The recent standoff between the United States Navy and pirates who held Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama should be a wake-up call to correct the numerical decline of the United States Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States Navy has dropped from just under 600 ships to 282 ships.
Prior to the Maersk Alabama incident, the commander of the Fifth Fleet noted that Combined Task Force 151 was trying to patrol 1.1 million square miles of ocean – and was trying to use 12–16 vessels when it would have taken a minimum of 61 ships just to cover the sea lanes. To call this situation unacceptable is tounderstate the matter. But how did we get to this point?
In the 1980s, then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman called for a 600-ship navy to combat the Soviet Union. World War III never arrived, but in 1986, Navy carrier battle groups proved that they could handle “small wars” when Libya illegally claimed the Gulf of Sidra. However, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and politicians on both sides of the aisle were eager for a “peace dividend.”
During the Clinton years, the cuts went beyond those of the George H. W. Bush Administration. The entire Knox-class of 46 frigates was sold off or scrapped with no replacements. The Clinton administration also began the process of retiring the Spruance-class destroyers and sold the Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan. That decision eventually affected 35 ships (although in defense of the sale of the Kidd-class, the Taiwanese did need modern destroyers to counter the ChiComs’ Sovremenny-class destroyers, and that need is more pressing today, with the continuing ChiCom buildup). Even the relatively young Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates could not escape the Clinton budget ax: 21 were either sold or sent to the scrap yards. Six nuclear-powered cruisers no more than 20 years old were also scrapped instead of being upgraded and refueled.
The U.S. Navy was eventually deprived of the services of 108 naval vessels – with no real provisions made for their replacement.
THE BLAME GOES BOTH WAYS
If the Clinton administration slashed the Navy, the George W. Bush administration did precious little to reverse the decline.
But while the Army and Marines grabbed the headlines and the solicitude of politicians, the Navy continued to hemorrhage capable ships. The first five Ticonderoga-class cruisers were retired on the watch of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, taking the total number of ship retirements to 113. Of those 113 ships, 107 of them could carry helicopters (the six nuclear-powered cruisers could not, although they did have helicopter pads). Of those 107 helicopter-capable ships, 61 could carry two helicopters.
If going into Somalia to take out pirate bases is not an option, then a strong naval presence that can provide surveillance and the ability to respond to attacks is a necessity. That means hulls in the water. Wouldn’t having an extra 113 ships and 168 helicopters in the fleet be a good thing, now that America has a maritime crisis on its hands?
The piracy epidemic is not one that requires Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with all the bells and whistles. The Somali pirates do not have dozens of aircraft armed with carrier-killer missiles. Their weapons are assault rifles, RPGs, and maybe a man-portable SAM. What is needed is ocean surveillance, which can be provided by maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs like the Scan Eagle, combined with something that can provide a flexible and quick response – like the MH-60R Seahawk. It means building a lot of Littoral Combat Ships – not 55 as proposed by Secretary of Defense Gates, but at least 80.
ONE MORE LESSON LEARNED
The Maersk Alabama incident teaches one more lesson: Any future naval conflict the United States is involved in will be a come-as-you-are affair. It takes about three years to build an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and five to seven years to build an aircraft carrier. It is no easier with amphibious ships, which can take three to five years to build, depending on the class.
Reversing the U.S. Navy’s numerical decline will take more than a lot of littoral combat ships. It also means that the Zumwalt-class destroyer needs to go into series production, along with continued purchases of the Arleigh Burke-class. The Navy also needs to commit to having a baseline force of 16 carrier strike groups and 16 expeditionary strike groups, and the ability to support them. If that means some senator doesn’t get his pet project for “swine odor and manure management” funded, too bad for him.
Captain Phillips was saved by the skills of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Future Sailors and merchant mariners, however, could very well pay the price of continued penny-pinching in the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding budget.