Saturday, March 28, 2020

Say Goodbye to the 355 Ship Navy

In the olden days of the blog, I did quite a bit of writing about Navy oriented stuff. I would post some of those thoughts here, and some at the venerable Information Dissemination blog. But over time, I found that other avenues were more influential in getting my Navy thinking out, especially the guest slots that Commander Salamander has graciously offered me at his site and longer form articles that the great Ryan Evans has posted for me at War on the Rocks.

As I've said, Twitter has eaten into the world of blogs, in a big way. Additionally "content aggregation" sites (that is, sites that have a ton of people writing things for them for free in order that the writer can get their thoughts out--like War on the Rocks above) have enormous readership, so you can squirrel away your work on a blog that 275 people read, or you can submit it to these sites and have tens of thousands of people read it. Because those sites are highly professional (as opposed to this scattershot blog) there are often multi-pass editing processes involved. Because I have the attention span of a three year old, they frustrate me, and so I tweet and I blog. But this is an important one.

The worldwide COVID outbreak will effectively kill the 355 ship Navy planned by this Administration and enthusiastically supported by this author. If I were a betting man, I'd put a hell of a lot more money on a 250 ship Navy emerging from this crisis, than a 355 ship Navy.

All of the major GOP presidential candidates in 2016 supported building a bigger Navy. The Obama Administration had a plan for a two-hub (Far East, Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean) Navy of 308 ships, and was steadily building to that goal. It was however, insufficient. On the Rubio Team, I helped put together a plan that got us to 324 ships within ten years of taking office. When Rubio imploded, I joined a Cruz team (unenthusiastically) that had developed a 350 ship architecture. When Cruz imploded, many of those Cruz national security types meandered over to the Trump team and lo and behold, Trump started talking about a 350 ship Navy.

Trump's instincts are to build, and a larger Navy fit in well with his MAGA approach and his stated promise of rebuilding the military. It was then and remains now one of the few areas of wholehearted support I have given a Trump policy. Truth is, I've supported it a hell of a lot more publicly and effectively than the President has supported it, but that is a different story.

Soon after announcing the 350 Ship goal, the Navy--still under Obama--undertook a "Force Structure Assessment" that reached the conclusion that the requirement had grown from 308 ships to 355 ships. This was to some extent, a pissing contest between the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus--who believed that we needed to build ships--even less capable ones--so that the hulls would be available for future upgrades--and the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who wasn't as interested in a larger Navy. This 355 ship Navy remains the "force structure" goal of record, even though there has been a good deal of churn in the past year about what that number means and how to achieve it. I am not here to get into a deep discussion of fleet architecture--there is plenty of that going on elsewhere. What I am here to do is send a message that we are more likely to see a Navy of 250 ships in ten years than we are to see one of 355.

Alternative futures exercises produce a menu of "futures".  Some of those futures are "more likely" than others, some of those futures are "more disruptive" than others. As I look at the worldwide COVID pandemic, I begin to think in terms of alternative futures. Here's one of the ways I think about things:

You can think about myriad events and then attempt to fit them into the framework suggested above. What I am suggesting is something that I see on the likely side of the graph, and in the disruptive (upper half), don't know where I'd put it, I guess I'd have to look at other possible events/futures and then do a relative assessment. But what I am suggesting is that is is likely that our economy will contract at some point in the next year, and possibly go into depression. Such an event--would I think, be very disruptive. Clearly the economic impact would be enormous, but so too would the social and political costs. 

I simply do not believe that a contracting economy can and will continue to spend $750B annually on defense (round numbers), nor do I believe that the social fabric of the country will permit it. The defense budget is a fabulous pool of resources for pet social projects in the best of times, so in a time of legitimate crisis, the resources DoD consumes will jealously--and rightfully--eyed for other purposes.

I believe that defense planners should begin to think about (my guess is they already are, by the way) what the priorities in a DoD budget will be with cuts of 10, 25, and 40 per cent.  Given the nature of modern defense strategy making and its inability to make hard choices, my guess is that the cuts would ultimately be dealt equally to the armed services and their capabilities. And while I could make an argument under any of these conditions that seapower should be privileged over many other elements of military power and that the NAVY SHOULD KEEP GROWING EVEN IN A DEPRESSION, I harbor no illusion this would come to pass.

Therefore, I think Navy planners should think about a world with considerably less money coming their way. What do we do? Cutting people is would be an enormous savings, as people are enormously expensive. But would this be the time to throw Sailors off the payroll? Tough political decision. An easier decision would be to cancel selected acquisition contracts (ships, submarines, airplanes, satellites, etc) and expensive platform modernization efforts. I fear though, that too much cutting here would leave the Navy dangerously unprepared when the impact of COVID has been completely worked though. Another area where considerable money could be saved is in simply tying ships to the pier, and even decommissioning some of them altogether. My point is--and I concede it is a pretty obvious one--the 355 ship Navy is likely dead, and a smaller Navy is far more likely in the near term than a larger one. What that smaller Navy looks like, what it does, where it does it, and to what extent--are all questions that remain.

Winter is coming.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you are not wrong here, but you are wrong on the chain of command see agent orange
esper is evil

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