The U.S. Navy, powerful as it is now, faces big decisions and spending hurtles in the next decade if it is to maintain the ability to meet the threats that may face America in the coming years, say defense experts. Despite large Pentagon budget increases since Sep. 11, 2001, long-term purchases to maintain a 12-carrier fleet, acquire alternatives to aircraft carrier battle groups, and maintain America’s submarine fleet have not yet been locked in.
The following represents a summary of the consensus expressed in Navy-Marine Corps doctrinal publications, articles in the Marine Corps Gazette, and at the joint U.S. Naval Institute-Marine Corps Association Forum 2003 conference held October 4:
The chances of a major battle between the American Navy and enemy forces at sea, in “blue water” far from land, are remote. Instead, the Navy’s role is to attack countries from the sea, support other services’ ground operations, help gather intelligence, and provide a leg of the United States’ nuclear deterrent with Trident submarines carrying nuclear missiles. The concept of “seabasing” could soon mean that the Navy and Marine Corps, working together, would be able to launch small-scale invasions of a nation directly from the sea without allies’ assistance.
The Navy has 380,945 active-duty personnel-55,050 officers, 321,597 enlisted-and 152,855 in the Ready Reserve, says the Navy’s website. It has 296 ships (including 55 submarines), 53% of which were away from their homeports on October 23. It has 12 aircraft carriers, the minimum considered necessary for long-term coverage of the world’s hot spots. Naval aviation sports over 4,000 aircraft.
American carrier battle groups constantly prowl the seas, ready to intervene-or intimidate-in conflicts at all times. They usually carry around 80 planes. Aircraft carriers are unable to defend themselves effectively from enemy attack, so they never travel alone. A typical Carrier Strike Group consists of:
The Carrier Strike Group is often accompanied by an Amphibious Ready Group with more ships and helicopters designed to place hundreds or thousands of U.S. Marines ashore quickly.
Separate from aircraft carrier battle groups and their air and ground assault capabilities are the Trident, or Ohio-class, submarines that provide part of America’s nuclear deterrent. Says the Navy’s “Fact File” on the subs, “The SSBN provides the nation’s most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability. The Ohio-class [Trident] submarine replaced aging fleet ballistic missile submarines built in the 1960s and is far more capable. The Ohio class/Trident ballistic missile submarines provide the sea-based ‘leg’ of the triad of U.S. strategic deterrent forces. The Navy’s 18 active Trident SSBNs (each carrying 24 missiles) carry 50% of the total U.S. strategic warheads.” However, four Trident subs are slated to be converted so that they can perform cruise-missile launching and Special Forces insertion missions.
America’s aircraft carrier fleet is not slated to shrink any time soon, but when the first of our Nimitz-class carriers-which make up nine of our current fleet-reaches the end of its service life in 2025, the fleet could decrease if the military’s ongoing transformation efforts lead Pentagon planners to decide on alternatives. In the meantime, the Pentagon is keeping up with replacing aircraft carriers older than the Nimitz class by building the USS George H.W. Bush, which will be the last Nimitz-class carrier. The Navy is scheduling the first of the new CVN-21 design for completion in 2014.
Anything less than 12 carriers, wrote Dr. Loren Thompson, president of the Lexington Institute, in an Oct. 18, 2002, article-when the Pentagon was still debating the CVN-21-would impair America’s security. “The resulting fleet can’t meet the administration’s ‘4-2-1’ planning guidance of being able to deter forward in four theaters, halt aggression in two, and decisively defeat in one,” wrote Thompson. “That requires at least 12 carriers, even with gaps in coverage of Europe.”
As can be seen here, the United States had as many as six aircraft carriers operating in the Iraq War on April 12 of this year. With five more back in the states, that left only one in the Pacific.
Not all defense experts, however, see a 12-carrier fleet as essential. “We need alternatives to aircraft carrier battle groups,” said Jack Spencer, senior policy analyst for defense issues at the Heritage Foundation. “Aircraft carriers have a limited range, and our enemies could come up with a way, such as a hypersonic cruise missile, to keep them away from their shores.” He suggested more unmanned offensive systems, such those based on submarines, as a possibility. “Our submarines are completely invulnerable right now,” he said.
But, said Spencer, one of the greatest assets of submarines-secrecy-is also one of their biggest liabilities. “There is nothing a Third World dictator wants to see less than an aircraft carrier battle group pulling in over the horizon,” he said. “Submarines do not have that psychological effect.”
Spencer said the Navy will begin diminishing by three to four submarines a year in 2010 since so few aging subs are slated to be replaced. “Submarines are some of the best intelligence gatherers we have,” he said. “They can insert SEALs, fire Tomahawks, all from a secret location.”
In any case, the Navy is planning ahead for more aircraft carrier deployments. It plans to be able to deploy six of its twelve carriers at any time with two others able to deploy in a short time, with the last four reserved for maintenance. As for the tactical aircraft that the carriers carry, the Pentagon is already committed to keeping up strength: It is buying 3,000 more planes such as the Joint Strike Fighter at a cost of approximately $300 billion, said Spencer.
A big question is how seabasing will be achieved. “We could not have conducted the Afghanistan operation without help from Pakistan,” said Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, at Forum 2003. “We could not have conducted the Iraq operation without help from Kuwait. We need to be in a position to operate directly from the sea, without any help from allies and without any time for ground pre-positioning.”
“Seabasing assures access to any JOA [joint operations area under military jurisdiction] despite political and diplomatic exclusion efforts by regional powers,” wrote Marine Col. Arthur Corbett, director of the Marines’ Future Warfighting Division, in the October 2003 Marine Corps Gazette. He said that the Navy-Marine Corps goal was to have a Marine force ready to invade a country “within seven to ten days from initial deployment” and then be able to sustain that invasion over time without any ground-based assistance.
The Marines plan to use the new V-22 Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a plane, to transport troops from ship to shore, as well as a new amphibious assault vehicle that can move quickly over land as well as sea. Seabasing will require more sea-based air and missile defenses, but will not necessarily require expanding the Navy’s fleet but could mean replacing older ships with newly designed ones such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). “What if they use commercial ships to transport Marines?” suggested Spencer.
Hagee said that he expected the need for American military intervention to increase, not decrease. The “arc of instability” that runs from sub-Saharan Africa through the Middle East into Asia toward North Korea, he said, “is thought by experts to be deteriorating.”