WASHINGTON: Full speed ahead and damn the drawdown — that’s the confident note that the Navy’s top admiral struck today.
“We’re not downsizing, we’re growing,” declared Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, at the National Press Club. “The ship count is going up and the number of people is going up.”
Adding up new ships commissioned minus old ones retired, “we started the year at 285 ships and we’ve grown to 287 ships,” Greenert said, and “we will grow the navy from roughly 287 today to 295 ships by 2020.”
Caveat emptor, however: Those figures still fall well short of the 313 “battle force” ships the Navy has long said were necessary. (Adding to the ambiguity, what counts as a “battle force” ship has changed over the years). They also count on current budget plans coming to fruition — including, for ships to be bought after 2017, the Navy’s notoriously optimistic 30-year construction plan — despite the political near-certainty that defense budgets will be cut further, either under sequestration, to which the Navy is especially vulnerable, or as part of a deal to avert it.
So while the CNO talked up long-term growth, he also admitted the Navy’s near-term strains. “Optempo [operational tempo] has been a little higher than I expected at this time a year ago,” he said. “We need to reconcile how we’re going to continue to support that.”
In particular, the Navy is assessing whether it needs to keep two aircraft carriers and their support ships in the Persian Gulf at all times — an increasingly difficult task now that the 50-year-old USS Enterprise is about to retire while her replacement, the unfortunately named Gerald Ford, will not be commissioned until 2015.
“We need 11 carriers to do the job [worldwide]; we have ten carriers today,” said Greenert. That mismatch requires longer deployments at sea — at least seven months instead of the traditional six for the foreseeable future — and a comprehensive reexamination of how the Navy can man, maintain, and station its warships most efficiently.
No wonder, then, that the CNO emphasized not just fleet size but a global reshuffling to meet the new Pacific-focused strategy: “It’s not just the number of ships, it’s the number of ships forward and what type.”
Except for its aging Perry-class frigates, the last of which was commissioned in 1989, the post-Cold War Navy has invested heavily in small numbers of high-cost, high-performance, “multi-mission” ships, from carriers to Arleigh Burke destroyers, Virginia attack submarines, and various amphibious warfare ships to deploy Marines. In recent years, however, the Navy has begun building less expensive, more specialized ships again.
Most controversial is the LCS, the Littoral Combat Ship, which critics charge is too fragile for major wars and too short-ranged for trans-oceanic missions. But Greenert emphasized the LCS “will deploy and operate forward, and we’ll rotate the crews” from bases in the United States while the ships themselves remain in friendly ports overseas, close to their intended areas of operation; the first experiment with this concept will come next year with LCS-1 Freedom in Singapore. “That’ll free up some of our larger surface combats — our destroyers — to operate elsewhere.”
Likewise, the LCS’s smaller cousin, the Joint High-Speed Vessel (JHSV) has a helicopter pad and troop accommodations to take on missions in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere for which the larger amphibious warfare ships are over-qualified, Greenert continued. Also taking on less-demanding missions will be the Afloat Forward Staging Base, converted from an obsolete amphib, and the Mobile Landing Platform, a kind of floating pier and supply base derived from a commercial oil tanker design. All three specialized classes, he said, “will free up amphibious ships to do other jobs in other parts of the world.”
Finally, the Navy is exploring new approaches to mine warfare in the Middle East, where anxieties run high that the Iranians will try to mine the Strait of Hormuz. (That China also has about 100,000 mines tends to get overlooked). While Greenert declined to predict what Iran would do, he reiterated he is “confident” the Navy can reopen the Strait as needed.
“We have made some great strides in countermine warfare over the last year,” said the CNO, citing new investments in that traditionally neglected speciality, from remote-controlled mine-hunting “neutralizers” to a massive multi-national exercise in and around the Gulf. One thing the fleet’s learned from these wargames is that “you don’t need a mine countermeasures ship and a large helicopter drawing a sled to clear these things out,” Greenert said. “Smaller ships [from foreign navies] can become very effective.”
So where do all the big ships “freed up” by these expedients go? The Pacific.
“The Asia-Pacific has been a long-time focus for the US Navy,” Greenert emphasized.
“About half of what we deploy annually is in the Asia-Pacific and about half of those are homeported there,” primarily in Japan. The Navy is now adjusting its West Coast:East Coast ratio of ships from the current 55:45 to a planned 60:40, and that Pacific 60% will include the Navy’s most advanced and powerful vessels.
But, Greenert went on, “there’s much more to this rebalance than ships.” At the Navy War College, Navy research programs, and other intellectual centers that shape the future fleet, he said, “the benchmark will be what is needed in the Western Pacific.”
In the near term, the Navy is also working ever more closely with both traditional allies in the Pacific — like Korea and Japan — and new partners — like Vietnam, which he hopes to visit next year. (When pressed, the CNO also reiterated his support for the politically doomed Law of the Sea Treaty as a basis for regional cooperation).
That engagement, Greenert said, also has to include China. “We need to continue the dialogue and build upon the dialogue that we have today,” he said, noting that a longstanding series of talks between US Navy captains (grade O-6 in the military ranking scheme) and their Chinese PLA Navy counterparts has recently expanded to include some lower-ranking admirals (grade O-7 and up). He even put in a good word for Chinese naval forces that are operating against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, albeit outside the international counter-piracy coalition to which the US belongs.
So while many Navy-boosters beat the drum loudly on the potential Chinese threat, the Chief of Naval Operations is clearly hoping to avoid a new Cold War in the optimistically named Pacific Ocean.