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The Navy at a Tipping Point

by Greg on April 1, 2010

I was passed along a really interesting brief from the influential Center for Naval Analyses that says the Navy must radically rethink strategy and force structure or its going to find itself on a slippery slope of fleet decline, a loss of combat power and then the ability to maintain forward presence. Apparently, the brief, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?” has had quite an impact on the folks over at OPNAV.

The gist of CNA’s argument is that the grim federal budget outlook, rising personnel and operations expenses along with skyrocketing costs of building new ships, will all put the squeeze on future shipbuilding. The prospect that the Navy will “get well” in future budgets is a myth. Continuing on the current shipbuilding course of about six or seven ships per year, the battle fleet will steadily decline over the next two decades, going from today’s 286 ships to around 230–240 ships from 2025 and out. The Navy faces the dilemma of maintaining forward presence and meeting maritime security requirements in the face of a shrinking battle fleet, CNA says.

Pursuing the current strategy is not an option. Called the “2 hub” strategy, it is based on maintaining carrier strike groups in the western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf, to counter China and Iran, along with global presence patrols and patrolling the maritime commons. If the Navy sticks with the high end strategy of 2 hubs, it will have to give up many amphibs and smaller LCS vessels, along with many engagement and low end missions such as counter piracy.

Conversely, it can emphasize low end missions, buying lots of smaller LCS and corvette sized vessels to maintain a larger fleet, but it will be forced to give up high end carriers and other costly large surface warships. The option I thought sounded most plausible is called the “1 hub” strategy: maintaining strong carrier strike groups and other surface warfare ships forward in the western Pacific while drawing down the presence in the Gulf. This option would also allow lower end engagement missions and patrolling the global commons.

I’ve got a lengthy write up over at DOD Buzz, go check it out.

– Greg

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

@Earlydawn April 1, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Pull the Gulf Fleet. Hear me out.

A - We have to plan for the present. While it's nice to have the flexibility of air support from the flat-tops in the Gulf, they aren't critical. Operations in the Horn of Africa region can probably be accomplished by destroyers, and LCSes with the proper module load.

B - The fleet in the Gulf can potentially be trapped if things go south with Iran. Hardened anti-shipping missiles + chokepoint = battlegroups on the bottom of the ocean.

C - Reallocating naval assets out of the Gulf let us either double-down on the Pacific, or put a couple carriers in temporary mothballs until the budget straightens out.


ohwilleke April 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Not a bad suggestion. The U.S. could bargain to keep an Iraqi equivalent to its Aviano or Okinawa in Iraq for its 50,000 troops that will stay (or in the alternative, in Kuwait, which is still grateful for American assistance during the Gulf War). Pre-Gulf War, this was not an option. From then until the Iraq War, an Air Force base in Kuwait would have been seen as a threat to Iraq that was under the American impose "no fly zone" at the time. Now, every country on the Persian Gulf coast would see a permanent U.S. Air Force base there as a means of protecting the oil trade from Iranian threats.

It doesn't take a very large Air Force base to provide the same air power that a carrier group would, without the worries associated with force protection for a carrier group. It would also be a good place for a Navy P-8 (for ASW). One could still have LCS and some destroyers in the Gulf to provide anti-air, cruise missile and interdiction capabilities.


ohwilleke April 1, 2010 at 5:14 pm

This is a good suggestion. A permanent U.S. Air Force base in Kuwait, Iraq or another Persian Gulf country (also home to a small number of Navy P-8s for ASW) is now a realistic option and would provide capabilities better than a carrier. A few destroyers, subs and LCS could stay in the region, without having a whole carrier group at risk. This wasn't possible pre-Gulf War when it would have been seen as a threat, but now it would look simply like a play to protect the oil trade from Iranian threats.


elizzar April 1, 2010 at 6:42 pm

it's how our UK decline started 60 ish years ago … first you lose the navy, then the empire goes ;-)


George Gauthier April 2, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Actually, the decline of the British Empire started ninety years ago with victory in two world wars achieved only at a ruinous cost in blood and treasure. The Indian Raj got independence in 1947, the African colonies in the 1960s. Only then did the Brits abandon their posture east of Suez and gave up large aircraft carriers in 1971.


ohwilleke April 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

A little island nation of the coast of Europe could hardly be expected to maintain an empire including all of the Indian subcontinent, a city-state in China, a third of Africa, all of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the continent of Australia, the largest part of Oceania in New Zealand, a big chunk of North America and a bunch of Caribbean islands forever. It had a four hundred year run, more or less. No empire ever lasts indefinitely.

As the UK demonstrated in the Falklands, it did not lose its empire for lack of seapower. History points to a run of bad kings as at least as important a problem in the British empire (and the Roman one). And, the rest of the world simply caught up and didn't need a British overlord anymore.

