While the number of ships is important, especially with hot spots constantly flaring up across the globe, what is just as significant is what kind of ships they are. Today, we actually have about 287 warships of all types; 18 short of what were found to be needed for the future in the most recent strategic review. There have always been tensions when it comes to balancing numbers against capabilities, but those tensions become especially noteworthy with the fiscal realities of the tug of war between Congress and the administration and the call for decreased spending for the military.
On the other hand, even with the increasingly austere fiscal climate unfolding, the nation seems to be entering a new naval era that emphasizes the renewed importance of U.S. sea power. Add to that the ever turbulent Middle East and Southeast Asian regions demanding rapid response capabilities, it is now more imperative than ever that civilian decision makers wisely plan for an adequate future size and composition of the our Fleet.
In times of conflict, our Navy is called upon to control the seas, deny their use to the enemy, and to protect and sustain power ashore, indispensible in successful military operations.
A strong Navy is a recognized United States commitment to the world. Our Navy is unique among all others in that the Fleet is not garrisoned in U.S. home ports but is spread across the globe. In fact, we presently have approximately 110 of those 287 ships deployed at any one time with every expectation that that number will rise as our naval commitments increase. Such recognized presence is a key element of the U.S. global defense posture. That presence is there to cooperate and defend partners and allies. It signals our national intent, prevents and deters aggression, promotes regional security and responds quickly to crises, to include humanitarian, no matter where they flare up.
In a time of defense budget contractions, there is concern that while the number of ships could be retained, the force’s true ability to remain in readiness to perform its many missions will be diminished through reduced funding for manning, operating and sustaining the force. There will be tradeoffs, but it is vital that there be a balance between capacity, readiness and presence.
Unlike the other military services that have a greater ability to come home and “reset” following overseas military obligations, the Navy is still expected to be deployed on the seas across the world and provide a credible presence in key forward areas. There is no question that there is a high demand for the naval forces from our political leaders and combat commanders worldwide. The visible power of our Navy, steaming just over the horizon in areas of high tension matters has a significant impact on our opponents as well as our allies and friends.
As a result, we do not have the option of simply shrinking the Navy to pay for an ever-smaller number of ships, aircraft and strike groups functioning at some difficult to define level of readiness. Congress and the administration must measure their desires against present demands to reach an accepted level of readiness. This requires a strategic balance between capabilities and realistic capacity within the Fleet.
It was indeed fortuitous that the question of naval power came up during the presidential Debates, even if horses and bayonets weren’t quite in the right context. Still, the enduring value of naval power to the United States, regardless of the budgetary landscape, has never been more critical. We cannot allow a reduction in our long-term ability to build, sustain and operate our navel forces. The Department of Defense, Congress and the Administration must prioritize carefully; there is too much at stake if they don’t.
Katz is a retired vice admiral and was once commander of the Fifth Fleet.