Naval supremacy requires a fleet of sufficient capability and size

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Yet, today our fleet is too small. If we do not correct this shortfall, the strategic cost will be measured in a diminished ability to project American power and preserve the peace and freedom of navigation on which America’s security and prosperity depend. The cost will also be measured in increased maintenance expenses and longer deployments that put additional stress on sailors and marines, as well as their families.

President Obama’s argument that the capabilities of today’s ships make the size of the fleet less important is at odds with testimony we’ve heard from our Navy’s leadership and with the strategic realities confronting our nation. Evidently, the president was not aware of the testimony of the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations.

In March, Secretary Ray Mabus testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “…even though the ships coming into service today are vastly more capable than their 1917 predecessors, at some point quantity has a quality of its own.”

In a statement from the same hearing, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, insisted that, “Our naval forces are at their best when they are forward, assuring allies and building partnerships, deterring aggression without escalation, defusing threats without fanfare, and containing conflict without regional disruption…Two factors drive the Navy’s ability to provide presence: The size of the fleet and the amount of time ships can remain deployed.”

One ship can only be in one place at a time, and the facts are clear: today’s fleet cannot support current requirements, much less a strategy that entails an increased commitment in the Asia Pacific.

Last year, the Chief of Naval Operations said the Navy needs at least 313 ships and submarines. However, the current fleet consists of 287 ships and submarines. Due to this ship shortfall, the Navy could only support 59% of combatant commander worldwide requirements last year.

The case of the Virginia class submarine, our nation’s premier attack submarine, is instructive. The Virginia class submarine, which is built at Newport News and maintained at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, is a model of both acquisition and operational excellence. These boats are constructed on time and on budget and are in high demand for their intelligence gathering capabilities and power projection capabilities – all of which are critical for our increased focus on the western Pacific.

Yet, we do not have enough attack submarines to protect our national security interests. At any given time, as Vice Admiral William Burke testified, our combatant commanders need 16 or 18 attack submarines, but the Navy can only deliver 10 at one time.

President Obama’s plan fails to close the gap between the number of ships we have and the number of ships our national security requires. Under the President’s shipbuilding schedule, the Navy will not attain a fleet of 300 ships until 2019 and never goes above 307 ships. By delaying one Virginia class submarine and one large deck amphibious ship, the President’s proposal is actually exacerbating the shortfall.

President Obama doesn’t even meet his own goals for Virginia class submarines and major surface combatant ships. For example, under the President’s plan, the Navy will retire Los Angeles class submarines at a faster rate than they will replace them with Virginia class submarines. That means the Navy will drop below its stated goal of 48 attack submarines between 2021 and 2035, falling to a low of 43 attack submarines in 2028.

Finally, let’s not forget that the Chief of Naval Operations testified earlier this year that additional defense sequestration cuts would result in 50 to 55 fewer ships in the fleet, driving our fleet down to 230-235 ships – approximately 80 fewer ships than the Navy needs. Yet, for over a year, the commander in chief has been missing in action. With this predictable national security crisis looming, the President has failed to lead a bipartisan effort to identify alternative spending reductions and prevent defense sequestration.

Today, we must build the fleet that will protect us tomorrow. American naval dominance has underwritten global security and prosperity for decades. For that to continue, we need a Commander in Chief who listens to his military leaders and understands that American naval supremacy requires a fleet of sufficient capability and size.

Ayotte is ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and is a member of the Seapower Subcommittee. Forbes is chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and is a member of the Seapower Subcommittee.