Sea power became much less relevant when workable military aircraft were invented.


Chops April 1, 2010 at 7:29 pm

While I know building new ships is expensive,can't we take existing hulls out of the mothball fleet and completely modernize them for about one half the cost of starting from scratch?


Chops April 1, 2010 at 7:51 pm

I guess you're right-at least their heading in the right direction with the LCS design whereas it can continually be refurbished and modernized.


rugerblake April 1, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Based upon today's budget I can see this happening. However, the backlash of taxpayers on non-productive members of society i.e.: entitlements is coming. So making any future decisions, albeit bleak, today has to change. My fantasy world would be stop nationalizing auto and financial institutions and mandate shipbuilding yards on the east and west coast - these skills are necessary for the survival of our country. That's if we survive the internal sets of enemies.


nraddin April 1, 2010 at 10:43 pm

The Navies biggest problem is personnel. While the cost of new ships is outrageous there biggest problem is not cutting the crew size down to about 1/10th need on a ship of it's size today. A 35 to 40 man crew could run a Cruiser sized ship without much issue if enough is automated. That's a loose of 300 people, which is a loose of 300 people worth of water, food, fuel, weight and size needed to carry out the same missions. Even if you could only cut the Navies total manpower to 50% and maintain the same fleet size you would end up with a savings of $22billion annually. That's like 30 new Latoral combat ships a year, or 4 super carriers.


Goob April 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

So who's going to "fight the ship" once it takes damage? Our ship's our not invincible by any means, the only reason the Cole didn't go down was because of the incredible amount of heart and manpower that went into keeping her afloat. Automated systems cannot handle damage control. If one thing in the system goes down, it all goes down. Also who is going to maintain all of these automated systems that you speak of (which really don't exist yet BTW) and still be able to get sleep and maintain their sanity?


cpaul April 1, 2010 at 11:23 pm

What a come-down from Regan's 600 ship navy which, [while it didn't quite hit that number] resulted by 1990 in 15 carrier battle groups, four battleship surface action groups, and over 100 attack submarines making the United States Navy by far the largest in the world! Now, twenty years later we wonder if we'll even have half that many commissioned vessels


The_Hand April 1, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I doubt it. That would involve stripping out and replacing all the electronics, sensors, and weapons in the hull, at minimum, and even then you still have an old hull design with an old inefficient power plant.

I suspect the actual steel boat hull is the cheapest part of the whole vehicle. Oddly I think the Navy is on the right track with the modularity of the LCS-build hulls with modular mission capability and propulsion, such that those ares can be easily upgraded, as opposed to having to disassemble or scrap the entire thing when it becomes obsolescent.


John April 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Sad State of Affairs, that is the new accronym (SSA) thats what we have. Naval conflicts seem unthinkable now with aircraft and long range missles. But power has always been projected by naval power. The presence of an armed and capable ship, is impressive and intimidating as well as comforting to those who need help. Russians may not be comming but the Chinesse think they are the next world power and they intent to prove it. they are willing if not eager to face us (refer to Korean War where we did face Chinese troops).
Preparation for another Pacific War in the next 50 to 60 years (optomistic view that is) is in order. I know that 2060 is a long way off and beyond some folks life span, but preparation and planning starts today.


ohwilleke April 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Before World War I, power had always been projected with horse mounted troops. Technology changes everything.


tim April 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Just cut steaming days, the Russians aren't coming.


Dane April 11, 2010 at 7:45 pm

That is one of the things the Russians did when they couldn't afford their navy any more. And that is why they are not coming. The only way to train the sailors how to operate is to be underway.


Chops April 2, 2010 at 3:19 am

I plan to live forever so I can BITCH about what the politicians have done to the Military and the Country


Bob April 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The nation cannot afford Obamacare and a strong military at the same time. Something will have to give, and it will not be national healthcare. It will be the military. Soon we will have the worst of both worlds, substandard health care and a hollow military.


Jim April 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Bob, I have to agree with you on your comment.


George Gauthier April 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm

The Navy should junk the Littoral Combat Ships which are too expensive and too lightly armed to go in harm's way. Even fast attack boats could sink them. Instead the Navy should build corvettes and frigates to control the shallow seas. And give them cheap and reliable firepower to take out swarms of small vessels. That means twin 30 mm cannons, Gatling guns, maybe grenade launchers and mortars too. Add Oto Melara (Otobreda) 76 or 127 mm naval guns to give them a longer range punch.


Rick April 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Let us not forget that fluctuations in the fuel supplies leaves the military vulnerable and potentially dead in the water if there is another embargo. Any ship with a displacement of greater than 10,000 tons should ONLY be nuclear-powered.

The reactor cores in the new Virginia class subs are designed for the life expectancy of the sub (30 years), avoiding expensive refueling costs. These could easily be adapted for surface vessel use.

