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THE STATE OF THE NAVY: Was A Larger Fleet Better or Will A Streamlined Navy Fare As Well?

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The Numbers Aren’t There, And It’s Getting Worse
By Harold Hutchison

The United States Navy is in a crisis. Its numbers are dwindling – at a time when several adversaries are strengthening. From a high of 594 ships on 30 September, 1987, it has declined to 290 ships, less than half the total.

The Navy has dropped from a high of 15 carriers on 30 September, 1991 to 10 today. Worse, in the last two years, three aircraft carriers have been either retired or sold for scrap. While the carriers were ancient (in some cases, pushing sixty years old), keep in mind it took just under five and a half years to build USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77), the newest carrier in commission. Her first deployment did not occur for two years and four months after her commissioning.

In other words to replace USS Forrestal (CV 59), USS Saratoga (CV 60), and USS Enterprise (CVN 65), it would require seven years – if all three carriers were built simultaneously. If that is not possible, then America’s carrier shortage becomes even more acute.


USS South Carolina (CGN 37). Was she retired too soon?
(U.S. Navy photo)

Much of this drawdown took place in the 1990s. Under the delusion of a “peace dividend,” the United States started to discard a large number of vessels. Many of these ships, like the nuclear-powered cruisers, and Spruance-class destroyers, were retired early, when life-extension programs could have extended their service. The nuclear-powered cruisers could have been upgraded with the Aegis system and Mk 41 vertical launch systems (VLS). When refueled, they would have been able to offer some of the Nimitz-class carriers in service escorts that would be able to keep up with them.

Replacement programs for these retired vessels, like CG(X) and the Zumwalt-class destroyers, have been either cancelled or cut short. The Zumwalt class will comprise three vessels – to replace 31 Spruance-class destroyers. Each Spruance had two five-inch guns and most had a 61-cell VLS. The Zumwalt class will total 240 VLS cells – equal to four of the 31 Spruance-class destroyers that were retired.

Making these retirements worse is the fact that the CGNs and the Spruances were either scrapped or sunk as targets. These valuable vessels were not even kept in reserve. As good as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are, they cannot be in two locations at the same time. The pivot to Asia is well and good, but Asia is the world’s largest continents, and hotspots are pretty far apart.

All is not lost, though. The Navy does have a good ship serving as the backbone of the surface navy in the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The decision to re-start production of these vessels is a start in fixing the Navy’s shortage of hulls.

The Navy should also resume production of the Zumwalt-class destroyers. True, the ships were estimated to cost $7 billion each as of 2012 when R&D costs of $9.6 billion were figured in. But additional vessels would cost much less, and the additional hulls in the water could be very useful in a fight with China, Russia, or Iran.

These two classes could serve as the high-end vessels, but due to the nation’s budget situation, it wouldn’t hurt to have frigates. These vessels should be able to work with the high-end vessels to protect carriers, but also should be able to handle missions like anti-piracy.

HDMS Absalon (front) with two U.S. Navy ships.
(U.S. Navy photo)

These frigates would need to provide more firepower than the Littoral Combat Ship can provide. Here, the best option may be to license production of two ship designs from Europe: The Alvaro de Bazan class of frigates could help supplement carrier strike group escorts – and Spain built them for 600 million  euros each. Denmark’s Absalon-class support ships would be very useful as well, and the not only come cheap ($225 million per hull).

More importantly, it takes about two years to build either of those ship classes. Hulls in the water matter, and it is best to start getting the Navy’s numbers up sooner, rather than later.