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Harold Hutchison / Sep. 25, 2018

The Navy Needs Hulls in the Water

The Navy’s current 285 deployable ships is far below the 600 of the Reagan era.

With the news of the Air Force’s plan to add 74 more squadrons, it’s time to take a look at another service that has seen major cuts: The United States Navy. The Navy has been feeling the effects of the post-Cold War drawdown for a long time, particularly when it comes to aircraft carriers.

Much of America’s trade comes and goes via the oceans. More important than consumer goods are the coal, oil, and liquified natural gas exports that are how most of the world gets its energy — all travel by sea. In short, controlling the seas is of great importance to the U.S. and world economy.

The United States Navy is easily the most powerful in the world. With 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and a host of other ships, it can take on all comers. Well, theoretically that’s the case. The practical matters are something else.

The Navy has dropped to a very low level in terms of ships. According to the U.S. Navy’s website, there are a grand total of 285 deployable ships in service. That’s higher than the 2015 low of 271, but that’s still not a good situation. President Donald Trump spoke of a 355-ship Navy, but that only takes us almost to a force level we were at in 1997 (359 ships).

What should we be shooting for? In 1989, at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States Navy had 592 ships — just eight hulls short of Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship Navy. Today’s Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, but in 1991, America had 15. Under Barack Obama, America dipped down to 10 carriers after the premature retirement of USS Enterprise (CVN 65).

Granted, today’s ships are far more powerful than the ones operating 20 or 30 years ago. But the Chinese Communists are expanding the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and Russia is also seeking to modernize its naval forces. In a major war, the United States Navy would be hard-pressed to fight and win while keeping a lid on all sorts of other situations.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, prompting the build-up that led to Desert Storm, the United States ultimately sent six carriers to the region. Today, the U.S. Navy could do that, but wouldn’t be able to cover other hot spots around the world as a result. It would force us to decide which allies to leave hanging — even if for a short while.

One of the reasons Desert Storm went so well was because we had planned for a worst-case scenario of World War III. Thankfully, America never had to fight that war, but it was able to handle smaller conflicts late in the Cold War with Libya, Iran, and Iraq quite easily.

How to do this? One way is to re-start the Zumwalt production line alongside the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The United States Navy should also be looking at buying four of the competitors for the FFG(X) program: The two based on the Freedom and Independence class littoral combat ships currently in service, the one based on the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan-class frigates, and the one based on the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter. Development of two new classes of guided-missile cruisers, one nuclear-powered, one conventional, to replace the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, is also essential.

We also should ramp up submarine construction, building more of the Block V Virginia-class submarines — and push for the development of a cruise-missile/special operations variant of the Columbia-class ballistic missile subs currently planned as replacements for the Ohio-class submarines. Incidentally, the Columbia-class vessels should be able to carry the same 24 UGM-133 Trident II missiles that the Ohio-class subs currently can carry.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the focus was on having enough boots on the ground to secure that country. Securing control of the seas requires hulls in the water. The hard truth is that as good as today’s ships are, they cannot be in two places at once.

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