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Navy Needs Greater Attention

The United States Navy will not, over the long term, be able to maintain superiority in seapower given current and projected defense spending.

Under the leadership of Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of Naval Operations, the Navy is questioning the status quo across the board, in readiness, training, technology and deployment cycles to make necessary improvements. He is without question transforming the Navy to meet anticipated threats of the 21st century. However, many of those decisions are unfortunately shaped by insufficient funding.

Clark is stretching the Navy dollar as far as he can by, among

other things, implementing significant changes in crew manning and ship deployment cycles to increase the length of time ships can remain on station, and to permit the short-notice deployment of large numbers of ships. “Sea Swap” would extend ship deployment length by exchanging crews overseas rather than upon the ship’s return to home port. Crew rotation would extend ship deployment from six months to 11.5 months while maintaining crew deployment at six months. After 5.5 months a new crew would be flown in, and after a period of turnover, the old crew would be flown home. A successful pilot program kept the USS Higgins on station for 18 months while swapping the crew three times, yielding three months of additional forward presence.

What is driving this innovation? The realization that the Navy does not have enough ships and sailors to maintain proper coverage in critical regions has forced the service to re-think traditional deployment methods and to find ways to optimize deployment cycles by minimizing lost transit time. Necessity is the mother of invention. In this instance, innovation allows limited defense dollars to go further without compromising our ability to maintain forward presence.

In support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the president requested the deployment of an unprecedented six carrier battle groups. The Navy responded, but not without difficulty. The need to set in motion, or surge, so many vessels led Clark to undertake another major initiative, the Fleet Response Plan. The plan restructures fleet deployment, training and maintenance cycles to provide higher fleet readiness and a flexible surge capability.

Deployments typically last 6 months, followed by an 18-month maintenance and training cycle. Currently, the Navy can deploy no more than four carrier strike groups on short notice and two additional groups given more time. The Fleet Response Plan increases the deployment cycle from 24 to 27 months. By making changes to the maintenance and training cycle, the Navy will be able to deploy six carrier strike groups within 30 days and two more shortly thereafter. The plan would fundamentally change long-standing naval doctrine. Forward presence in critical regions would be replaced by presence with a purpose, the ability to surge large numbers of ships, primarily from the continental United States, on an as-needed basis.

The Navy is also pursuing the development of two new surface combatant vessels. The next-generation destroyer, DD(X), will provide precision long-range strike and naval gunfire. However, the question of whether the destroyer should have one or two advanced gun systems and the size of the ship’s magazine, appear to be driven more by resource availability than well-defined capability requirements.

The proposed Littoral Combat Ship is meant to provide fast, coastal access with the ability to respond to current and anticipated threats in the coastal (littoral) regions posed by surface craft, submarines and mines. The need for a fleet capable of performing coastal missions together with inadequate funding has forced the Navy to develop a relatively inexpensive ship frame utilizing interchangeable mission-specific hardware. The Navy is responding to an urgent need, but there is a concern that funding limitations appear to be driving programmatic decisions without first conducting appropriate analysis and assessment.

The fleet has decreased from nearly 600 ships in the late 1980s to its current size of 293. While there is no question that today’s Navy is far more capable than nearly 20 years ago, numbers do matter and relate directly to our ability to project naval power and provide geographic coverage. Current procurement rates can not sustain our already insufficient force structure.

Clark’s initiatives are both necessary and commendable, but when coupled with the structural inadequacies in our defense budget — the bipartisan product of more than a decade of underfunding — they will yield only a fraction of the resources needed to sustain and modernize the fleet.

In the 1990s a number of us warned that it would cost the taxpayer more to try to make up for defense spending shortfalls after years of neglect than if the government adequately funded defense in the first place. For budget reasons, Congress and the Clinton administration underfunded defense throughout those years. The chickens have now come home to roost.

To properly sustain and modernize our naval forces, it will take more than the chief naval officer’s innovations to generate needed funding. Certainly, efficiencies are a necessity, even a virtue. However, forward presence and surge capability should not be an either-or proposition. The capabilities of our next-generation surface combatant vessels should be more the product of our national defense requirements than of short-sighted funding constraints. The long-term underfunding of an inadequate force structure, which is being overstressed by today’s high operational tempo, must be addressed directly — through a higher defense budget.

Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) is chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on seapower.

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