I also agree with increasing automation and lowering the crew requirement. Most ships are heavily over-manned and these manning requirements are based on very old design "needs". With a little planning, most ships manning requirements could be cut in half.

Note: Personnel costs make up about 70% of the Navy's operating cost. This figure comes from RADM Ken Slaught, formerly of SPAWARSYSCOM, San Diego, CA, in a presentation to the command in 2004. I was there.


Guest April 8, 2010 at 2:37 am

The problem with the Virginia class cruisers was the fact that the reactors on board took up a lot of space, which took away space for weapons. The reactors also required a larger crew, which made it very expensive to put the nuclear cruisers underway.

However, with improvements in reactors and automated systems over the past years, bringing back nuclear cruisers might be better planned and more cost effective than in the 80s and 90s. I guess we will see how effective the automated systems on the LCS will be. I am curious to see how effective it will be in terms of damage control.


arista April 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm

First you can not mothball the carriers, once mothballed the air wings will be disbanded the aircraft trashed or put in storage. It would take years to reactivate the hardware to say nothing about the personnel. This administration will make the US a third rate power before it is done. Keep in mind the Brit will be down sizing. We may face an expanding Chinese, Russian and other fleets filling the void Pirates will dominate from the cape to Tokyo Bay


Greg April 5, 2010 at 12:30 pm

lmfao…you are ridiculous


SkysoldierRecon April 2, 2010 at 5:33 pm

if u recall, we blew a load of $$ invading IRAQ, and we still have 150K there. All the fraud, money down the drain. Gotta admit, we were not very smart. We shoulda blitzed the a-stan problem, then onto other things. Took 8 YEARS to get here, its gonna take more than 4 to come outta of it.


Frank Shuler April 2, 2010 at 5:46 pm

The problems regarding fleet-building and support are obvious and so is the solution. GAO and DOD studies have pointed out the simple problem. The United States has a shipbuilding industry rifted with inefficiencies and duplications; not exactly of their own making. Newport News (part of Northrop-Grumman) has 25,000 of the best shipworker’s in the world. The payroll for the shipyard is in excess of $1 billion annually; whether they build a ship or not. Considering the US Navy is only building seven or so ships per year, both GAO and the DOD conclude all could be built at Newport News with the existing infrastructure and employee base. The solution for the US Navy is simple. Buy Newport News and take responsibility for shipbuilding back into the Navy Department; pay Northrop-Grumman what the shipyard is worth and take profit off the table when it come to buying warships. As long as the Pentagon (really Congress) subsidies the commercial shipyard industry, the cost of building is only going to climb at an exponential rate; a rate the US Navy can’t afford. Currently, eight US shipyard are building vessels for the Navy and by the time its all over, such inefficiencies will drive the cost of a simple Littoral Combat Ship to over a billion dollars. Time for a change.

Frank Shuler


Chops April 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Look at the refit for the USS Enterprise-it went in with a projected cost of 453mil.-it will depart this month with a cost of 670mil.-and they only expect 2 more deployments before She is retired-that is very costly and B S


DeRo April 7, 2010 at 10:46 pm

If we didn't have to pay for this massive health care plan maybe we could build a few ships.


Art Stephens April 8, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Retired naval historian here…two cents worth. Look at every war we have fought and by far and away the first to see the "scrap heap" is the Navy. Have we not learned one obvious point yet? Projecting sea power away from our shores is one of the best war-fighting doctrines a country must have. McNamara's frigates will soon pass away. We simply have to upgrade our ship building to at least 15 per year (gun boats/LCS's inshore, well equipped and versatile destroyers and anti-air cruisers for blue waters, and keeping the main force flex around a powerful carrier battle group. When will we ever learn?


Gunney76 April 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I agree with the draw down of our fleet in the gulf because if crap goes down with Iran we can be potentially stuck, cause there is only one way in n one way out. Now with the drawback in our naval manning I do not agree with at all. Having everything all automated is fine and dandy but what if u have multiple casualties ? I.E. Fire, Flooding, or CBR ? Where's ur manning to address these casualties if ur manning on these surface ships have been greatly reduced. We can't be in 4-5 different places at one time. We r only 1 person. I know these r "What if's", but "what if" these really happened and god forbid that a large group of our men were taken out by enemy attacks ? Without the proper shipboard manning we could potentially b sitting ducks. I don't care to b a sitting duck.


3900 utah March 25, 2013 at 10:10 am
Caratacus April 2, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Additional comment:

Once naval power is dispensed with, historically it cannot be regained. The necessary skills disappear (could we build a battleship today? - doubt it, who knows how to make a 15" naval gun now?) The expense alone would make it impossible to rebuild a fleet. I sincerely hope that the US doesn't go down the same road that we did in the UK. Frankly, with Obama in charge, I am not very hopeful.


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