The Pentagon’s own director of operational test and evaluation repeatedly termed the LCS and its systems “deficient” in his most recent assessment. He added: “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”

The new costly aircraft carriers, Flight III DDG-51 destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships represent the Navy’s vision of its future. It is an apparition that is unaffordable, unlikely to meet real threats at sea, and unable to dominate regional powers as thoroughly as some seem to assume in the “shallow waters” that Gates described.

While there are halting efforts in the Navy to produce the riverine and coastal-patrol combatants that are also needed for the littorals — and could address some of the deficiencies — such programs do not even rate mention in official shipbuilding plans or commanders’ descriptions of the Navy’s future. Indeed, when the budget pinches harder, they are likely to disappear altogether.


As pointed out in Part 1 of this series, the Navy is engaging in an unacknowledged program to shrink its own fleet, and as argued in part 2, it is not effectively addressing existing serious threats to its own ships.

Current plans for the future do not address these problems.

Even theoretically, there is little if any improvement to be found in new premium-priced ships like the Ford carriers and the Littoral Combat Ships. Given the still-declining material readiness in the existing surface fleet, the prospect is for general deterioration.

There’s scant chance of the required changes coming from the top.

Much has been made in Washington about a strategic “pivot” to Asia. The thinking is exemplified in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Strategy in a Time of Austerity,” by Andrew F. Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now runs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

The article is remarkable for its pervasive expectation of an era of open hostility with China, and a virtual second Cold War becoming the justification for a panoply of high-cost naval and air systems.

A second article, in Foreign Policy magazine, “Sea Change: The Navy Pivots to Asia,” by Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, offers some specifics about the kind of naval systems the “pivot” advocates seek.

Four priorities are listed for “new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges,” but they all amount to business as usual for shipbuilding, complemented by new bases and unmanned drones.

Threats from anti-ship missiles are addressed as if the needed defenses are fully in hand, and diesel-electric submarines, mines and riverine and coastal combatants are not even mentioned. The “pivot” appears as little more than a fulcrum to leverage more spending for business as usual.

If there is, indeed, to be an era of open hostility with China, the conventional wisdom to address it yields an inadequate—but very expensive—Navy. If the “pivot” is actually just a device to prompt more spending for favored systems, the Navy will remain vulnerable – at a high cost — to other threats that do exist.

In either case, the Navy is on the wrong heading.

When Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for permitting the fleet to decline to its 1917 size — and when Obama and his surrogates responded by insisting that modern capability more than makes up for smaller numbers — they both failed to acknowledge the disturbing trends inside the Navy.

Those trends — shrinking, inadequate forces at unaffordable prices — are replicated in each of the other military services. Our political and military leaders, alas, have chosen to ignore these problems. In fact, their willful ignorance will only make them worse.

Part 1: If More Money Buys a Smaller U.S. Fleet, What Will Less Money Buy?

Part 2: More Than the Navy's Numbers Could Be Sinking

Winslow Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, a part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.